The Golden Microphone: Raising the Bar of Turkish Rock

For a long time I have been fascinated by Turkish psychedelic and rock music. The first time I heard the music of Barış Manço, Cem Karaca, Moğollar and Erkin Koray, the expressive, melancholic vocals played against funky basslines, spirited percussion and fuzzy guitars, accompanied by traditional Turkish instruments such as the bağlama or the zurna, were a marriage that sounded very organic to my ears. Also known as Anadolu rock, or Anatolian rock, this music appeared to be the lovechild of Turkey’s rich musical heritage and the global explosion of pop music of the late 50s. The elements of a pop song fused with Turkish folk melodies and instrumentation – that’s Anatolian rock in a nutshell.

Or so I thought. Until I started digging deeper into Turkish pop music and subsequently discovered that this combination was largely unknown within the Turkish musical landscape till the late 60s. I was even more surprised to learn that a nationwide band competition was one of the main factors that fueled the growth of Anatolian rock music.

Before Anatolian rock dominated Turkey’s music scene from the late 60s to mid-70s, the Turkish charts were crowded with covers of American or European bands. Songs from the Beatles, Charles Aznavour and artists from Mediterranean countries were simply rearranged and the lyrics translated to Turkish. Occasionally, songs would even be sung in English or French. Some early works of Barış Manço, one of the figureheads of Anatolian rock, were recorded mainly in English and French while he was studying and touring in Europe.

By the mid-60s things were changing. More and more artists were embracing influences from traditional Turkish genres and set about composing their own songs, adapting Turkish music traditions to the Western rock format, though they were still a minority at the time.

The Altın Mikrofon (Golden Microphone) competition was the vehicle that would give aspiring artists of this new genre a nationwide audience. The contest was a talent show organized by Hürriyet, Turkey’s most-read newspaper at the time. Recognizing the potential presented by an emerging home-grown market split between two distinct groups – either Western songs with Turkish lyrics or traditional folk music played with Western instruments –  the organizers were keen to foster new directions in contemporary Turkish music through the provision of a platform. The winners of each contest were awarded the opportunity to record the winning song as a single, profits from record sales, and performances at a famous venue in Istanbul.

The first contest was held in 1965 and attracted more than 70 artists and bands. Backed by the promotional power of the newspaper, the participants went on to achieve nationwide fame. Cem Karaca, one of the most prominent figures of Turkish psychedelic and rock music, was one of 10 acts who had reached the finals that year, from a pool of 78 competing artists. Later editions of the contest produced similar success stories that include artists such as Cahit Oben, Mavi Işıklar Moğollar, Ferdi Özbeğen and Erkin Koray.

Altın Mikrofon thus played a crucial role in the birth of Anatolian rock music. Beyond serving as a stepping stone for budding Turkish artists of the time, the institution was also an absolute goldmine of beautiful, weird and experimental songs that explored the possibilities of fusing Turkish folk melodies with music styles and techniques of the West.

Here is my selection of the best songs that participated in the Altın Mikrofon contest from 1965 until 1968 – some are well-known pieces; others are almost off the map, but nevertheless beautiful relics of the Golden Microphone years.

Yabancılar – “Ağıt”

This dark and very slow psychedelic song from the band Yabancılar could easily compete with the gloom and doom of The Velvet Underground. Ascending and descending vocal harmonies, haunting organ lines and a slow, draggy beat. This is Yabancılar’s only known (surviving) record, but what a beauty

Erkin Koray  – “Çiçek Dağı”

Famous guitarist and surf rock hero Dick Dale was very much influenced by Middle Eastern music. A perfect example is of course his song “Misirlou”, which has its origins somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Erkin Koray, sometimes dubbed the Turkish Jimmy Hendrix, might in turn be influenced by American guitarists and surf rock, but it just proves that Turkish melodies go extremely well with the upbeat surf rock rhythm. “Çiçek Dağı” is an amazing “surf rock” instrumental with catchy guitar hooks and licks, tremolo picking and a thumping bass. One of Koray’s best instrumentals, and a competing song of the 1968 Altın Mikrofon Contest.

Mavi Işıklar – “Helvaci”

Mavi Işıklar is definitely my favorite Turkish group from the 60s. Where Turkish “surf rock” is concerned, this is the one song that cannot be left out. “Helvacı” is a traditional Turkish song, but Mavi Işıklar added the fast surf rock drums, the piano and the background vocals. A great example how Turkish traditional songs and the foundations of pop and rock music can go hand in hand. “Helvaci” was a runner-up of the 1965 Altın Mikfrofon contest. Pay attention to the video. It shows how much attention and coverage was given to the contest; and the performance of the smartly-suited young guys is just amazing.

Silüetler – “Kaşık Havası”

“Kaşık Havası” is yet another perfect example of fusing Turkish traditional music with Western (surf rock) sound. Tremelo picking, reverb and an organ provide a true surf atmosphere. Except this time it’s not on the shores of the Pacific, but the Mediterranean beaches of Anatolia. “Kaşık Havası” is a traditional Turkish song-and-dance number from the western part of Anatolia. It is in a 9/8 meter (for the musicians among us, counted as 1-2 + 1-2 + 1-2 + 1-2-3). In other words, a great Turkish surf rock track that most non-Turks can’t dance to.

Moğollar – “Ilgaz”

Next, we will slow down with Moğollar’s “Ilgaz”. Moğollar is a famous Turkish act, well-known to record diggers and collectors all over the world. A slow, sad and subdued psychedelic song made of just bass, drums, guitars, vocals and freestyle organ lines.

Haramiler – “Arpa Buğday”

Just as, if not more, psychedelic than the previous song, only way wilder. The thumping bass and drums are joined by an extravagant wah-wah guitar line, culminating in a spaced-out intro melody, before the vocals finally come in.

Mavi Çocuklar – “Tamzara”

Turkish psychedelic garage surf punk? It’s hard to define this winning instrumental that took the gold during the 1967 Altın Mikforon contest. The song is a short tour de force in a fast 9/8 meter full with wild drum fills. The main “theme” or melody of “Tamzara” is alternately played by a distorted guitar, a saxophone, and an organ. A full two minutes of lovely noise.

T.P.A.O. Batman Orkestrası – “Kara Toprak”

Purists and connoisseurs of Turkish folk music might not like this tightly-paced, psychedelic, yet melancholic and soulful version of “Kara Toprak”, one of the most famous songs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cGANgDZPj8) of Aşık Veysel, a singer and poet of an almost monumental stature in Turkey. T.P.A.O. Batman Orkestrası’s version is much, much faster, larded with organ chords, vocal harmonies and a saxophone that counters the melancholic lines of the song in a very soulful, almost jazzy way. A rapid, yet dreamy and psychedelic version of one of Turkey’s most famous folk songs.