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The theme of this essay is Arabesk Music in Turkey. I will talk about how it came along in Turkey; its relations with migration; and its migration to other countries by emigrants.

Confucius (551 B.C.-479 B.C.) mentioned that when anybody visits a new land for the first time, the first thing he/she analyzes to understand the culture of natives should be the music. Analyzing Turkish Arabesk Music with Confucius’ point of view shows that; Arabesk Music in Turkey is a product of the relations of Arabic and Turkish cultures. As Niyazi Berkes mentioned, Egyptian “élites” do not accept that the roots of this genre belong to them; and they also suggest that Arabesk music is a trouble which they had to face with as a result of their relations with Turks (Ergonultas 1979). Also Turkish and foreignerarbiters insist that Arabesk music came to light in Turkey at an era, which Turkish Folk Music and Classical Music banned on the TVs and radios by TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) experts. They stressed that; Arabesk music gained its popularity in Egypt after 1920s, and it started to become known in Turkey by the broadcast of Egyptian radio stations in 1930s and later on by Egyptian movies (Stokes 1989, 1992a). The years I am talking about were the first years of the TurkishRepublic.

Before the foundation of the Republic, Anatolian Turkish people had beencitizens of Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. Ottoman’s music was a new form of Byzantine music which was modified by Farabi; what is more, Turkish classical music and Turkish mystic music took their forms by the effects of Arabian and Persian arts. Republicans were trying to prohibit the effects of the East and achieve the level of Western civilization (Gokalp 1923); so, the government stopped the broadcast of the Turkish music by the advice of Bela Bartok around 1930s and started to broadcast examples of Western Classical Music (Stokes 1989).

Western polyphonic music was a foreigner for Turks, while the Arabic vocal techniques were more similar to Turks’ “own” music, Anatolian folk music (Stokes 1992a, 1992b). Meanwhile, western music had its attractiveness on some of urban élites. As a result of the prohibitions, the villager citizens, who became strangers to the new culture, could not feel sympathy for this music. They started to listen to Egyptian and Lebanon radio stations; and the first examples of Arabesk were given in Turkish by Hafız Burhan. Between the dates of 1930s and 1948, Arabesk seeds started to shoot forth; but Stokes mentions, “Egyptians movies and the performance of Egyptian film music in Arabic were banned Turkey” in 1948 (Stokes 1989).

However, prohibitions were not able to get rid of Arabesk, particularly because it appealed to migrants. Immigration from villages to developedcities also started by an effect of industrialization. The immigration gained speed around 1950s and 1960s; and Istanbul’s population increased more than 8 times between 1960s-1990s[1].

In consequence of the location of industrialized cities in the west regions of Turkey, most of the migrations routes were from east regions to west ones. During the period of wars, east regions of Turkey wereshared by members of occupying forces; and most of the villagers lost their goods which helped them to survive. As a result, villagers started to migrate to advanced cities with the hope of better lives and maybe to stay away from the memories of the war. But what they faced with was not the one what they had hoped for. Fortunately, most of them had better standards of life than the past; but as a result of not having the same qualities (such as education) as the urban population, they could not have the chance to work in jobs with good salary. While they were owners of the lands in their past lives, now they were just laborers. Women had to clean others’ houses, men had to work in buildings under construction and both of them had to work in factories. Because of these strains, broken families became a current issue. Due to the lack of opportunities, some fathers had to migrate alone as a result of not having same chances with others and be far from them for years (Karaman). In short; what they earned was only enough to survive, they were working in dangerous conditions; they were the members of downtrodden class. Above all, Kemal Karpat underlines another problem: “Aside from low income, drab looking houses, the lack of normal city facilities, few squatter towns show any symptoms of social or psychological disintegration, moral depravity and crime[2].” (Stokes 1989)

Migrants had to live far from city center because city life was high-priced; it was hard for them to change their villager life-ways (such as; farming and close relationships) all of a sudden, and also they were being alienated by urbanites, because of being uneducated. Besides, living far from city center brought them another chance. When they built their gecekondus, their settlements built over night, on abandoned lands, they laid the groundwork for their kin’s’ or citizens’ future migration. Incidentally, living close to other migrants was a way to forget about their loneliness or preclude alienation while they were trying to adapt, and they had the chance to continue on their tasra (village) culture (Belge 1990, Stokes 1989). Therefore, the culture of gecekondus came along; and as a result, they felt the need for public transports to get in touch with cities. At this point we can talk about a new culture which is called as “minibus culture”.

Minibuses were working between cities and squatter towns. They represented a new line of work for immigrants which showed up by the need of minibuses (Stokes 1989). Some of the migrants, who could afford a bus, started to work as minibus drivers.

At the point, it is possible to talk about importance of minibuses as carrying agents of Arabesk which gave Arabesk music a new name: “Minibus music”. Even though Arabesk was banned in 1948, it took on a new lease of life after 1960s as a result of the above-mentioned migrations. At first, I want to talk about “minibus culture” to contextualize the Arabesk culture. Not only from the Arabesk movies of the late 1970s [3] but also today’s minibuses, we can see examples of the culture; laceworks are spread around, as well as artificial flowers; also, in Stokes words, “glossy stickers proclaim lines and slogans from recent Arabesk hit songs” (Stokes 1989). These decorations form the visual backdrop to the sound of Orhan Gencebay.

In 1968, Orhan Gencebay recorded his first album “Basa Gelen Cekilir” and this album was accepted as the first example of “minibus music”, which we know as Arabesk Music; but his rising got start with “Bir Teselli Ver[4]” in 1970 (Ergonultas 1979). Gencebay stresses that he is influenced byTurkish Classical Music and Turkish Folk Music while he composes (Cakir and Odabas 2006, Stokes 1992a). In other words, he sees his music as an extension of Turkish music, which is also accepted by élites. Besides Gencebay, another leading figure in Arabesk is Ferdi Tayfur[5]. Gencebay and Tayfur produce under the name of
the same genre; although, Tayfur’s lyrics are sharper than Gencebay’s and his sound includes crying, groaning and pain (Ergonultas 1979). With his rising star, Tayfur’s stile was the beginning of a trend which divided the society as “Arabeskci” (who listen and produce Arabesk) and “élites”. In other words, the vision of Arabesk changed with the effect of Tayfur; and the stressed characteristics of Tayfur’s Arabesk, which are mentioned above, were regarded as strange by élites. In spite of this, the new sound appealed to the migrants who lived under the standards; and as a result, the new producers of the genre also influenced from Tayfur’s sound.

According to Stokes; the theme of the music is alienation and powerlessness, which conjuncts unrequited love and fate. Moreover he continues his definition of Arabesk with these words: “The songs calling on their listeners to light another cigarette, pour another drink, and curse the world their fate.” As a result of the prohibitions, Arabesk find another place for its spread: Cheap and suburban night-clubs or meyhanes (kind of taverns). According to Stokes definitions; the personalities of night-clubs can be define as gypsies, homosexuals, transvestites, transsexuals; whose sexual identities are also alienated by urban élites and mostly by urban religious. Also young children, mostly the ones who come from migrant families, perform the genre; but depending on the years their musical choice can be changed or they can disappear (Stokes 1989). However, it can be said that Arabesk is a male dominated genre; but presently, female singers become known (Wikipedia).

The prohibitions of Arabesk occurred again by the military coup of September 1980; and TRT discontinued broadcasting Arabesk music and films. However, Ozal (the prime minister) started his supports to Gencebay’s music after 1983; and Anavatan’s (one of Turkish political parties) slogan for the election campaign was one of Gencebay’s popular songs “Seni Sevmeyen Ölsün[6]” (ibid). Also Stokes stresses what Atilla Ozdemiroglu points out: “The Government is starting a fight against a situation of its own making”. As a result of this situation, the attitude of TRT changed; some of the Turkish Classical Music singers, who receive a salary from TRT, start to work in night-clubs as Arabesk singers and also record Arabesk albums (Stokes 1992a).

During the periods of prohibitions most of the Arabesk singers, who can not record albums or arrive to the scene in Turkey, moved to Germany and produced their music (Stokes 1992a). While discussing about Arabesk music in Germany, I would like to point out the similarity between the Turkish migrants in urban cities of Turkey and in Germany. At first, it should not be missed out that both of the migrants are the members of minority society. The changes in their life standards in Turkey and Germany can be a topic for another essay, but the most known specialties of these migrations are can be count as; being members of laborer class, to laid the groundwork for their kin’s’ future migrations, low income and alienating from the urban. Presently; hip-hop, R&B, rap or some other genres of western music are combined with Arabesk by German-Turks; and they firstly appear on German music scene, then they take their place in Turkey. Unlu, Cartel, IsmailYK[7] (who is also known from the band Yurtseven Kardesler that he worked with his siblings), Bassturk, Muhabbet, Cankan, Boys Anılar are the most known names of German-Turks, who produces these new sounds. On the other hand, some of the most popular Turkish singers (such as; Tarkan, Rafet el Roman, Celik) are also born in Germany, migrated back to the country; and start to produce their music in Turkey.

Yurtseven Kardesler in 1987

Above all; whilst Arabesk musicians start performing other genres, some of Turkish Classical Music singers, who also get an education at the conservatories, start performing Arabesk. Zeki Müren, Bülent Ersoy, Muazzez Abacı and above-mentioned Mustafa Keser are the well-known ones. According to Stokes; “Many of the supporters continue to think of them as art music singers, even though the orchestration and production of their cassettes conforms entirely to the aesthetic of arabesk… For others, these singers have created a genre of ‘arabesk-ised’ art music, singing with the pieces identified with the art music repertoire but in an arabesk manner.” And he also adds that sometimes art music performers have to sing arabesk, as a result of economic advantages (Stokes 1992a).

Besides Arabesk; Fantezi music and Hafif music also take their places in music markets. According to Stokes, these genres come out as strategies to solve the identification problems; but also performing these new genres caused them to distance from Arabesk (ibid). These changes also affect their Arabesk-ised lifestyles; not only have their musical sounds changed, but also their dress styles changed (Karga 2008). An illustration of this should be Mahsun Kırmızıgül. While he was a migrant he became known as an Arabesk star, then played in TV series; and presently, he is the director of his second movie. Ali Cenk Gedik has another definition for these changes in genres. For him; synthesizes of West-East ended, and synthesizes of East-West appeared; and “firstly pop became Arabesk-ised, then Arabesk became pop-alike” (Gedik 2007).

In conclusion; Arabesk music’s existence is related with “feeling sorry for oneself; instead of sympathizing others and believing strongly one’s rightness and suffering wrong” (Belge 1990). It is also possible to stress its relation with other genres around the world. Clifford Endres points out the similarity between Arabesk and Blues. While their sounds are not close to each other; their story of beginning, their texts and expressions of the emotions are also similar (Endres 1995). To sum up with Gedik’s words: “And everything intermingled, become other-alike, and at the end today’s Pop appeared.” (Gedik 2007)




Arabesque Music. Wikipedia. 30 November 2008.

Bax, Daniel. “The German - Turkish Pop Scene” Qantara. 6 February 2007. 30 November 2008.

Belge, Murat 1990 Toplumsal Degisme ve Arabesk. Birikim, 16-23.

Cakir, Erol and Nedim Odabas. “Sukretmeyi Bilmek Lazim” Millî Gazete. 27 October 2006. 15 December 2008.

Crossing The Bridge: The Sound of İstanbul 2005 Writ., dir., and prod. Fatih Akin. DVD. r film.

Endres, Clifford 1995 What Hath Rock Wrought?: Blues, Country Music, Rock’n’Roll and İstanbul. Journal of American Studies of Turkey (1):33-39.

Ergonultas, Engin 1979 Orhan Gencebay’dan Ferdi Tayfur’a Minibus Müzigi. Devrimci Savasinda Sanat Emegi. Aylik Kultur Sanat Dergisi (15/3): 5-22.

Gedik, Ali Cenk. “Cazabesk-Cazamanda ya da Arabesk-Maganda.” Gunluk Siyasi Gazete

13 April 2007. 15 December 2008.

Gokalp, Ziya 1923 Turkculugun Esaslari. Ankara: Elips Kitap.

Karaman, Pinar. “Populer Kultur Bicimi Olarak Arabesk” Sosyoloji Ogrencileri

15 December 2008.

Karga. “Turkiye’de Arabesk Olayi / Martin Stokes” Kitap Kilavuzu. 19 October 2008. 15 December 2008.

Sancar, Altay. “Arabesk Kulturunun Turk Sinemasina Yansimalari” Arabesk Dunyasi

11 July 2008. 15 December 2008.

Sert, Olcay Unal. “Arabesk Diye Bir Şey Yoktur” Magazinsortie. 16 December 2007. 15 December 2008.

Stokes, Martin 1989 Music, Fate and State: Turkey’s Arabesk Debate. Middle East Report No.160 (Turkey in the Age of Glastnost),27-30.

---------1992 a Islam, the Turkish State and Arabesk. Popular Music Vol.11 No.2 (A Changing Europe), 213-227

-------- 1992 b The Media and Reform: The saz and elektrosaz in Urban Turkish Folk Music. British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1: 89-102.


[1] Emigration also started around these years and the most popular country was Germany (Belge 1990). Emigration is also important for us; because, emigrants carry Arabesk music to the countries which they go along with the laborer class. I will talk about their effects of Arabesk music in Germany.

[2] Also, Faruk Güçlü stresses another point which should not be missing out; “of 681 cases of suicide in Ankara, 28 can be directly attributed to the effects of Arabesk culture” (Stokes 1989). The scenes of cutting oneself with razor blades at Arabesk concerts are also remembered from the newscasts of 1990s.

[3] Yrd. Doç. Dr. Altay Sancar stresses that Arabesk movies appeared in Turkey as a result of the crisis in Turkish cinema industry after 1970s. These kinds of movies were produced of a high percentage around 1978 and 1984. Presently, Arabesk lost its effects on cinema industry; but it also affected TV series in 1990s. The stars of the TV series and movies are also the most known Arabesk singers of Turkey.

[4] I am addicted to pain
I am tired of the troubles that are neverending in my life
I can not laugh without you ah ah ah
I can not live… I can not live
[5] My life is death when she is next to me
She should leave my life
My pain never ends when she's around
She's around.. She's around.. She's around
Who has the right to make me cry?
Who has the right to hurt me?
[6] Everything is a lie except you
If trouble comes let it come from you
I think you are love itself
Curse the ones who do not love you
[7] May Allah curse you
May allah cause the troubles upon you
I wish that what happened to me will happen to you
You have destroyed mylife
You showed no pity, you don't know what happened to me
I wish fate would make you blind too