“If the Earth were a single state,” it is said that Napoleon once declared, “Istanbul would be its capital.” At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the cosmopolitan epicenter of Turkey has had a front-row seat at many of the most pivotal moments in the last two thousand years’ worth of cultural history. So is it much of a surprise it partook in punk rock?
“So, in the late ‘80s, when groups like the Headbangers, Moribund Youth, Turmoil, Radical Noise, and Violent Pop began organising rec room punk shows in broad daylight, they were establishing the first punk scene in the entire Islamic world.”
Well, yes. In 1980, when the first rattlings of punk in the U.S. and the U.K. were starting to spread around the world, Turkish liberalism was slammed by a coup d’état that left the brutal military in power for years. Moreover, lest we forget, modern Turkey has always been at least 99% Muslim. So, in the late ‘80s, when groups like the Headbangers, Moribund Youth, Turmoil, Radical Noise, and Violent Pop began organising rec room punk shows in broad daylight (a concession both for the all-ages crowd and the sweeping curfew then enforced in Istanbul), they were establishing the first punk scene in the entire Islamic world. A considerable analogue began to take shape in Indonesia in the early 90s but only reached its golden age toward the end of the decade.
The hardcore punk scene that flourished in mid-90s Istanbul serves as a backdrop for Arada (literally “In Between”), the debut feature by accomplished brand designer and music video director Mu Tunç. Any questions about its authenticity are quelled within an instant of talking with Mu, whose older brother Orkun founded the pioneering bands Violent Pop and, later, Turmoil. By the time Mu came of age to listen to the same American hardcore punk from which Orkun’s bands drew inspiration, the hard part of actually amassing all these records had already been done. Records from the West made their way into the country almost exclusively under the arms of jet pilots. A clandestine network of bootleggers duped everything they could get their hands on, and kids like Orkun patronized them like zealots. Of special interest were the enraged American bands pushing punk rock in new directions like “hardcore” and “crossover thrash.” Suicidal Tendencies, D.R.I., Nuclear Assault, Stormtroopers of Death (S.O.D.) and their spinoff M.O.D. all loomed large in the Tunç household. They voraciously devoured new offshoots of this politically conscious, raucous music. “I grew up like a Chicano punk,” Mu exclaimed at least once during his week-long stay in New York to present the U.S. premiere of Arada at the Museum of Arts and Design. “How insane is that?”
Mu Tunç photographed by Valerie Chiang for Lindsay in New York City
Incidentally, just as the first wave of punk was taking hold in New York and London, Mu’s father Altan Tunç found himself at the forefront of the folk genre of Ottoman classical music known as Türk sanat müzigi. Originating in the palaces of the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat period of modernist reforms, “it represents a high aristocracy of Turkish culture…if there is any,” Mu added. Altan’s records from the late 1970s brought to the austere tradition a Western sense of showmanship that earned him a considerable fanbase in Turkey. Had the coup of 1980 never happened, and with it the forced military conscription that pulled him away from his burgeoning career, there’s no telling how widely known he would have become. “Turkish art music lost its value after the coup,” Mu explained, “because the culture of ‘arabesque music’ was systematically popularised by the army.” Nevertheless, the songs of Altan Tunç and other classical songwriters who infused the genre with a bit of rock n’ roll bravado have amassed a cult following amongst adventurous lovers of world music. Zeki Müren, in particular, stands out as a maverick within the conservative tradition. Openly gay, his sartorial acumen and gender-bending lyrics — “in a very pure Turkish that makes the language so cool” — paved the way for an LGBT movement in Turkey long before the country was ready for it. “He was on a level with David Bowie,” Mu exclaimed. This sentiment is repeated by the record store clerk in Arada—inspired by Eloy Hakan, who owned a record store and café in the lively neighborhood of Bakirköy—when a patron comes in and makes a wholesale dismissal of Turkish music. “These guys [like Zeki Müren] were killed by the army, made unpopular… And this is still going on in Turkey. Arabesque and Orientalism continue to dominate.”
“An avid fan of any and all music that could be deemed transgressive, Mu sort of moonlights as a rock historian.”
An avid fan of any and all music that could be deemed transgressive, Mu sort of moonlights as a rock historian. His short documentary Istanbul Punk glosses the movement’s humble beginnings. One of Violent Pop’s first concerts, co-founder Tolga Güldalli says, was an afternoon show in the basement of an apartment building in the family-oriented neighborhood of Merter. “By coincidence, there was a meeting happening at the same time…in which women come together to eat cakes and drink tea,” he recalls, and within fifteen minutes, the superintendent came to file a noise complaint. The music was fast and loud, but not much else about the scene could be faulted. Few of the kids were even into punk; they were there to support their friends in the band and hang out with each other.
Mu Tunç photographed by Valerie Chiang for Lindsay in New York City
It turned out that these upstarts were far from alone. Through backchannels, Violent Pop and associates got their hands on rock n’ roll zines and saw their mirror images organising emphatically D.I.Y. shows in countries as far away as Peru and Malaysia. Turmoil, a spin-off of Violent Pop, put Turkey on the global punk map by releasing an EP with Acoustic Grinder, out of Belgium. Similar collaborations ensued with bands including Inkisiçao (Portugal) and Regeneración (Mexico). At home, the movement continued to flourish through the ‘90s, veering slightly toward heavy metal and grindcore, with the rise of bands like Rashit and Regorge.
Things began to change radically by the mid-90s. For one, the mayor of Istanbul was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president of Turkey. When I asked Mu where the punks of Istanbul hang out today, he mentioned Atlas Passage but lamented that it, like so much else in the city, had gone downhill. “Literally, everything is gentrified. Before, there were punk places all over Taksim,” he says, referring to the touristy square in the heart of Istanbul. “New York gentrified in a hipster way. Here, gentrification just took culture away.” Despite a worldwide rise in conformity, especially acute in a country led by a right-wing dictator, the spirit of punk is not entirely dead. “The thing is, we have an underground scene in Istanbul now,” Mu mused as we drove around the formerly bohemian Lower East Side. “But let’s not say too much about it,” he chuckled. “We don’t want it to go away.”
This contradiction is one amongst so many that make the story of Istanbul punk so beguiling. Mu’s own burgeoning career is another. Having grown up looking out onto the world, with the dream of leaving Istanbul behind (much like the protagonist of Arada), he never expected to make a name for himself with a cinematic ode to his city. More than simply a recollection of the 90s subculture, Arada offers a full-blown survey of the tensions between globalist liberalism and traditional values that to this day constitute the pulse of Istanbul. The huge popularity of the film (which owes at least something to its heartthrob leads, Burak Deniz and Büsra Develi, both TV stars domestically) seems to confirm that Istanbul is having a moment of reconciliation with its past. “Turkish people think very local,” Mu wrote to me after returning home. “Even the liberal ones, who think they are global, have problems constructing a worldview. This is our biggest problem: the issue of self-identity, which affects all of us, but Istanbulites especially. And we don’t have the courage to acknowledge it, even though it’s risen up in every decade of the last two or three centuries.”