Netherlands-based psychedelic rock band Altin Gün have made an international name for themselves by reimagining classic and traditional Turkish songs, updating them to appeal to contemporary audiences. They’ve done this so effectively that in 2019, their second album, Gece, was nominated for a Grammy award in the “Best World Music Album” category.
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With Yol, their third album (released on February 26 via ATO Records), Altin Gün continue their musical explorations, this time taking a more electronic-centric approach to the material compared to their more guitar-driven prior releases. Calling from her Amsterdam home, vocalist/keyboardist Merve Daşdemir explains that this new direction is due to the current COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on their creative process.
“We couldn’t get together, so we demoed everything from home. We all work on Logic,” Daşdemir says, so as a result, “essentially [this album] sounded a bit electronic. But it wasn’t super intentional. It was more like, pandemic, so we have to do it differently. Which, I really enjoyed. This is the most creative input I put on an Altin Gün album so far, so it’s kind of my personal favorite, in that sense. Because I really like working alone, so this was perfect for me.
“I already knew every song I wanted to sing and do on this album,” Daşdemir continues. “In March, beginning of quarantine, I already had all my songs in my head, so it was just literally translating what’s in my head to the computer and the music. Jasper [Verhulst, bassist] had this drum machine and he would make beats and other grooves. And then I would lay down the chorus and turn it into a song, basically. That’s how we worked: eeverybody slowly adding their own stuff.”
As with every Altin Gün album, Yol features a mixture of traditional Turkish songs with well-known Turkish hits (especially drawing on the ‘60s and ‘70s period in popular music there). So, while listeners outside of Turkey are likely hearing this material for the first time, Daşdemir says that performing these songs is quite a nostalgic thing for her. “I’m Turkish, [so] I know all this music. It’s super familiar to me,” she says. “It’s also super familiar to everybody in Turkey, but not the rest of the world, basically. To me, it feels like a tribute.”
Daşdemir says that audiences in Turkey have been very enthusiastic about Altin Gün’s reinterpretations of these beloved songs. “Whenever we go there, we always have three nights in a row sold out shows and just have a great time, so I’d like to think we’re well received,” she says. “I guess some people are maybe not content with the mainstream music there right now, and so they’re also missing these old tunes. How we re-make them, they seem to really like it.”
Playing these songs, Daşdemir says, has also turned out to be good because “you’re introducing them to a new generation [of Turkish people]. Like my nieces: they didn’t know these songs. They’re young, so they didn’t know these songs at all before Altin Gün did them. So it’s also cool to introduce their own heritage to them in a contemporary way.”
As far as deciding which songs, in particular, Altin Gün should play, “Erdinç [Ecevit, vocalist/keyboardist] knows what he wants to do,” Daşdemir says. “I know what I want to do. And Jasper has ideas. And then we just make them. We try them out and see what works. When you make something, you immediately feel from the start if it’s going to work or not.”
Although it might seem unusual to find a Dutch band playing Turkish music, it seems to have come about in an organic way about five years ago. Verhulst fell in love with Turkish music when his previous band played a series of shows in Istanbul. Returning to the Netherlands, he decided to put together a new band that would play a “best of” variety of traditional and popular Turkish songs. He posted a call for like-minded local musicians on Facebook, listing some of the well-known Turkish artists he intended to cover.
At that time, Daşdemir had been living in The Netherlands for two years, moving there from her native Istanbul to be with her Dutch boyfriend. A self-taught singer and pianist, she was connected in the Amsterdam music scene, and one of her friends there saw Verhulst’s post and brought it to her attention. “He said, ‘This is your cultural heritage. What do you think?’ I was like, ‘Holy shit, these are my heroes from childhood.’ I couldn’t believe that a Dutch guy wanted to make this music,” Daşdemir says.
After Daşdemir responded to the Facebook post, “Jasper came to my house and we drank some and listened to some music and talked, and then it was done, basically,” she says. The rest of the six-piece band—a mixture of musicians with Dutch and Turkish backgrounds—came together just as easily. “We never had additions, actually. The first six persons that went into the room, was the band. It’s kind of funny.”
At first, Altin Gün (which means “golden day” in Turkish) had modest aspirations. “We really thought we were just going to play a bunch of shows in Amsterdam,” Daşdemir says. “We started pulling the Turkish crowd living in Europe—the diaspora Turks. And then the hipster Dutch people. So the crowd became really this sociological case, in my opinion, but in a very beautiful way. People from totally different backgrounds.”
From there, the band’s popularity grew, and they began touring extensively across Europe. “I think people really like our live shows, and that’s how we became a thing. That positivity and that fun, it just translates, and everybody has a good time. I miss playing so much,” Daşdemir says. After releasing their 2018 debut album, On, they expanded their touring circuit to North America, as well.
Although Altin Gün can’t perform around the world now to support Yol, like they normally would, Daşdemir says that she has felt encouraged as they’ve watched fans’ reactions to the new songs on social media, “and they seem to be really excited, so that makes me excited, too!”
Photo by Rona Lane