It’s hard to find a musical niche that hasn’t been explored yet, but Altin Gün seem to have pulled it off: based in The Netherlands, they exclusively play Turkish music—either traditional material that can be more than a hundred years old, or songs that are drawn from that country’s psychedelic pop scene of the sixties and seventies. Blending typical rock instruments with specifically Turkish ones (such as the saz, a three-stringed Turkish lute), the resulting sound is a highly unlikely hybrid of groovy psychedelica, propulsive rhythms, and a distinctive melodic style that often sounds novel to non-Turkish ears. Or, as bassist and leader Jasper Verhulst sums it up during a call from his home in Amsterdam, “We’re basically a band who play Turkish folk traditional songs but in a modernized, danceable way.”
Blending Dutch and Turkish cultural influences is something that seemed natural to Verhulst from a young age. Growing up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of Turkish immigrants, he was accustomed to having Turkish schoolmates and going to Turkish grocery stores. As a result, “I’ve always had a soft spot for Turkish culture and music,” he says.
But the inspiration to create Altin Gün’s unusual musical mix didn’t come until Verhulst played a show in Istanbul with a previous band. While there, he discovered an affinity for Turkish rock music. Also called “Anatolian rock,” this is a unique subgenre that was created in Turkey also during the sixties and seventies. After bands such as The Beatles and Led Zeppelin became popular there, Turkish musicians discovered that psychedelic rock blended particularly well with their own country’s folk music. Incorporating certain scales and other musical elements not typically heard in Western songs, this distinctive fusion led to a very prolific period in Turkish music, spawning dozens of artists who became enormously popular within Turkey while remaining largely unknown outside of it.
By the time he returned to The Netherlands, Verhulst was envisioning a Dutch-Turkish musical blend that would take the best of the Anatolian rock era and beloved traditional Turkish songs, then update them with a modern, funky, carefree sound. “I didn’t know anyone that was doing that kind of music, so I thought it would be cool to play [them] as a live band,” he says. He quit the band he was in and founded Altin Gün (which means “golden day” in Turkish).
Finding Dutch musicians to play the “rock band” part of the Altin Gün equation was relatively easy. Besides Verhulst on bass, the band features Ben Rider (guitar), Daniel Smienk (drums), and Gino Groenveld (percussion). However, while musically skilled, none of these members speak Turkish, which almost made the band a non-starter because, as Verhulst says, “You can’t do it if you don’t have Turkish people in the band, because you’ve got to have people that can understand and sing the lyrics in Turkish.”
To solve this problem, Verhulst put out a request via Facebook for Turkish singers, which brought in Erdinç Ecevit (he is a Dutch native of Turkish descent) and Merve Daşdemir (she had immigrated to Amsterdam from Istanbul a few years earlier). “They were the first two people that actually came, so we were really lucky we didn’t have to go through a bunch of auditions. The first time we rehearsed, it was already good,” Verhulst says. In addition to sharing the vocals, Ecevit also plays synths and the saz, while Daşdemir plays keyboards. Verhulst additionally credits Ecevit with playing all of the most difficult musical parts, as well as helping him select songs to suggest to the rest of the band for inclusion in their set list.
Ecevit and Daşdemir also provide translations of the lyrics for the other members. However, Verhulst stays it’s often very difficult for them to convey the meaning entirely accurately. “Most of these songs are written in a very poetic way, so there’s a lot of expressions and language that’s really hard to translate because it’s things that are only used in Turkish. Sometimes they try to explain it and we’re like, ‘Wow, that’s really weird,’ but in Turkish it makes sense.”
It’s an interesting dynamic, having two members who are so familiar with the source material, while the other four bandmates are just hearing it for the first time. But this “lost in translation” issue does not bother Verhulst. “When we play the music, I usually forget about the lyrics or what they explained to me what it was about. I just feel the emotion and the groove and it moves me in a different way. It’s kind of nice not knowing what the songs are about, because you can give it your own meaning.”
Altin Gün released a debut album, On, in 2018; their second album, Gece (which means “night” in Turkish), came out this past spring. Both releases are comprised almost entirely of songs that are very well known within Turkey, but Verhulst says he and the other members have not worried about how their interpretations of this material will be received there. “I don’t feel any pressure, because it’s not like we had a mission to do this better than the people in Turkey. We play the songs the way it feels right for us to play. We don’t think about it too much. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing because we like it, and people seem to like it.” He adds that the band has, in fact, played many sold out shows in Istanbul.
Audiences outside of Turkey have also embraced the band, resulting in several successful tours across Europe, as well as the group’s first North American shows earlier this year. There have also been critically-applauded appearances at notable festivals, including the 2018 King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Gizzfest in Australia and this year’s Outside Lands in San Francisco.
Next up, the band will return for more U.S. shows this fall, including a stop at Elsewhere in Brooklyn on October 19. Verhulst says they’re particularly looking forward to these shows. “I think it’s special to hear those songs performed live in North America, because there haven’t been a lot of Turkish musicians that have played those traditional songs over there, so it’s a unique experience to hear those songs played live.” He notes that unlike Germany and The Netherlands, the U.S. does not have large Turkish immigrant communities, so the people from Turkey who live here are especially appreciative when they get the chance to see this music performed.
“Usually the audiences go really crazy and dance, and it’s uplifting—that’s what we hope for, always. We try to perform as well as we can, every show—it doesn’t matter if it’s our own club show or a festival,” Verhulst says. (Good examples of what to expect from this band’s performances can be found on YouTube by searching for “Altin Gün – Leyla (Live at Vondelbunker, Amsterdam)” and “Altin Gün – Full Performance (Live on KEXP)”).
While the band is currently focused on touring, Verhulst expects that they will eventually record another album—and when they do, he is certain they will again draw on the Turkish musical classics. “I don’t see any reason to stop or do something different,” he says. “I think it’s an endless source of nice lyrics and tunes that we can still choose from.”
While the band members have occasionally discussed whether they ought to focus on writing their own material instead (and Gece does include one original song, “Şoför Bey), Verhulst says it is quite unlikely that this will actually happen: “There’s not really a songwriter in the band that has tried to come up with these type of songs by himself.” The fact that only two of the members would be able to write Turkish lyrics would also make it a difficult undertaking.
It may seem unusual for a rock band to choose to cover classic material instead of focusing on their own compositions, but Verhulst says this is really just a return to the way groups originally operated: “Before The Beatles, there were so many bands that were playing standards and made them their own. And of course, The Beatles changed that whole thing about what it is to be in a band. But, I think it’s cool to go back to that tradition of being a folk band, combine that with sounds and instruments that came after the folk tradition, so it’s modernized folk rock.”
Verhulst says it has been a happy surprise that audiences across the world are finding Turkish music as entrancing as he does, and that the unique Altin Gün spin on it is appreciated.
“We never expected it to catch on,” he says. “We’re happy that people invite us to come and do our thing. We feel very welcome.”
Altin Gün will play Elsewhere in Brooklyn on October 19.