For some years now Anatolian rock has established itself as the grooviest sound on World Beat dance-floors. Taking a tip from Turkish folk rockers from the 70s like Bariş Manco, Erkin Koray and Selda Bağcan, Dutch/Turkish psyche outfit Altın Gün have achieved immense resonance with their funky arrangements of Anatolian rock numbers. In his latest move, Balkan pop-star, Shantel, has teamed up with Istanbul cult band Cümbüş Cemaat, and come out with Istanbul, an LP of infectiously groovy new Turkish tracks certain to get hips swinging. The album is also a declaration of love for an artist whose second home has become Istanbul.
Shantel rose to international dance-floor fame in the early 2000s with euphoric Balkan-pop hits like Disco Partizani and Disco Boy. He staged delirious Frankfurt-based, so-called “Bucovina Club” DJ parties which blended choice Balkan tunes with beats and knob-twiddling sound effects, the archaic with the new, the rural with the urban. Ultimately he made the transition from DJ to unlikely band front man, leading a brass-heavy diasporic band of musicians around the world, spreading “balkanizacija” – balkanization and “ciganizacija” – gypsification.
Shantel was after an “equality of sound”, pushing an Eastern groove westwards, thus turning the tables on Western-dominated Pop culture. He was in search of “anarchy and romance”. Balkan Beats was going to be the “new rock and roll”, said Shantel – he was sure of it – tirelessly drawing the analogy between the music of the American south with the Gypsy music of the Balkans.
What do you think about Istanbul these days?
Istanbul is an anarchic microcosmos. The subculture and most of the artists don’t care anymore about daily politics. The scene has become fluid, just flowing only underground. If there are no spaces, they build little secret circles and off-spaces. There is a generel sub-code of how to act & behave as a secret subculture. Imamoğlu [the present Istanbul CHP mayor of Istanbul] is a clever cat without teeth completely blocked by Tayyip. His own CHP party are a bunch of nationalists. But most of the scene doesn’t give a shit. I guess the people are hopeless and depressed. They never drank as much as they do now. And they have a new drug called “bonsai”.
So how did you get in touch with these guys, Cümbüş Cemaat?
You know, the thing was, around 2002, 2003 I started my activities in Turkey. It started with this residency in Babylon. I was always thinking at the time – because of the fantastic feedback, right from the start – I expected something like this more from Greece. I dreamt about going to Athens and Thessaloniki and it would be the fantastic start of something. All that what I imagined in Greece, it happened in Turkey. In Istanbul. It was obvious sooner or later I would do a big project, but back in the days it wasn’t the right time. Okay , I met a lot of musicians over the years, but it wasn’t until last year (2020) that this idea came into my mind – to do this Istanbul album. I started looking for a band without any kind of ambitions, to do something really down to earth, because as you know in the last three years there has been a certain hype revolving around this Anatolian psychedelic vibe, which I personally really get into. And I was so happy to see things were growing. But on the other hand it’s very sort of conservative, very related to this retro/vintage sound. It’s like we are in 1972 and nothing has progressed.
And it’s also something that is happening more in Western Europe, rather than Istanbul.
Yeah, you are right, you are right. And I remember back in the days, in the beginning of 2000, we were releasing also Baba Zula. So I did a collaboration with Baba Zula once. That’s how I met Brenna McCrimmon, actually. But last summer I was spending some time in Sida in the Tom-Tom neighborhood.
Is this in Beyoğlu?
It’s in Beyoğlu, right. It’s in the European side, which is not so fancy anymore. It used to be back in the days. Now everyone has moved to Kadıköy, to the Asian part. But anyway I found this community quite interesting, you know. It’s a very freaky, hipster, more underground, more subculture. I was meeting and hanging around with Cem. And we were talking about rembetiko music.
Cem being the leader of Cümbüş Cemaat.
Yeah, he is the singer. It’s a very democratic band, by the way. The guys, they are playing together for 13 years as a session band, as a wedding band. Whatever. But without ambitious, let’s say. Ambitious lovers.
Were they also a kind of street band?
Yeah, they did everything. And so I came up with the idea, I said, “Guys, I think now is the right moment to put everything upside down, vice versa, and start a new approach in this music cosmos you are dealing with and I am dealing with.”
Which cosmos was that?
They have their daily work, their frequent shows they were performing. But there wasn’t a CD, no album. There was no brand. There was no master plan about anything. It was like go with the flow. Very Turkish style. You know. It will be good. So I presented them a crazy idea of doing an album. I said I want to do a Shantel album, but I want to have a kind of commitment between all of us to sort out the harmonies, the melodies that we love the most about the repertoire. So we all drove down to Selimiye. This is the summer spot for all the Istanbul intellectuals, artists. It’s near to Marmaris. Amazing. You should go there. Selimiye is really a lovely place. It feels like Turkey in the early eighties. Cheap houses, basic food. Some post hippyish people. Amazing. It’s like AKP never happened.
On the Asian side?
Yeah, on the Asian side. And so we went there together. And we took a place. We rented a sort of house and we were jamming all day long. All day long. Checking each other out, you know. Yeah, and then we had a sort of repertoire. I suggested to them major changes in the tuning and in the way of playing. Just to find a new approach. It’s not only about production, putting down beats, digitalizing – that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the timing. To find something unique. And when we were sure about that, after two weeks of jamming and checking each other out, I brought them to Frankfurt, to this Boogie Caravan session. It’s a kind of club thing that I am doing in a nice restaurant run by some friends of mine from Israel, which is in the red light district.
Which is now on ice.
Now it’s all shut down (Corona days). But it’s a Palestinian Israeli place. Really, it’s cool. So and then we went to the studio and we did all of the recordings. Like half of it. In Frankfurt. And then we booked a very cool place in Istanbul – another studio. So we spent another week there and did all the recordings.
Where are these guys coming from, musically, Cümbüş Cemaat? What is their background? What kind of artists are they into? Were they coming from this Anatolian funk background?
Of course they have all of this same enthusiasm about the sound from the old days. The Anadolu rock. Bariş Manco. And Selda whatever. But also Müslüm. You know Müslüm? And even the old Ibrahim Tatlıses.
So also into the old arabesk stuff.
Yeah, and also the more Byzantinique thing. Or arabesk. However you call it. And some of the guys they have this kind of noise rock. Industrial rock. And jazz. We were listening to Thelonius Monk. And when we were working I tried to say like, forget about all of that. Forget all of it. Forget all what you had in mind, all your memories, all these references, forget about it. Because, we are starting from scratch. And if you ask me for example – I mean, I am asking this of myself always – What is my approach? And I have a very strong connection to this German Krautrock. Like the Conny Blank.
I don’t know too much about that, but I know what you are talking about.
The early days of Kraftwerk, Can, Neu. All those bands started in the early seventies. And, I mean, it’s quite interesting because they all hated this glam rock stuff, and they were the first in pop culture to use exotic elements. They were the early World Music pioneers. They were using already some Arab influence or, you know, some exotic stuff. So as a reference sound-wise, also production-wise, the German Krautrock is one of my most important influences. Also, they were the first who used analogue synthesizers, sequencers, stuff like that. And this is a very important part, also in the production. Using the analogue sequencers and synthesizers and drum machines. I put this very up-front, sort of.
And I think that the Cümbüş they also have a kind of political point to make because they live and work and perform in Turkey. They know exactly how the political system has changed over the years and how the whole atmosphere of Istanbul has changed. Because Istanbul as we love it, does not exist anymore. More than 100,000 intellectuals and artists have left Istanbul in the past three years after the attempted coup. So it’s an open wound. It’s wounded, this city. But Cümbüş stay there and they keep on staying. So our commitment was, so we will start from scratch and we will create something new and unique. With their philosophy and my philosophy. That was the main motivation in a way.
Do you have a track that will have a dance-floor impact?
Well actually – and maybe this is the Shantel thing here – the whole of what we are doing is dance music. Simple as that. I love it, they love it. I was always like, I had this idea: let’s make a wedding between Anatolian psychedelica and Daft Punk. For me, maybe this is the most democratic way to approach people world-wide. Because this album is a world-wide album. This album is not for the Turkish community. It’s a crossover album. Even though – and this is maybe a trademark of most of the stuff that I am doing – taking things out of the context, maybe steering this towards the diaspora situation. And having a world-wide approach. Reaching a world-wide audience, which was something you could catch at my parties from the outset. And then it comes back. It’s going back to the motherland, you know. And it will create another dynamic, sort of. But it is important to make the step outside. You have to go outside. You cannot make things happen if you are in the bubble. You know? Because all of them – I’m not talking about Cümbüş, but in general the huge music scene that we will find in Turkey nowadays – they are in a sort of bubble. So we try to break those walls and rules.
In Berlin there is an interesting underground Turkish scene which is connected to the queer scene.
I guess there is no country in the world that has a stronger relationship with Turkey than Germany. We are facing the results of the, let’s say, Wirtschaftswunder from the fifties, sixties, when we had all those – we call them Gastarbieter. And I mean, the biggest community of minorities in Germany is Turkish. But somehow we never saw that as a cultural plus, as something positive to work with. There were too many borders, obstructions. Luckily you and me, we know that in the late nineties, the early 2000s with this Balkan Beats phenomenon, or with Russendisko, with all these South-eastern European parties, something like an equality of sound developed. It was only a question of time until the Turkish thing would hit the spot.
I talked to Ulf Lindemann (Dunkelbunt) around ten years ago, and he was saying how this Balkan thing was the bridge to the East. And maybe without the Balkans, it would be too foreign sounding to people.
It was the door opener for many, many things. Even those Bavarian guys, those neo Bavarian folk rockers…
Yeah, like south of Germany – there is a lot of alt Bavarian stuff. Those guys would never be in business if it wasn’t for the Balkan pop phenomenon. So, let’s say it was a kind of thing in everyone’s brain to say there’s a chance, there’s a different sound, there are different cultures..
So do you think that Germans are getting more in tune with Turkish music?
I think it’s a world-wide phenomenon. I think right now this is the hottest sound around. Because it covers a lot of remarkable influences in both worlds. There’s a bit of rockish stuff, there’s pop. There is Byzantinique – more Greek influence, like Ottoman influence. There’s Anatolian style. So much of the Anatolian style is amazingly monotone, so hypnotic, like techno. When you – just a moment, I want to show you an album: Neşat Ertaş. I mean, this is a techno album, because it’s so monotone, and so hypnotic.
The droning sound.
Yeah, for the me the saz – the elektro saz – has something similar to techno. I never was a techno aficionado; I was never in the techno thing. But also techno plays a big role here. Electronic music in general is a strong door-opener for that kind of hypnotic, modal, more monotonic stuff. So maybe that is why Germany is a good melting-pot and able create a good thing out of it.
Do you think that Frankfurt is more of a melting-pot than Berlin?
Well, the thing is, it’s a good point and it puts me in mind of Uzelli. The music label.
Who are from Frankfurt.
Exactly. In Berlin there was a huge Turkish community from more than thirty years on. And it happened more or less in Kreuzberg. But it was not very assimilated. And Frankfurt, it is a place traditionally most international in Germany, and it is a highly dynamic trading city. So Uzelli, they settled here. Because from the economic point of view, Frankfurt is more easy to run a business, to get benefit out of it, you know. It’s more easy to become institutional. Because over the years nothing really essential has come from Berlin. Bands or stuff like that. But Uzelli back in the day were like political refugees when they started, after the coup d’etat in the seventies I guess – in the eighties – I see Turkish people in Frankfurt having become more settled in all kinds of institutions. Not just in music, not even in running a club, a bar or a restaurant. Also in the political structure, in the political parties, in governmental institutions. You know, like all these local, whatever, it’s a great mix, you know. More settled, more kind of daily-life-based.
You never really made it in the Anglo-Saxon world. Why is that?
They gave me the World Music award, the BBC. They were the first, somehow. They were the first who picked me, and I did a lot of festivals in England and also in London, from Brixton Academy, Elephant and Castle, you know, like all those fancy places. So I have a history in the UK for sure. My US experience was in the period when I was doing electronic music – great. I was touring a lot in the United States, but then I remember there was this Gulf War. You know, this crises with Iraq. We were about to arrange a tour back in the days, and we had major difficulties about all this security stuff, and things like that, you know. Because we did a lot Canada. A lot. Even last year we did Canada. We did Australia last year, New Zealand. I think there isn’t any band, except maybe Rammstein at the moment who is touring USA from abroad.
You were in New York. Where did you play? Mehanata?
We played in Joe’s Bar and in East Village, Barber Shop. There is this guy, Velo Barber, and they have an amazing event venue in East Village. It was super.
How long ago was that?
It was last year. In October.
What about West Coast? LA, San Francisco?
Never been there for ages, unfortunately.
So what’s new now?
We have an amazing idea for the video clip we are going to do in the next few days. It’s about staying at home and all this lock-down stuff. I have a great team of ex-Istanbul designers and creative people. They are all living somehow in the diaspora. And we will build everything up from here. We don’t have any sort of marketing budget. I don’t really believe in these things. We have output. We will make a video. We have the songs, the album. We have a very strong visual thing going on. We will use our social media. We have good contacts world-wide. Our promoters, our partners who were with Shantel back in the days until now. So everybody will help us. We try to take maximum benefit out of it.
Well Stefan, thanks for the interview.