4. Kurdish music history in Turkey 

The music literature on Turkish and/or Ottoman music may help in understanding some aspects of Kurdish music. The Arabesk Debate: Music and Musicians in Modern Turkey by Martin Stokes (1992) is a relevant book for the analysis of Kurdish music, even though the author did not focus on Kurdish music at all, since some of the main soloists/figures of Arabesk music are Kurdish musicians, like Ibrahim Tatlıses. The transformation produced by the social movements in Turkey affected Kurds, and the music they performed, produced, and practiced daily. Although the writer did not map the Kurdish factor in the chapters about internal migration in Turkey, there had been a tremendous migration of Kurds from their own homeland into big Turkish cities since the 1950s. So it could be easily argued that this social transformation ought to be regarded as an important factor when analyzing Kurdish music in today’s conditions and Kurdish contributions to other music including Turkish music. The migration that is presented as a basis of the Arabesk culture has mostly affected Kurds and the migrants were mostly Kurds (Stokes 1992). The leftist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the migration and developments in communication media have been the most prominent factors shaping the musical life of Turkey in later phases. The military coup of 12th September 1980 saw a corruption of the reproduction of the cultural heritage, especially that involving artists from political movements. Instead, a sterilized musical tradition was supported by the military government – a process that continued into the 1990s. It should be added that the coup destroyed every aspect of cultural life and failed to generate alternatives.


The leftist movements of the 60s and 70s, the migration (Stokes 1992) and the developments in communication media have been the most prominent factors to shape the musical life of Turkey in this phase. It is not easy to set an accurate date to the failure of the “modernization project” of Turkish music, but it can be claimed that the date is in the beginning of 1960s. During the military coup of 12th September 1980, the reproduction process of the cultural heritage that had been carried out by especially artists from political movements was corrupted. Instead, a “sterilized” musical tradition was supported by the military government. Thus, the musical life has also been the part of this sterilization during the 90s. The coup destroyed every aspect of the cultural life and did not replace them with new ones.


Currently, the Kurdish movement has started to gain power both socially and politically. Anti-state and leftist movements opposed discrimination against Kurds. The Kurdish youth could not behave as though it were ignorant of what was going on, and chose to be part of this cultural and political movement. The civil war years in Turkey (1984-1999), were also the period in which some Kurdish musicians became directly part of the war. Some of them went to the mountains and joined the PKK guerillas and other armed groups. Some had to move to Europe to escape death sentences and imprisonment, while some stayed in metropolitan centers in Turkey and supported the movement in cultural centers by giving secret concerts. Paul White mentions that some musicians who moved to Europe (‘the PKK's house musicians’ according to White, who exaggerates this point) produce professional-quality audiocassettes of Kurdish nationalist music-including Kurdish-language vocalists, which even find their way into Turkey, as well as all sectors of the Kurdish Diaspora (White 2000: 175). He also mentions that the jewel in the PKK's crown was MED-TV, the PKK-dominated television station based in London and Brussels, which formerly broadcast eighteen hours daily. MED-TV opened in 1995. Within six months it was apparently attracting an audience of fifty million, in thirty-four countries including Turkey. Also it should be noted that the station's programming generally reflected PKK policies and preoccupations (White 2000: 176).


By the empowerment of the PKK among Kurds as a nationalist institution, the supported activities and artists, either by being promoted on MED-TV or in the 'Solidarity Nights' [5], which have been the basic gatherings of the members of the Kurdish and Turkish leftist Diaspora, were mostly determined by the organization and its supporters. If a musician is not on the side of the party or not already undeniably famous like Şiwan Perwer (and even he was not invited for a while due to his ‘unclear’ positioning on the side of the party), it would be very difficult to perform either on TV or in the Solidarity Nights. So the organization behaved like a state and this led the musicians to choose either to be for the organization or against; in the latter case they would loose opportunities to market themselves. At the beginning the relationships between Kurdish organizations and musicians were not that tense and many cooperative events were organized among almost all Kurds living in the Diaspora. But later, the relations were not maintained well enough to inhibit the coercive inclinations of the PKK, which has gradually dominated the production and promotion of the Kurdish music.


It was reason enough for a song to be banned in Turkey if the lyrics contain the words ‘Kurdistan’ or ‘PKK’. If a judge believed that musicians offered support to the movement, that was enough reason for them to be arrested. We know that many Kurdish musicians and groups were in trouble with the Turkish state. Many of them were arrested several times and many of their concerts were banned. The usage of the word ‘Kurdistan’ had a strong political meaning during this period and some brave Kurdish musicians and koms tried to use this word at their concerts. Until 1992, singing in Kurdish was not permitted in Turkey. Thus, being recorded in Kurdish for an album was already a protest. Important though it is, (Kurdish) language is not the only distinctive feature of “Kurdish popular song, (i.e.) the music that Kurds most readily accept as their own when they participate in weddings and concerts, listen to radio broadcasts, and purchase or make copies of cassettes” (Blum and Hassanpour 1996: 326). I should mention that the relationship between political and cultural life, as far as Kurds and Kurdish cultural and political life are concerned, has been an intense one. This is also true for the Kurdish cultural institutions located in Istanbul and Diyarbakır, which are the biggest Kurdish populated cities with the most important and the strongest Kurdish cultural and political organizations engaged politically in the nationalist movement (McDowall 2004).

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