Ten Electronic Extroverts from the Middle East and South Asia, Part 2

March 29, 2013

When we asked Finders Keepers boss Andy Votel if there were enough artists making strange and wonderful early electronic music from the Middle East and South Asia to put together a list, he asked if he was only allowed to name ten. When he turned in this feature, we found out he wasn’t kidding. That’s why we’ve decided to break this feature into two parts. (Click here for the first part of Votel’s exploration of “The Indo-Magnetic-Carnatix, or The Splice Trail to the Electronic East.”)

Murat Ses (Turkey)

I first discovered records by a Turkish rock group called 3 Hürel on a trip to Dusseldorf in the late ’90s. It almost immediately led to a salivating self-initiated crash-course in Anadolu pop records by artists like Ersen, Epid Akbayram, Selda and Baris Manco, all of which shared a balanced mix of heavy fuzz, mid-tempo drums, Eastern melodies and pronounced electronic synth lines. It took me a few more years to truly understand the inner workings of the Anatolian rock scene, and a couple of extra trips to Istanbul to recognise the importance of the electrified running thread that connects all the aforrementioned groups. That thread is synthesiser player / collector / importer and all-round metal-fingered bleep-freak Murat Ses.

He’s one of the few living Turkish musicians who can lay genuine claim to having been part of the Anadolu pop scene from its inception. He did this as part of the groups Meteorlar and Siluetler. The latter was one of the many Eastern groups whose name was directly influenced by the surf instrumental sound of The Shadows, AKA the most important British rock band of all time. But if The Shadows were the most illuminating pop band to influence the Turk rock scene, then it’s fair to say that Ses himself comes a close second as a real life domestic inspiration.

His later groups Moğollar and Kurtalan Express are basically responsible for all the instrumental music you hear on the critically acclaimed Selda LP, most of the Baris Manco LPs and the most wanted records by Ersen and Cem Karaca. As a result, Ses remains one of the genuine seldom-sung heroes of progressive Eastern pop music with a comparatively small eponymous discography in relation to the records he has played on, arranged or produced.

Transcending the genres of folk, rock, funk and (what was to become) disco while retaining his own unique Anatolian writing style, Ses could be likened to a Turkish mix of Vangelis, Claudio Simonetti, Jan Hammer and Bernie Worrell. Oh. And that’s leaving aside Electric Levantine, the musical style he invented. Basically, almost any given Turkish synthesiser record either involved Ses in some capacity or was directly influenced by his pioneering sound.


Up until the start of the last decade global record dealers would be happy for you to believe that the Turkish progressive music scene was based around a group of sand-locked wannabe Claptonites (as they constantly tried to justify hefty price tags via unnecessary and inadequate references to Pink Floyd and Genesis). The only standout female release was the eponymous first LP by Selda, who due to her long-running and militant commitment to Turkish folk music attracted Murat Ses’ band Moğollar. They breathed extra life into her career, attaching synths, loud drums and plucky basslines to her traditional Anatolian arrangements.

It wasn't until the vinyl-vulturous record digger types began to take low-cost flights to Istanbul to buy thrift-store 45s that the mid- to late ’70s Turkish pop scene was really given global wings. This stream of collecting has never appealed to the testosterous mint-conditional gate-fold prog librarians. But it has exposed an inspirational and vibrant pop industry which operated with total independence from Western major label infrastructure. Little did we know that – with the global domestication of the synth and the early globalisation of touristic disco music – the Turkish pop industry was once dominated by female vocal funk and synthesiser pop that, over a 30 year gestation period, has come to define the country as a leading light in the maligned and delectable field.

Kamuran Akkor - Ikimiz Bir Fidaniz

When Finders Keepers released Selda’s debut LP there was literally nothing quite like it. Ten years later and after the liberation of hundreds of vintage studio projects fronted by singers like Kamuran Akkor and Gülden Karaböcek (amongst countless one-offs by other female unknowns), Turkey now lays claim to a very different and individualistic Eurasian pop heritage. Far from the outdated and desperate sales pitches of the imperialistic premium prog peddlers, Turkish pop music has, without question, forged its very own genre definition.

When it comes to music from the East, record dealers and collectors crowbarred perception of what is obscure, rare and artistically alternative. Just because a record from, say, Thailand or Hungary still hasn't yet made that 40 year trip to your local first world charity shop doesn’t mean it’s rare. It might have sold 700,000 copies in its own country (not unusual in Communist countries where ungoverned independent pop did not exist). Many of the people in this list fall within the “popular music” bracket and have since collided with renewed stylistic and journalistic sub-genres by mistake.

Also: Just because a band comes from a politically fraught part of the world doesn’t mean they are politically driven. It’s sometimes quite the opposite: escapism and a good imagination are often what make these bands perversely original. Just translate a random track by Os Mutantes from Brazil to understand exactly how unfreaky their songs really were. The concept of outsider music should never be confused with outside-of-this-country or outside-our-blinkered-guinea-pig-cages.

Grazia (Turkey / Israel)

The only LP by Turkish vocalist Grazia IS an authentic “outsider” record, and a genuine rarity. It’s also a well-produced and technically successful pop record. It ticks all the boxes. For music lovers with Selda withdrawal symptoms: Here's your booster jab.

The history of this Israeli-only released LP is unclear. Even after meeting with the singer herself. The story begins with her record label. The imprint had its origins in the haberdashery trade and a chance gamble by two brothers named Azoulay on an unmarked shipping container at a market known for unclaimed textile consignments. After cracking open the paid container they found it to contain hundreds of gramophone players! So, after furnishing well-to-do locals with these state-of-the-art machines, the Azoulay brothers were forced to fill the market gap by creating phonographic discs to play on the bloody things!

It’s the only synth-driven, Israeli-Turkish, break-heavy, pychedelic-disco-funk record by a child nightclub singer that I have in my collection.

Grazia’s father was attached to the Jaffa club circuit, which often hosted artists from Egypt, Greece, Turkey, France and Lebanon. So were the Azoulay brothers. With a direct-to-disc relationship with the nightclubs, the siblings turned their market stall into a record shop and label which continued for five subsequent decades under the names Zakiphon and Koliphone. The labels had a no-fuss, quick turnaround marketing strategy and kept well abreast of new imported technology and foreign language music.

More important, despite the political problems and race relations in Israel, the labels and associated cabaret clubs represented a small open-minded multi-cultural independent music industry that saw Jews and Arabs working harmoniously including bands such as Israeli group The Churchills, who apparently counted Palestinian musicians in their line-up. Local groups like Lehakat Tsiley Haud provided the imprint with tough Arabesque instrumentals and shared a release schedule with licensed Turkish releases by Erkin Koray and femme pop singers Neşe Karaböcek and Gönül Akkor (sister of aforementioned Kamuran Akkor) as well as Indian singer Sarah Badani (singing in Hebrew!)...

Cue Grazia!

Recorded at the age of 14, she has a voice that could wipe out a singer with 20 years of stage experience. The eponymous LP was released in the mid-’70s in modest numbers, complete with the label’s signature brightly coloured artwork, acidic green label and three portraits of the young singer playing the Saz and seated amongst giant 16-inch records (a defunct format favoured by a handful of broadcasters in the ’60s and ’70s).

Cutting to the chase, this is the Turkish record that even the Turkish collectors struggle to find, and is probably one of the best examples of female-fronted synth rock to come from the entire continent. An interview between Grazia and Radio Trip’s Uri Wertheim revealed that the album was written and produced by the singer’s father. The use of Space Invader-punctuated breakbeats and a number of standout Moog-riff funk tracks sit nicely amongst a track with a curious and increasingly omnipresent Jesus Christ Superstar riff that I've started to find on records from Iran, Pakistan and Turkey! I wish I could expand, but I’ll just say this: Grazia’s album this is the only synth-driven, Israeli-Turkish, break-heavy, pychedelic-disco-funk record by a child nightclub singer that I have in my collection at the time of going to press.


I wish I hadn’t mentioned the Jesus Christ Superstar riff at risk of going off on another tangent. But here we are. The track with the contagious chords in question is “Heaven On Their Minds” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s controversial, satirical, Biblical orch-rock musical, and 40 years later its hard-rock-funk riff is engrained in the minds of film buffs, telly addicts, West End show patrons, charity shoppers, library music collectors, UK hip-hop completists and amateur dramaticians throughout the world... Did I mention Middle Eastern crate diggers as well?

Having been banned in multiple countries such as South Africa and Hungary due to its blasphemous connotations, it seems that its musical legacy nonetheless spread quite freely amongst some of the most religious parts of the world. No application was more potentially irreverent than as the theme tune for a series called Divorce, sung by Iranian songbird Googoosh. In addition to the Grazia track (pressed in the Holy Land itself) and a Turkish pop single by Neşe Karaböcek, the riff was also used on a track called “Kamasutra” by Alberto Baldan Bembo from an Italian film called Oriental Love Code released 25 years before the Lloyd-Webber feature finally got an endorsement from the Vatican in 1999.

Alberto Baldan Bembo - Kamasutra

The most surprising appropriation of the almighty skull-snap of god-rock has to be the one that caught the vapours from way across the Middle East in one of the most vibrant sub-continental cinematic micro-industries in the whole of Asia. The untravelled power current known as Lollywood. The track “Regaetimba” (an un-Googleable word presumably meaning simply “Ragge Timbre”) made for the film Dhamaka was built around the same five note pattern by a relatively unknown composer called Lal Mohd Iqbal. The novelty of this track is plain to see, but the composer’s own outsider credentials can only be fully understood within the wider context of Lollywood’s already narrow context, a context which owed much of its mutated indigenous pop heritage to three main eccentric musical directors: M. Ashraf, Kamel Ahmed and The Tafo Family.

M. Ashraf / Sohail Rhana (Pakistan)

Much has been written about the Lollywood phenomenon within the pages of two compilation releases on Finders Keepers called Life Is Dance and Sound of Wonder. Its basic characteristics can be approximated as a scaled-down version of its big brother, Bollywood. Lollywood didn’t have the same amount of money, and had smaller distribution, smaller studios, smaller groups and even smaller records. (Pakistan only made 45 singles, with longer programmes divided into volumes as opposed to full LPs) With limited means comes invention, though: Lollywood music quickly interpolated electric and electronic keyboards, multi-tracking and re-sampling, because it replaced larger, more expensive “human” musicianship. Which brings us nicely back on to The Splice Trail.

Introduced to the embryonic Pakistan pop industry by harmonium player Sohail Rana (a composer who had studied in England), the electric keyboard was used as both a melodic and rhythmic tool in Lollywood’s small studios mainly out of necessity. By the mid-’70s records by Ashraf and Tafo were stretching the first imported synthesisers as lead instruments in small bands as opposed to Bollywood’s sweeping textural sound-effect application (not to mention Lahiri’s signature Bappi-bleeps) resulting in overpowering one-man synth lines often replacing choirs and orchestras. In such a small network such as the Lollywood family it would be discriminatory to single out just one artist, so “representing PK to the fullest” we have the four-headed beast comprising the synthetic souls of Rana, Ashraf, Tafo and Ahmed.

Anadolu Bayramlari (Turkey / Germany)

Felix Kubin has shared a lot of good music with me in the past, but the tape of Orhan Kara’s first release under the name Anadolu Bayramlari ticks every box, then rapidly starts creating its own new boxes like a Georges Braque bubble machine. With an uncanny resemblance to the early demos of Didier Pilot from X-Ray Pop and drawing insufficient comparisons to the incredible Look De Bouk and Stabat Stable from France, and not forgetting the similarities to home-made synth polymath T.R.A.S.E. from, errr, Didsbury, this is the closest thing you will ever find to Turkish synth pop or electro from the early ’80s.

Relocated to Germany and wearing a distinct love for DAF on his sleeve, this album was released as the eighth tape on the collectable Pissende Kuh Kassetten (Pissing Cow Cassettes) label. It remains one of the label’s best sellers, amassing an avalanche 45 sold copies! The opening track, “Bin Gece” (A Thousand Nights), comes complete with squelching 8-bit Wurlitzerish Casio tones, and the tape concludes with “Iyiveigli,” which – if I’m not mistaken – captures domestic synth tones re-recorded on quarter-speed tape playback. It has a moody fractured effect in the vein of Morton Subotnick’s “The Wild Bull” – if it had been recorded in a German flat with approximately half the floor space of his Buchla synth module. There’s never a dull moment throughout its Korg-ridden C20-length duration.

As the ninth entry on this list, Anadolu Bayramlari is certainly the most “alternative” of the bunch, and like all good music defies categorisation or genre definition. The next – and final – artist on the list, however, is an expert in EVERY mainstream genre... but unlike any sane musician, he tries to do them all at the same time.

Ilaiyaraaja (Tamil Nadu)

And so we arrive at the furthest point on the map, Through Istanbul, over Cairo, Tel Aviv and Beirut, past Tehran, under Lahore, down to Mumbai and finally across to the Bay Of Bengal and Chennai... or better still Pannaipuram, in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu... This is the birthplace of Maestro Isaignani Gnanadesikan Ilaiyaraaja.

The opinion that I’ve saved the best for last is technically undeniable, because whatever “genre” of music you choose to like/love/promote/protect/politicise/over-intellectualize/despise/defend or pretend to enjoy Ilaiyaraaja has done it! Even if it only lasted for four bars. And even if there were no less than two other styles of music playing at the same time.

This one-man wide-winged pop-culture vulture has been indiscriminately ravaging and regurgitating global pop for over 40 years, and made some of the most joyous, existential and euphoric electronic South Asian pop music to ever grace the dancefloors, picture houses, wedding parties, concert halls and discotheques of Tamil and Malay-speaking countries and beyond.

With a portfolio of 4,500 recorded songs under his belt, it might seem humanly impossible by the standards of today’s Western pop perfectionists and procrastinators to achieve what this mutable multi-instruMENTALIST has already done. Perhaps it actually IS “humanly impossible.” He’s a deeply religious man, without vices or venom, and has a strong preservationist tendency towards traditional Indian music. But Ilaiyaraaja is no enemy of technology. He is friends with the robots.

By the way, Welcome to Kollywood.

To put Kollywood in context you pretty much have to return to the Bolly / Lolly re-scaling equation, then fold it in half twice and cut off any unnecessary corners... such as, for example, the musicians. It can be difficult remembering all these exotic names when crossing widening language barriers, but let me introduce me to Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s faithful bandmates. On bass we have Mister DX7, and on drums can I introduce Mr E-Mu Drumulator and his friend Roland R-8? In the orchestral pulpit we have the reel-to-reel twins. Armed with tape loops, re-sampled choirs and strings, reverse ragas and fuzz keytar, the only musical elements in need of regular food and water were his equally reliable vocalists who, taking K.S. Chithra as the best example, were able to cover more octaves than any silicone-stand-ins imported from the other side of Chinese seas.

Another aspect to Ilaiyaraaja's multidimensional music is that it would blend (or not!) stark generational differences within each song, sampling traditional orchestras, with ’50s surf twangs, some country & western fiddles, a Harmonium and a DX7 riff that sounds like it came straight off the latest Duran Duran b-side... and most of this had an electro beat worthy of a one-off Michael Holman TV pilot. Imagine a charity telethon special where Joe Meek meets Mimaroğlu and Mantronix and they all have to recreate the music from Michael Jackson’s Captain E0, from memory, while a Tamil speaking audience have to guess what it is.... on New Year’s Eve!??!! Well, that's the kind of record I’ve been buying in bulk since I discovered, via Ilaiyaraaja, that it really is possible to intake and remake multiple musics at the same time as long as you've got a healthy appetite.

Ilaiyaraaja - Rasigane

I won't even start to explain his direct-to-disc independent record label or the fact that he has never been to a nightclub. But while your average “experimental” electronic musician in the West is still explaining to a dance music journalist how they “used to be into hip-hop but now they make witch-house,” Ilaiyaraaja has just done a four minute track that combines a Miami bass breakdown, Carnatic scales, a phased trumpet solo, a Ghazal middle-eight, a fight scene, a love-rap serenade and a singalong dance routine finale. Then, before you've had time to criticise, he's moved on. Such is the law of the non-pretentious “working musician.” Morricone, R.D. Burman, Vannier, Zdeněk Liška, Ciani and Moroder would agree wholeheartedly.


For those who have made it to the end of this piece and feel like they want to hear more, I’ve got good news. It’s out there for the taking! You can buy it in abundance! But, without using the Mohammed and the Mountain analogy, all I can say is get off your arse and find those records. Then write a ten-point shopping list for me. That’s how we make friends after all. It’s what music is all about – an exchange.

Most of the music on this list actually isn’t alternative, or superficially weird. It’s normal. It’s the logical progression before complacency, fear and “bad technology” got in the way. And, sadly my friend, the Western music industry has failed both you and I. The UK and US grasp on “foreign” music has until now always fallen in to two dismissible, cringe-worthy categories: “world music” and “exotica.” (Funny how I’ve never seen either of these tokenistic lard-arse descriptions in any other countries.)

When music is reborn you need to think like a child... with no expertise, inhibitions, preconceptions or politics.

The electrification of progressive Eastern music should in no way be considered a novelty. Any musicologist or historian will tell you that Western pop music and its standard application of cordophonic instruments, i.e. guitars, is living the legacy of ancient central Asian musicianship anyway. The guitar, or "qitara" in Andalusian Arabic, sits alongside some of the earliest string instruments from the Middle East such as the Santur – a hammered dulcimer – the direct decedent of the harpsichord, piano and elctric keyboard. All of these historic developments are integral to the heritage and pride of Eastern culture.

To break the mould you generally need to go back to the source, which is what most people on the list have done by default. They’re musicians who didn't get complacent or afraid. They embraced “good technology.” It's no coincidence that the above artists are some of the most interesting and challenging musicians to have ever worked in the electronic domain. In 1959 İlhan Mimaroğlu considered it essential that he should start anew, take his cultural heritage of inventing new instruments and techniques, to learn in public and, in turn, teach via his own mistakes. When music is reborn you need to think like a child... with no expertise, inhibitions, preconceptions or politics... Which is exactly how Mimaroğlu’s career began.

Andy Votel is the DJ/producer/digger/brains behind Finders Keepers Records.  

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