Derya Yıldırım takes the stage at a packed house in Berlin’s Gretchen club one night in November 2019. “It feels like a home-crowd tonight,” she says before launching into her hit, Nem Kaldı (“A Song”) by Aşık Mahzuni Şerif, featuring frenetic saz cut through by wah-wah guitar arpeggios and Doors-like organ riffs.
The music verges between joy and sadness, offers something close to the soul, touching the audience at an elemental level, one senses, moving the crowd physically, promising something ritualistic, grounded in ancient human experience.
Despite the fragile, delicate tones issuing from Yıldırım’s bağalama, one feels the audience tonight wants to dance, wants to groove, forget their cares. Yet one can’t really call Yıldırım’s tender, melancholic music “dance music”. Or can one?
Derya Yıldırım was born and raised in Hamburg, on the Veddel, a small island in the Elbe, home to a multi-cultural and tight-knit community, where everyone knows each other and everyone knows Yıldırım and her bağalama – the long-necked lute, popularly known as the saz.
Ultimately, it was a project called “New Hamburg” – put on by the Deutsche Schauspielhaus – that gave Yıldırım her first big break six years ago in 2014.
Yıldırım was 20 years-old when the project, New Hamburg, was called to life. The idea was to develop a new vision for Hamburg involving the people who lived in the vicinity of the theater; giving a voice to every-day people.
Plays were staged with a mix of locals and professional artists and neighborhood musicians were given a platform.
A certain Sebastian Reier – owner of Hamburg’s Groove City Records and a DJ known by the sobriquet of Booty Carrell, who performed at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel Club – was the musical curator at “New Hamburg”.
His job was to tap into the musical potential of the Veddel, which, according to Yıldırım was saturated by a Turkish sound.
Sebastian Reier, himself a bit of a turkophile as far as music goes, assembled a house band for the festival. He summoned the musicians Graham Mushnik, Antonia Voyant and Greta Eacott from London.
Important was that the band should have a local component, and so Derya Yıldırım was invited to front the band as lead vocalist and bağalama player.
The band, given the rather bland and not particularly sexy name, “Intercommunal Orchestra”, wrapped up the festival with a concert of Turkish folk songs, but instead of disbanding once the festival was over, kept going.
They flew to London, where all of the band members were living at the time. It was there in London that they had their first shows in small pubs across the city.
In Chambery, France they came together in 2016 and recorded Nem Kaldı, an EP, together with Catapult Records.
“Nem Kaldı was made entirely by ourselves,” says Yıldırım. Just the band and no one else. We came from the DIY scene,”
“I don’t know why we recorded this song,” says Yıldırım about Nem Kaldı. “Other than it’s just a beautiful song. It means, ‘What I have left.’ It’s a metaphor: What is left of my life except for two tears. It’s a melancholy song, very universal and timeless. Since then I have the feeling that this song was the key to the band.”
Bongo Joe expressed interest in the EP and suggested a co-production, and so it was that Bongo Joe and Catapult produced the next record. But first the name had to be changed.
“They wanted something catchy,” says Yıldırım. Hence Grup Şimsek.
Grup Şimsek, which means something like, “The Lightning Bolts”, is a play on Yıldırım’s last name, which means essentially the same thing in Turkish.
The band – already successful because of their Nem Kaldı EP from 2016 – cut their debut LP, Kar Yağar, which means, “It’s snowing”, in 2019.
“Snow is for me a metaphor for sadness, loneliness,” says Yıldırım. “It is snowing in summer. It is snowing in my summer.”
So far Derya Yıldırım and Grup Şimsek have had 80 shows across Europe. In 2019 they played in Jerusalem and Istanbul. And last year they were supposed to play in the States. Till Corona kicked in. At the moment all shows are on ice until spring.
Presently, the band lives dispersed all over Europe. Antonin Voyant lives in the Jura mountains on the French, Swiss border. Graham Mushnik lives in St. Etienne, France. Greta Eacott lives in Copenhagen. And Yıldırım lives in Berlin.
“We are all individual people in the band that have our individual lives but the band is important for us. We each take inspiration from the time we spend together,” says Yıldırım.
Not all of the band members are fascinated by Turkish music. Each band member has a different background, and at some point they all felt the need to write their own songs, so that in their last album half of the songs are Turkish covers and half are their own songs.
Kürk was composed by Graham Mushnik, as was Çocuklar, Kar Yağar was written and composed by Yildirim. Nefes was composed by Antonin Voyant.
“Bir Kardesim Antonin and I wrote that song ourselves and I translated it into Turkish,” says Yıldırım.
Most people who hear Derya Yıldırım and her band will immediately summon up associations with the Anadolu Psyche revival wave. And yet Yıldırım says that she was completely impervious to the trend when it hit.
“I wasn’t aware of this trend,” she says. “I didn’t know that Finders Keepers had come out with this album Anatolian Invasion series in 2010. I just couldn’t believe that people were interested in my music. Why are you interested in Turkish music? Always thought that people in Germany didn’t like Turkish music. I knew that Booty had a long standing interest in Turkish music, collected many Turkish records, played Turkish music and tried to get people interested in it. But I didn’t know about this wave in 2014, when we started out.”
Several months ago, while researching this article, I called up Sebastian Reier in Hamburg. Somehow it all began with Reier, who began throwing Anatolian funk parties called “B-Music” at the Golden Pudel club in Hamburg starting in 2010, thus was one of the first, in Germany at any rate, to rediscover Anadolu Psych.
The old psyche folk-rock songs were different from German schlagers, French chansons or English oldies, Reier found, in that fifty years on, the songs were still fresh and current, cross-cutting generations. Furthermore, they contained an unrealized vision of a future that had been nipped cruelly in the bud by the 1980 right-wing putsch in Turkey and ensuing military dictatorship.
“To this day Turkey under Erdoğan still remains hostile to artistic experimentation and so some of the old seventies psyche folk ballads, for instance from Selda Bağcan, continue to hit home,” says Reier.
“There are always waves,” says Yıldırım. ”I’m just happy because I am affected; that it’s suddenly so cool to play Turkish folk music, also for hipster people.”
“It’s great,” says Yıldırım about the current Anatolian funk wave which has spawned other such bands as Altin Gün (Golden Day) an Anatolian folk-funk cover band out of Amsterdam Yıldırım and her band are often compared to.
Ultimately, though, the Altin Gün comparison irks Yıldırım. While the Amsterdam band performs mainly covers, about half of Yıldırım’s songs are newly composed.
“Singer-songwriter doesn’t fit me either,” she says. “I play folk music, reinterpreted folk music. I am a little like a Botschaftler – an ambassador – bringing Turkish folk music to different scenes.”
The fact that Turkish folk-rock from the seventies is no longer shrouded with ignorance has been a boon for Yıldırım, who in interviews no longer has to explain what an Aşık is – the saz playing troubadours who once sang protest songs that nettled Ottoman rulers.
At the moment Yıldırım is finishing up her studies at the UDK in Berlin, where she is specializing in the bağlama.
“The bağlama department is brand new. Taner Akyol is leading it. At the moment I am the only student in the department. And that’s a shame. There are so many bağlama players in Germany, and we are the only ones! We are making history!”
Yıldırım says she is more than a folksy bağlama player. Her roots are in classical music as well as saz-based Turkish folk.
“I’m trying to bring the bağlama to a new level, to make it avant-garde. I played with the Ensemble Resonance in Hamburg in 2015, which blended new music with the bağlama. 12 composers composed for me. No one is doing anything like that in the world. I want to show that the bağlama is also for the future. We need to create a new thing because we cannot only live in the retro. I don’t have just one direction. I take what’s there.”
Is it perhaps a bit of a shame that non-Turkish speakers don’t understand what Yıldırım is singing about?
“But they still understand it,” says Yıldırım. “If they don’t understand the spoken language, then they understand the musical language. And to help people understand, I sometimes translate in the concerts. Or we have a booklet for the album, where I explain the stories. I try to convey a little of the music.
“But the language? Why do I have to change the language? Learn Turkish! Know what I’m saying?”
In the end it doesn’t matter to Yıldırım that by keeping to singing in Turkish in Germany, bigger stages might elude her.
“That’s not being very open minded,” she says. “I don’t want to reach as many people as possible. I want to do my own thing, what touches me. Screw the money!”