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The Kurdish Music Industry: History and Politics

[Ahmet Kaya. Image via Ottoman History Podcast blog.] [Ahmet Kaya. Image via Ottoman History Podcast blog.]

Ottoman History Podcast Episode #116 features the research of Alev Kuruoğlu on the development of the Kurdish music industry in Turkey and abroad. The episode is a historiographical mixtape that allows listeners to hear recordings of Kurdish artists within their historical context. Throughout the discussion, Kuruoğlu stresses the historical link between politics and Kurdish music production, following the music scene from a brief explosion during the 1970s through the years of suppression following the coup in 1980, and continuing to the slow emergence of a legal Kurdish music industry after the lifting of a ban on recording in Kurdish in 1991. Because of various limitations on Kurdish cultural expression in Turkey, any recording or performance of Kurdish music has carried an almost inherent political meaning, and in turn, the struggles faced by artists naturally linked the music scene to the emerging Kurdish political movements.

During the growth of the Kurdish underground, cassettes played a critical role in dissemination of what were unlicensed or even contraband works of Kurdish artists. Recordings of folk music called dengbej performed by artists such as Şakiro could spread rapidly by means of cassette among Kurdish communities in Eastern Anatolia, who also accessed the works of Kurdish performers abroad such as Şivan Perwer through tapes brought back to Turkey from Europe. This new media provided a means of disseminating not only music, but also speeches and other material of a political nature.

The precarious legal position of Kurdish language in Turkey was a major barrier to the development of a proper recording industry, but even when restrictions on recording in Kurdish were eased in 1991, Kurdish artists faced other obstacles. Performance venues were limited, mainstream radio and television would not broadcast Kurdish language content, and in many cases Kurdish artists were persecuted publicly. An important example is that of Ahmet Kaya, one of the most well-known Turkish recording artists of the 1980s and 1990s, who announced at an awards ceremony where he was to be recognized as Musician of the Year that he wished to record in his native tongue of Kurdish, much to the chagrin of others in attendance who hurled insults and forks at him. Soon after, Kaya fled to Paris, where he died a year later of a heart attack at age forty-three.

Even as the use of Kurdish in Turkey has become more common and acceptable over the last decade, leading to a more robust recording industry centred particularly in Istanbul’s Unkapanı neighborhood, Kuruoğlu stresses that many Kurdish producers and artists feel that their scene is still to a large extent underground, finding a place neither in mainstream Turkish radio and television stations nor at major performance venues. The internet has provided an important outlet for Kurdish artists, but offers little in terms of revenues that would allow performers to derive the livelihood solely from their craft. Thus, the story of the Kurdish music industry remains unfinished, awaiting another chapter of transformation alongside the political movements and trends in Turkey.

Contributor Bios

Chris Gratien is the editor and co-host of Ottoman History Podcast and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Georgetown University researching the social environmental history of Ottoman Anatolia and Syria.

Alev Kuruoğlu is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Business Administration at Bilkent University in Ankara. Her research focuses on the emergence of the Kurdish recording industry.

Listen to Episode #116 of Ottoman History Podcast with Alev Kuruoğlu entitled “The Kurdish Music Industry: History and Politics"


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