Four Men and a Muse

By Charlotte Parker:

The heart of Tünel, Istanbul’s music district, beats with the tentative sounds of customers testing out instruments and the rhythms from hundreds of radios. Goatskin drums and electric guitars of Hendrix vintage hang over the sidewalk on the main street of shops. Amidst this jumble, Selim Sümer, the lead singer and guitarist for a young Turkish electro-rock band called Multitap, was noticeable wearing cantaloupe-colored skinny jeans and a purple plaid shirt. He carried a plastic bag full of cold beers, which he had purchased to share.

Sümer’s brightly colored attire gave off an air of creative power. He has a whimsical way about him—his eyes crinkle at the corners, and when he speaks in English his words are poetic. At Multitap’s studio above one of those Tünel music stores, he introduced the band’s keyboarder Sertaç Ozgümüs, who has a firm handshake and a haircut spiked like a triceratops’s spine. Both men were initially reserved, but they spoke with excitement as soon as Ozgümüs hit play on a sample of their music.

That music is an explosive popsicle of electric guitar, synthesizer, and keyboard, led by Sümer’s energetic vocals. Most of the tracks from their 2010 album, Takim Oyunu, or Team Game in English, have the echo-y tinge and power chords of an updated ‘80s ballad. The simplicity of the lyrics, all in Turkish, have something of the Beatles to them, and Sümer cited synthesizer-rock giants Phoenix and MGMT as other favorite influences.

The cover of the band’s 2010 album, Takim Oyunu, pays homage to their coming together over a four-person soccer videogame. (Courtesy Multitap)

In Brooklyn, Paris, London, or any other global city known for its alternative music scene, Multitap’s electro-pop would not be particularly groundbreaking. But in Turkey, their bright music is different. The band has a fiercely hopeful vision for their songs.

Any musician aiming for a wide audience in Turkey must deal with the specter of arabesk music, a melancholy synthesis of Turkish folk, Egyptian bellydance, and  Western pop music that became popular in the early 1970s.

According to Sümer, the majority of albums released today by big production companies bears an arabesk influence on the beat or the emotional register of the lyrics. Arabesk music can be found both in restaurant kitchens and at the swankiest clubs along Istanbul’s Golden Mile, and singers of arabesk are national personalities with business interests and political connections. In March, when Ibrahim Tatlises, the “godfather” of the genre, was shot through the head in a drive-by assassination attempt, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited him in the Intensive Care Unit.

“Arabesk is by now very embedded in the music we listen to,” said Didem Acar, manager of Edessa TV, a local news and music station in Tatlises’ southeastern hometown of Sanlıurfa. “But the interesting thing is that arabesk is defined in very specific ways, so some people wouldn’t like to be seen as listeners of it.”

Impressions of the genre from a wide variety of people were spectacularly one-dimensional, almost always accompanied by a laugh or roll of the eyes.

“It is a specific type of people that listen to arabesk music,” said Aziz Yildis, a performer of folk and arabesk songs in Sanlıurfa. “They are not college educated. If you have a good motivation and are a happy person, you will not listen to arabesk music. If you are alcoholic and depressed, you will.”

This sort of hyperbolic stereotype stems from arabesk’s origins. The genre emerged from the gecekondu, or squatter settlements, of Istanbul and other expanding cities. Ethnic Kurds and predominantly Arab Turks from the rural southeast of Turkey were discriminated against for their lack of education, guttural accent, and traditional religious practices. Arabesk began as an expression of these inequalities, and its widespread success has been paradoxical.

Sümer and Ozgümüs joked about arabesk, also associating it with old men slouching around shady bars. They both played back-up instrumentals for arabesk artists, however, and they became serious when discussing the genre’s impact on the direction of Multitap’s own music.

“Almost all the words in arabesk songs relate to how the singer is suffering because of a status out of his control,” Sümer explained. “So in arabesk there is always an idea of self-demising, which really affects the culture and the people who listen to the music in any form.”

“In Turkey, the biggest market is reserved for those who are self-victimizing,” added Eset Akgilad, a scriptwriter and friend of Multitap. He referred to arabesk superstars like Tatlises, a multi-millionaire, who still sings about being a victim of discrimination. Sümer and Ozgümüs agreed that arabesk has perpetuated a culture of easy self-victimization, where people feel that they have no agency and no choice in their lives. They added that its dominance in Turkey’s musical landscape has also left the public with little sense of what else they could listen to, or how else they could feel.

“It’s much easier to listen to a song that talks about how we’re all suffering from this common pain than it is to put on a song about how beautiful it is to be around with your blanket,” Sümer said.

Multitap does, in fact, have a song called “Blanket,” and it addresses the stresses of modern life without a hint of complaint. Instead, Sümer sings about how nice it is to take a day off and watch a movie under a checkered blanket. In the music video, the four band members jump around a garage studio, a fluffy golden retriever at their feet. Both the song and the video give off a feeling of campy but honest joy, the direct opposite of anything expressed in a Tatlises song.

This lightheartedness runs through Multitap’s own story, starting with their name, which they take from the device used to connect more than two players to a video game console. The four men came together after playing FIFA soccer, a videogame, at Sümer’s and bass player Taçkın Bilal’s apartment. “We have a lot of fun,” Sümer said. “We’re four guys living together with a muse.”

Nonetheless, their musical play has serious intentions.

“We’re making a war to give people a choice of something other,” Sümer said, closing his eyes in search of the right phrasing. “Something other than the traditional, than what has been given, what has been done and re-done and re-visited.”

This perpetuated status quo, he explained, is exemplified by arabesk and its various incarnations of self-deprecating melancholy. Multitap hopes that by giving an alternative music, they can remind people that there are alternative paths in any aspect of their lives. They write their music with the hope of giving a new sense of agency to Turkey’s youth—a sense that they can choose, for example, what political party to back, or whether or not to wear the headscarf.

Since 2008, the band has been building momentum and gaining recognition across Turkey. Their first breakthrough came when they won an award for “Best Dance Music Production” at the Miller Music Factory, a Battle of the Bands-type event in Istanbul. Four months later, a movie studio asked them to score the soundtrack for one of the biggest-budget movies in Turkey that year, “Vay Arkadas.” When the commission came, followed by similar offers, they realized the desire within the industry for their sort of music and felt confident enough to begin recording Takim Oyunu.

Multitap released the album and its music videos in 2010 through an Istanbul-based multi-media cooperative, Multi-Arts Production. The company remains small and is run by friends of the band, but Sümer and Ozgümüs said that there is a growing tide of other bands and small labels with similar philosophies. Multitap’s popularity has grown within their target audience: In June, they won an award from Istanbul’s Bogazici University for the year’s “Best Electronic Music.”

By late evening, the streets around Multitap’s studio in Tünel turn into a sunny honeycomb of bars buzzing with young people. A few blocks over from the guitars and drums, dark haired women with bright lipstick and their male friends with piercings and colorful sneakers chat animatedly over drinks. This cosmopolitan crowd is Multitap’s current audience, and in some ways it is hard to imagine the band’s music immediately appealing to youth outside of Turkey’s biggest cities.

But just as the spirit of arabesk spread from slums to mainstream in a period of economic and social depression, in this hopeful moment, a brighter musical narrative could make its way from Tünel to Sanlıurfa and beyond. Multitap is offering that new soundtrack, and Turkey, looking forward, is ready to listen.

Charlotte Parker ’13 is an American Studies major in Berkeley College. The majority of the interviews for this article were conducted in Turkish, through translators.