“A soundtrack of freaks, gangsters, pimps and punks of the era.”
So Uzelli Kaset bills their newly released compilation of Turkish electric saz music, called Uzelli Elektro Saz (1976-1984), curated by Murat Ertel – the lead singer and saz player of Istanbul psych band BaBa Zula – with his wife, Esma Ertel.
And as the blurb suggests, the LP is being pitched to a hip Western audience, interested in the wild songs of psychedelic Anatolian rock from the seventies and eighties.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Uzelli today has over 1300 album titles in its catalogue. From heavy synths to arabesque folk – the cassette artwork often as colorful as the music itself – Uzelli’s releases offer a tantelizing audio and visual insight into the tastes of the often invisible Turkish Gastarbeiter in Germany. At the moment Uzelli is reissuing some of its music, putting playlists on streaming platforms. The company is a veritable goldmine of Turkish music and album cover art.
Uzelli didn’t actually begin selling music at its outset. When Muammer Uzelli started the business in Frankfurt’s Bahnhof Viertel, together with his brother, Yavuz in 1971, it was an unofficial social club of Turkish Gastarbieter, where they could sip tea and trade news.
Soon the Uzellis started responding to the very specific demands of Turkish Gastarbeiter in Germany. Instead of cassettes, initially they sold meat grinders, spaghetti machines, typewriters – technical gizmos hard to come by in Turkey then – which the Gastarbeiter could bring home with them on their annual summer holidays.
Later, they sold specially designed heat-resistant cassettes to withstand constant playing in overheated tape-decks during the three or four day road-trips though Europe and the Balkans to Turkey, embarked on by Gastarbeiter in the summer.
Once they started selling music, they branched out into the most diverse of areas. You could find everything in the Uzelli catalogue, be it children’s stories, folk music, left wing, right wing content, Kurdish content, political manifestos.
Recently I spoke with head of the company Metin Uzelli, son of founder Muammer, from his offices at Unkapanı, a colorful and weird music hub in Istanbul, where all the Istanbul record labels have their offices, made famous from the movie Neredesin Firuze.
Can you tell me a little about the beginnings of the company?
Metin Uzelli: Yes, my father started the business in Frankfurt together with my uncle. They travelled all of Europe – and back in the seventies and eighties there was a rush from Turkey to Germany. The people were invited as “Guest-workers” – as Gastarbeiter. And the Turkish population started to move to Germany. In the beginning these Gastarbeiter were alone and cut-off in the city. They were living together with their friends in dormatories –sharing rooms. Their plan was just to live for a couple of years, save some money and go back to their villages. But later, Turkish people started moving to Germany, taking with their families. This was at the beginning of the seventies. In that period my father opened a store in Frankfurt next to Hauptbahnhof (main station) in Frankfurt. And this little store become a meeting point of Turkish people in Frankfurt. And because they were coming together in this store, my father was selling them some items which could not be found easily in regular stores. These items were in the beginning some presents for Gastarbeiter to bring to their villages. Meat grinders. Or spaghetti machines. Ravioli machines. Or typewriters. My father was selling these kinds of products in the beginning. And when they started moving to Germany, my father started selling them carpets, electronics. My father was a trusted Turkish merchant. And right after these electronics, people started asking my father for content. And my father licensed a Turkish catalogue for music outside of Turkey, to be printed in Germany with the Uzelli brand.
And what kind of content would that be?
It was Turkish folk songs. My father manufactured them first in an 8-track format. These are very limited, very rare. And right after that, the main format became music cassettes. That is why the company is called “Uzelli Kaset” and not “Uzelli Plak (record)”. So this is how it started. There was a big boom. Soon afterwards, my father established a distribution channel with eight big busses. These busses were selling these cassettes in every corner in Germany, to Turkish bakals – Turkish grocery stores. And my father had found a strong niche in distributing these products. At the same time my father was putting out full page ads in Turkish newspapers every day almost. And people had the chance to place orders via post – they could choose the cassettes from these ads. They would cut the page from the newspaper where there was a little form, and people could send it to Uzelli, Franfurt. And Uzelli would send the products to Turkish people wherever they were – in Germany or Austria or Switzerland.
Did the company have a studio? Were they producing music?
The company had a studio. It was an offline studio, a mastering studio in Frankfurt. All the masters which were coming from Turkey were remastered in the studio. But we never had a recording studio. Back in the second half of the eighties Uzelli became a producing label. Till 1985 Uzelli was just licensing content from producers. Uzelli was hiring the producer because Uzelli’s main thing was trade. Because it wasn’t so much about music. My father was not a music person. The focus was on trade. So that’s why you saw such a diverse catalogue. You could find everything in the Uzelli catalogue. It could be children’s stories, folk music, left wing, right wing content. Any type of content. Kurdish, or, you know, political content. For us trade and demand was the first priority.
And Uzelli, as they got more into music, did they discover any new artists in Germany?
A lot actually. Because when we come to the end of the seventies my father became a manufacturer. So, with this factory it became really easy for him to produce new names, because manufacturing and distribution was no longer an issue anymore. And that’s why my father was very brave in releasing new names and taking risks. That’s why so many artists came out of Uzelli, actually, like Kibariye or Durmuş Çiğdem, who did that song Şiki Şiki Baba. They were first albums from Uzelli. But when they had big names like Müslüm Gürses or İbrahim Tatlıses, Uzelli was licensing the content. İbrahim Tatlıses first struck it big with a small Anatolian album. But after that Uzelli bought all the rights for that album, and then it became a big boom, and then he become famous. There were so many names who exploded in this way.
And I also heard the company developed a special kind of cassette that was very durable and heat-resistant, ideally suitable for long road trips to Turkey. Can you tell me about this?
Yes, first of all, music cassettes – were very handy. And it was cheaper than other formats actually, in Germany. Not in Turkey, but in Germany. And the people were really consuming a lot. On their long trips from Germany to Turkey – and most of the people were driving to Turkey at that time – they were filling their cars with these cassettes, leaving a lot in Turkey. This is how Uzelli became famous in the beginning in Turkey, actually. And of course the content, the music they were listening to reflected their daily life. In the beginning, when they were coming to Turkey on holiday thy were happy, they were listening to happy songs. On the other hand when they came somewhere where there was a celebration they had to have other kinds of music. And when the time came to go back to Germany, then the arabesk and heavy tracks were played.
So it wasn’t just arabesk that you were putting out? It was a wide variety of different kinds of music.
Definitely. The arabesk maybe quantity-wise was most of it. But even Turkish story cassettes for children, for example. There was no content they could give to their kids at that time. There were these stories, Nasrettin Hoca or the Karagöz. We had cassettes of these. There were cassettes for prayer. And there were cassettes for folk music, for saz from every region. Dance music and folk dance music. Like folklore music. And political music.
And this was a kind of parallel culture in Germany. Germans had no idea that this trade was going on and that this kind of music was being produced. It was below the radar of most Germans, I guess.
Actually,all these cassettes, every cassette manufactured or produced by Uzelli was registered to Gema. And of course, the authorities were aware of this trade, aware of the size. They were just closing their eyes, just closing their ears as they do today. For example, when you look to Germany today there is a huge Turkish population. There are so many Turkish restaurants, cafes, radio stations, entertainment places, right? And Gema is licensing all these places. Or the music they are playing. Turkish content owners, Turkish artists are having difficulties to get their benefit from these.
There has been a revival of interest in Turkish psychedelic music from the initial Uzelli era. You, no doubt, have been following this.
Yes, I have been following. I am a fan of this kind of music. So, yeah, especially Anatolian Rock. Or folk-rock from the seventies and eighties. That was really great content in those years. Later, with the technology and later with the political situation in Turkey, the bands collapsed and bands started making music with less people and with less instruments. And that is why at the end of the eighties we started to hear another kind of music. But in the seventies it was different. We had really great musicians, great bands. And they were listening to trends outside Turkey. And they were adapting their own music in a very delicious way. Now they are making a come-back. Actually they have never gone. These singers were always popular. The only thing is that most of these catalogues were published only as vinyl at that time. And because of some copyright issues, they were not converted into other formats. As well as the Uzelli catalogue.The Uzelli catalogue was released as a cassette, not as CD. So people who lived in the CD period couldn’t reach all this content. Now there is a comeback of this music because they are being discovered again as a result of all these cassettes and vinyl being transferred to digital. The digital era makes it possible for people to discover all this music.
What do you make of this revival of interest among World Music fans and young people as well in the cities of Western Europe?
Yes, first of all, the artistic aspect, and how it sounds and how it is mastered, this is really different from the original content. It’s not easy to replicate. This is one thing. Second, people are searching for a niche. And finding a niche is very cool. This is also a reason. On the other hand, with the help of digital distribution, people have the chance to discover all this music. And once they discover all this music, then they start running after old copies of these records. And you can make a good collection. It’s a collector’s item.
Thank you for this interview.