Imran Ayata (1969) is a Turkish-German author, music compiler and sometime DJ. Together with Bülent Kullukçu, he put out a collection of immigrant music, Songs of Gastarbeiter Vol. 1  in 2013, after rediscovering and resuscitating the career of a little known Turkish balladeer, Ozan Ata Canani. Earlier this year Ayata and  Kullukçu came out with Songs of Gastarbeiter Vol. 2, the centerpiece being a new Shantel reworking of Canani’s cult song “Alle Menschen Dieser Erde” Most recently Ayata figures briefly in Turkish director, Cem Kaya’s remarkable docu film portrait of the Turkish Gastarbeiter music scene in Germany from the sixties till the present, “Love, D-Marks and Death”, which Ayata says was inspired by his Songs of Gastarbeiter.

Robert Rigney: So, how did Cem Kaya get in touch with you?

Imran Ayata: Well, he had listened to our first album, which was an eye-opener to him in many ways. Since then we have been in constant touch. At some point he had the idea to make the movie, inspired by our compilation. Cem contacted us – Bülent [Kullukçu] and me. We phoned a few times and I sent him stuff, etc. But the funny thing is, it took us three years to meet face to face. And then one day he called me and said, “Fuck, I’ve already finished the movie – but you have to be in it.” And I said, “No, no,”. And he said, “Yes, yes, you did so much important work.” So there’s a short segment with me at the end, summing up everything. I think the film is a really, really important work. It has only two points of contention in my opinion. For one thing I think that it would have been even better to have the sounds of different communities. As it is, it’s very Turkish-Turkish.

Robert Rigney: The kind of film you are imagining might be just too, too unwieldly, perhaps.

Imran Ayata: Yeah, maybe. But that was the weakness of our project [Songs of Gastarbeiter Vol. 1] when we started. The Turkish community is the largest in Germany, so that many people today think that all gastarbeiter are of Turkish origin. Which is a problem. And the other thing is – the only thing I would have done differently in the movie – is the very uncritical manner in which he dealt with Turkish hip-hop.

Robert Rigney: The idea being that acts like Cartel had a very nationalist, chauvinistic tinge.

Imran Ayata: Not only Cartel, but quite a few other groups. I think at the beginning of the hip-hop it was really problematic.  I think to mention this would have been very important. And I think the wedding music footage was a little bit too…

Robert Rigney: Overblown.

Imran Ayata: Yes. But these are very small quibbles. It’s really a very good movie. Cem really went to the archives and found fantastic stuff. And he’s a very cooperative person, a very sensitive guy and a real comrade, mentioning in every interview the importance of our first work, the Songs of Gastarbeiter.  He doesn’t have to do that. I mean, I’ve been doing this migration culture thing for twenty, thirty years, and to meet someone like Cem, who is so generous is very rare.   

Robert Rigney: If the film, “Liebe, D-Mark und Tod” has a common theme what is it in your opinion?

Imran Ayata: The red thread, the continuity that holds everything together is racism, ways of dealing with racism and articulating stances against racism. And the other thing is, it’s about strength. It’s like saying, “No, I am here and I will stay here. And fuck off.”

Robert Rigney: I was just listening to your Songs of Gastarbeiter 2.One of the most remarkable songs is “Alle Menschen Dieser Erde” by Ozan Ata Canani, the acoustic version as well as the club-remix by Shantel. What’s the story behind this song?

Imran Ayata: Well, this song is a song that Ozan did in the eighties.  And it was never recorded.  And then Canani recorded it for himself and what he came up with was in my opinion not a very strong version. This you may find on his  new album Warte Mein Land, Warte (2022). The acoustic version on our album is much better, I find. We were together in an interview for a radio show. I was talking and Ozan  played live. This is the version I took. I think that it has a certain Johnny Cash style of simplicity, very pure – it’s only the bağlama [saz] and the voice. My idea and Bülent’s idea was we could make a really good pop song out of it. So we approached Shantel asking him if he would collaborate with us and produce this song. I sent him a file. He hadn’t heard it. He was, like, “Wow that is a good song.” Then we went to Shantel’s studio in his home in Frankfurt and did a home recording. Shantel reworked it and reworked it, trying to mix it up with an Italian disco beat but it didn’t come out the way I wanted. It wasn’t the pop hit I thought it would become.

Robert Rigney: Had you been familiar with Ozan’s song for a while. How did you come across him and what kind of a guy is he?

Imran Ayata: I think Bülent and I were the ones who found him. He was a musician in the eighties, but even within the community, not a lot of people knew him. I first tried to get in touch with him in 2011 or 2012. It was funny because there was nothing on YouTube or anything.  Only a snippet of a TV show featuring him playing “Deutsche Freunde” with like twenty or thirty views.  I was like, “Oh, wow, thirty views.” And Bülent was like, “I listened to it ten times and you listened to it ten times.” Basically, no one knew the song, and we tried to find this guy.  We tried asking people from the community. And after weeks and months of asking people, Bülent suddenly had the brilliant idea of checking Facebook. He answered immediately, as though he were waiting for us. And then I told him what we were planning. And he jumped at it. He said, “For forty years no one called me.” 

And then we said we wanted to have “Deutsche Freunde” for our Songs of Gastarbeiter Vol. 1. Ozan said there was no recording of that song.  He had performed it on a TV show, but he didn’t have the recording. He had another recording, but it was at his ex-wife’s place and they weren’t on speaking terms. So, in essence, there was no recording of that song. Then we came up with the idea of going to the studio, and Ozan asked the musician with whom he had played with in the eighties – the two of them were these aging guys, like a  kind of Turkish version of Buena Vista Social Club –  to come with, and we recorded that song. It was funny because there were no notes, no liner notes, nothing. The musicians were struggling to listen to this very bad-quality snippet. They  jammed a bit, and then we recorded that song. That was the beginning. 

Due to the fact that no one had published Gastarbeiter songs as a compilation before, people were amazed that this kind of music existed. And then the radio stations played this song because it was easier to play German songs.  We did a few interviews. And while we were doing these musical lectures and so forth, we invited Ozan to play a few songs. And then he started again to do music. 

Robert Rigney: So after forty years, you gave him the spark.

Imran Ayata: Yes, but the thing was, he was pushing it a lot himself, and then he found a label and came up with some new songs. But the new stuff he is doing is not my cup of tea. Recently he recorded a song with a German musician called, “Deutschland ist ein Papierkramland”. It’s a really a strange song. I think he should have stuck to the way he was. A friend of mine said, “He’s his own museum.” Today he is very successful, and I’m really happy for him. He tours and has a lot of gigs. Now and then he’s on the TV, but the main venues or platforms for this kind of music are these German-Turkish multicultural events, which are always looking for a musical act. And then because of the album, clubs ask him to play. And then he put together a band.

Robert Rigney: We usually associate “subculture” with a youthful pop culture underground. But this Turkish Gastarbeiter music scene was the real subculture. It existed completely under the radar of the mainstream media.

Imran Ayata: Absolutely.

Robert Rigney: Neglected completely.

Imran Ayata: Absolutely. You know, when we put together the first album we contacted Trikont, who expressed big interest. I said to them, the easiest way to do marketing for this is to blame the media for neglecting part of its own culture. For the mainstream, this gastarbeiter music was completely unknown. Within the communities, of course music is very important. As in political events and weddings etc. But it was not part of the German musical industry. The interesting thing is – and this is something that we have learned within the last ten years  –  within the Turkish community, we have really built up our own industry, our own record labels, own distribution network, own concerts. 

Robert Rigney:Labels like Uzzeli and Turkola…

Imran Ayata: And they really put on tours, – as you have seen in the movie – bringing huge pop stars from Turkey to Germany to play to crowds of up to 20,000 people. And all the while no one in Germany, among the Germans, was really aware of that. It is really, in a funny way, a parallel world.

Robert Rigney: parallelkultur…in a positive sense.

Imran Ayata: In a very positive sense. And then there were, as in our second album, there were a few good examples of gastarbeiter music from other communities, which were released and recorded by small German record labels, who were interested in, say, Greek music. Or Spanish musical culture. So the thing I learned is that there is no such thing as a single “Songs of Gastarbeiter”. It’s really diverse in a musical sense. Because you have very traditional to very weird musical styles.  And you have very, very different issues and topics that this music deals in. We are starting now on the third Songs of Gastarbeiter, vol. 3, but we aren’t in any hurry. We will try to collect and bring together songs of gastarbeiter that were really influenced by western pop culture. Like New Wave –

Robert Rigney: You know this Café Turk?

Imran Ayata: Yes, yes, yes. Café Turk is a very good example. Kobra from Berlin, too. We are already in contact with them. Some of it is totally bizarre – and it’s important within this collection to show, that there were musicians, who, on top of being migrants, were fully aware of what kind of musical styles were current; who were very much influenced by pop culture as well. 

Robert Rigney: How much is Songs of Gastarbeiter a reflection of what was really listened to back then, and how much is it a reflection of current tastes – your tastes perhaps? Because when you think of what was current back then it was Orhan Gencebay and Ibrahim Tatlıses etc. 

Imran Ayata: You know, the funny thing is, we are only two guys, right? And we are doing what we are doing only for the love of this music.  And our method of collecting or releasing this music is only to pay attention to our tastes. It was not like, “He was important, let’s include him.” No. It’s about tastes, and, of course, it’s very much influenced by what is important.  You have to have political songs because political songs were important. But the thing is then, to find some songs that are interesting, that we would love to listen to. 

Robert Rigney: I haven’t listened to Volume 1. But on Volume 2 I didn’t come across any strong Yugo representation. Is there a reason for this oversight? 

Imran Ayata: They were a very important one as well, but you know we tried to – more out of tactical reasons, to be honest – but it is still very, very difficult to find the bands, find the music and find recordings. And when you find them, it is then not very easy – no, to be honest, it is very complicated – for us to license these songs. We really wanted to have songs of Yugoslavian musicians in Germany. But I would say, if someone would pay me, I could work for a year only in this field. It is only a question of resources and time. And we don’t get any funding for this. It’s all by ourselves.  So you have to travel, you have to talk to people –

Robert Rigney: That’s strange that you wouldn’t have gotten any funding for this.

Imran Ayata: No. None. 

Robert Rigney: Why do you think that is?

Imran Ayata: I don’t know. It doesn’t fit into the general scheme of things. I don’t know.  It’s funny because there has been such a huge musical coverage. It’s been very successful.  The one thing is we are not all that good in this bureaucratic business, of applying for things. We don’t like that.

Robert Rigney: Do you think that there is still a fair amount of racism in the mainstream media in this regard?

Imran Ayata: I would say, what it all comes down to is, we are not particularly good at applying for funding. And then it doesn’t fit. Like there are all of these kinds of special niches.  And we don’t have the time. What we need is someone who can say to us, “Okay, I’ll get you the money.” And due to the fact that it is partly commercial, and we are selling CDs, we don’t get funding often times. But funding is not actually that important for us.  What is more important is that what we really need is time.  You have to talk to people, you have to travel.  In order to get a sense of this Spanish music – it took me like two years.  Because you don’t find it.  You can’t just Google it, or search for it on YouTube. Now people are uploading certain things from Songs of Gastarbeiter, but it is still very, very complicated and difficult.

Robert Rigney: I grew up in Berlin in the eighties, but I never went to that legendary Turkish Bazaar at Bülowstrasse, featured in “Liebe, D-Mark and Tod”. Do you have any memories of the place?

Imran Ayata: I wasn’t in Berlin at that time. I moved to Berlin in 2001. Having said this, I knew the whole story of the Turkish Bazaar, which was a very, very short-lived scene. Neşat Ertaş, who was one of the most important Turkish artists, had a shop there. You can see it in Cem’s film. 

Robert Rigney: So Neşat Ertaş was a Berlin resident?

Imran Ayata: Partly, I would say.  He would just come by. You had a lot of musicians who decided to spend a few months or a few years here. I don’t think he was a Berlin resident, but I don’t know the details. And I knew about the concerts, and I know Hatay Engin and all these people before him. No one believed that our project would be realized.  People said, “Oh, no, thank you”. But now it’s different.

But back to the Bazzar. I knew about this place and it’s gazino style and music. But I grew up in the south of Germany and then I went to Frankfurt to study. I came very late, in 2001, I think. When did you move to Berlin?

Robert Rigney: Actually, I was born here, moved around a bit, but was here during the eighties more or less.

Imran Ayata: Did you see the new Bowie film? It’s amazing. 

Robert Rigney: What’s so great about it?

Imran Ayata: It’s so unbelievably good. I was really blown away. 

Robert Rigney: If I had continued one more year at Kennedy school here in Berlin, Bowie’s son would have been in my class.

Imran Ayata: I am really a Bowie nerd. But there were so many scenes in the film that were new to me. So, it was a very fantastic film, and there is a part in this film where Bowie talks about Berlin. And this is something that I always make mention of in my musical lectures – the importance of Bowie. Because he was the first one from Western pop music, who made reference to Turkish gastarbeiter.

Robert Rigney: Is that right?

Imran Ayata: Lodger: “Yassassin”. You know the story of “Yassassin”? When Bowie came to Berlin, he spent a lot of time walking around, and he would see scrawled on the walls in Kreuzberg and Schöneberg: “Yaşasın bir Mayıs”. And Bowie would ask his friends, “What was that?” And people would say, “We don’t know.” And Bowie said, “How come you don’t know?” And people would say, “It’s Turkish.” And then he would respond by saying, “But how can you be not interested in finding out what it means?” And then they found a Turkish guy. It took Bowie like ten years to find this guy – Murat something – and he translated it.  And his German friends were like, “Hmmm, it’s a good question. Why don’t we know it?” You see, Bowie was curious. 

Robert Rigney: And what did “Yaşasın bir Mayıs” mean in the end?

Imran Ayata: “Long live the first of May.” And that’s the background to “Yassassin”. And after “Yassassin”, you could see German bands like, Abwärts and Ideal all starting to make use of Turkish sounds.

Robert Rigney: And this is something that comes up in the movie?

Imran Ayata: No, what comes up in the movie – something I didn’t know – is that Bowie tells the guy he is interviewed by, that he has been doing a lot of painting while in Berlin. And he painted two groups of people: East Berliners and Turkish people.  His theme was, “isolation”. This is what he says in the movie. And you see the paintings. They are really great.  I have to  find them.

Robert Rigney: And where Bowie lived on Haupstrasse, it’s still to this day a very Turkish neighborhood. There’s a Turkish mosque a few houses up and loads of Turkish shops.

Imran Ayata: That’s the difference between German pop culture and British pop culture. Due to the history of the British empire, immigrants were always in a way part of British culture.  I grew up with bands like Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation.  These ethnic communities were part of pop culture in the UK. This was not the case in Germany.  It took someone like Bowie to say, “What’s that all about?” for it to register with some people, making some people say, “OK, maybe we should listen up.” The lack of curiosity among some Germans is really astonishing.  Sometimes I give lectures or appear on panels and I always ask the crowd, “How many of you speak Turkish?” And this is like an affront. People are, like, “Why should we?” Well, because millions of Turks are living here. So what do you mean, “Why should we”? And then it’s like, “No, you have to integrate.” But I say: “Why don’t you speak Turkish?” This attitude is so ingrained. It’s like they don’t fucking care. 

Robert Rigney: And this attitude hasn’t changed that drastically over the years, has it? Turkish culture is still very much under the radar.

Imran Ayata: Totally. It’s still like, “Why don’t you learn it man?” And then the funny thing is that when something goes through the roof, like Fatih Akin’s movies, then the first thing people say is, “OK, he’s German now”.

Robert Rigney: Well, Imran, thanks for the interview.

Imran Ayata: Thank you.