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Popular Culture and Arabesque Music in Turkey

Meral Ozbek

The so-called ‘arabesque’ music in Turkey has been the most popular musical genre since late 1960s. Although the founder and still the ‘king’ of this genre is a middle-class, self-taught musician Orhan Gencebay, its first consumers were the people of the ‘gecekondu’ (literally, built-up over night), that is the rural migrants of the squatter settlements around the big cities who worked mostly in the informal sector. The consuming public has thereafter expanded to include the rural and middle class people, and also a fraction of the new economic and ruling classes of the 1980s. The musical genre has diffused so much that arabesque began to be considered a trans-class taste and people have also come to accept the arabesque with its "neither Eastern nor Western" quality has become a way of life.

Arabesque music is very melodic and emotional. The main theme of the lyrics has always been ‘love’. Every other theme, especially in the early lyrics, melts into and speaks through the authority of love. The early lyrics are usually made up of ‘traditional’ concepts but the articulation of the words and the sound of the music reveals an overall meaning as an invention of tradition, with connotations able to be articulated to a popular discontent referring to a mode of living at the corners of an urban environment. Still, the abstractness of the language and the fact that no directly concrete daily problems related to the life around the big cities are mentioned in the lyrics need be explained. The musical structure of arabesque is hybrid, blending both Turkish Classical and Folklore music’s rhythms, modes, forms and instruments and popular Western rhythms, instruments and scoring system for individual instruments. Although the music is homophonic, attempts are made to render it polyphonic. And since the end of the 1960s the genre has undergone change, given birth to many versions, differentiated as it got more popular and thus reproduced itself with different audiences, as the music industry developed and social relations and people changed. In time, especially in the 1980s, it became more of a medium of entertainment, football game’s musical slogans and political campaign songs, while it also produced its so-called ‘revolutionary arabesque’ and ‘Islamic arabesque’ versions. Arabesque music influenced other popular musical genres too, that is classical Turkish music, folkloric music, pop music which are also officially permitted on the state TV, especially with its melodic patterns, rhythmic emphasis and performance of the instruments and the singer.

The diffusion of arabesque music has for almost 20 years been primarily by the cassette-industry, music halls, taxi’s (through cassette-recorder and the police-radio) and street peddlers, since its transmission from the state-controlled TV and radio was prohibited. Arabesque music’s some leading singers had shown on a couple of New Year nights entertainment programmes and films of some of the leading names had been shown on the TV since the end of the 1970s and the viability of its prohibition began to be discussed at the state level at the end of 1980s. There was no solution to the discussion except for an attempt to ameliorate arabesque officially beginning by a production of a ‘nongrieved/griefless’ arabesque songs which did not succeed. So it was the ‘illegally legal’ private TV Star-1 which first opened its screens widely to arabesque in 1992 with the motto "people want it".

The bureaucrats and intellectuals of diverse political inclinations in Turkey have shared the opinion that arabesque is tasteless and grieved and reflect the alienation of the new urban migrant citizens who brought the village with them to the big cities degrading the city (esp. Istanbul). "A music of alienation" is the major concept coined to arabesque in the Encyclopaedia of Music. The left in general emphasized that arabesque is traditional (backward), preaches fatalism, suffering, suitable for manipulation and does not embody any protest; it is at most ‘the opium of the masses’. The Turkish Classical and Folklore musicians condemned it for corrupting classical forms due to the both Arabic and Western influences. As a matter of fact, the word ‘arabesque’ has carried a negative connotation from the beginning and its meaning grew like a snowball with each new connotation. The word was first coined in the 1960s to mean that the new music was an imitation of arabic music due to the infusion of the Egyptian melodic nuances and the style of the string performance. Then the word came to be used as an adjective to name almost everything and every aspect of social life considered to be degraded, which really meant matching neither with ‘traditional’ nor ‘modern’ forms (arabesque democracy, economy, people, situation, taste, feelings, way of thinking and living). But after the 1983s it also gained a negative political connotation. This is because although the majority of ‘gecekondu’ people had voted for (a populist) social democracy between the years 1969 and 1977 (and the ‘gecekondu’s had built up in some areas left militancy in the late 1970s), in the first elections after the 1980 military coup majority of them voted for the neo-liberal ANAP. And though the prohibition of arabesk on the state TV continued till the competition created by the private TVs forced it to change itself, the new ruling elite (most notably the then prime minister of the ruling ANAP) liked versions of arabesque music and used it in their election campaigns.

I have serious objections to the mainstream conceptualization of arabesque and argue against its basic assumptions by trying to explain the complexity of arabesque formation and its historical transformation from a critical perspective. The arguments raised are against what the mainstream assumes: the social significance of popular songs can be understood only by analyzing its lyrics and only with reference to the alleged ‘alienated’ characteristics of its consumers; ‘degradation’ is a suitable ‘scientific’ concept to explain and understand the rich complexity of the concrete processes or forms; and only the educated and the elite can create Culture. It assumes cultural forms must be pure in national-ethnic sense and that there is a natural correspondence between tastes, political choices and social positions, that cultural forms and forms of practical consciousness are unified totalities with no contradiction and complexity, that popular culture is a product of total manipulation and arabesque culture is fatal preaching only suffering. The mainstream states that the articulation of arabesque into the 1980s dominant ideology can be explained by its already segregation and openness to manipulation, and that arabesque culture or any other aspect of social life in Turkey can be analyzed by a framework based on a traditional-modern duality derived from the Modernization Theory — although modernization as a Westernization process in Turkey with its mono-cultural politics has a lot to do with the formation of arabesque music as a resistance. The implication of all these assumptions is the pessimistic implication that arabesque-loving people are already lost for any emancipatory ideological/political struggle or the commanding implication of the necessity of ‘manipulative’ education or the too optimistic/simple implication that economic development will eventually restore everything.


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