Turkish Arabesk music and the changing perceptions of melancholy in Turkish society

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In this article, I look at the popular Turkish music genre known as Arabesk. Arabesk is a musical synthesis of Turkish Classical Music, folk music, Western popular music and Egyptian bellydance music (Stokes, 1994: 23), and articulates a collective mode of melancholy. This music was traditionally associated with working class Turks and often derided by middle class intellectual elites as representing an affront to the ideals of a modernised and westernised Kemalist Turkish Republic. Initially composed and/or performed by artists such as Orhan Gencebay and Müslüm Gürses, the most classic Arabesk songs encompass an ever-present feeling of melancholy, loss and displacement, of nostalgia for family, for the beloved, and a lack of any prospect for a better future. This paper focuses on more traditional examples of Arabesk produced during the 1970s, particularly Orhan Gencebay’s and Müslum Gürses’ music, rather than relatively new music forms exemplified by Ibrahim Tatlıses and Küçük Emrah in the 1980s and Mahsun Kırmızıgül and Özcan Deniz in the 1990s. The reason for this limitation is, first of all, that Arabesk music has evolved and assumed too numerous facets to handle within the scope of a single article. Secondly, as several critics have pointed out, in the 1990s Arabesk became closer to pop music, and lost, to some extent, the characteristics that made it melancholic. For the purposes of this article, first, I provide some brief definitions of melancholy from the Western tradition and compare these with recent definitions of collective melancholy in Turkish culture. I then describe Arabesk music’s relationship to melancholy and how this relationship was in conflict with the Kemalist ideology, which was shaped by progressivism, optimism and the ideal of Westernization. Finally, I briefly discuss how the reactions to Arabesk by the upper and middle class educated Turkish elite have changed through the decades from derision to ‘kitsch’ celebration and analyse some of the reasons behind it.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages10
JournalNEO : journal for higher degree research students in the social sciences and humanities
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • Turkish popular music
  • Arabesk music
  • melancholy


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