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Founder of the first rock group in Turkey and owner of the first electric guitar, father of Turkish rock music Erkin Koray is also the inventor of the electric ‘bağlama’, a traditional string instrument.
Erkin Koray, who has chalked up a number of rock music ‘firsts’ in Turkey, was born in Istanbul on 24 June 1941. Dreaming of a career in nuclear engineering, he suddenly got the rock bug and recorded his first single, ‘One September Evening’ / It’s So Long’. More than a musical genre, rock is a lifestyle for Koray, who has never strayed from that path ever since. Koray, whose most recent album, ‘Devlerin Nefesi’ (‘Breath of the Giants’), came out in June 1999, gave a concert in April with the rock group The Moğollar in Ankara. And a book in which the rock musician explains his philosophy of life is due out soon.
It was the end of the 50s, the start of the 60s... Erkin Koray was playing the electric guitar. But in high school you dreamed of becoming of nuclear engineer. How did rock music get into in your blood?
As the son of a mother who was a music teacher, I grew up with music; in other words, I was a natural musician. I wanted to be a nuclear engineer and started school with that goal. Since I was interested in mathematics, I had a good head for engineering. At least that’s how I explain why I didn’t become a regular engineer but rather a music engineer. I think the two go together.
So why rock?
It’s probably got something to do with my makeup. I’m rebellious, to put it mildly. Let’s say I go against the grain. But I started out in classical western music because that’s what my mother taught. I was also a student at the conservatory. Perhaps there are a lot of people who look at rock music from the outside and think it is a simple sort of music, easy to make, a genre to suit the popular taste. But as a rock musician who knows music very well, I have a slightly different take on the subject. In other words, I know what I do really well, both the theoretical side and the performing side. Well, let’s not say the performing side because that’s for others to judge.
‘One September Evening’ was your first 45, with ‘It’s So Long’ on the flip side. But others, like the Beatles, also seem to have had ideas similar to yours, as in ‘Love Me Do’, for example. Can you fill us in on the background to that?
We in Turkey have been influenced by western music; that’s undeniable. In fact, we performed a service by bringing the best aspects of western music and western technology to Turkey. We thought it was the right thing. But I am sure that there are in the world right now people making rock music, including some very well-known musicians, that have heard me. I believe I achieved a synthesis of Eastern and Western music here in Turkey before they even thought of it. It can’t be denied of course that there are musicians that experiment and explore, like the Beatles and Pink Floyd. There are excellent musicians abroad as well—I won’t give any names—but when I listen to them I get the feeling that they have listened to me too and been influenced by me. What’s more, Europeans who take a close interest in the field have told me the same thing when I’ve been in Europe. I’m known in Europe, known far more than people in Turkey realize. But I don’t talk about these things here because I don’t like to toot my own horn as they say.
Eastern melodies began to creep into your music together with the sitar. And the foundation was laid for a friendship between the two ‘fathers’, you of rock and Orhan Gencebay of ‘arabesque’, the ‘other’ musical genre of the time. How did this contact with ‘arabesque’ create new possibilities for bridging not only musical but even social barriers?
Orhan Gencebay’s service to this country is inestimable. He is not only a creative musician but also a master of his instrument, the ‘bağlama’. We’re still friends. If we don’t get together as often as we did in the 70s, it’s only because everybody’s occupied with his own stuff nowadays. I believe that our discussion of the subject was very beneficial to both of us.
As a musician he is more eastern than me and I am more western than him, and as such I believe we gave each other a lot. I have been influenced by him in
Erkin Koray has consistently been a groundbreaker in Turkey. He was the owner of the first electric guitar, inventor of the electric bağlama, founder of the first rock group. You have an important place in the history of rock music. How would you compare rock music yesterday and today?
In fact, I am also the one who launched the current rock bars in Istanbul. And recently I made a guitar by outfitting it with saz frets so I can play the traditional saz modes on guitar. (The saz is the traditional string instrument of Turkish minstrels and folk singers.) This is something really novel. For a 65-year-old guy, I mean... (he laughs). I am a man of firsts. As for today’s rock music, unfortunately a mindless generation filled the void of the eighties. But now we are again seeing groups who can think straight and make good music. And that makes me happy. I hope it will continue.
In April you gave a concert in Ankara with the Moğollar. Are there going to be more such concerts?
That concert went down very well. There was an extremely good atmosphere. More to the point, a very serious group of people came to that concert where the Moğollar and I performed together. In other words, we encountered an audience of intellectuals who have moved beyond rock and Anatolian rock. It was very gratifying. Although no such a project is in the works for Istanbul, this just may pave the way to one. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun to perform with the Moğollar in concert. There’s no disputing their music.
We seem to prefer being consumers to being producers and discoverers. Is this because there is nothing left for us to discover? Has everything been done that we take such an unfocused approach to life?
Unfortunately I also ask myself the same question. But I am unable to come up with an answer. And I ask mankind: Why haven’t we been able to live together in this beautiful world of ours?
Do you have any project of a documentary nature that you will leave behind as Erkin Koray’s philosophy of life?
Something called ‘A Book of Erkin Koray’ has come out. I was very pleased that they published a book about me at least. But it’s not enough of course. I also wanted to point out some of the things that have bothered me, certain things that I’ve always had in mind to do something about, things I couldn’t say in concerts or mention in newspaper interviews. So I’ve put them all together in a book. I wrote it sort of like a story. It’s going to come out soon.
Thank you for giving us your time. Is there anything you would like to say in closing?
I would just like to wish all the readers of the magazine where this interview is going to appear a pleasant flight!