Insanlar: The Sound of Being Human

Back in 2017, Turkish group Insanlar was added to our festival line-up at such a last minute that we never got to feature them on our magazine. Fresh off the release of Demedim Mi, their newest LP on Rush Hour, they were back in Amsterdam in May to play at De School. Our resident Luca Bruls (Lulu), who works on interviews for our Mix Series, and who’s always shown a special interest in the Middle East due to her background in cultural anthropology and Arabic language and culture, was naturally the best person to orchestrate a proper introduction to the Istanbul-based techno-folk band! Below, an in-depth interview with members DJ Baris K and multi-instrumentalist Cem Yıldız.

Your latest release is titled Demedim Mi, what does this title mean?

Baris: The original poem (which is not used in this version) is an allegory of a failed dervish from the Sufi community. It appeared in early Anatolian literature, though some historians claim it dates back further to the Roman period. As it was written with a shamanic, esoteric, humanistic and protest-rebellious attitude, I believe it’s fitting in these times of humanity and the territorial chaos we’re living in. Ideas born dead, broken hearts, separations, desperate love and disaster.

Cem: Yiyemezsin Demedim Mi is an old traditional Türkü (Turkish folk song) composed by Aşık Daimi. Lyrics belong to Pir Sultan Abdal. We stayed true to the name of the poem and used that too for our title. It’s more cultural than personal.

The new album excludes lyrics, but I understand this was not initially the plan? Can you explain why this is?

Baris: Well, Cem and I are quite busy with solo projects so it was a conscious choice to keep it small and manageable as a side project that’s exclusive to the stage, rather than making records sounding similar to each other. We didn’t spend time in the studio or rehearse any song or structures. One day Cem visited me with his bağlama. I had been working with my newly installed modular system for some time so I just plugged him in and hit ‘record’ for a 3-hour session to be split into three parts. There was just one problem: it was going so well that it didn’t occur to me to connect a microphone too.

Cem: To be honest, we didn’t plan on having lyrics for Kime Ne either; we improvised on this one as well, and this time we came up with an instrumental.

How long did it take to record the album?

Baris: Four hours in a single take, then I tweaked it a little afterwards.

Cem: Demedim Mi came out after a short session with Baris. I was visiting him and we simply did a 4-hour pre-rehearsal.

Your music is a fusion of acoustic with electronic instruments such as sequencers, synths, drum machines and midi interfaces. What inspired you to work with this combination of sounds?

Cem: I belong to the Alevi tribe where music played a huge role in our culture, that’s why I can say I have been born into music. The main instrument in Alevi music is the bağlama. I play other stringed instruments too and am quite proficient in percussive instruments. I’ve studied a lot in the traditional music context, then began looking for a different sound. At the start of the 2000s, we started a band called Orient Expressions. It was around this time that I acquired an interest in electronic music and sounds.

Baris: We designed a revival festival called AnaPop for elder Turkish Psych bands and it had been ages since some of them performed. The legendary disko-folk band Derdiyoklar was one of them. There were issues with older members of the original band so to make up for that, we decided to form a band by bringing together fellow musicians from our network in MiniMüzikhol club. The first few performances of Insanlar were under the name Evdeyoklar (Mini Bashekim, Cem Yildiz, Ayyuka, Kabus Kerim, Siya Siyabend and myself), playing behind Derdiyoklar. That went well so we decided to go with the flow, taking on the name Insanlar (the people).

Evdeyoklar was more of a rock-band formation so instead of repeating something which is already out there, I decided to add a more contemporary twist since Cem also doesn’t play his instrument traditionally. He uses a lot of modulations and effects not done in the traditional bağlama / saz world. His improvisation technique, harmonical structures and vocal melodies don’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. I believe he took the instrument from a local, common level to a modern, global level.

How do you balance the two different elements in your music?

Baris: We aren’t formulating any structures. Each one of us has total freedom in what we do. For my part in this project I try to create eternal soundscapes where Cem can tell his stories. And since we’re producing sounds with different frequencies, the balance comes from within.

Cem: For me, presentation of the music is more important than genres. Istanbul, where I live, and all the sounds echoing throughout the city from the wind to the ezan (Also known as adhan: Islamic call to worship) are my main inspirations. That’s why I make use of all kinds of sounds in telling my story.

Why was Rush Hour Music your label of choice for this album?

Baris: I’m a big fan of the Amsterdam sound. It’s always very ravey, with a 90s hardware, Detroit-Chicago tech sound and with a nice blend of tribal music from all over the world. In my opinion Amsterdam is the New Chicago. Also, there’s a trust that comes with an establishment having been around for 20 years. It’s such a pleasure to be a part of it. On top of everything I have intimate feelings about Holland since my first-ever independent international booking was a DJing gig from Rotterdam in 2007. I played alongside Tako at Afrobot’s party.

In May you played at Amsterdam’s famous nightclub De School. How does a space shape your performance?

Baris: Places with a good atmosphere always bring out great energy and fun. I think De School is one of the best ‘clubs’ in the world. But it’s more about the scene that fills the club rather than the club itself. I’ve played some really nice clubs with little interactions from people and then there were others where we had the best time even though we played on a terrible sound system with poor soundcheck capabilities, broken monitors and missing equipment.

Cem: The venue and the sound system are important for the performance but the inclusion of the listener and their reaction to the music is for me of the utmost importance.

Having performed in various European countries, do you think European audiences interpret your music differently to people of a Turkish (bi-)cultural background?

Baris: I find it similar as both scenes were foreign to Turkish folk sounds. Turkish psyche was also newly re-discovered and there has been a revival in the last 10 years so it goes simultaneously in and out of fashion. In both scenes there are people who appreciate it and people who like to keep electronic music, electronic.

Cem: Our music is well outside the familiar categories of music, the listeners reaction doesn’t get shaped by an East–West dichotomy. Frankly, I find the reaction and focus of the European listeners very motivating. They listen to it with respect, and this affects our on-stage performance.

It is also stated that you use influences from Alevism, a syncretic Islamic tradition. For the laypeople, could you briefly explain what their mystical teachings adhere to?

Cem: In Alevism, the basis is human itself. It is said that, if there is one thing to worship and bow to, it’s the humans that God created.

Baris: Half of the Pre-Ottoman Turkic tribes were the Yörüks who adopted Sunni Islam, and the other half were Turkmen tribes who adopted Alevi Islam. The Alevi sects were closed-off communities, who under the guise of Islamic symbolism, blended religious elements of Zen Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, shamanism and paganism. Alevi sects and their ancestors were the first modern resources of the esoterism we find in Europe today. When the Crusaders arrived in what is now called the Middle-East and encountered those brotherhood-like esoteric sects, they copied elements of its symbolism, mythology and philosophy and imported it to Europe. These elements can for example be traced in Renaissance art.

Where does your drive to use influences of Alevism come from?

Cem: Coming from an Alevi family, and having grown up in this part of the world, reflection of this culture in my music is inevitable.

Baris: I’m not from the Alevi tribe personally but I was a member of two black metal bands in the 90s then later studied archaeology, so I’m also familiar and interested in ancient philosophies, history, cults, cultures and their relations. I also believe the Alevi have one of the most peaceful, humanitarian and ecological cultures existing on this earth. They value women and freedom way above today’s world standards. And then there’s their powerful but simple folk poetry combined with touching melodies; it’s hard to resist the whole concept.

Do you aspire to translate a form of spirituality to your audience or is it solely personal? 

Cem: It is partially personal, I am translating my spirituality via music.

Baris: It’s totally a personal experience. Our music doesn’t show any direction. It’s simply taking a picture of society. I’ll answer your question with an example. For our first record I contacted the most respected publishing company in Istanbul and they got me their best poetry translator. I had wanted a translation of the poem in the song for the record sleeve but his answer was “I could write you a book about this poem but I don’t think it’s possible to translate it unless someone with a strong knowledge of Western history, literature and poetry comes out and rewrites it as a different poem, adapted to Western cultural points, but then it would be a different poem.”

Your music is entrenched in improvisation. How did you develop this style?

Cem: Improvisation and storytelling are both very important aspects of traditional music.

Baris: On my side, it took me 4-5 years to gain a better understanding of how machines work on their own and with each other. Now I use a combination of samplers, sequencers, analog and digital synthesizers, analog and digital modular systems and a lot of small gadgets. I’m heavily influenced by the improvisation techniques of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. I designed an Octet robot orchestra where each robot plays improvisationally under given circumstances. So most of the time when that music comes out, I’m hearing it for the first time too! But I still play the main bassline and some other instruments manually just so I can keep a punk-rock-jazz band feeling, which also gives me the freedom to improvise and host/direct Cem’s parts.

The three of you met in Istanbul at Minimüzikhol. How would you describe this place?

Baris: It used to be kind of a cooperative club with nine partners and 26 official workers; that was a lot of people for such a small place. But it was also the descendant of Godet, our older club which started in 1997 and was the first-ever European/German techno, minimal house club in Istanbul back when all the clubs were into Detroit and Chicago House. So it’s a non-stop lineage and the latest of our projects. It is a lively home club for young music lovers.

Cem: There I feel free, as if I’m right at home.

Is the music created in this space and the network it is embedded in noticed by mainstream Turkey?

Baris: Well not exactly. We’re not making mainstream music. It might be noticed globally but it’s still underground.

Turkey currently faces economic instability and violence. How can one deal with these hardships artistically?

Cem: Psychological hardships affect me more than the economic instability. Personally I spend more time with my instrument and produce more to cope with it.

Baris: I deal with these hardships like any global citizen. Like citizens from Western countries, who stay silent while their local governments invade other countries for oil, kill millions of innocent people and de-populize whole areas. The difference between Western and Eastern countries is that Western countries are more professional at hiding their corruption and mastering fake news. Western citizens believe they live in humanitarian democracies. For me, this is how capitalism works. Conclusively, the best way to deal with this system is to ignore what governments do.

Thanks, Cem and Baris!