Gaye Su Akyol is taking the world by storm with her psychedelic, surrealist take on Turkish rock. She tells Robert Rigney how she bridges worlds: between East and West, fantasy and reality, old and new
On a sultry summer night in south-east Turkey, the sounds of yet another open-air wedding are coming in through the window — the Oriental melodies and throbbing beat of a Turkish wedding sound-system, mingled with scattered gunshots. The people here are semi-rural, religious, conservative and Erdoğan-voting. It is a far cry from Kadıköy, Istanbul’s secular, Asian-side, Westernised centre, where a couple of days before I meet with Gaye Su Akyol, one of Turkey’s most original and enigmatic voices. The beer and rakı flow freely in this oasis of hedonism, where headscarves are a rarity and tattoos the norm.
While across Turkey posters can be seen bearing the visage of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thanking the local populace — be it city or district — for handing him the majority vote in the country’s general election in June, in Kadıköy there are no such posters, for this is a hotbed of support for the CHP, the Kemalist, secular opposition party. This is also where Akyol was born and lives today, and this is where we meet — in Bina, a cool, understated bar and café, which other Turkish musicians have described to me somewhat derisively as ‘Kadıköy’s biggest hipster hotspot.’
Gaye Su Akyol: rock and surrealism (Aylin Güngör)
But Akyol is no hipster, god forbid. She is far too quirky and original, both in her look and style of singing. Sitting opposite me I can’t help feeling that there is something Björk-like in her demeanour. Her eyes are heavily made up, mysterious, sphinx-like, with black and white dots painted on her lower lids that make her look a little out of this world, in keeping with the surreal, spacey nature of her songs.
Sitting next to her is Ali Güçlü Şimşek, her guitarist, boyfriend, manager and, together with Akyol, co-owner of indie label Dunganga Records. He is fair-skinned, tousle-haired and has tattoos on his arms. The two make up a pair that, in Turkey, is conceivable only in Kadıköy.
Şimşek also has a flair for the surreal. He plays in Bubituzak, which is also Akyol’s backing band and has as its gimmick that they only take to the stage fully masked. In addition to having an uncanny effect, it also has a practical purpose, he says. “When you wear masks and we are behind Gaye Su, it is easier to focus just on the music. You’ve got your shield, you don’t need anything else.” But the symbolism of the mask is more than that. It suggests concealment and is ideally suited to these days when in Turkey fully revealing your identity and your purpose could earn you unwelcome attention from the conservative, pro-Islamic authorities.
One needs to be surreal in today’s Turkey, says Akyol. Instead of blatantly saying what is on her mind and thus standing the chance of getting into trouble with the authorities, she opts for the tactic of using surrealistic metaphors to circumvent the censors. Even the name of her new album, İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir, which translates as ‘Consistent Fantasy is Reality,’ bears witness to Akyol’s attempt at attacking reality via dreams. “The name of the album says that we really have to make another reality to live in this crazy reality,” says Akyol. “So, this album tells about it a little. The power of realising yourself and of making another reality.” She adds, “I try to be realistic using surrealist metaphors in an artistic way.”
“I think the people who are interested in my music are interested in the geography that produced it" (photo: Aylin Gungor)
Despite her dreamy soundscapes and surreal texts, Akyol is a political creature. At the height of the 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, she took to the streets protesting against the heavy-handed methods of the Erdoğan regime. “It is impossible not to be political in this world,” she says. “Not just in Turkey. If you make art and if you don’t feel like you are connected with politics then it’s like painting the walls of a ship while it’s sinking. You can’t just close your eyes to the pain and make graphic paintings on the wall. You have to be inside the pain because the people are living it.”
Though neither of Akyol’s parents are musicians (her father is a renowned painter), she grew up in a household where music was constantly playing. And since this is Turkey, land of strange East-West symbiosis, the music was multifarious and broad-spanning. From her mother she derived a love of Turkish classical music, while her father listened to Western classical music and Turkish folk. Three names of traditional Turkish musicians have accompanied her in her musical journey: Müzeyyen Senar, who sang for Atatürk; Selda Bağcan, a Communist and singer of protest ballads, who lived in exile in Germany for a while and Zeki Müren, the late, great, widely popular gender-bending singer with a golden voice, the most famous representative of Türk sanat müzigi (Turkish art music).
These days audiences in the West are finding out for the first time about psychedelic Anatolian rock from the 70s thanks to a number of reissues from Western labels like Iron Fist and Bouzouki Joe Records. This music mixed Western rock, inspired by The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, with Anatolian folk music and Turkish instruments like the electro-saz. This too left its mark on Akyol. In particular she recalls an early fascination with Barış Manco (1943-1999), another psych-rocker, who had a children’s programme on TV that Akyol watched as a child. Manco would come and chat with the children and then play music with them. He was the start of an interest in rock music for not just for Akyol, but for a whole generation of Turks. “This was my first memory,” says Akyol. “Manco was a character, not just a musician. I think this was the beginning of lots of things. That’s why I made a cover in the upcoming album from Barış Manco: ‘Hemşerim Memleket Nire’.”
Listening to the new CD, one delights in the few Arabesk touches and wishes there were more – instrumental flourishes and melismatic singing. Arabesk is an Arabic-influenced style of music that became popular among immigrants from eastern Turkey who flocked to Istanbul in the 60s, 70s and 80s, bringing with them tragic, pathos-drenched narratives and feelings of nostalgia and uprootedness. Orhan Gencebay was one of its main practitioners, whom Akyol gives a nod to as well, despite his reactionary politics of late.
Gaye Su Akyol at WOMAD in July 2018 (photo: Tom Askew-Miller)
These days it’s common among Westernised white Turks to make fun of Arabesk singers, their over-emotional singing and clichéd appearance of heavily mustachioed men in open-necked shirts. At the same time, Gencebay and Arabesk music has a cult following among some intellectuals in Istanbul and there have been a number of projects reviving the style and making it hip again.
“First the government banned it, but then they had to accept it,” says Akyol, “so our generation was raised with Arabesk culture. In my house it wasn’t playing like crazy but hearing it from the street and the place you are living makes it a reality. So it exists in me too. It is also in my brain and my subconscious. And I don’t think the genre is bad itself. The thing is to make the very best of that genre. In the 70s Orhan Gencebay was one of the greatest in this genre. Unfortunately, now he is where the power is. But in the 60s and 70s there was some really great Arabesk music, so I really like to put these elements inside my music, the greatest parts of 60s and 70s Arabesk, because this is a part of our culture.”
So much for Turkish influences. What about the influence from the West, which for someone growing up in post-1983 coup Turkey, is inescapable? In fact, whenever something is written about Akyol in the Western music press, it is the Western bands that are mentioned first, as though this were somehow remarkable. However, anyone who has spent any time in Istanbul knows that the city is as inundated by Western music as any place in the world, and what is in fact remarkable is that local artists should continue to latch on to their native traditions rather than give themselves over fully to Western trends.
Nick Cave is often mentioned as one of Akyol’s influences. Indeed many of the songs in her previous album, Hologram İmparatorluğu, have something of Cave’s brooding style. However, to me Akyol espouses an early affinity to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who she first came to know through her older brother. “When I was nine I discovered Nirvana and my mind blew up; it was like a huge milestone for me. This was the first time I heard rock’n’roll probably. Not rock’n’roll, but the spirit of rock’n’roll. I was really shocked and I was in love with the music of Nirvana. I asked my brother, ‘What’s that? How is it happening? ’ All kinds of questions. I remember that this was the beginning of something. And at that moment I started to listen to some rock’n’roll music: Nirvana, then other music like Nick Cave and Tom Waits. And before that Jefferson Airplane and classics like The Rolling Stones and The Doors.”
Today Akyol’s audience is partly in Turkey and partly abroad. And yet to her credit she has not yet stooped to kissing up to a Western audience by writing songs in English. She has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude in this regard and doesn’t lose much sleep wondering about who she should be singing to – “I don’t expect anything from the audience, I just expect to be more real inside of me, or surreal.” However, she is perspicacious enough to surmise that most of Westerners who are interested in her music are interested in Turkey, its people and its history. “I think the people who are interested in my music are interested in the geography that produced it: the problems about this geography, the pain of this geography. I carry all these things in my music.”