July 9th, 2020

Playlist by Alev Kayagil · Artwork by Alia Wilhelm

I've never really understood music genres: They put groups of music in a box, so what happens to all the in-between music that combines folk, rock, pop, indie and techno? A merging of these different genres has taken place in Turkish music over the past few years, especially with the revival of the Turkish folk songs and their various interpretations by producers, DJs, singers and bands. I would be dancing in some unnamed little bar in Cihangir, Istanbul, and a Turkish folk song would come on accompanied by an intense undertone of techno beats. Everyone would go crazy and everyone knew all the words. Only I didn’t! 

My family and I emigrated to Canada when I was quite young, so my parents always made sure I spent a good chunk of time in Turkey every summer. Growing up Turkish in Canada, I carried my thermos of ayran - a yoghurt drink similar to lassi - with me everywhere, and waved a Turkish flag on national children's day at the old community centre that families would rent out in suburban Toronto. It felt homey, and the knowledge that there were other kids who brought smelly lunches to school made me feel like I belonged to a community far from home. 

My parents taught me about the history, culture and cuisine of my home country, and told me old stories of Istanbul in “the old days”. When in Turkey, my family and I were regulars at the inegol kofte restaurant near our home. But going back to Turkey also made me feel like the odd one out, maybe because my accent had a foreign twang to it, or because I was never up on that year's slang. As a way to overcome the feeling of being an outsider, I memorized the lyrics to every pop chart hit the summer I was sixteen. To this day, ten years later, I'm still trying to learn as much as I can about new music in the Turkish scene.

Recently I’ve come to realize that I don’t really know what Turkish music actually is. I grew up listening to stories of my grandma and mom dancing to Latin American mambo, salsa and merengue, and the American twist and rock-and-roll moves in Istanbul. I think older Turkish folk music represented tradition and conservatism in big cities like Istanbul, so people like my mom and grandma were constantly looking to the West for the next big thing. The few memories of traditional music I have are from when I was  eight or nine: My grandpa would sing old “Roma” or “Gypsy” songs and I would shake my hips in delight, pretending to be a belly dancer. Catching up on Turkish TV, I would see glimpses of an old man playing the saz or qanun with a lady dressed in red screaming into a mic. And during my teenage years, when Tarkan (the country’s hottest pop star, who became an international sensation) was blowing up on the scene, I wanted to learn more about Turkish music and Googled “traditional Turkish folk”. When I asked my family if they knew any of the songs I discovered they would always answer in a disinterested tone, “Well, yes, but that’s quite traditional Anatolian…”

Anatolia is the vast space that occupies east to west Turkey and where the roots of these tunes come from, though many of them were produced decades later. I titled this playlist “Anatolian” because to me Anatolian folk is the essence of Turkish music. Over many years, these roots have been adopted by the surrounding regions, which in turn have exerted their own creative influence on the music. Since my time living in Istanbul after college, I’ve found out so much about this form of “traditional” Turkish music. I’ve explored old Turkish psychedelic rock from the 60s and 70s, “Roma” and “Gypsy” music from the 40s-60s, and 90s pop hits that have an Anatolian tint to them. I feel that there is a very stereotypical “traditional” style to it but also that it’s so much more: Turkish music combines  jazz rhythms, British rock and north African instruments. I am including songs like these in this playlist, as well as a few recent discoveries I’ve made of a Turkish/Paraguayan DJ duo, a Turkish/Dutch band, a German band from Hamburg, a Munich-based DJ, Turkish leftist artists and music producers in Istanbul.


I’ve included a random assortment of “genres” which, funnily enough, all include Anatolian remnants despite being massively different from one another. But, to me, this is what Turkish music is: a cultural mesh of the various different parts of Turkey and a combination of all the countries that encompassed the Ottoman Empire. These are sonic reminders of the influences brought into Turkey from Western Europe. I hope you’ll enjoy this journey of discovery and the dynamic mix of tunes that represents the East meeting the West.


Alev Kayagil works in the NGO sector and dedicates herself to grassroots change and impact. She is Turkish with a few hints of Canadian and is passionate about connecting  and bringing people together in creating change and making a local impact. She currently lives in London and is working on her artistic skills.

Alia Wilhelm is a Nearness co-founder. She works as a multimedia artist and director's assistant in London. You can follow her @aliiiiia and check out her work at