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Turkish Folk Group Faces Continued Restrictions

  • Dorian Jones

Grup Yorum performing - undated photo. (Grup Yorum/myspace).

Grup Yorum performing - undated photo. (Grup Yorum/myspace).

The Turkish folk group Grup Yorum, formed in 1984, has experienced political oppression since its inception. Group members have been repeatedly arrested and put on trial, their albums seized by police and their concerts banned. Despite this, Grup Yorum has been one of the top selling groups in the history of Turkey.

Grup Yorum is celebrating its 25th anniversary in a football stadium in Istanbul with more than 25,000 people dancing the night away.

With 19 albums, it remains one of Turkey's most successful and prolific music groups.

It is the group's mixture of music and left-wing ideas that has made it a target for prosecution, especially during the 1980s, when Turkey was under military rule.

Today, they still face legal problems. Group member Ibrahim Gokcek explains, saying, "At 4:15 in the morning, the police came and started knocking at our doors," he said. "We were in our studio here working on our new album. They took away the computer with our new songs. They pushed us on the floor and tear-gassed us. We were not able to breath; they stepped on us and handcuffed us and they made us crawl up the street to the police van."

Earlier this month, Grup Yorum's culture center was again raided. Due to Turkey's sweeping anti-terror law, the group often finds itself accused of supporting the DHKC, the banned left-wing group that carried out an attack on the U.S. embassy in Ankara last month.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher with the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, said, "They are among the thousands that are being prosecuted under very widely drawn terrorism laws which basically mean that activities should be countered as speech association-assembly activities, get counted in Turkey as illegal activities which are directly demonstrative of a link, organic with an army group," said Sinclair-Webb.

Under the anti-terror law, even those attending Grup Yorum concerts are at risk of prosecution. Earlier this year, a French exchange student was sentenced to five years in jail. Included in the evidence against her was a Grup Yorum concert ticket.

But such problems have done little to reduce the group's appeal or success. Grup Yorum broke all Turkish records in 2011, when over a quarter of a million people turned out for a special open air concert in Istanbul.

Vocalist Dilan Balci remembers. "We were expecting a large crowd, but never that many, said Balci."It was such an honor to be there. I was happy not for me, but for all our audience, for all of us. To see and hear so many people chanting 'We want a free Turkey', to hear them singing our songs, it was an unforgettable experience. I think this is what disturbs the authorities - that they saw how strong we are."

It is experiences such as this that keep Balci going. She is currently facing 74 years in jail, but says she is prepared.

"My family knows what I am facing and of course they worry, she said. "But we believe there is something called free imprisonment, which means you still continue your resistance in jail for greater rights. We already have two of our group members in jail. If I am jailed, I will continue to work on my music, I will improve my music. Through practice of your art, you master your art.

Balci's trial resumes next month. The government defends such prosecutions, arguing it is facing a terrorist threat. But critics argue such prosecutions of a hugely successful band only underlines the problems inherent in Turkey's anti-terrorism laws.

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