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A hand drawn record cover from the 70s by a female artist, Betul Atli

Recovering the sounds shut down by the Turkish military

Turkey’s military coup of 1980 closed most of the record labels and all pressing plants nationwide – this is one man’s mission to help the country dance again

I’m sitting in a heavy metal bar in Istanbul’s Taksim district. It’s daytime and I can feel the heat of the summer sun, not because it’s high noon, but because of the reflections from the bland and concrete canvas of Taksim. This is Istanbul’s truth. A gigantic, hustling street flooded with people, with no trees in sight. It must be unusual for an outsider. 

I don’t drink, so the owner of the bar always makes fun of me when I’m there. I always point at the bar crowd in response. There are some ska guys standing in the corner of the garden; checked shirts with cool hats and all the badges. On the other side are a couple of skinheads; acid-washed jeans and red Doc Martens. Just next to my little table are a group of hardcore guys dressed in black from head to toe, mixing politics with very low-grade beer. Some girls have just arrived to use the bathroom; they have a Blitz generation vibe going on. The Blitz generation just passed a table filled with metalheads. They didn’t even notice the girls – they’re fully concentrated on a Judas Priest song coming out of terrible-quality speakers. 

This bar sums up my country so well. There are different kinds of cultural movements, personalities, creative minds and strong political figures, but they have nowhere to go. They don’t have a place that matches their individuality, dreams, attitudes or aims. There aren’t any initiatives for creative minds either, so they have a lifetime to kill.

Political and economic stability is long gone – you just need to survive. So they’re investing their hard-earned money into this bar, their friend’s place, the safe zone. Ideas clash from time to time, but everybody knows that this is one of the very, very few places in this city of 14 million where they may create something out of nothing. It feels as though the creative minds of the city are in a very dark, scary place.

It wasn’t always like this. The creative industries were blooming, not only in Istanbul, but all around the country during the 60s and 70s. And music led the way. Different types of record labels were representing diverse concepts, cover arts, identities and, most importantly, ideas. Open-mindedness was also very well received by society. The record labels weren’t holding anything back around that time. Political statements, nudity, satire, new visual languages, new approaches for a crossover of sounds and styles – all of these things were present.

But after the military coup in 1980, it was all over. Progressive sounds were the path to creative thinking, so most of the record labels and all of the pressing plants in the country were closed forever. Books were burned and records were buried. Three decades later, there still are no pressing plants in Turkey.

“With one decision from the government, we lost the torch that we had in our hands within a dark cultural pit”

More or less every record collector is looking for Turkish music nowadays, so my aim was to build a gateway to our unknown, creative world through my magazine Record Store Journal, published quarterly. It documents the political situation at the time of an album’s release, the impact it had on youth movements, and how it positions itself in Turkey’s past and present.

Istanbul is the only naturally occurring transcontinental city on earth. That means you can travel back and forth between continents on a daily basis to chase down records. So I decided to combine pages with sound and launched a record label, which is pretty hard to pull off in Turkey. As there are no manufacturing alternatives within the country or nearby, you need to try Europe or somewhere else in the world. This will come with the additional cost of extortionate currency rates. The Turkish lira is absolutely worthless. Plus, you need to make quite an effort for visa application to travel abroad. Worldwide distribution? Scratch that. It’s practically impossible.

But, to quote Cardinal de Retz’s famous saying, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” So my decisive moment was to try and offer the first Turkish record to be released on Record Store Day.

The idea was to produce a hand-stamped, hand-numbered, limited-edition record, blending DIY attitude with clean-cut production. The LP was released in Istanbul and Rough Trade London only. The demand from different parts of the world was supplied by, of course, Discogs. 

But we woke up to an email announcing that PayPal had halted operations in Turkey because it could not get the necessary licences from the Turkish State. It was said that users registered in Turkey will not be able to send or receive money through the platform anymore after June 6, 2016, and asked them to transfer the balances in their accounts to Turkish banks. Meaning, my record label was off the shelves of Discogs and Bandcamp, together with any other independent artists and labels from Turkey as well. So with one decision of the government, we lost the torch that we had in our hands within a dark cultural pit.

Three decades after banishing creative thinking, switching to a closed economy model might sound efficent to those who would like to profit from the abscence of a global platform. And it might sound irrelevant for those who have not been affected by it. But a wall is a wall, and it’s not only able to block the money flow, but also the information exchange between two sides. Money and ideas are the only free flow without borders, after all. And both are necessary to survive a cultural standpoint in an unstable environment, until the next cultural or political sucker punch.

So I ended up in this bar, thinking of my conversation with Kamasi Washington after one of his shows in the Netherlands last autumn. He was looking forward to performing in Istanbul just to go shopping for the ‘ney’, an eastern woodwind brass instrument, wondering what a 5,000-year-old instrument would sound like in a modern jazz piece in the hands of a multi-talented musician like him. In any case, I’ll still be in this thousands-year-old city looking for new sound leaks to hack the invisible borders. The best way to complain is to make things happen.