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  • Gastarbeiter music: The unsuspected sound of immigration


Gastarbeiter music: The unsuspected sound of immigration

A new film from Berlin-based director Cem Kaya aims to shed light on the forgotten music of the Gastarbeiter, Germany's subculture of Turkish migrant workers.

In the 1980s, Ozan Canani composed ‘Deutsche Freunde’ (German friends).

We usually associate the term ‘sub-culture’ with underground youth pop movements, like the mods and rockers of 1950s and 1960s UK, or the punk-rock scene of the 1970s. And yet, in Germany, the real sub- culture was the Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in divided Germany – now finally emerging from the shadows.

Turkish guest workers also opened gazinos – live music venues where people could sit down at a table and enjoy a drink and mezze while listening to singers perform

For the longest time, the Gastarbeiter music scene existed entirely off the mainstream media radar, spawning its own stars, labels, venues and distribution networks. “In my time, Germans always made it clear to us – through their ignorance and superior attitudes – that our own culture was worth nothing,” says 46-year-old Berlin-based director Cem Kaya in a recent interview. His film Liebe, D-Mark und Tod (Love, Deutschmarks and Death, released last October) is a remarkable love song to the culture of his forefathers, and an attempt to pay due respect to the best ‘subculture’ pre-Wende Berlin had to offer. It deservingly won the Panorama Audience Award at the 2022 Berlinale. Meanwhile, a compilation of immigrant hits called Songs of Gastarbeiter, Vol. 2 was released to coincide with the film’s launch. The first compilation, released in 2013, was the inspiration for Kaya’s film.

The songs behind the film

The whole idea of compiling music by or for German guest workers and the resulting Songs of Gastarbeiter, Vol. 1 were initiated by two Turkish-German fifty-something Berliners: Imran Ayata, an author, music compiler and sometime DJ together with Bülent Kullukçu, an artist, director and composer. Today, they trace back the genesis of the whole project to their discovery of a forgotten Turkish balladeer who was on the fringes of the Gastarbeiter music scene in 1980s Germany.

Sometime around 1983, a young Turkish electrician called Ozan Ata Canani had composed a song called ‘Deutsche Freunde’ (German friends). Ayata and Kullukçu discovered a YouTube snippet from a TV show featuring Canani singing it with a three-person band, accompanying himself on a bağlama (otherwise known as a saz, a long-necked lute). Ayata immediately knew ‘Deutsche Freunde’ deserved to be brought back to life. The clip had a paltry 20 or 30 views, but it was giving expression to a generation of guest workers, a whole people’s struggles and ethos. “We tried to get in touch… but even within the Turkish community, not a lot of people knew of his whereabouts,” says Kaya.

Imran Ayata and Bülent Kullukçu.

Bringing Canani back to life

They eventually found Canani on Facebook. He answered immediately, as if he’d always been waiting for them. “I told him what we were planning,” says Ayata, “and he jumped at it.” He said: “For 40 years, no one called me.” However, they discovered that Canani didn’t own a copy of the song. “He had peformed it on a TV show, but he didn’t have the recording. He had another tape, but it was at his ex-wife’s place and they weren’t on speaking terms. So, in essence, there was no recording of that song,” remembers Ayata. “Then we came up with the idea of going to the studio. Ozan asked two of the musicians from back in the 1980s to join him. They were these ageing guys – like a Turkish version of Buena Vista Social Club – and we recorded the song. It was funny because there were no notes, no liner notes, nothing. The musicians were struggling to listen to this very bad-quality snippet. They jammed a bit, and then we recorded that song. That was the beginning of the Songs of Gastarbeiter project.”

The labels behind the music

Back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the Germans’ disregard for Gastarbeiter music meant that the Turkish community built up their own network of labels from scratch. One of them was Uzelli in Frankfurt, which also features in Kaya’s film.

Germans always made it clear to us – through their ignorance and superior attitudes – that our own culture was worth nothing

Uzelli didn’t actually begin selling music at its outset. When Muammer Uzelli and his brother Yavuz started the business in Frankfurt’s Bahnhofsviertel back in 1971, it was an unofficial social club of Turkish Gastarbeiter. Here, they could sip tea and trade news. Soon, the Uzellis started responding to the very specific demands of Turkish guest workers in Germany. Initially, they sold meat grinders, spaghetti machines and typewriters, which the Gastarbeiter would bring home from their annual summer holidays. “We also sold specially designed, heat-resistant cassettes,” says Uzelli. The idea was that they could withstand constant playing in overheated tape-decks during the three or four day road-trips though Europe and the Balkans to Turkey.

A parallel world of gazinos

In addition to labels, Turkish guest workers also opened gazinos – live music venues where people could sit down at a table and enjoy a drink and mezze while listening to singers perform. As Liebe, D-Mark und Tod shows, Berlin was full of such places, the most famous being the fabled Turkish Bazaar located at the disused, elevated Bülowstraße U-Bahn station, which was full of cafes and music shops, including one owned by legendary Turkish ashik (poet/ bard), Nesat Ertas.

Turkish Gastarbeiter and their families lived enigmatic lives, isolated in neighbourhoods pushed up against the Berlin Wall in dangerous no-go zones into which few outsiders ventured. That thousands of spectators could flock to see Sezan Aksu, or any other big Turkish name, in Berlin venues holding up to 20,000 spectators, would have come as a big surprise to most West Berliners at the time. Everything was under the radar. Germans paid scant attention to the Turks. “It was really, in a funny way, a parallel world,” says Ayata.

From rock to rap

Despite the amazing success of Liebe, D-Mark und Tod, as well as the broad resonance that neo-Anatolian folk artists like Derya Yildirim and Elektro Hafiz enjoy, Cem Kaya says that Turkish culture is still very much ignored in Germany, even in the case of huge pop stars like Tarkan Tevetoğlu. He remembers recently going to a Tarkan concert, and there being not a single German in the audience
– and, of course, no German press. “The lack of curiosity among most Germans is astonishing,” Ayaka concurs. Given such ignorance, it’s not stretching things to say that Liebe, D-Mark und Tod is about enlightening a whole society on an amazing subculture that was thriving in their midst.

Using a veritable trove of rare and often quirky television and film footage culled from German archives from the mid 1950s – when the first Turkish guest workers started trickling into Germany – to the 1990s, it also documents Germany’s attitude to immigrants – from ignorance to ostracism to bare-faced violence. Entering the 1990s, the documentary broadens its approach: as newly reunified Germany witnesses a succession of murderous neo-Nazi attacks, it shows the second generation Turks form rap groups giving vent to their rage at racism and societal exclusion. With groups like Cartel and Islamic Force newly on the scene, the wilful ‘Deutsche Freunde’ sung by the 1980s rockers seemed to come from a bygone world.

And now? As Der Spiegel mentioned in a recent article on the sons and daughters of Turkish Gastarbeiter, “the rage is over”. Erci E from Cartel is still producing music in Berlin, Killa Hakan one time Islamic Force group member, is now a star in Turkey – and Ozan Canani is finally enjoying his belated 15 minutes of fame.

  • Liebe, D-Mark und Tod screens as part of EXBlicks at Lichtblick Kino, Jan 26, 20:00, with English subtitles and in the presence of director Cem Kaya.