This Kardeş Türküler group is really going places!

Selin Girit / Boğaziçi Magazine 58 / 2003

They became the most-requested group on BBC Radio S... As their albums were presented to the European Union as Turkey's vision, television channels at home preferred to keep a distance from their videos... Kardeş Türküler ? Fraternal Songs...the songs of the people living on this land... And the ones who are performing them are graduations of our University.

In the 80s, Ataol Behramoğlu gathered translations he had done of poetry from all over the world, into a book. The name of the book was "Kardeş Türküler." And in the late 80s, a music group sprouted, singing folk songs of the whole world but especially those of our own land. The name of the group was Kardeş Türküler. Possibly an inspiration, possibly a coincidence...

This was a difficult interview, with people who choose the difficult. It wasn't easy to get two members of Kardeş Türküler, Vedat Yılodırım and Diler Özer together in one place. With the bustle of New Years, the heavy workload around the release of their latest album "Hemâvâz," and the activity in connection with their upcoming appearance on the "32nd Day" program, I was about to give up hope. At last we set an interview date. And then there was Istanbul's traffic...

We got past that, and at last we arrive at BÜMED, and saw that the bar was closed for reconstruction. They say that difficulty spoils the game, but it didn't spoil ours. In the ice cold lobby, trying to keep warm by shaking and hot tea, we began our chat.

The 1990s, the years that the politics of ethnic identification were on the agenda

Kardeş Türküler's musical adventure started in 1989. University students from every corner of Anatolia met in the folklore club and here they came together singing folk songs from all over the world. After a time, saying "we want to make music," they decided to work on it more seriously. When asked "What kind of music," the political environment of the period becomes as obvious as the areas of interest of those who charted the course and started the group. Diler says, "That period was one in which the politics of identity had come onto the agenda and being debated, in relation to Turkey's political environment." These debates naturally affected them as well, she said; they began exploring their family origins and this was reflected in the musical realm as well. "In this way, we entered a musical activity that had its roots in these lands, and was driven by a background of cultural research."

An musical answer to polarization

From their very first concert, Kardeş Türküler showed signs of bringing a different view to the approach to music in Turkey. It was the beginning of the 1990s, when folk music was presented as "Turkish Folk Music," where all the songs resembled one another, differing only in the words. And then Kardeş Türküler came onto the scene, with a repertoire made up of Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Azeri songs. "The choice of repertoire was no accident," says Diler: "What took place was intended as an answer, on a musical plane, to the polarization that was being forced upon the Turks and Kurds, and the Azeris and Armenians, or among these peoples in a more general way." And here lies the essence of the group: the principle of "the brotherhood of peoples" and "living together in brotherhood." So, did this rather unusual repertoire draw no reaction? Diler says that because it was a student activity within the body of the universiity, it didn't. But when they went onto the music scene, that changed. "There were times when we couldn't easily give concerts, when the Turkish pieces on our albums were broadcast but not the portions in Kurdish, Armenian and other languages. Our video, ? Kara Üzüm Habbesi,' was not broadcast" says Diler, but she doesn't neglect to add "then again, we never came up against a direct obstacle, anything like a prohibition."

Five thousand people carried away by Kardeş Türküler at the Open Air Theater

Their first album was "Kardeş Türküler." Their second was "Doğu." It was after this second album that the name Kardeş Türküler started to become a household word. So much so that over five thousand people came to hear their concert at the Open Air Theater. "Did you expect such a crowd?" I ask. Vedat answers, "We didn't expect such a crowd. We were astounded." "There, we saw that Kardeş Türküler's desire for democratization had a counterpart in society. This wasn't just a folk music happening. It was really a reflection of the concept of "What kind of country do we want to live in?"

Is Kardeş Türküler becoming a media event?

They aren't afraid of being popular, but popularity is the ability to bring different strata together and perform for them. After all, they haven't been sullied by any of the anxieties of popularity, they haven't compromised on their principles, they haven't engaged in any retouching, hesitance or self-censorship. For this reason, they haven't appeared much in the newspapers, and haven't been seen much on television.

Diler says, "There were offers for television appearances, but we kept a bit of a distance from it, because if we couldn't talk about something there, if we wouldn't be able to perform Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian songs together, we would refuse the offer." But they have started showing themselves in the media, even if to a small degree. Might this have something to do with the European Union compliance laws? Or with the lifting of prohibitions against broadcast and teaching of/in ethnic languages? Or, could it be, with the sideline in the newspaper "Hürriyet" with the headline " Biji Türkiye" ("Long Live Turkey," in Kurdish)? They laugh at my questions. "We perform songs belonging to different ethnic origins. Diler says, "We try to present both their differences and their common points, and the give and take between these cultures. The activity itself, when considered within the context of the conditions of our country, occupies an extremely political position. And so it's truly impossible to remain unaffected by these differences."

"But you do have a political position..."

So, are they "political?" Do they have a political mission?" Why do they, out of the blue, sing Kurdish and Armenian songs, or bring a Greek song right next to a Turkish song?

"We do have a political position," says Diler. "But it's very dependent on how you interpret that. We don't have any place for works with words that provoke agitation. We are operating, in the simplest of ways, from a position from which we believe we can contribute to coexistence in brotherhood, to a peaceful society, and to democracy. We aren't doing anything directly political, or performing "music with a mission."

But neither have they avoided being used as political material. It's no secret that in during a time when they could not express themselves at all freely, and when their videos were not being broadcast, Ismail Cem, the Minister of Foreign Affairs gave their cassette as a gift to one of his European counterparts. On this subject, Vedat says, "When you consider the conditions in Turkey at that time, we can say that they used our albums as a vision. Despite several problems in the area of ethnic languages in Turkey, and the prohibition of them, they were trying to show that "actually cultures here are free, they can express themselves."

And they became a source of inspiration to Sezen Aksu

Kardeş Türküler's practice of giving a place in their songs to all the languages spoken on these lands, and thus emphasizing the brotherhood of peoples, has been a source of inspiration to others as well. One of these personalities is at the summit of the music world: Sezen Aksu. Aksu's singing of Greek and Turkish songs, and performing Kurdish songs together with the Diyarbakır Children's Chorus, drew the support of some sectors, but met with harsh reactions from others. Kardeş Türküler's attitude towards this sortie by Sezen Aksu is very clear. They find it very positive tht Aksu would take on such an activity just as the EU compliance laws and democratization were being debated. On this subject Diler says, "We support every action, speech or attempt that answers the question ? What kind of Turkey do we want to live in?' Sezen Aksu or Kardeş Türküler... Beyond the question of who did this and how, the thing that's really important is for the debate itself to be continued, and for more people to take part in these debates."

As we mention all these languages ? Armenian, Kurdish, Laz, Greek ? one question sticks in my mind: Do they know all these languages? Vedat says that they only have a knowledge of Turkish and Kurdish; they get help in singing the songs in other languages. But of course you can't just sing a song in a language you don't know, memorizing it and taking it to the stage. This is something on which they expend a great effort. They learn the stories of the songs, they determine which parts of the songs they need to stress according to the meaning, they listen to other songs in that language in order to gain a general feeling for the sound of the language. Didn't we say that they like what is difficult? So, do they have any difficulty in getting by financially? One would think at first that they must not. In view of the great interest that their album "Doğu" received, and the fact that "Hemâvâz" has already appeared on the pirate market, they must not be making bad profits. But it's not really like that. The earnings of Kardeş Türküler, whose activities arelimited to concerts and albums, aren't at a level to support the twelve-member group. Actually, five or six of them try to support themselves through music. The rest of them try to keep active in the group through part-time work but never entering full-time employment.

In Diler's words, they "are contented with what they have, and get by."

Lastly, we ask about their tours. First Izmir, then Bursa, Istanbul, Anakra... then Europe... But past March, they don't know. I don't know my own agenda for the same reason: the likelihood of war. As on every matter, what they have to say on this subject is very clear: "We are against war." Here we bring our talk to a close.

"Congratulations," I say, "You've succeeded in the difficult job," I leave them with a smile on my face.


They first got together in 1989, in the Boğaziçi University Folklore club. With the decision in 1992 that they ? want to make music," they laid the foundations for "Kardeş Türküler," and gave their first concert, made up of Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Azeri songs at Boğaziçi University. Here they took the first steps, singing folk songs from around the world in a choral setting, and adopted the philosophy of "the brotherhood of peoples," and "the principle of living together in fraternity." Their first album, "Kardeş Türküler," came out in 1997, and was followed in 1999 by "Doğu (The East)." With this album, the group drew the attention of some, and fire from others. But "Kardeş Türküler" kept moving ahead. Their concert at the Harbiye Open-Air Theatre was attended by over five thousand people. During the same period the group made their first tour of eastern Turkey. The "Doğu" album also opened the door to another endeavor: an offer from director Yılmaz Erdoğan to Kardeş Türküler to produce the music for his film "Vizontele." The core membership of Kardeş Türküler consists of twelve people. Though they don't see themselves as political, they say that due to the nature of their work, they find themselves on political ground.


The title of Kardeş Türküler's latest album, to come out in December, is "Hemâvâz." A Persian word, to be "hemâvâz" means to sing reciprocally, or the singing of birds all together. "Hemâvâz," also presents songs in a variety of languages, with all the color of those languages. Compared with "Doğu," "Hemâvâz" focuses a bit more on western Turkey. Along with the eastern songs, the album also includes Greek and Gypsy songs, as well as some original compositions. The folk songs are ornamentated in the vocal and percussion style we have come to expect from Kardeş Türküler.