Turkish Future Past

Aşk, by Altin Gün

There are far worse things than sounding like a B-movie soundtrack from the 1970s. But when you combine that aesthetic with excellent musicianship and a willingness to experiment, the results are bound to bring pleasure.

National metaphor. Post-earthquake Iskenderun, March 2023.

And Altin Gün, the best Turkish band from the Netherlands, does just that.

Their album Aşk revisits the territory they staked out on their debut record On, the sprawling psychedelia of their retro Anatolian rock.

As the band’s liner notes point out, instead of the synth-forward pop of their pandemic releases Yol and Âlem, full of nods to dancefloor hits from the early 1980s, Aşk once again prioritises the analog instruments popular a decade earlier.

This will be welcome news to longtime fans, who feared the band was turning away from stoner jams.

As bassist Jasper Verhuist has noted, Altin Gün wanted to capture the feel of their live shows, reminding us why it’s worth trying hard to see them on their upcoming international tour.

To my ears, Aşk sounds like a synthetic work, smoothly integrating elements from all their previous records.

While the opening track “Badi Sabah Olamdan” and standout “Çit Çit Çedene” bring the funk and “Kalik Gidelim” foregrounds the twangy rubber-band sound of the Bağlama, the traditional long-necked Turkish lute, closing number “Doctor Civanim” sounds like “Get Lucky”, Daft Punk’s wildly successful collaboration with Nile Rodgers.

In other words, Altin Gün is doubling down on their already top-notch approach to musical nostalgia, finding a way to evoke distinct historical periods without being confined by their aesthetic and political constraints.

Like their previous releases, Aşk communicates deep longing for a past that feels increasingly distant because it is. Even before the pace of technological and social change picked up, a half-century was a long time.

Altin Gün revels in nostalgia. But in ways that defy the criticisms typically levied against culture that prefers the past to the present.

That’s because the band deftly navigates both temporal and spatial displacement. Even though they are very popular in Turkey, they are still a Dutch band. And the periods their music evokes have connotations that no amount of research can fully comprehend.

To have lived in Turkey under military rule after the military coups of 1971 and 1980 – or the chaos that preceded them –inflicted the kind of trauma that secondhand reports are incapable of communicating.

Even for the band’s Turkish members, Erdinç Ecevit Yıldız and Merve Daşdemi, returning to the popular music of that era does not come with the psychological burdens that their parents’ generation contends with. And it is even more decontextualised for the members of Altin Gün who have no personal ties with Turkey.

Yet the preference for music from those tumultuous years cannot be reduced to a purely aesthetic decision.

As Turkey has become less free over the past decade, particularly following the failed military coup to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016, obliquely referencing previous “clampdowns” is one of the few ways to dissent in public without fearing immediate repercussions.

Although Erdoğan was part of the conservative youth movement growing up, vehemently opposed to leftist activists and suspicious of the military’s longstanding commitment to secularism, he also came of age during the early 1970s and seems to be nostalgic for certain aspects of that time in Turkey.

Maybe that’s why Altin Gün has managed to draw big crowds in the country without running afoul of the state.

It must be emphasised that the nostalgia conveyed by Aşk is extremely complex.

While it might seem strange for a band that released its first album in 2018 to want to return to the approach of its early days, the ways in which the pandemic impacted touring musicians have almost made the time before the lockdowns feel like a Golden Age.

Additionally, Aşk conveys nostalgia for the kind of throwback culture that was thriving before the advent of mass streaming.

There was a time when finding an obscure fusion record from the 1970s was a cause for celebration. UK labels like Finders Keepers found a way to turn this kind of research into a delightfully heterogeneous pop antiquarianism through reissuing Anatolian rock classics such as Ersen’s 1975 self-titled LP and Selda Bağcan’s 1976 breakthrough, Selda, in the early 00s.

Altin Gün formed because Verhuist had fallen in love with East-meets-West Turkish music of the 1970s and advertised that he was looking for people of Turkish descent to collaborate with. In a way, Aşk is nostalgic for the before time, when the band’s project was still just a brainstorm.

The more I listen to Altin Gün’s new album, the more it strikes me as a hall of mirrors, one in which we see fantasies within fantasies. Determining how authentic they are is beside the point.

Indeed, though some people have charged Altin Gün with cultural appropriation, it’s clear that they are self-reflexive to a degree that Western musicians of the classic rock era rarely achieved.

At least Altin Gün acknowledges their sources, whether in Turkish folk music or its 1970s offshoots. A cover that presents itself as a cover is a lot more honest than one which pretends to be original.

As Turkey prepares for elections following its worst earthquakes since the 16th century, Aşk’s backwards glance couldn’t be more timely.

This nostalgia is about a lack of progress as much as it is a recollection of an oppositional idiom from the past.

Photograph courtesy of Thomas Hackl. Published under a Creative Commons license.