In the following article, you’ll be reading about the adventures of Cem Karaca, a pioneer of the Anatolian rock movement, in Germany. That adventure also has a little-known fruit: we’re happy to share with you the story of the German-language album Die Kanaken, enriched by our interviews with witnesses to the era. 

English Translation by Zeynep Beler

“… Foreign workers are colloquially referred to as ‘Gastarbeiter’ in this country. Meaning guest laborer, guest worker. Isn’t the very reasoning of the people who can come up with such a phrase against our sensibilities? A guest who labors!”

Cem Karaca’nın Nokta Dergisi’ne From a 1986 interview with Cem Karaca in Nokta magazine

“Cem Karaca has endured an inordinate amount of hardship. … His very exile resulted from a news item by a tabloid, causing him to find himself lumped together with other exiles from Turkey with whom he felt he did not belong, in the same category and the same country. Rather than the exiles he imperatively stood apart from, he grew closer to entities that we can define as the new social movements of Germany, such as the Greens, which in turn let do Karaca putting aside the use of language as his most important weapon and making music in a borrowed tongue.”

Münir Tireli, “Münir Tireli, Cem Karaca and Die Kanaken [2]

Cooming from the Hawaiian word kanaka Kanake (-n): is a German word for people from German-speaking countries with roots in Arab countries, Turkey, Southeast Europe and Persian speaking countries. It is used as a derogatory word, but also as a self-denomination. … Kanake has been re-appropriated by people of Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, and of other Middle Eastern ethnic minorities in Germany and used proudly as a term of self-identification.


Cem Karaca & Dadaşlar, 1971 © Fehiman Uğurdemir

Cem Karaca’s first visit to Germany was in 1967 with his band at the time, Apaşlar. He recorded some 45-rpm records to be published by Türkofon, the record company owned by Yılmaz Asöcal that would later become Türküola. He returned to Turkey after shooting videos for WDR Television. 

Of the songs that the band recorded in 1967, “Resimdeki Gözyaşları” was released in Turkey in 1968 and became a hit. Cem Karaca subsequently returned to Germany in ’68 to attend a festival titled “Europe Meets in Cologne”. According to the news item by Kölner Stadtanzeiger, Cem Karaca prompted the most fervent adulation of the festival. The same year, they released English versions of “Resimdeki Gözyaşları” and “Emrah”, but these would not become hits. 

Imagine if Elvis Presley opened a cassette shop in England!

In the words of Ironhand Records owner Ercan Demirel, “Cem Karaca’s Germany experience is full of what-ifs. The commonly held view about Cem Karaca is that he fled the country due to the warrant for his arrest. We know from news items and magazine articles at the time as well as an interview Cem Karaca gave to German television that this wasn’t the case. 

In 1979 he goes to England to perform Pink Floydat the famous Rainbow Arena where Pink Floyd performed no less…while abroad, they also stop by Germany and take the opportunity, thanks to demand by the gurbet crowd, to organize an array of concerts. 

Edirdahan, DDR concert © Fehiman Uğurdemir

After the Germany and Netherlands concerts, Karaca returns to Turkey in September of 1979. There he records the album Hasret with Uğur Dikmen and studio musicians. Though the album is not yet released, he performs “Bu Biçim” for TRT audiences. With left-right conflicts in Turkey no less heated than when he left, he returns to Germany on January 11th 1980 and opens up a cassette shop in Munich. Imagine if Elvis Presley opened a shop in England!

Later on, in 1985, they participate in a live broadcast in which they perform as Die Kanaken. Cem Karaca describes it in his own words: he says that in the wake of a piece of news in a tabloid magazine in 1981, the military administration called for him to return to the country. However, he said, he was too afraid of what might happen to him if he did, so he rejected the call and was subsequently expatriated in 1983.”

DieKanaken, 1984 – 1986 © Fehiman Uğurdemir

Die Kanaken on Stage: Backwards on the Orient Express

Fehiman Uğurdemir on the stage with Die Kanaken East Germany Festival, 1984 -1986 © Fehiman Uğurdemir.

When several of the musicians traveling in Germany with Karaca returned to Turkey, there was a shortage of band members. They met and began working with a German bassist. According to Fehiman Uğurdemir, one of the Anatolian rock scene’s legendary guitarists, who stayed with Karaca in Germany:

“It was through this bassist that we received a proposal to act and perform in a theater play at the Westfälisches Landestheater. A play, geared towards high-schoolers, that criticized the xenophobia that had been incited to worrisome magnitudes at that time: Ab in Den Orient Express [Backwards on the Orient Express].”

The play opens with a bet between two close friends, Bernd and Nuri. According to the bet, Bernd is to win 100 Marks if he can fulfill the conditions of being a Turk for a week. The conditions: to reach an agreement with an eminent personality, fulfill an errand in a government office and get a job, all in the guise of a Turk. Nuri adds one more mission post facto: Bernd will also have to steal the heart of a German girl. With a false mustache, provincial dress complete with black salwar and an affected accent, Bernd is now Süleyman for a week. What he encounters will take him by great surprise. 

The script, comprised of poetry that would later be set to music, was penned by Harry Böseke and Martin Brukert.  

Coming from a theatre-wise family, Karaca “decided in advance” and “dragged [Uğurdemir] into it”. Says Uğurdemir:

“I had never cared for theatre before. Fortunately we did not have to act much, or we played ourselves, to be more accurate. For some reason the play garnered a lot of attention. We kept performing it for an extended two and a half years or so. We went on a European tour. We crossed from Denmark into the Netherlands, from France into the neighboring countries.”

Orient Express, 1983 © Fehiman Uğurdemir

“Kanaken was a project meant to spur people to think”

The play also engendered a musical project. Karaca and Uğurdemir entered the studio to record an album titled Die Kanaken. The German producer directed to them by the independent German record company Pläne would order the members of Die Kanaken to be in the studio by eight in the morning as though they were factory workers. Recalling those days, Uğurdemir says: “Nowhere in the world does anything like that happen. At the time, however, we said, ‘Well, this must be how musicians in Germany do it’ and said nothing. 

“Kanaken’s ideology was something else entirely. It wasn’t Kanaken’s purpose to entertain the public. To the contrary, it was a project meant to criticize and examine the current situation and spur people to think. At the time we performed some of the songs live on TV programs. That got word of the album out there. It was rather more popular amongst the German intelligentsia, however. When you listen to a famous âşık in Turkey it hits you in your soft spot because it’s written in your language and says something of your sentiments and culture. I think that Harry Böseke and Martin Burkert’s words touched the sweet spot of the German people in the same way. With those intense lyrics, people at the concerts couldn’t dance even if they wanted to.”

In the album that was recorded in Cologne, not only with Fehiman Uğurdemir, but also with Cengiz Öztunç, Sefa Pekelli, İsmail Tarlan and Betin Güneş, with whom we will be publishing our interview in the near future. Along with the musicians from Turkey, in "Beim Kaffee" Clemente Alfredo plays the violin and in "Çok Yorgunum", the synths were played by Dick Stadtler.

İşçisin Sen İşçi Kal vs. Es Kamen Menschen An

Writer and critic Ulrich Gutmair remarks that on first listen to this album, he thought it quaint and unlike the German pop sound of the ‘80s. He says that upon then listening to a Turkish album by Cem Karaca, he understood that Karaca had stayed true to his own sound with Kanaken too. 

Die Kanaken, Cem Karaca & Fehiman Uğurdemir © Fehiman Uğurdemir

In our opinion, Es Kamen Menschen An (Humans Came) is the closest song in the album to Cem Karaca’s Anatolian rock practice. We share below the succinct lyrics of the song that, just like the bard Ata Canani’s Deutsche Freunde, were inspired by the words “laborers were called, humans came” penned by Swiss playwright Max Frisch and whose legendary guitar solo reminds us of İşçisin Sen İşçi Kal [You are a worker, stay a worker]:

Man brauchte unsere Arbeitskraft, (Our manpower was needed)

die Kraft, die was am Fließband schafft (the power that runs the assembly line)

Wir Menschen waren nicht interessant, (We as humans were not interesting)

darum blieben wir euch unbekannt (so we remained strangers to you)

Ramaramaramaramadah (amman amman amman amman)

Gastarbeiter (guest workers)

Ramaramaramaramadah (amman amman amman amman)

Gastarbeiter (guest workers)

Es wurden Arbeiter gerufen, 

doch es kamen Menschen an (Laborers were called, humans came)

By Way of a Conclusion

Die Kanaken The only Turkish song in the album Die Kanaken was adapted from the Nazım Hikmet poem Çok Yorgunum [I Am So Tired]. On the special request of Cem Karaca, all of the lyrics were printed in both languages. Several songs from the album were used in the album Merhaba Gençler released after his return to Turkey, but the modified sound lacks the same bite. Merhaba Gençler is the album he uses it but the sound is different and it does not give the same feel. 

After Cem Karaca, Die Kanaken continued for a while. On the right side in the back is Ozan Ata Canani, 1988 © Fehiman Uğurdemir

Nedim Bora, frontman of Yarınistan who resided in Cologne at the time, relays that Karaca was one of the few people in that era who spoke the same language as he did. They lived two tram stops apart. As Münir Tireli’s book attests through news items and witnesses to the era, inasmuch that the arrival of his mother to his side somewhat boosted his mood, Karaca was quite lonely in Germany and dreamed of returning to his homeland. Die Kanaken, prepared in spite of all these difficulties, indicates a musical peak.

In the words of Ercan Demirel, who believes that Karaca never again quite reached the musical heights he aspired to after his return to Turkey:

“With his Die Kanaken, Karaca began burning as a lone flame in ‘80s Germany.”

[1] Tireli, Münir, Cem Karaca ve Die Kanaken, Atlas Yayınları, Ekim 2016, s. 71. 

[2] Tireli, Münir, Cem Karaca ve Die Kanaken, Atlas Yayınları, Ekim 2016, s. 15.

This piece is written in the framework of #60JahreMusik project financed by Berlin Yunus Emre Institute.

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