Transcending borders and sweeping geographies throughout the ‘90s, Turkish pop had also amassed an audience in Germany. It managed to open up a niche for itself in ‘90s Germany that was taken over by techno, and discotheques in which teens danced to pop rhythms imported from Turkey popped up all over the country. This musical wind blew both ways: while Turkish pop had begun echoing through Germany, after the success of German-born Tarkan, other young people of Turkish descent living in Germany, such as Rafet El Roman, began seeking pop stardom in Turkey. We listen to the story of this explosion from the mouth of Daniel Bax, music journalist and pop critic who in those days had his finger on the pulse of Turkish pop in Germany.
Interview by Sedef İlgiç and Nazlı Sağdıç Pilcz
Text by Sedef İlgiç
Edited by Nükhet Polat
Translated to English by Zeynep Beler
Special thanks to istanbulberlin interns Işıl İlker and Görkem Gölbaşı for their research assistance.
Cover visual: tarkan.com © Sedat Mehder
Born in Brazil, Daniel Bax moved to the south of Germany in childhood and then to Berlin in 1985. Thanks to Berlin’s cosmopolitan makeup, he made many friends from different cultures, those of Turkish descent naturally also among them. He visited Turkey in the early ‘90s, “when everyone was listening to Tarkan or Sezen Aksu… And then this whole Turkish pop thing developed, before there was Arabesque. Quite soon this spilled over to teenagers in Germany.”
On returning to Germany he decided he wanted to write about Turkish pop. “I really fell in love with Turkish music and all its different kinds. And I was fascinated by the Turkish pop explosion at that time because for me it also showed a certain generational shift. I wanted to write about it, but it was quite unusual.” No mention of Turkish pop was being made in the mainstream German press world as of yet.
The Parallel Universe of Discotheques
Meanwhile discotheques had begun opening up where teens could dance to Turkish pop.
The first club was in Hardenbergstrasse in the distict of Charlottenburg, it was called ‘Hadigari’. At one time there were, I think, three to five clubs. Because if a person is successful in business, others will start to copy it. So this is what happened in the ‘90s with Turkish clubs, until there were too many clubs. But there was this atmosphere that something new was happening.
Though there were other prevalent genres, techno unequivocally was ruled them all in Germany around that time. “But this Turkish pop was a thing on its own. And it was really a parallel universe, because in these clubs, you would see that 90% of the people had a Turkish background. So young people, children of the so-called guest worker generation.” The concept of fun, however, had developed differently than in Turkey. The lines were much more blurred in Germany: “I know people who came from Turkey to Germany were shocked to see people dance the halay in a discotheque.”
During this period, Tarkan and Sezen Aksu gave concerts in Germany and the dream of becoming a pop star in Turkey began taking over the imaginations of teens in Germany. Though Can Kat did not gain huge popularity, Rafet El Roman was one performer with German citizenship that made it in Turkey.
Tarkan Was Like Elvis Presley in Turkey
Tarkan was born in 1972 to a working class family in Alzey, a city near Frankfurt, Germany. When recalling his childhood in his early interviews, he mentions the sunless and dark mornings and the pervasive sense that he was torn between two cultures. Tarkan, who states that he is proud to be the child of a guest worker family in Germany, later on moved to Turkey with his family, in 1986.
“I would say Tarkan really was like Elvis Presley or The Beatles in Turkey because he was completely new. I mean, he had an earring and his lyrics were just a bit cheesy. What did he do? He just shook his pelvis a little bit and he had his hair slicked to the back. Nothing special, you would say today. But at that time it was a revolution.”
According to Daniel, Tarkan - whom he also interviewed a few times - did everything he could to achieve international success. “He went to New York, and even released an album in English. And of course, he's also profited a little bit off the fact that he was born in Germany.”
Each Music Revolution Also Comes With a Media Revolution
Until the ‘80s, Germany had but one channel, that of the state. “Each music revolution also comes with a media revolution,” says Daniel. Though some efforts were made to include alternative content in mainstream German media, such as inviting Barış Manço to a German talk show, they were merely “windows opening into Germany that showed that there was more than just the mainstream”.
The ‘90s saw the emergence of music channels such as Viva and MTV Germany, but they too merely attempted to appear international. Though they demonstrated more variety than German Tv channels, “it took some time before somebody with a Turkish background became a presenter of a music show because there was racism and there was prejudice also.”
Things appeared more hopeful in regards to radio stations. Metropol FM, Cosmo Radio and Radio Multikulti had started broadcasting. These channels were unique in that at the time the state monopoly over mainstream media drew to a close, they brought new voices to radio and consequently to the pop music stage.
Cosmo Radio was the first station on which guest workers, immigrants and minorities could listen to content in their native languages. Through Turkish broadcasts that took place several hours every week, immigrants in Germany could keep up with both the agenda and the music and culture in Turkey. Metropol FM, on the other hand, reserved a significant place in the history of this cultural exchange as it was the first radio station that broadcast entirely in Turkish.
Daniel, whose wife worked at Radio Multiculti, tells us that they were “multicultural and diversity-oriented.” They tried to give airtime to all kinds of music. “I mean, this kind of music mix, you can call it world music, you can call it a global pop. Now, Cosmo plays pop from all over the world. But of course, it somehow has to fit inside a certain line.”
At that time, however, Turkish pop struggled to find a place on other stations because it was not included within the world music genre. “Turkish pop is Turkish pop, and world music is a mix of different genres and is also hard to define. But it's just a commercial kind of brand, so to speak. So these stations, they also played some Turkish pop. They played Sezen sometimes and Tarkan other times, but they also always had to look.”
Years later, Muhabbet came onto the scene combining R&B and Arabesque with German lyrics, but failed to make a wide impact in spite of its boundary-pushing potential. In hindsight, the most prominent actor in uniting the two parallel universes still appears to be Tarkan. When no one else came forward to ride the momentum, Turkish pop remained confined to its own bubble within the annals of German music.
This piece is written in the framework of #60JahreMusik project financed by Berlin Yunus Emre Institute.