As multi-faceted as Asia Minor

. In his latest work "Liebe, D-Mark und Tod" (Love, D-Mark and Death), film director Cem Kaya turns his attentions to the musical culture of Turkish migrants in Germany.
. In his latest work "Liebe, D-Mark und Tod" (Love, D-Mark and Death), film director Cem Kaya turns his attentions to the musical culture of Turkish migrants in Germany.

Known for his documentary films about Turkish pop culture, German-born director Cem Kaya's latest work "Liebe, D-Mark und Tod" (Love, Deutschmarks and Death) focuses on the musical culture of Turkish migrants in Germany. He talks to Schayan Riaz about his creative processes, German-Turkish relations and of course, about the music

By Schayan Riaz

Mr Kaya, as a documentary filmmaker, what interested you in particular about the history of Turkish music in Germany?

Cem Kaya: My first two films were about Turkish pop culture. The first one was called "Arabesk – Vom Gossensound zum Massenpop" (Arabesque – From Backstreet Sounds to Mass Market Pop) and the second "Remake, Remix, Rip-Off – Uber Kopierkultur und das turkische Pop-Kino” (On the Culture of Replication and Turkish Pop Cinema). In "Arabesk", I attempted to analyse – through the history of internal migration in Turkey – the musical genre and societal phenomenon that is 'arabesque' music.

This music, created in the studios of Istanbul and by no means traditional, became a means of expression for poor people who came from all over the country to live in what’s known as the 'gecekondus', illegally constructed shanty towns on the edges of large cities. The music and the lyrics assuaged their woes and the yearning for homeland and family; offering some comfort in misery. Initially, the nation’s elites turned up their noses at a music that sounded Arab to Turkish ears, but arabesque grew and became mainstream. It has always been a controversial issue, and that’s why I wanted to make a film about it.

Turkish music in Germany – a phenomenon in its own right

Before I made my second film, I wrote a master’s thesis about Turkish cinema and its practice of adapting Hollywood movies. During this process, I noticed that owing to the immense market for videos and music cassettes, Turkish music in Germany is a phenomenon in its own right. So initially, I also wanted to approach the subject as academic research.

And where did you start? With writing again?

Kaya: I sat down for seven months, researched, read and wrote. Martin Greve was a major resource, he wrote the book "Die Musik der imaginaren Türkei" (The Music of Imaginary Turkey) making him one of the first to conduct a comprehensive round-up of the Kurdish-Turkish music scene. "35 Jahre HipHop in Deutschland" (35 Years of Hip-Hop in Germany) by Sascha Verlan and Hannes Loh was another resource, focusing on the music of the second and third generation.


I also owe a great deal to the "Songs of Gastarbeiter" (Songs of Guestworkers). In this compilation by Bulent Kullukcu and Imran Ayata, I heard so-called guestworkers singing in German for the first time. I may have grown up with music from Turkey, but I’d never encountered the singer Yuksel Ozkasap, the "Nightingale from Cologne" who sold millions of albums in Germany. I unexpectedly found Turkish pop culture in Germany.

Personal accents such as these also come across in your films. Did they help transport you back to your childhood and youth?

Kaya: When we were young, we often went to music restaurants known as 'gazinos'; Turkish weddings were always a highlight; and then there were the trips to Turkey with our parents, with music on non-stop in the car. I really like music; I’ve remained true to the culture. I still listen to the Berlin Turkish-language radio station Metropol FM. Maybe it’s not as hip and cool as WDR’s Cosmo Radio, but really close to the community.

My interest in Turkish pop culture began in the early 2000s, so before my film "Remake, Remix, Rip-Off", when I started to recall music and films from my childhood. This process of reflection generally kicks in when you’re a young adult. Through the research for my films, I began to properly understand the links between contemporary events, politics and pop. That opened completely new narrative possibilities for me.

Your film is being shown more than 60 years after the signing of the labour recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey. How do musicians look back on this time? For example, they also sing about their experience of racism. Is there any kind of lesson there for today’s generation?

Kaya: In the collective migrant memory, much has changed since the fall of the Wall and later, the introduction of the Euro. We’re fond of recalling the good old D-Mark, a time of supposed abundance, both economic and cultural. That’s also why the film is called "Ask, Mark ve Olum", or Love, Deutschmarks and Death. When we reflect on the deutschmark, it is glorified as hard currency that brought prosperity. The introduction of the Euro amounts to a devaluation; it also spelled the disappearance of lavish cultural life as represented by 'gazino' culture. But to your question: I’ve never encountered anyone who only wanted to talk about discrimination. That’s down to processing and suppression. After all, we’re focusing on telling a story from the musical perspective.



"No such thing as a homogeneous Turkish culture"

But in the film, we see this generation making very definite political music in response to certain grievances…

Kaya: Correct. In the film I talk about the Asik culture, evident not just in Turkey but across the entire Middle East, for example in Iran or Azerbaijan. It’s the culture of what’s known as the Asik, Ozan, Dengbej or Hafiz, the wandering storytellers and folk singers, who pass on their knowledge, traditions and stories orally. Hafiz translates as memory, they convey oral tradition and history. The great Asik Metin Turkoz from our film improvises melodies and raps spontaneous verses about life here in Germany. A bit like freestyle hip-hop. He denounces life circumstances – a mouthpiece for the workers in his milieu.

This tradition of popular poetry has also produced the duo "Derdiyoklar", an Alevi wedding band. They’re more at one with nature and perform traditional sagas in the form of poetry known as Deyiş. The traditional long-necked lute baglama, also called the saz, enjoys sacred status in Alevi culture; it’s also referred to as the "Koran with strings" because music plays a big part in Alevi religion. Derdiyoklar are critical and political. One of their songs is called "Yaz Gazeteci Yaz", or 'Write, Journalist, Write'. Don’t just write about the rich people, but also about the poor people in the village. Another song, this time about the situation in Germany, is called "Liebe Gabi" (Dear Gabi). It’s about xenophobia and racism here.

What’s happened to this tradition? Are there still versions of these musicians in today’s German-Turkish community?

Kaya: But of course! They’re there. The Alevi community is very well-organised. They’re always getting musicians from Turkey to perform in Germany; but there are also Internet phenomena such as Malek Samo or hip-hop bands like Microphone Mafia who continue to criticise conditions in Germany. "Depressionen im Ghetto" (Depression in the Ghetto) by Haftbefehl for example is a highly political song. Migrant music has in any case shifted to hip-hop and pop. I’m thinking of Elif, Summer Cem, Pashanim.


The musical culture of Turkey is highly diverse. It was important for me to show that there’s no such thing as a homogeneous Turkish culture. There’s Kurdish music which has its own set of differences. Dersim songs are different to those from Erzincan. There’s the music of the Circassians, the Laz, the Yazidis. Wedding parties with Azerbaijani roots are for example much more exuberant than the usual celebrations. It’s an immensely important tradition to give money to the wedding couple. Musicians tell us how people shower each other with cash. Many different cultures come together in Germany.

So, would it be fair to say that German-Turkish music culture has lost something along the way? The music of the guestworkers in your film, can this really be compared with that of the contemporary artists you mention like Elif, Summer Cem, or Haftbefehl? That’s something quite different.

Kaya: Maybe they don’t need to be compared with each other at all. But they can be related to each other. And yes, something is always lost between generations. But something new emerges too. Sixties jazz can’t be bottled either. Today there’s a different kind of jazz, but it didn’t arise from nothing. In my film I profile different artists from different generations and wonder, for example, what Muhabbet is up to nowadays, and how did Metin Turkoz do that back then? I draw parallels and seek a common thread.

Interview conducted by Schayan Riaz

© 2022

Translated from the German by Nina Coon