Yedikule Prison, Cultural Diplomacy, and the Revival of Rebetika in Turkey

In the course of a random internet search, I came across an article on the revival of rebetika in Turkey. It piqued my interest because I know a few Turks who are, indeed, very interested in rebetika–they even have a band in Istanbul now. In the article, Şebnem Susam-Sarajeva takes a look at 8 albums released in Turkey between 1992-2000 and analyzes how they portray rebetika through their covers, liners, the extent of song translation, and type of songs included. She notes that there was a renewal in interest in this music in Turkey during the 90s for a couple of reasons. First, the increased interest among Turks in the music of the “minorities” (Kurds, Laz, Armenians, Rum, etc.); and, second, the changing relations between Greece and Turkey, both communally but also diplomatically at this time. Notable here is the role that other genres of music have played. For example, in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s, Mikis Theodorakis, Zülfü Livaneli and Maria Farandouri  held joint “performances for peace.” And, more recently, e.g., Sertab Erener and Sakis Rouvas in 2004 and the series of shows held by Haris Alexiou and Sezen Aksu after the 1999 earthquakes. Sometimes these concerts, esp. recently, were held in an official capacity and served as a form of cultural diplomacy. The article demonstrates that rebetika maintains a place today in Turkish culture at the popular, academic, but also political level, and so offers an avenue through which official/formal rapprochement can be enhanced by a shared cultural heritage.

Four of the albums are devoted entirely to rebetika; 3 of these are compilations of old 78s and so sung (almost) entirely in Greek. The fourth is by Yeni Türkü (Külhani Şarkılar, 1994), one of Turkey’s most popular groups in the 80s and 90s and is entirely in Turkish using translated lyrics. The remaining 4 offer a mixture of rebetika and other types of music. One, by Melihat Gülses, consists of some rebetika alongside traditional songs from Istanbul, which are sung in a mixture of Greek and Turkish; another, by Muammer Ketencoğlu (a well known accordion player and singer in Turkey), contains rebetika but also Greek folk songs of Anatolia, all of which are sung in Greek; the final two, both by Yeni Türkü, are more diverse still, but both contain a Turkish version of “Yedikule” (Pente Chronia Dikasmenos/I Foni tou Argile in Greek). So, they’re quite a mixed bag, and it’s worth noting that some musicians appear on several albums.

The liner notes and covers operate from different perspectives. The covers of the compilations depict the musicians themselves in old photos alongside some images of late Ottoman Smyrna and Istanbul; thus, they locate the music in an historical context. Their liners also promote a vision of a peaceful shared past, rooted in a variety of cultural traditions, music included. Gülses’ emphasizes her own biography and that she had performed concerts in Turkish and Greek in the past. On the whole, her album notes “blur distinctions” between rebetika and other forms of popular Ottoman music. Susam-Sarajeva contends that this allows the album to more fully serve its purpose as cultural mediator. The cover of her album (2000) displays an image of the singer’s face against a backdrop of cobbled streets and old Istanbul homes. But the CD itself contains the flags of Greece and Turkey—why? The album was, in fact, produced for a very specific setting: the first Greco-Turkish “Friendship and Cooperation Fair,” which focused on fostering economic ties between Greece and Turkey. Turkey’s most important business entity, the Koç Group, was a key player in this. The Group commissioned the album and distributed it freely at the fair. Thus, the bi-lingual album was intended to foster closer ties between the two countries from the start. (all of this is post-1999 earthquakes). G. Papandreou (recently Prime Minister of Greece) received a copy directly from Suna Koç. M. Ketencoglu’s liner notes are something of a diatribe against the vapid commercialized pop music entering Turkey from Greece and express his desire to present a better form of Greek music to the Turkish public. Yeni Türkü’s liners zero in on the population exchange and tend to understand rebetika as an amalgamation of the musical skills and traditions of the Asia Minor refugees and the mangas sub-culture in Greece itself. In their 1994 album, their only devoted entirely to rebetika, the band appears dressed in the attire of rebetes near the sea (the Aegean) and most of the insert art work does the same. One band member carries a baglama on the cover, but a Turkish one not a Greek one (the latter is a different instrument, much smaller), which alludes more directly to Turkish folk music than rebetika per se. The title means “Songs of the Külhani,” a reference to the old street toughs of Istanbul. Thus, the album stands as a recreation or reinterpretation of rebetika in a contemporary Turkish context, somewhat like Gülses’ and against the frozen-in-time compilations.

The song “Yedikule” is common to many of these albums, and it was one of the first songs translated into Turkish in the 90s (by Yeni Türkü). It was originally recorded in Greek by Evangelos Papazoglou and Stellakis Perpiniadis in 1935 and is one of the so-called hasiklidika in the rebetika. Yedikule (Γεντί Κουλέ) means Seven Towers, and it was an Ottoman prison. The song is about the suffering of a mangas in that place and explains that he turned to the narghile while he was confined. There is also a good deal of derision expressed toward the guards (and once outside the prison, the police), which is a common theme in rebetika music. But Susam-Sarajeva notes some subtle changes in the course of the song’s translation: in the Turkish version the mangas is imprisoned for smoking hashish, whereas in the Greek began doing so while in prison; in the Greek the guards are referred to as “bumpkins” (βλάχους = a Vlach/shepherd), while the Turkish version renders them “formidable” (yaman). Istanbul is directly referenced in the Turkish version, whereas it’s not in the Greek one.

It seems both Yeni Türkü and Susam-Sarajeva would locate this Yedikule prison in Istanbul. There was, indeed, a prison called this in the city in the Ottoman period—it’s the old Byzantine Golden Gate, the ceremonial entrance for the emperors, which was transformed into a treasury by Mehmet the Conqueror and then a state prison. But there was also a Yedikule prison in Thessaloniki, on the acropolis of the city. It operated as such into the 1980s and it’s a museum today (the Epta Pyrgio). It seems more likely that the composer of the song was referencing the Thessaloniki prison, since this would have been more relevant to his own social experience in 30s Greece (and numerous other rebetika songs reference it). Manges and musicians alike were imprisoned there, while the Yedikule prison in Istanbul seems to have been used mainly to hold high ranking prisoners (unruly pashas, ambassadors, etc.). And, as far I know, it didn’t function as a prison much into the 20th century.

On the whole, Susam-Sarajeva aserts, rebetika in the albums is defined and closely associated with the population exchange and, in the main, characterized by the use of Greek. She notes that it’s telling that these collections chose not to use songs sung originally in Turkish, despite their existence. Why? Because that would have associated them too closely with the (Turkish) artists and made them too familiar to their Turkish audience. The ‘other’ culture was a necessary component, one tied to the broader purposes of the albums. And although each album works from a slightly different perspective, all use the music to advance an agenda of rapprochement, reflecting a desire to bring Greeks and Turks together through a greater understanding of shared cultural heritage, whether in a more official or anti-establishment intellectual capacity.

S. Susam-Sarajeva, “Rembetika Songs and their “Return” to Anatolia,” The Translator 12.2 2006, pp. 253-78.

Below are several versions of the song, Yedikule. Here are the Greek and Turkish lyrics and an English translation: yedikule.

Yeni Türkü (in Turkish):

Melihat Gülses (in Turkish and Greek; this one begins with a good taxim):

Orchestra Bailam (in Italian; note this version starts with a dialogue, which is taken directly from the Greek original):

Agathonas Iakovidis (in Greek; unfortunately, the original–from 1935–is not available on Youtube due to copyright restrictions in the US, but this version is very close to it, wo/ the dialogue):

Here’s a homemade Greek version, in which the group includes the introductory dialogue (which is meant to be somewhat humorous):

This entry was posted in Cultural Diplomacy, Music, Rebetika, Thessaloniki, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Yedikule Prison, Cultural Diplomacy, and the Revival of Rebetika in Turkey

  1. Alarga says:

    You may find this article of interest. It goes into depth of the different rebetika factions, notwithstanding the present conceptions in Greece and Turkey.

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