Even the name of the Gurbette Esenyeller trio, meaning the Winds of Gurbet, suffices to explain their position. Two brothers from a family who migrated to Germany in the 70’s to work played at a wedding for the first time in 1983, accompanied by a friend. Comprised today of Hüseyin Sarıcı, Onur Olgun and Ender Sarıcı, Gurbette Esenyeller got together with us on a holiday in a video call, and we discussed their story starting with that first wedding to span nearly four decades, their music encompassing both authentic folk music and disco folk, and what weddings mean to the estranged and homesick.
Translated to English by Zeynep Beler.
We encountered the trio of Gurbette Esenyeller thanks to the legendary wedding footage that you can see here. It’s 1987 and an electric guitarist and electric bağlama player shred their instruments and synchronously dance the halay in blue silk salwars, while a drummer accompanies them enthusiastically in the background.
The brothers Onur and Hüseyin, sons of a family who migrated to Germany in the 70’s for work, played a wedding for the first time in 1983 after teaming up with their friend Sabri Yumrutepe. They continued with Sabri up until the birth of Ender, or Endi as the other members refer to him, in 1987. Then “Sabri was involved in an elopement incident” and left the band. Their third brother, İsmail Sarıcı, joined the band instead and stayed until ’99. Nowadays, the band’s third member is Onur’s son, Ender.
“Weddings Were the First Step Towards Settling in Germany for Good”
For those who migrated to Germany in the 70’s seeking work, weddings were at the heart of recreation and socializing. The elder of the brothers, Hüseyin, joined the family in Germany 1977, and Onur in 1980.
Hüseyin Sarıcı tells us:
“The same way young people today go to clubs, the young people of the day would meet up and go to the wedding of someone they didn’t even know. They would sit in the corner and watch the dancers, hoping to maybe steal the heart of a young woman. I don’t remember there being any cake or dinner at my first weddings, just zurna and drums. Weddings were the first step towards settling in Germany for good. It was a time for dreams of, ‘We’re here now, our children may as well be born here, be raised here, have their own families here.’
We Came to Germany with Our Bağlamas on Our Backs
Onur adds: “There was a deficit in the market for artists to play at the weddings of workers, which is where we came in, really. We also came to Germany as a family of workers with our bağlamas on our backs. It’s actually pretty common. You take your bağlama, go to gurbet, and try to learn to play it in the one-room flat you arrive in. My parents would be going to work the next day and I would want to practice bağlama but ended up practicing in the bathroom because there was no room.”
A Note Is a Note
The brothers wished to learn to play and read music but there was no bağlama school they could attend. Their elders advised them to attend German music schools. “Guitar or organ, a note is a note - don’t worry,” they were told. They had a rough time, naturally, and were also less than taken by the pop music showcased by their music instructors, the melodies of German Schlager music . However, it wouldn’t be their last time in a classroom. Ultimately, they began taking saz lessons at the Turkish Youth and Workers Association. Here, the method of teaching was not via sheet music but by numbering the digits of the instructees. Thanks to their talent and ambition, they had conquered the saz within a year.
With 900 Marks given to them by their father, they bought a drum kit and sound equipment from Stuttgart’s notable music store Radio Barth. So was the foundation laid for Gurbette Esenyeller, in the basement of their home, with their close friend Sabri. Onur explains that although he played saz and sang at first, he was ashamed of not knowing how to read music, and eventually completed his music education with an instructor from the state conservatory in Turkey.
“Disco folk”, which the band describes as “Turkish folk music meets the drums”, was the generic style among musicians who made folk music in Germany.
Under the influence of a transforming, reforming music market as a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a more modern, more ubiquitous and Europe-facing understanding of music had begun to emerge. “You can’t talk of disco folk and wedding musicianship without mentioning Derdiyoklar Ali. Derdiyoklar Ali, dear Ali who is like an older brother to me, is a trailblazer on that front. He made the bağlama into a guitar. Playing standing up, the insouciant addition of folk dance rhythms, halay, all that lively music - it captivated us completely. As it was, our formation coincided with ’83; we played our first wedding in ’83. We never imagined we could keep it up. But lo and behold, we found ourselves playing weddings every week, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Our friends were also surprised. The weddings we played weren’t where we resided. You know how it is, back in his own village, Âşık Veysel was known as Veysel the Blind. It was the same with us. We started playing in cities further away from our own and to be known as Gurbette Esenyeller,” Onur says.
“In those first years, a comprehension of how to do a wedding on gurbet had not fully formed. Each person had to keep their social and material means in mind as they organized simple and, in a way, improvised weddings,” says Hüseyin, and laments the lack of courtesy extended to the musicians in today’s weddings in spite of the relative gaudiness and extravagance: “The bride and groom take a helicopter to the venue but unfortunately don’t extend the same care to the wedding musicians who will be making an effort for hours on end for their most special day. In the years we got our start, musicians were highly regarded and it was important to pick quality musicians.”
Gurbette Esenyeller themselves opened for notable musicians from Turkey such as Belkıs Akkale, Coşkun Sabah, and Ferdi Tayfur. Now, however, rather than salwars and vests, they donned “modern costumes” featuring denim or dress pants, as the “changing music industry” plunged them into a quest. They began expounding on “the folk music suffused with Anatolian culture in a manner that was open and authentic to European culture as well”. Between 1968-87, having made the acquaintance of activist musician Ahmet Kaya, they began performing his songs as well, which became “another aspect that set them apart”.
Not Unkapanı But Kurtkapanı
They describe how around that time, a “tape-recording craze” had taken over the wedding musicians of their generation. Hüseyin adds, “For the most part, German Turks can take credit for the music market Unkapanı being informally dubbed Kurtkapanı [Wolves’ Nest]. We also ended up there at some point in 1987 to record our first album. We were deceived, unfortunately, and the album didn’t come out. The whole ordeal dragged on and it finally surfaced in 1988.” The songs included in the album were compiled from the folk songs of their own village. The album took its name from a folk song titled Lemişo. Later, most of the songs on the album were performed by other artists. Lemişo, for example, was covered by Mustafa Özarslan, whereas the unmetered folk song Yarim Mendilin Ucunu was covered by Musa Eroğlu, with whom they had also worked on the album. Following the album, Onur Olgun released several solo albums.
A Notes Is A Note But The Style Is Different
Onur’s son, Ender, also began learning music at an early age with violin, before completing his music education and then higher education with guitar and bass guitar respectively. Ender now teaches guitar at a music school. He also takes the stage with Gurbette Esenyeller at weddings as their third member as well as with a German band, Main Project, at German weddings.
In the words of Ender: “I feel like the main difference between Turkish music and western music is in the way the notes are expressed. The harmony and rhythm are similar - you know how my father and his friends were told, ‘A note is a note, don’t worry about it’? Whereas in our folk music, it’s important for lyrics to have depth and meaning, the lyrics in jazz must have no such depth, only beauty. So when I play with German bands, a note may be a note but the songs gain a different quality due to my way of expressing the notes. For example, I played saz for a pianist friend of mine one day who was curious. He wanted to play on the piano the same notes and chords that I’d played. Of course, the way a Turk plays those chords is so different from the way a German does! Playing style and emotion makes all the difference.”
With the same energy and enthusiasm, the trio of Gurbette Esenyeller are presently still making the soundtrack for couples’ “happiest day”s. They have witnessed the inception of the gurbet wedding tradition as well as the transformation of gurbet into homeland. Meanwhile, the culture passed on from father to son resonates in completely novel tones in today’s German weddings.
 German pop music. Among its performers, Austria’s Udo Jürgens and Germany’s Pop Queen Helena Fischer are arguably the best examples.
This piece is written in the framework of #60JahreMusik project financed by Berlin Yunus Emre Institute.