Turkey’s Psychedelic Rock Star Speaks Her Mind, Ambiguously

ISTANBUL — The Turkish rock star Gaye Su Akyol took the stage at a venue in the outskirts of Istanbul recently to play to a crowd packed with young women — as might be expected for a singer who has appeared on the cover of magazines such as the Turkish edition of Elle.

But the fans at the event also included a relatively high number of middle-aged men — a pointer toward how Akyol has become Turkish rock music’s biggest hope. Akyol has built a broad fan base by reviving — and reinventing — psychedelic rock, a sound that was last truly popular in Turkey in the 1970s.

Ece Diler, 27, one of the women in the crowd, said, “She takes these old melancholic songs your father listened to, but mixes them with her own style so they’re still exciting.”

“My dad loves her,” she added, then grimaced as if that were an uncool thing to have said.

In the 1970s, some of Turkey’s biggest music stars combined the traditional melodies of folk music with psychedelic rock to make a sound entirely their own, said Daniel Spicer, the author of a history of Turkish psychedelic music, in a telephone interview.

The decade was a turbulent time in the country, with left- and right-wing groups facing off in frequent street battles in Istanbul. “Some musicians took a stance to align themselves with the common people,” Spicer said, “and as part of that they wanted to speak to them in the most direct way possible. So they took rock ’n’ roll and made it into this hybrid, by infusing it with traditional instruments and time signatures.”

The left-wing views of those artists did not endear them to the authorities and their music almost completely disappeared from Turkish airwaves after a military coup in 1980, Spicer added. More than half a million people were arrested during the coup, according to human rights groups.

Cem Kayiran, music editor of Bant Mag, a youth magazine based in Istanbul, said bands had started playing that music again only since the late-1990s. “There are many bands coming up now, trying to replicate this psychedelic sound,” he said. “Some of them, you can tell they’re not the real thing. It feels like a touristic trip to the Grand Bazaar.”

But Akyol “is totally different to that,” he added. “She’s not just hype.”

Akyol’s growing profile is not restricted to Turkey. British radio shows, such as Iggy Pop’s on BBC 6 Music, have played songs from her latest album, “Istikrarli Hayal Hakikattir” (“Consistent Fantasy Is Reality”), and on Nov. 30, Songlines, a London-based magazine about global music, named Akyol “best artist” at its annual awards.

Akyol is a “glistening seductive intricately poised richly Turkish chanteuse,” Iggy Pop said in an email. She’s “so much more musical and satisfying than any popular music from the depleted West today,” he added.

In an interview, Akyol, 34, explained why Turkish psychedelic rock was so important to her. She recalled a recent discussion on social media in which people were asking if Turkey had ever invented anything. “People were hopelessly trying to find something,” Akyol said, “and my answer was this: Turkish psychedelic music.”

“It has a philosophy, its own mathematics,” she added. “It cannot be copied by another culture. That’s why it’s still alive.”

Akyol was born in Istanbul in 1985. Her mother was a civil servant and her father a painter. As a child, she was obsessed with many types of music, from Nirvana to classical, she said: “I was like a hungry beast trying to find my taste.”

Old Turkish psychedelic rock was played at home, she said, and she especially enjoyed songs by Baris Manco, a popular singer who ended up presenting children’s TV shows. (Akyol has covered his music.)

But, Akyol said, she was one of just a few in her age group who enjoyed the style. “In that period, it was really uncool for people to listen to,” she said. “After the coup, Turkish people got kind of far away from their own heritage.”

Playing psychedelic rock today is not some sort of patriotic throwback, Akyol added. “What I’m trying to do isn’t just copy it,” she said. “I want to put new bricks on it; to make another building, actually.”

Akyol’s popularity is not just down to her revitalizing old styles, said Kayiran, the magazine editor, but also because of her outspokenness, especially on women’s issues. “She’s brave enough to say what she wants and you can’t underestimate that in today’s Turkey,” he said.

In the interview, Akyol was happy to talk about issues like women’s rights (“There are so many laws, but they’re not working,” Akyol said, about measures to protect women from male violence), but she was careful not to talk directly about politicians like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president, who has clamped down on free speech since a failed military coup in 2016.

Many have seen her ambiguous lyrics as poetic comments on Erdogan’s government or on the state of Turkey. “The whole country is a hookah cafe, we are suffocating in its smoke,” she sings on “Bagrimizda Tas,” or “Stones in Our Bosom.” The police once asked Akyol to explain the song “Nargile” after a complaint, she said. It includes the line, “You sold us out well! You have a palace but it’s just empty four walls.” She told the police it was not to do with the president. “It’s about the power that destroys people everywhere,” she said.

Not all Turkish musicians are so indirect. In September, Saniser, a rapper, released “Susamam” (“I Can’t Stay Silent”) a 15-minute track that rails against a host of Turkish afflictions from bad driving to animal neglect. Some verses comment directly on the political situation. “If they falsely arrest you one night, no journalist can report it ’cause they’re all locked up,” one line declares.

The track, watched over 37 million times on YouTube, was heavily criticized in Turkey’s right-leaning newspapers. “I watched crying, smiling, clenching my fists,” Akyol wrote on Twitter shortly after the song’s release.

Akyol said she loved that song’s directness, but that she preferred her own songs to be more enigmatic. “I like the mystery in it,” she said. “You can open the door with your own key.”

At the concert near Istanbul, her mysterious lyrics did not seem a problem for any of her fans, young or old. A man in a Pink Floyd T-shirt sang almost every word. So did several women in head scarves. Many lined up outside Akyol’s dressing room afterward for selfies.

“They are mesmerized,” Akyol said with a laugh, after the last person left. But they had not been speaking to her about the intricacies of Turkish psychedelic rock, it seemed. “All they say is ‘I love you very much,’ or, ‘You give me hope,’” Akyol said.

She smiled. “That’s the whole idea, I guess.”

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