• Arts
  • February 7, 2007
  • 8 minutes read

Combining Rock Music with an Islamic Message

In Turkey today, traditional Islamic music is giving way to the hard rock sound of “Yesil Pop”. But along with the normal rock beat and guitar rifts, comes not a message of sex and drugs, but rather praising God. Dorian Jones reports

The growing modern Islamic music movement has been dubbed by the Turkish media Yesil or “green pop”. With some albums selling more than a million copies the music easily outstrips popular western music.

Feridun Özdemir, with his shoulder length black hair, and tight fitting jeans looks like your typical rock star. His records are among most successful in the Yesil pop genre.

I met Özdemir at Marmara FM, one of Istanbul’s most popular radio stations. Istanbul has more than dozen stations solely dedicated to “Yesil Pop”. Özdemir presents a daily drive time program, with over half a million listeners. He says combining rock music with an Islamic message came to him easily.

Feridun Özdemir’s Islamic rock band

The lyrics of Özdemir’s band speak not of sex and drugs, but of God and true faith

There are no women singers

“I had very good friends in the rock music scene, and I loved the sound. But I grew up loving religious music and its message too. Because my instrument is the guitar I thought if I was to make music I would bring these two together and it happened very naturally.”

At Yildirim record shop, which is close to Istanbul University where many of its customers study, business is brisk. The jam-packed shelves of CDs and cassettes give a small insight into the range of Islamic pop music.

It draws on a wide range of influences from rock to reggae to dance, but unlike its secular Turkish pop counterpart there are no women singers. Owner of the shop is Hasan Turker. He is also a distributor for more than a dozen Yesil pop bands. Turker says the rise of Yesil reflects major changes in Turkish society.

“In Turkey in the 80’s there were very few people interested in contemporary Islamic music. But everything changed in the mid 90’s when there was this explosion. The mid 90’s were very important with the opening up of many TV and radio stations, which started playing Turkish pop music.

At the same time you saw the first successes of a pro-Islamic political party, which had a big influence on many people, especially the young. So the 90’s created the culture for the rise of this music, now it has become so big, I am now approached every day by new bands.”

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A whole music industry has grown up within a few years to support the new genre. Yesil pop videos are as highly produced as their Turkish secular counterparts, but without the images of sexily dressed women usually seen on Turkish television. Islamic media too has exploded on to the scene, with TV and radio stations broadcasting the music.

Turkey’s two parallel lives

Political analyst and commentator Nuray Mert says Turkey is a society developing along two different paths: “Turkey is divided into roughly two parallel lives, with everything what music you listen, who is your neighbour, which part of city you live, and there is no interrelation between these two parallel lifestyles, each treat each other like foreigners.”

Such is the division in Turkey few secular people are even aware of the music. Assistant Professor Songul Ata of Istanbul Technical University, is one of the few secular people to have studied the Yesil pop phenomena.

Ata says its success is a reaction to the explosion in western culture in Turkey and a desire by many to protect their identity. But she is concerned about the message the music carries.

“I think this is dangerous because it’s, ’My God, you know everything,’ all the time, and they repeat many times ’God is great, and they sing about paradise. This kind of fatalism is not good for the people. People don’t think of science. Only God knows everything.”

Islamic zeitgeist

But Feridun Özdemir dismisses such concerns, arguing like any other rock music it is just reflecting the times, in a way young people can relate to.

“At the root of rock music is shouting and crying; that is how you express yourself with the music, the rhythms. But traditional religious music is very soft. But in the world we live in today, there is war, countries are being invaded there all these killings… I want to express myself through shouting and crying, which I think young people can relate to. That’s why I want to represent my faith through the music of today.”

At Özdemir’s latest Istanbul concert, the hall is packed. Most of the audience is in their teens and early twenties and most are men. Özdemir’s performance is loud and roar-cast, with him pounding the stage, as you would expect from any rock star.

But strangely the fans sat quietly in their seats and applauded quietly after each song. But while the reaction was restrained, the love and enthusiasm for the music was not. Student Cem Gun cannot get enough of Yesil Pop.

“It has meaning it is based on traditional Islamic ideals and lyrics and it is combined with rhythms, so I love this sound. What the music says, what is behind it makes it so important and so different from the normal Turkish pop and western music you hear. This music is made by people like us for us, it is our music and I love it.”

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