The first I had heard of Taner Akyol was in connection with Derya Yıldırım, the young saz player and vocalist fronting Grup Şimşek, an international band, which have made some waves both here in Berlin and abroad for their groove-laden arrangements of Turkish songs from the seventies. 

Derya Yıldırım is a fine example of the neo-Anatolian sound whose other main proponent is Altın Gün, the Dutch-Turkish sextet from Amsterdam who together with Yıldırım, have created something of a new Turkish retro movement, which for better or worse had been sweeping European clubs and concert venues before Covid 19 hit. 

Now that things are again returning to normal, bands and artists are picking up where they have left off. Derya Yıldırım has just come out with a new six-track EP called Dost 1 (“friend” in Turkish), a set of ruminative, crawling Turkish numbers concluding in the odd flailing, psychedelic freak out, and which might as well have been cut  fifty years ago. 

Taner Akyol was Yıldırım’s bağlama teacher at the UDK music academy in Berlin, and it was with the idea in mind of having some light shed on Yıldırım’s art, that I headed over to Akyol’s small basement music school on Dieffenbachstrasse in the heart of Berlin’s Turkified Kreuzberg district, not far from Hohenstaufenpark, which Berlin Turks have drolly dubbed Keçili-Park, – “Goat Park”, for the bronze statue of two headbutting goats gracing the park’s entrance, where headscarved Turkish mothers sit watching over their children.

Born in Bursa in 1977, Akyol came to Berlin in 1996. He first studied at the Hans Eisler Institute and then at the UDK. A Turkish Zaza, who nevertheless remains estranged from his Alevi religion (he regards himself as a communist and an atheist), he is one of Germany’s top practitioners of the bağlama, the long-necked lute commonly known as the saz, and which has for Alevis something holy about it (“Our stringed Qur’an,” it is called by Alevis). For well nigh fifteen years he had been fighting to have the instrument accepted as part of the UDK’s curricula, and then in 2016 it was finally given the status of a department and a course of study at the UDK, in no small part due to Akyol’s persistence.

During the course of our interview we spoke about the future of bağlama in Germany. There are currently around 3,000 bağlama players in Berlin, many of them nurture the bağlama as a way of keeping in touch with their Turkish roots. However, Akyol is against preserving the bağlama as a kind of folklore. This he calls “fascistic”, which in my opinion is putting a too extreme spin on things. Instead, Akyol advocates his students deal with western music, visiting operas and classical concerts in Berlin, blending traditional bağlama playing with Western modes. Only thus can one hope to move things forward, he says.

We then spoke at some length about his student and protégé Derya Yıldırım. It is interesting to note that while Akyol feels protective towards Yıldırım, and says she has made immense progress since the time she started out under his tutelage, he is not entirely won over by the  turn she and her group, Grup Şimşek, have taken, regarding it as regressive and smacking of something not entirely au current

This is a legitimate critique. But when I listen to what Akyol proposes as the way forward, namely some of his own works, Birds of Passage (2007) and Dance to the Sun (2012), I find that this wedding of the traditional and soulful Turkish with soulless avant-garde western modes doesn’t entirely win me over either. It has to be said, Akyol hasn’t entirely sacrificed his Turkish traditions at the altar of the Western avantgard, as some Turkish and Middle Eastern instrumentalists have. Both the Turkish world and the Western world exist on equal footing for him. In conclusion one may regard Akyol – his theories, hypothesis and his art as reflective of a specific German-Turkish type, straddling two cultures, not entirely at ease in either. And this unease one can read into his art. In contrast to the warmth and possibly Akyol might call it, the false comfort of Derya Yıldırım’s music.

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Can you tell me something about this space we are sitting in at the moment?

It’s a kind of music school. But I call it “music studio” – Musikatelier – because a school ought to be something bigger, not just in terms of space, but with regards to courses offered. We only teach here bağlama, guitar, singing and piano. I have been running this school since 2004. Upon graduating from the UDK, the same year I founded this school. I had previously always taught. I wanted a space to hold classes and to compose music, play and rehearse, and for 17 years I have been here. 

And at the UDK you are professor of bağlama. That is your title. 

I am lecturer. I am not a professor. There is not yet a position as professor of bağlama. 

But there is for the first time a degree course for bağlama.

Yes. Since I have been here – I studied first at the Hans Eisler Institute, then UDK.  And I studied composition. And at class concerts I always played the bağlama, so that people could familiarize themselves with the instrument. And I always tried to inspire new composers – doesn’t matter if they were American or German or English – to compose for bağlama. And I succeeded at this. A couple composers wrote some pieces for bağlama. And I always fought – I’ve done a lot: speaking with politicians, the dean of the Hans Eisler Institute, the director of the Bach Gymnasium. I met a lot of people and spoke with them about the need for having the bağlama as a department.

What was your argument?

Naja, the people who came here for the first time, sixty years ago – when I look at the pictures from that time, they had a suitcase made of wood and a bağlama. Bağlama is not like a violin, or something like that. The bağlama is  “personalized” in Turkey. The bağlama is like a member of the family, especially with the Alevites. The Alevites don’t pray without the bağlama. The Alevites have something called a “Cem ceremony”. 

The Cem is like a mosque.

No. The Cem is not like a mosque. That’s wrong. In a mosque one prays and only men are allowed in. A Cem hasn’t got a house, actually. Cem doesn’t mean a house. Cem means coming together “face to face”. Women, men, children, everyone enters. Everyone can sit where they want, next to whom they want, mostly in a circle. No one shows their back to another. And there is a dede. A dede is like a kind of priest. The dede is the holy person. And there are various people who are responsible for different tasks. For example, there is an individual called the zakir. He has to play and sing. And there are people who do the sema.

This whirling thing.

Only we don’t call it dancing – Sema, turning. There is an individual who is in charge of watching the door. 

Because the meetings were secret.

Yes, they were secret because it was forbidden. The Alevite religion was forbidden. It’s still not freely practiced. Therefore, there was always a doorman. Because we Alevites weren’t allowed to pray. We also conducted our burial ceremonies with the saz. And therefore the bağlama is for Anatolia by and large a holy instrument. And the Alevites call the bağlama in their poems a “stringed Qur’an”.

Yes, so I gather.

And because here there are a lot of Alevites – and not just Alevites – people from Anatolia in Europe, in Germany and especially in Berlin – I have seen children, who I have found very talented, who want eventually to study music, including the bağlama. I had a student – he was really very talented. This was twenty years ago, I think. He wanted to study music. I brought him to the Bach Gymnasium to take the entrance exam. They examined him and then they asked him, “What do you want to study?” Because they didn’t have the bağlama he said, “guitar”. Because they are really very similar. They didn’t believe that he really wanted to play the guitar. Therefore I think when they are here, and when this is our new home – I don’t see myself as a stranger here. This is my home. 

Were you born here?

No. I’ve been here for 25 years. And then, one should be allowed to study it here. The bağlama. If Germany wants to integrate the immigrants, then they should integrate them. When I can’t play my instrument and can’t study it, and when I am forced to play something similar bit different – that is not integration. That is assimilation. 

But as of now, or as of a couple years ago, you had only one student, and that was Derya Yıldırım. In the time being have you gotten more applicants?

Just recently I examined two students who are interested in the bağlama. We shall see. If they succeed, then I have two more pupils. 

You know of course Petra Nachtmanova. 

She was one of my pupils.

Ah, yes. We spoke some time ago, and she said that in her opinion the baglama was a “universal instrument”. I took issue with this a little bit. The bağlama is not like a violin, like a guitar. Not as universal as these instruments. It’s played in Turkey, the Caucasus and Persia for sure. But would you also refer to the bağlama as a “universal instrument”.

Of course it’s a universal instrument. Not only in Persia and the Caucuses, but in Germany, England, Austria, Switzerland, all of Europe. Wherever people from Anatolia live the bağlama lives as well.  Everywhere, since – look, the people have come – mostly the men came first. Maybe they met with people for a couple drinks and played a little bit on the weekend. And then at some point, the women came as well. And then they brought the children.  And then well known artists from Turkey came here to put on concerts. And then they started organizing weddings here. And then they started giving courses. Bağlama courses. It’s an economy of its own here. The people don’t just play at home. There are musicians who play in bars and earn their money that way.  They pay taxes. There are people who play at weddings, and earn that money which they declare in their taxes. They live here. Or like me. I play in the philharmonic. I earn money which I pay taxes on. The instrument is already rooted in the German economy. You should look at it that way. It’s mostly Germany that manufactures the strings on this instrument. Turkey doesn’t manufacture any bağlama strings. That’s an important point. Then in 2013 the Berlin Musikrat chose bağlama as the instrument of the year. The year before was fagott.  And then they took a poll and they determined that there were more bağlama players than fagott players in Berlin. They counted three thousand baglama players in Berlin. OK, fagott is not an instrument which a lot of people play, like violin. But every music school has fagott. Almost every orchestra, almost every bigger orchestra or chamber music orchestra. It’s a very important instrument for symphony orchestras.  It’s really very interesting. There are more bağlama players than fagott players in Germany. 

How can one integrate the bağlama in a Western orchestra? Can you manage it with Western instruments?

Yes. Why not? Bağlama also has twelve tones. And even more. Twelve tones and then the half tones, the microtones. It has even more possibilities. And of course you need someone who is familiar with both worlds. There have been many attempts, most of them not very fruitful. Because someone who only knows Western instruments and composes for bağlama, then it sounds not like bağlama music and not like European music. One has to know both.  And there just aren’t a lot of suitable composers. Unfortunately. I think that I am nearly the only one who has studied composition. 

I wanted to ask you. There was a long article on the web. The journalist was writing about the business of the aşıks. And she wrote – I disagree with her on this point – that the tradition of the aşıks has been revived in the music of Derya Yıldırım. I find that Derya is not political, and so I don’t find much credence in this hypotheses. Derya doesn’t have a political message in her music. So there is really nothing to this aşık theory then.

I didn’t quite catch you.

The aşıks were kind of troubadours- The journalist posed the question if the tradition of the aşık was still living…

No, it is not. The troubadours also had a message. It’s the same thing. The aşıks are the troubadours of Anatolia. Times have changed. We don’t need a messenger anymore. Because everything is on the internet. We have newspapers. We have TV, radio etc. Back then, there weren’t these things. An aşık starts out in this village, he goes from village to village, city to city, sitting down in a café and starts playing and listening and saying, “Yes, I come from Konya,” and maybe he is in Ankara, and he says, “In Konya this and that has happened. I heard this and that.” He takes that and brings it to Ankara as his message.  And then in Ankara he collects some material as well, tells what has transpired in Ankara om the next stop of his journey, in Istanbul, say. But now we don’t need anything like this. 

The new CD from Baba Zula. Maybe you have heard it. On the cover there is an illustration of a tree with many leaves, and underground feeding from the roots the image of an aşık playing the bağlama. The message, also as articulated by Murat Ertel, is that the tradition of the aşık lives on in the underground through them (Baba Zula). 

When I hear such things, I don’t know, maybe he has a logical argument, but the last aşık was Aşık Mahzuni Şerif. Should this tradition continue? There are six or seven thousand pieces. Maybe more. One should, okay, keep on singing the pieces. But if you keep on doing the same, then this is against evolution. And we – the people who are living in Germany and in Europe, when we just copy all of what has been accomplished in Turkey – that’s also a kind of…primitive life. Look, I have always tried to understand why children who can barely understand Turkish come here to play bağlama. I ask them and I ask myself, constantly. Okay, I grew up in Turkey. That I play bağlama is totally normal…

And what conclusions have you made?

Despite everything, the people are living a little bit introspectively; turned in upon themselves. The Turks, the Arabs, the Albanians – doesn’t matter who – they are living in ghettos, and they are trying to preserve their cultures, and to perpetuate them. But this urge to protect is something fascistic. Because protecting makes it primitive. Because if I protect something it can’t grow. It is unable to meet with other things. And I always ask the children here, “What kind of music do you listen to?” For the most part they listen to pretty bad bağlama music.  For instance, there is Arif Sağ, this legend. And Erdal Erzican. And people of this nature. They are quality. And there is a new generation who do something between folk music and arabesk. So-called fantazi music. This strange kind of music. It started with a Kıvırcık Ali – he died in an accident. And I ask them, “Has anyone been to the Berliner Philharmonic to see a concert?” No. “Has anyone been to the opera?” No. “Has anyone been to a jazz concert?” No. I tell the kids, go at least once to an opera. You don’t have to like it. It can be that you think it’s terrible. It can be that you think it’s cool. Or, it can be that you are neutral and that after 20 years you have a memory. Just to have seen it. Berliner Philharmonic is not just any old thing. It’s world renowned. “You live in Berlin and you’ve never once been there.” The people who came from Anatolia – the first and second generation (now we have the third generation in the time being) – the third generation is changing, but the first and the second generation, they have lived as though they were in Turkey. They have their satellite TV. All they have is Hürriyet, Milliyet, Sabah. Back then you could buy newspapers here. All they listened to was Turkish news. And they were planning all the while to go back to Turkey.

You are against this desire to preserve saz culture. You say it is fascist. 

Turkey in the sixties, in TRT TV and radio, they also tried to preserve the culture. That’s why some things have remained primitive. If you took a folk music piece and arranged it a little bit, they automatically came out against you. 

Now, do you think that this electro-saz is an evolution?

No. Those days are over. Those days are long gone.

In the seventies. 

Arif Sağ also was an innovator here. He was the first one to do it. He played it for a long time. But those days are over. I’m not against the electro saz. My best friend plays electro saz. We learned baglama together. His name is Ismail Tunçbilek from Taksim Trio. The saz player and the kanun player are my childhood friends from Bursa. There are still people who play this, but very few. 

Now maybe you can speak a little about Derya Yıldırım. Do you  find what she is doing progressive? Or is it more in the direction of preserving the old songs?

You mean Derya with her group?

Yes.

So, they aren’t doing anything new. It’s seventies music. Like Erkin Koray and Bariş Manco. They are doing something along those lines.  I’m not a particular fan. Derya also knows that I don’t listen to this kind of thing. When she sings, I go to her concerts. Of course she is important to me. However, there are people who like this kind of music. I’m not saying it’s bad music, or anything like that. Erkin Koray I also didn’t listen to. And I don’t listen to Baba Zula either. Either I listen to something really traditional or something absurd. 

For the past five years or so there has been something of a neo Anadolu Pop movement. Also when you think of the band Altın Gün, who I am sure you have heard about. 

They are also doing what Derya is doing, or?

Yeah, it’s pretty much the same direction. And some people, for instance Gaye Su Akyol, have said their covers are all well and good, but they should try coming up with their own songs. But what’s your opinion about this wave?

If my memory serves me correctly in the seventies they produced music. They came up with new pieces.  And today, mostly what Derya does is she takes a traditional piece and arranges it and then sings. I think one or two pieces Derya came up with herself.

In the last EP there are six tracks and the first and the last are her own. 

But the seventies were better. Because they came up with their own songs. Maybe something will come. Of course, you should take this tradition – this aşik tradition – I come from the source and I make something totally different. Because I am not Aşik Veysel. Aşik Veysel didn’t want to make music. His idea wasn’t music. He wanted to tell stories. The musical instrument only helped him along this path. Many pieces are very primitive. In four-time. If he doesn’t sing, then the piece lasts thirty seconds. When one sings one repeats things. He never got it into his head to see about how he could compose something, are create something formally. That wasn’t the problem. For him and his ilk the text was important. I’ve always said that traditional Anatolian music is actually more literature than music. 

You spoke about aşiks, and how this tradition is unfortunately dead and gone; we have the internet; there’s no need for that sort of thing anymore. But at the same time there is injustice in the world. Also in Turkey there are people who think that things aren’t the way they should be. Why aren’t there political texts anymore?

That’s not true. That there aren’t political texts anymore. Yes there are.

Who is a contemporary that is doing something poltical?

Me, for instance.  Recently I composed a text from Can Dündar, the most famous Turkish journalist, who is now living in exile in Berlin. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison in Turkey. He was the editor in chief of Cumhuriyet. He’s been living here for five years. He writes for Die ZeitThe Washington Post. He did documentary films for ARTE and ZDF. And he is the biggest enemy of Erdoğan. Erdoğan said on TV that he would hunt him down. Because he exposed the story – you must have heard about it – about how Turkey sent weapons to IS in Syria. What I composed had more to do with homesickness, because he is living here in exile. But I also took a poem by a dead communist poet, Ahmed Arif, and composed a song based on it this year.  I composed a song after Mevlana. That was something political. I’m not the only one. Many people are doing things of this nature. 

Unfortunately Derya has no political message to convey. But she is still young. 

She was born here. She didn’t grow up with this political discourse. Here one lives in peace. Mostly political people are Alevis or Kurds. 

Yes, she doesn’t come from this milieu.

No. She is Turkish, a regular Turk from a religious family. But still, Derya is political. 

You think so?

She has become political of late. 

How so?

I am political. 

And you conveyed a little of this political activism to her.

Of course. I speak with my students.  And she is dealing with ever more things. For instance I composed a piece for the Elbphilharmonie. The Ensemble Resonanz put it on. In this piece there was baglama, kaval and percussion, and Derya played baglama. The piece is 23 minutes long.  It’s called “Tertele”, which is a Zaza word meaning, “a big mess” and talks about 1938, the massacre in Dersin. I wrote a text there, a rather political text about this massacre. And the Elbphilharmonie censored my text. 

Is that a fact?

Indeed. I found out about it after the concert. At the time relations between Germany and Turkey were good.  I only said that Erdogan had said, “If there is a need for someone to apologize, then I would apologize.” He said that. But the Turkish state should apologize. Not a person. And he didn’t say, “I apologize.” He said that, “If there was a need, I could do it.” It’s not the same thing. And I wrote that in my text. He was only playing around. They censored that. And then we had a big argument. You’re a journalist. You know that. They can’t change your text. If the editor corrected or amended something, before it goes to press you have to ask the author whether it is okay. They changed it and didn’t ask me first. Just like that. 

Going back to Derya, how do you see her developing in the near future?

When Derya came here her bağlama playing was really at a low level. And now it is at a rather high level. She can play my solo piece for bağlama. They are really rather difficult pieces. There is also a piece called Hücret. She even performed this piece in a concert. And just to have the courage to attempt it, is something. 

What do you think about the new LP, or EP?

I’m not sure whether I have heard it in its entirety. It’s a bit embarrassing. I heard a couple pieces. It’s in the same direction as the rest of her stuff. 

There’s another guy who plays baglama who lives in Berlin. Adir Jan. He writes political songs from a queer perspective. I don’t understand what he writes about –

I don’t either, because his songs are in Kurdish. 

But we met and he told me a little what his songs are about. Here you can say are songs with a political subject-matter. 

But political doesn’t have to be clearly articulated. It isn’t aesthetical. My music always has a political subtext – not always, because there are also love songs. Do you know Grup Yorum?

Yes.

They are a political group. The things I like are not so direct, throwing words around like a slogan. I don’t find that aesthetical. 

Not aesthetic…but when you look at Bob Dylan, and the folk music of the sixties in America, it’s the political message that counts, mainly. And unfortunately you don’t find this in the music of today.

There are a lot of folk songs that are political, but only appear as so when one reads the subtext. It’s not so direct. I have a lot of instrumental pieces which always have political backgrounds. For example among my classical pieces, I have some new pieces. I composed a piece for my trio and for a symphony orchestra – a concerto. It’s called “Girdap”. Girdup is you know, when the water swirls around and sucks everything into it.

A whirlpool.

Yes, whirlpool. I described fascism and the AKP as a whirlpool. And if we all band together, then this whirlpool won’t suck us down. But we have to come together. It’s all of it there in the song, but to understand, you have to read the program. Or have you heard of the Roboski massacre?

No. Never heard of it.

Turkish fighter planes killed 33 people. 

Kurds, presumably.

Yes, around ten years ago. I wrote a piano piece about it. A piano piece for four hands. Or Berkin Elvan, the guy who got killed during the Gezi park protests. I wrote a string quartet about him. And for Taksim, Gezi I also wrote a chamber music piece called, “Three Trees and the Bandits”. You can see it all on my Youtube channel.  And the texts are underneath.

Last question. About Derya Yıldırım again. She sings exclusively in Turkish. I don’t have a problem with that, but I take it that, people are constantly approaching her, asking her what her songs are about. She performed at Gretchen not long ago –

I was there. 

Yes, and people ask what it’s all about.

They do?

Yes. And Derya said she was constantly asked about what it was about – and her answer was: “Learn Turkish!”

Really? That’s  bullshit, isn’t it?

I think she meant it ironically.

I think she meant it ironically, as well. But, on the other hand, one needn’t understand. Do you understand Italian?

Well, I’m part Italian. But I don’t really speak it.

Ah. What I’m trying to say is that many Germans go to the opera. For the most part the singing is in Italian. Do they understand it? No. If one is interested, then the translation is there, or you can read the literature.  And when you are interested in Turkish stuff, then you can find a translation or translate the stuff yourself via Google translate. Then you can get an approximation of it in your own language. And mostly, when I have a German audience, I try to explain what the piece is about.  For example I wrote a piece called Göcmen Kuşlar, Birds of Passage. And this has precisely to do with the people who were arrested by the police and never came back. Like in Chile. And this is not merely mean for Turkey. It is for all mothers who have lost their children.

Mr. Akyol, thankyou for this interview.

Thank you.