In 2013, Turkish-German author, music compiler and DJ, Imran Ayata stumbled upon a poor quality video snippet from the eighties featuring a young man named Ozan Ata Canani playing saz and singing in German a tale of Turkish Gastarbeiter life in Germany. The song was called “Deutsche Freunde” and Imran Ayata was floored by the sincerity and force of the message, not to mention the dexterity of the saz plying. Canani was tracked down. The song was recorded anew and became the inspiration as well as the centerpiece of Ayata’s Songs of Gastarbeiter Vol. 1. Riding the current wave of interest in Turkish music, several German artists including Shantel and Elektrohafiz reworked Canani’s songs, making out of them club classics. In the time being, Canani has been the focus of media attention as well as featuring in Cem Kaya’s fabulous new docu film, “Love, D-Marks and Death”, currently playing in cinemas around Germany. Suddenly, forty years on, Canani is experiencing the fifteen minutes of fame that was denied him in the eighties when his song was deemed too German by the Turkish Gastarbeiter community and too Oriental for the Germans.
Robert Rigney: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you get your start as a musician?
Ozan Ata Canani: Yes, let’s begin at the beginning. I have to start with the first Gastarbeiter generation in order to understand myself and my songs better. In 1971, my father interviewed for a job that would entail him going to Germany for two or three years and then to return to Turkey again ultimately. So he came to Germany, and after two years he didn’t manage to make it back, rather he had my mother brought over. The both of them were supposed to work, save money and return. That didn’t work either. And in 1975 I came into the picture. My father wanted me to come to Germany. I didn’t want to go to Germany. Why? All of my friends were in Turkey. Turkey was my home.
Robert Rigney: Whereabouts in Turkey do you come from?
Ozan Ata Canani: In Maraş…Well, my story is basically the same one that eighty to ninety percent of the Gastarbeiter generation went through. And not just Gastarbeiter from Turkey, but from all other countries as well. My father asked me, what can I do for you that you should come of your own volition to Germany? And I said, “Buy me a small saz”. And so he bought me a saz. And that was how he bribed me to come to Germany. And so I took my saz and came to Germany in 1975. And after seven months I could keep up with my idols in Bremerhaven.
Robert Rigney: So you arrived in Bremerhaven.
Ozan Ata Canani: Yes, that is true…And for a year I attended language classes and then we were split up and sent to various schools. And in our class there were kids who still hadn’t manage to get a grasp on the German language after a year’s time. And these kids were sent to Sonderschulen, special schools. Then my father got a job in Cologne in 1978. And in Cologne in 1978 I settled down. In 1978 my father managed to arrange to apartment for us to live in. Up until then my father had lived in a kind of rental-barracks, the kind of homes, that the first generation of Gastarbeiter have lived in. And my father wanted to introduce me to his friends there. I was there amongst them, the first Gastarbeiter generation. Every month was put on “Sehensucht Nächte” Nostalgia nights, and they lasted until 1981.
My first songs had to do with xenophobia I experienced during my first years in Germany. I heard all sorts of xenophobic comments and read all sorts of Nazi slogans on the walls: “Foreigner’s strictly forbidden”, “Turks out!” Even swastikas.
Then I ended up in a wedding band in Cologne. And of course we played a lot of Turkish weddings. And there weren’t that many, but among the various wedding guests you could find some Germans, neighbors or work-colleagues. They were also invited. And during the wedding feast I carried out my “ozan” (poet) role, playing the saz and singing songs. And then one day, while I was playing, a German couple came up to me and said. “Ata, we have been watching you closely, how through your singing and saz playing you have made the people quiet and introspective and sad. What are you singing about in your songs.” And I said, “Yes, it’s about homesickness and how one is treated by one’s bosses at work here in Germany.” And they said to me, “Why don’t you sing songs in German so that we can understand as well.” That was when I started thinking about it. I was, in addition, doing a lot of reading. And as luck would have it, I came across in my reading a quote: “Arbeitskräfte gerufen, Menschen gekommen” (workers were called, people came). And this quote really spoke to me. I did a bit of research and it turned out the quote was from Max Frisch, the Swiss writer and journalist. He had already dealt with the issue in the sixties. And this was the springboard from which I started writing and composing “Deutsche Freunde”. It was my first song with a German text. But my community made fun of me back then. And for the Germans, my songs were too Oriental.
Robert Rigney: And did you then have any success with this song after it was discovered by Imran, and after you were encouraged to make a new recording?
Ozan Ata Canani: Yes, with “Deutsche Freunde” I ended up in the music business for the second time in my life. And it is now seen as a national anthem of the Gastarbeiter generation, and of course that is for me very flattering. And of course, I feel very honored. And then, as the interest was big, we decided to make an album with my label Fun in the Church, although the project was delayed for a year. And Der Spiegel rated it as one of the best productions of the year, awarding it second place. That was the end of December, last year. And was much more successful that I could have ever imagined. So, in a sense, I am experiencing a second spring.
Robert Rigney: How do you make sense of your belated success, forty years after the fact?
Ozan Ata Canani: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. The music that I did back then was unusual for Turkish people. We listened to ashik (troubadour) songs in the community back then. Also I used some German instrumentation. At the same time I wanted to introduce the saz into German music. But I was too ahead of my time. And now every weekend I am performing somewhere, giving concerts.
Robert Rigney: Also on TV?
Ozan Ata Canani: Yes, yes. In December a docu film about me is coming out on ARD.
Robert Rigney: What do you think of Cem Kaya’s film in which you figure, “Love, D-Marks and Death”?
Ozan Ata Canani: People are realizing the value of this film. The children and grandchildren of the people talked about in the film will understand it the best. It is a musical journey to a nearly forgotten era.
Robert Rigney: The subject hasn’t yet been dealt with in the international media, however.
Ozan Ata Canani: Which is a shame because the film is first and formostly about foreigners. The response from foreign media hasn’t been that striking. Also from Turkey. I was expecting more from the Turkish community.
Robert Rigney:Now, however, Turkish music is fashionable across Europe.
Ozan Ata Canani: Yes, exactly.
Robert Rigney: Altin Gün, Derya Yildirim, Elektrohafiz and Gaye Su Akyol, to name some names.
Ozan Ata Canani: I know them all. They are all friends of mine. And another thing, back in the sixties and seventies and eighties the Germans were absolutely not interested in foreigners and their music. Now Turkish children and German children celebrate, dance to and listen to the same music. One day the children will grow up and they will understand us better, the Gastarbeiter sensibility.
Robert Rigney: But there is still xenophobia in Germany. For example in Hanau recently. I take it therefore, there is still material for songs.
Ozan Ata Canani: Yes, very much so. And through these songs we have to fight racism even more strongly.
Robert Rigney: Thank you for this interview.
Ozan Ata Canani: Thank you.