This 78-Year-Old Turkish Rock Legend Is Back
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s never too late to get the recognition you deserve.
At a church in Stuttgart, Germany, Gökçen Kaynatan was preparing to perform “Cehennem Yolu” (“Road to Hell”). It was suggested that anyone with a heart condition should leave. Then the Turkish musician started in. “And with the frequency of the music, I began to make all the statues of Jesus move,” he recalls with a wry smile. A review in the local press noted that the church had survived both World War II — and Kaynatan’s 1974 concert.
But “Road to Hell” was never released. Kaynatan entered a self-imposed 44-year exile from the record industry and became largely forgotten, remembered only by a few aficionados. Today, however, at the age of 78, Kaynatan is seeing his star rise again. Late last year, Finders Keepers Records, a British label, released the first-ever compilation of his work, and he has new albums in the pipeline.
There is still so much to do.
Kaynatan’s private studio is a steep climb to an apartment block in the heart of Kadıköy, on Istanbul’s Asian shore. He opens the door, sporting shoulder-length hair and pink-tinged sunglasses. The studio is a jumble of tools and equipment: banks of keyboards, sound effect boxes and the fiendishly intricate dials and switches of a synthesizer dashboard. An arc of speakers can shake the entire building, though apparently the neighbors never complain. “It’s nice for them to get a free concert,” he tells OZY.
Kaynatan was born in the district in 1939, the youngest of four children. His love of music came from his father, a talented amateur oud player. By the age of 11, Kaynatan had acquired a guitar, and before long he was playing in bands and covering British and American pop and jazz and Turkish folk.
In 1954 he formed Gökçen Kaynatan ve arkadaşları show orkestrası (Gökçen Kaynatan and Friends Show Orchestra), which became one of Turkey’s first rock ’n’ roll groups, releasing a couple of singles in the 1960s with Odeon. But Kaynatan grew disillusioned with the label: Record companies were always trying to fleece him, and he scarcely got paid. “They have the mentality of thieves,” he says.
He taught guitar in Kadıköy’s flourishing music scene, which produced Anatolian rock legends such as Barış Manço and Erkin Koray. But Kaynatan’s music was more sonically daring. He had studied electro mechanics after high school, and he began to experiment with sound effects, loops and radio oscillators. In 1972 he bought a just released portable version of the Synthi 100 (replacing the enormous studio-bound synthesizers). After mastering the machine, he unveiled it in one-man shows that bewitched the Istanbul music scene; few had heard such radical sounds or seen the mind-boggling contraption.
The following year Kaynatan signed with 1 Numara to release four groundbreaking instrumentals, among the first Turkish tracks to feature drum machines or synthesizers. Firmly anchored in rock, the music also has a fizzing quality — like the soundtrack to a chemistry experiment; two are original compositions and two are adaptations of Ottoman Era melodies that sound like they’re riding a psychedelic carousel. They generated a huge buzz among musicians and listeners alike, but Kaynatan had grown disgruntled with the record label. He stepped back from the industry once more, this time for more than four decades.
During that time, besides working as an architect, a sound engineer and painter, he was hired by the state television broadcaster TRT as their in-house composer. Then, in 1979, having suffered from mysterious headaches for years, Kaynatan was diagnosed with an angioma – a benign tumor – behind his left eye, and endured a grueling operation. He channeled the experience into darker tracks (such as the church-rattling “Road to Hell”) that map his pain and convalescence using synth lines and electronic frequencies.
Except for the rare concert and television appearance, Kaynatan largely slipped from public view. But he says that suited him because he was never one to chase fame: “When I was on stage in the ’70s, I was like a rock star, but after the music finished, I put on my jacket and left everything on the stage.”
And perhaps that’s where the story would’ve ended if Finders Keepers Records, a label with a particular interest in “lost artists,” hadn’t come calling. It had released several albums by Turkish musicians, including Mustafa Özkent, a friend of Kaynatan’s. In 2016, the company approached Kaynatan and eventually persuaded him to assemble a compilation of his early, experimental electronic work.
Doug Shipton, co-founder of Finders Keepers, says that mavericks of Turkish music like Kaynatan have been overlooked. “There are other artists who were part of that scene who were just as important to underpin the advent of these movements and the progression of them — just as much as these big names who carried the torch,” Shipton tells OZY. “Gökçen is one of those characters.”
Music critic Merve Evirgen agrees: “He’s not only the one who gave life to synthesizer music in Turkey, but he’s also the inspiration for [’60s rock bands] like Moğollar, Silüetler, Apaşlar and many more — bands that are now inspiring modern psychedelia.” Evirgen calls Kaynatan a “national treasure” and a “living legend.”
With Finders Keepers set to release an album of his ’70s synth music, including “Road to Hell,” later this year, Kaynatan is also at work on 2050, an album of futuristic music that resembles its creator: restless, playful, constantly moving through shifting soundscapes.
This not-quite-octogenarian is back to giving concerts and performing at festivals, thrilled to see a new generation excited by his music and letting loose to “Madimak,” the danciest track from the new compilation. But he’s happiest tinkering in his studio. “There is still so much to do,” he says.