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Meet the rocker whose music revives Turkey's quirky history

Taner Ongur's music explores curious incidents from the dusty pages of modern Turkish history.

Turkish rocker Taner Ongur, best known as the bassist of the classic Anatolian Rock band Mogollar, uses music to explore curious incidents from the dusty pages of modern Turkish history.

Ongur’s latest release, the third album from the 69-year-old musician and his band in three years, is "Asri Sada," old Turkish for "Modern Times." Yet the album's themes are anything but contemporary. They allow listeners to travel back to the Turkey of the 1930s-1960s.

The lyrics of the surf rock-influenced songs on "Asri Sada" describe the lives of curious historical figures, like Rifat the Tightrope Walker, who performed on Istanbul’s Princes' Islands until the 1960s, when circuses fell out of favor, to be replaced by TV. Another song tells the story of the Vampire of Cihangir, a mysterious criminal who preyed on unsuspecting passersby in Istanbul's famous bohemian neighborhood.

Many of the strange personalities and events that populate Ongur’s songs were brought to his attention by Gokhan Akcura, the self-designated "historian of this-and-that" who has penned such works as “Time Machine: Istanbul Twist.” Akcura wrote liner notes, designed to look like a 1940s newspaper, to accompany the vinyl LP of “Asri Sada.” The insert includes lyrics, factoids, retro advertisements for soap and beer and even a crossword puzzle.

Yet "Asri Sada" is not simply an exercise in nostalgia, according to music critic Munir Tireli.

“The original compositions of the album narrate developments in show business and public perceptions of modernization and social change," he told Al-Monitor. "The 1930s were the first years of Turkish modernization, when a multicultural social structure from the imperial period was still available despite the newborn nation state.”

The opening song, “Tightrope Walker,” reveals the distance of “modern” Turkey from today. Back then, entertainment took on the form of circuses with acrobats, clowns and operettas based on European classics like "Carmen" performed between acts.

Similarly, Ongur’s remake of the anonymous hit “Modern Girls” is Turkey’s take on the phenomenon of the “new woman,” which shook the world at the turn of the century in such forms as the American flapper and the German Neue Frau. Ongur offers a classic image of a liberated young woman: “Modern, modern girls dance the rumba / Balloons in their hands, in the decorated salon / They drink champagne.”

Ongur’s adaptation of the forgotten foxtrot song, “Trak, Leave Me in Bursa,” focuses on a more tragic event. Purchased from Germany in 1938, the passenger ferry Trak — named after a region of Thrace — cut down the journey from Bursa to Istanbul from five hours to just over two. Novelist and journalist Suat Dervis described Trak as “elegant, clean, fast and comfortable.” Yet, during World War II, the beloved ship was used to transport soldiers, and in November 1944, Trak sunk in the Sea of Marmara after colliding with a cliff in a storm. Twenty-six seamen perished in the crash.

Other songs on "Asri Sada" show the powerful influence of the United States in the Cold War. “Baytekin” revolves around the Turkish adaptation of the "Flash Gordon" comic books, while another song describes the influence of the Western genre, which introduced the cowboy to Turkish audiences.

The modern past represented in "Asri Sada" remains fiercely contested in Turkey today, from the Westernization policies under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to Turkey's entry into the Western bloc following World War II.

For example, in Istanbul, the historic site of the Bomonti beer factory, founded by two Swiss brothers in the 1840s, has recently been transferred to Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs and may be demolished. Similarly, the chic restaurant cars of Turkish State Railways, once a symbol of early Republican luxury, now no longer serve raki, wine or other alcoholic beverages to passengers.

The question of musicians performing on Istanbul’s ferries, or which boats will be used, is also part of a tug of war over the history and future of Istanbul.

Although "Asri Sada" steers clear of hot button issues facing Turkey today, its focus on seemingly trivial aspects of everyday life reveal political complexities.

According to Reha Oztunali, founder of Ongur’s label, Tantana Records, even the more lighthearted aspects of the past can have significance in the present.

“In recent years, the political and economic headlines that reach abroad from the 'New Turkey' are always disheartening," Oztunali told Al-Monitor. "Taner Ongur offers examples of some of the more beautiful aspects of the 'Old Turkey.' For those who are curious, there is much to be gained from looking and listening carefully. These are not things you come across on social media and understand in 10 seconds. This history becomes more beautiful and interesting the deeper you dive.”

By showing the different ways people in Istanbul have talked, traveled, dressed and entertained themselves, Ongur’s "Asri Sada" makes history just a bit more real — and fun.