An Urban Poet in Popular Turkish Music

Bülent Ortaçgil

When his first 45 RPM vinyl record began turning, the calendars showed the date of 1971. Easier said than done, we’re talking about a professional music career of around half a century. His name is Bulent Ortacgil, aka Urban Poet…

Urban culture, which means in the literature that people or organizational structures living in cities adopt typical urban attitudes and behaviors, are aware of the fact that they are urban individuals, actors and shareholders and behave accordingly, is built with psychological principles such as reconciliation and empathy. The reason why the cultural and artistic potential in the city is so diverse that can appeal to the people of all kinds and tastes in a wide aesthetic range is this formal canon. Because the city is also a hybrid ecosystem. It is chaotic. As our subject is music, if we corroborate it with a proper expression, urbanism means polyphony. Against this chaos in the city, Ortacgil’s music whispers the compromise, respect for the other, a naive inner voice spreading from the individual to the society, a loneliness that is not miserable but venerable to the listeners’ ears. It makes the people of the crowds love their loneliness, and relieves their agony of solitude. In the song “Don’t Pull a Long Face, Little Girl” from artist’s first 45 RPM vinyl record, whom he calls with the lyrics of “Stop worrying / Think whether you’re the only one / Forgetting to be loved / Every black has a white side / There is also the days of the nights” is the metropolitan person who is lonely in crowds, unhappy, who loves but forgets to be loved. Ortacgil’s listeners whom he philosophically communicates learn from his lyrics that he is not alone, more precisely that everyone can feel the same desperation in modern life from time to time. He finds peace and comfort. In another song called Meaningless from the same vinyl, the aphorisms of “Life is beautiful if you see / Everywhere is joyful if you hear” act as a powerful rehabilitation and comfort.

First Steps in Music Career
The political climate in Turkey in that period can be described as the eve of a time when the action and chaos were dominant in terms of social events and structurally the eve of a quick squatting period. Cities were on the verge attracting rural population and faced a serious demographic obesity. There was a social mobility where social separations like rich-poor and urban-peasant and ghettoization in metropolises started to emerge, and the class differences gradually increased. Ortacgil sees this period when he just started his music career as a lucky period when he looks from his own musical angle. During that time, Turkish classical music and folk music which was a deep-rooted music genre based on the folkloric tradition were dominant in Turkey. Arabesque music, which evolved from this kind and became very popular among people of rural origin in the city, was banned on state televisions and radios during the 70s and 80s.

Bulent Ortaçgil just finished high school and started university. He didn’t have almost no musical knowledge, but he had a self learning musical ear. He was listening to music like crazy. He was obsessed with some musicians. His eyes and ears were always on the West. In the late 60s, he was following the Anglo-Saxon music groups which were set up with a high acceleration of musicality and appreciation..  Anglo-Saxon music groups began to be followed with admiration. His favorite groups were Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and he also liked Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. However, his biggest admiration was for The Beatles, and he knew all its songs in detail including their stories. Art and sociology are the disciplines that support each other in terms of internal dynamics and produce solutions with basic principles for understanding the other’s aspects needing explanation. The theoretical analysis that can be reached from this principle is that the rock music genre that developed in the West at the end of the 60s have the feature of social expression. The sociocultural reformist structure of the period began to infiltrate “Spirit Of Time” as futurism (Zeitgeist- “The Spirit of the Age”).Herder’s Zeitgeist explains it very well on a theoretical basis. This view says, “The diligent safe hand of the sage can guide the spirit of time with the right timing, but in principle it must surrender to it”. “Flower Children” of the 60s applied the power of Herder’s idea in their life. Socially, a great renewal and refreshing trend started. All these broke the routine.

“Shall it be ‘to be’, shall it be ‘not to be’”
A 45 RPM vinyl record which was not really complimented commercially and fifth place in the “Most Promising Male Artist” survey conducted by Hey Magazine in 1971 showed that Bülent Ortacgil’s musical career did not start so well. His music seemed to move one step beyond the spirit of time for these lands. For Ortacgil, wide valleys where he can expand in the geography of music did not emerge yet. In the first half of the 70s, he spent time with more folkloric-based musical quests and academic education on chemical engineering. Ali Kocatepe, who likes and follows Bulent Ortacgil’s musical vision, released the album “Will you play with me?” in 1974 that includes the most cult Ortacgil songs. In this album where he worked with names such as Onno Tunc and Ergun Pekakcan, the veteran musicians of the Western-origin arrangements with Turkish lyrics, there are wonderful songs that first come to mind when we think of Ortacgil and the melodies of which have been engraved in our memories. Hits like “Good Morning”, “Shall it be ‘to be’, shall it be ‘not to be’”, “Will You Play With Me?”, “Şık Latife”, “Everything Begins with Love” helped the album to remain fresh for more than forty years, and topped the list of the most memorable albums in the history of popular Turkish music. In various interviews with the artist, his words about the modesty of the commercial gain he obtained from this album revealed the fact that Ortacgil songs still cannot meet the masses. The singer was only able to buy a Dual pickup with the revenue from this album. No one could have predicted that it would be released by the World Psychedelia Company in the United States thirty years after the release of the album, and after forty years its long play version would sell like hot cakes in the Turkish music market.

“2nd Stage”
There is a term called Ortacgil lover in the daily jargon of music terminology. In fact, it can be thought as the names for the performances of the great masters of the art produced by the unique minds. For instance, there is a phrase called “Shakespearean tragedy” in theatre literature, or the works inspired by Franz Kafka are described as literary texts written in “Kafkaesque style”. As these definitions, stereotyped term of Ortacgil lover will emerge with the 2nd Stage album. The artist has taken a break of nearly ten years in his music career. During this interim he returned to the chemical engineering business and even lived in Norway for a while. Together with the great composer and songwriter Fikret Kızılok, who made important contributions to the world of popular Turkish music like himself, Ortacgil founded Çekirdek Art House. Many compositions and albums that have great impact on Turkish music would emerge from this cooperation.

Ortacgil’s Quest For Meaning As A Musical Philosophy
Besides Bulent Ortacgil’s composer identity with pure and serene compositions, he is also a songwriter who has a serious poetic background which he built with intensive metaphors and subtexts. The artist states that his songs are in a flow of meaning that leads to thinking, and he tries to ensure that his music is in such clarity not obscure these deep metaphors. It should be noted that poetically closed narration stands out as the basic attitude of Ortacgil’s songwriting. In the lyrics where the subtextual fiction and imaginative richness are at the highest level, listeners find traces of their own life adventures and thus become more integrated with composition and poetry. Inferences are subjective; the listener’s quest for meaning becomes personalized, grows and multiplies within a wide room of maneuver. Music lovers’s liking, understanding and internalization of Ortacgil songs are directly proportional to their efforts. A simple philosophy, the glory of the routine and the ordinary are the dominant colors in the poetic range of Ortacgil. In his piece titled “Normal” from the album “Light”, which was an implicitly critical album released in 1998, he makes fun with modern man’s sense of being caught in the middle between normal and abnormal in a pleasant, positive, ironic manner and in the form of a monologue tirade.

All the songs of Ortacgil, which we love as we listen to and which make us lower our colors as we try to understand, are like cuts on our personal past that aches when we look their scars. You may want to listen to the poetic metaphors in the lyrics of the song “My Songs Are Yours” from the same album of the poet from himself. “Songs are mostly a poem / Then, I am a poet.”


Who is Bulent Ortacgil?
Bulent Ortacgil is a leading figure who has been actively involved in the history of Turkish pop and rock music since the beginning of the 70s, and opened new doors to his contemporaries and the next generation musicians with his discography enriched with his personal musical style and songs written and composed by himself.

Tunes By The Urban Poet
The artist, who is known as the urban poet, has chosen to live in metropolises, inside crowds, in a chaotic environment where everyone experiences a different life struggle, to fall in love, to tell the beautiful sides and sorrows of life. From this point of view, the songs he sang with a clean Turkish and a rich musicality are like separate and valuable parts of an unfinished novel.

Naive and Ironic Assumptions
There is a rich philosophy in the lyrics of Ortacgil. For example, in one of his songs, he says “This is difficult Yonca, because people stay for days without asking questions”, and “My head is like an unfurnished empty room, my words fall down from the walls” in another song. In his song called September Evening, he makes naive and ironic assumptions on the probabilities of love: “Maybe my money travelled and entered in your pocket in a way / Maybe we put letters in the same post box in different times”.

“I asked if the beers are cold
He said normal
And the weather?
Very normal
And the Works, travels?
All normal
And you and me?
He said normal
And we two?
Very normal
I said and our mood?
What he said? Normal
Can someone tell what is this normal?
I am bored, am I abnormal?”

Bulent Ortacgil’s Albums
Will You Play With Me? (1974), Songs for the Wind (1984), We… Our Songs (1985), The Window Flower (1986), 2. Stage (1990), Let’s Go On Playing (1991), These Songs are Incorrigible (1994), Light (1998), Old Notebooks (1999), Songs are a Game (2000), Night Lies (2003).

Joint Albums
1991: The Other Side of Turkey (with Erkan Ogur), 1995: Songs for Wind (Ayşegul Yesilnil), 1996: Lifelong Guest (Erkan Ogur), 2000: Ortacgil Songs for Ortacgil (Tribute Album), 2001: How Many Years Have Passed, History of Turkish Pop Music Tarihi ( with “Will You Play with Me?”), 2005: Bedside Songs 2 (with Zuhal Olcay “Keep Quiet, Don’t Let Him Hear”), 2005: Love, Peace&Poetry: Turkish Psychedelic Music (with “You are Here”), 2006: 41 Times Masallah (with “Life Begins with Hope”), 2007: Quarter (with “Talking to Your Skin”), 2011: Hail to Sky, 2014: We Lack One

By: Necati Bulut

*This article was  published in the  July– August issue of Marmara Life. 

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