The manager of Putumayo, Dan Storper, writes that he made “an extensive research trip to Istanbul” in 2005 to collect songs for this compilation. After listening to the CD, I wonder if he shouldn’t have simply phoned the manager of the city’s most popular music station and asked for a list of everything in the top ten from the past couple of years.
“I want pop,” he could have said. “I want shine. I want bubblegum shine. I want beautiful men and handsome women. I want your Beyoncé and your Kylie and your Justin Timberlake. I want shimmer and glimmer and glamour. I want programmed beats. I want everything you’ve had on rotation five times a day for the past month, I want the songs that half the city is sick of but can’t stop humming. I want boyfriend/girlfriend lyrics. I want that sort of spinning Arabic-sounding thing you guys do with the stringed instruments, and the voice thing that sounds as if it came from prolonged cries of the imams, that long, curly “Oh-oh-oh” thing.”
“Oh god yes.”
The first sound we hear on Turkish Groove is a beat—bomp, shika-shika, bomp, shika-shika—and beats, emphatic, prodding beats, stay with us all the way through the album, from Bendeniz’s “Kirmizi Biber” through Sertab’s “Buda” and Tarkan’s “Dudu” and Tuğba Ekinci’s “Oha Falan Aldum Yani” until the very end of Sezen Aksu’s “Şanima Inanma”, which finishes the playlist off with a swift flamenco-esque clap-clap. Our titular groove is a dance-pop beast. Its male face has a strong chin and designer stubble; its female face is young and loves eyeliner. (How do I know this? There are publicity photographs in the liner booklet.) Even the intelligent and outspoken Aksu, who was born in 1954 and is described in the notes as “the grande dame of Turkish popular music . . . the mother of Turkish pop,” a woman who has helped to guide a number of the other singers into their careers, looks fresh and youthful in her photograph: moody, misty, late twentysomething.
All of the songs are recent releases, and most of the musicians only came into prominence during the ‘90s. Turkish Groove is not a CD for anyone who wants to take a look at the history of modern Turkish music, from its early days copying Western rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and tango, through to arabesque (folky, Arabic music for the lower classes: considered retrograde and coarse by the upper and middle classes), the rise of Anatolian rock, and the role of music among the country’s emigrant communities. Nor is it a CD for anyone who wants an inclusive overview of the contemporary Turkish scene. There is no electronica, no hip-hop, and no rock. There is no “groove” in the cool and funky sense. (The word is only there to link Turkish Groove with Putumayo’s other “groove” compilations: African Groove, Brazilian Groove, Asian Groove, and so on.) Dance-pop is it, baby. Fast-paced excitement.
Most of the songs are fun when you listen to them individually, but put together they blend into one long moosh of similar beats and glossy production; the sound stays at a steady level throughout the CD and after a while a kind of fatigued indifference starts to set in; it seems that everything sounds the same. Pull the album apart and you’ll see that this isn’t true. Nazan Öncel’s “Atiyosun” has punchy spoken-word interludes, and the way she stammers the beginning of “Ah-ah-atiyo . . .” while the strings make downward scooping motions is tense and catchy. Göksel’s “Ayrilik Günü” has a ‘70s retro orchestral Bollywood feel. Sertab, who beat t.A.T.u. to win the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003, gives us a low, stabby track about Buddha. Nilgül zings her “Piş Pişla” with squirts of village brass band music and a tango glide. Tarkan sounds like a one-man boy band.
All of this gets lost when you listen to the album straight through. Turkish Groove is a victim of its own efficiency. It targets a sound and goes after it with such single-mindedness that after a while you start to long for something different, something that doesn’t have a beat, something that doesn’t feel that it has to fill every cranny with strings and special effects, something that sounds a little less as if it should be attached to a TV show with “Idol” in the title. If you want an introduction to contemporary Turkish dance-pop, then this is a great CD; fairly glimmering with starpower, it comes accompanied by a nifty little liner booklet to explain who’s who—but if not, not.