Reggae, Football, and protest politics in Turkey 2013

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The world has a passion for football. For all of you American readers, I am not speaking of the NFL. No, it’s better known in my home country (US) as soccer. Turkey is no exception. People are absolutely fanatic about Turkish football. It is followed religiously by many in this secular Muslim majority country. Most people have a team that they are loyal to based on family tradition or locale. My Turkish family, for example, is loyal to the Beşiktaş football club (pronounced Beshiktash) because my wife’s grandfather supported the team and would take them to matches when they were children. While she doesn’t closely follow the team from abroad, she knows who to root for when she is in the right company, and now so do I.

It has been said by many that sports has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses. People will pretty much go along with whatever bullshit the government throws at them as long as their football isn’t taken away. As a US citizen I would say that holds pretty true in our country. I can’t imagine the chaos that would ensue if for whatever reason the NFL industry was put on hold for any small amount of time. However, people in the US are rather docile when it comes to politics, aren’t they? Ask yourself, what did you do when you saw those students at UC Davis get pepper sprayed during their non-violent protest in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street? The world was watching, but who did anything? Did you take to the streets? I shared it on Facebook, but for the most part did nothing. I am glad that in the end the University of California has to pay up $1 million in a deal with the 21 students, but really we should all be ashamed of ourselves for idly standing by and watching such, or any police brutality, government corruption, and other madness that occurs everyday in the country that hails itself as the democratic leader of the free world.

This is what happened in Turkey in May and June 2013 when the police started beating kids in a park who were trying to save some trees. A full scale scare the shit out of your government revolution led by many brave souls in the name of peace and democracy. On the forefront organizing government protests were none other than some of the notorious football hooligans. In particular, a well known group of Beşiktaş fans who call themselves as Çarşı. The A is an anarchy symbol.

Formally known as Beşiktaş Çarşı Grubu, Çarşı is a group of fans who are just as loyal to human rights and the truth as they are their favorite football team. A central mobilizing force for anti-government protest in the Occupy Gezi movement of 2013, Çarşı is said to be against everything. Anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-nuclear weapons, devoted to secularism, and ecologists to boot. Could you imagine a group of NY Giants Fans marching on Washington DC demanding free healthcare for the nation? Would your devotion to the San Fransisco 49ers ever motivate you to march against Obama and his drone wars like these guys? In the US I have always associated sports fans with a-political, right wing puppet agendas. A distraction from the problems that plague disenfranchised citizens around the world.

True, sports can be used as an opiate, but there are two sides to everything, as I have learned from my new Turkish friend Leo.

Leo is the lead singer of the only Turkish roots reggae band, Sattas. Don’t fear the Turkish website. Google will translate that shit for you! Also they have a great youtube presence. A long time resident of Beşiktaş and a member of Çarşı, Leo informed me about the fan community. He is a devoted Beşiktaş fan (even though they are not #1), a reggae enthusiast, and a cop fighter when he needs to be. Leo was kind enough to meet my wife and me for a sit down chat in Istanbul where he told us all about how he was introduced to reggae, his love of football, and how to blend these two passions together while resisting against the system.

In fact, despite growing up 5,652 miles away from each other, Leo and I have a very similar reggae story. We were both turned onto Bob Marley at a young age. His uncle was a music listener. A Pink Floyd fan to be exact. Here is an excerpt from our interview. To be fair, Leo speaks English MUCH better than I speak Turkish. This is word for word:

Leo: “He (Leo’s Uncle) has a cassette. I heard a song but I don’t know who makes the song. I asked and he said Bob Marley. Who the Bob Marley? After years I heard that it was the song “Could You Be Loved.”

Four or five years old. Afterwards ….in the last of the 80s, i started learning that Bob Marley has other albums. My first reggae album was Exodus by Bob Marley. I found the first print of the LP in Istanbul a long time ago. I bought it. The record. First print. Island Records. It comes from England. I still have this one.

After the following years I’m starting to learn reggae music is not complete under Bob Marley. Jacob “Killer” Miller, Peter Tosh, Abyssinians, coming from Jamaica. So much music. It is like an ocean.”

Leo was the drummer in a death metal band in the 90’s. After a few years, it got boring. He said that he can’t really play the drums and it just wasn’t his thing, so he started trying to learn the blues. He was a student in Cyprus (Northern Cyprus of course, since Turks aren’t allowed in Greek Cyprus). On the Island, Leo had an English teacher who was from Georgia and was a great singer. He educated Leo and his cousin about the blues. Leo loved the Delta blues. He and his cousin started to play music at home. However, after messing around with blues and rock they still needed something else to fulfill them.

“We started playing the heartbeat rhythm.” “We were like, yeah man this is rhythm. We started again listening to reggae music. Especially roots reggae music.”

Leo’s cousin started playing guitar. He had never played guitar in his life but he could play the reggae chop. They recorded it on cassette and made their family listen to it. Leo’s father said to him,

“You have to sing!”

“Really?” Leo said.

He said that while his father is a military man, he is a good man. The two of them are best friends. His father knew that Leo hated his white collar job as a manager in Human Resources. He could see Leo’s passion was in music.

Leo reminisced that his old job was built on a foundation of lies: “A lot of liars. I never said a lie. I hate lies”

In 2004 they decided to say fuck it and formed a reggae band. Sattas was taken from “Satta Man,” something that Leo and his cousin heard in the 1979 Jamaican film “Rockers.” They pluralized it to Sattas. They found a bass player, a keyboard player, put Leo’s cousin on the drums, and him on the vocals.

They soon realized that playing reggae was not easy.

“Our first rehearsal we tried “I shot the sheriff.” We said “no no no no no no no” We will NEVER do that again! I was like a singer in a death metal band “I SHOT THE SHERIFFFFFF.” But we were stubborn, and we tried again. We had to work for a year. Listen and play, just listen and play and play and play.”

“We found a keyboard player but he is always playing Turkish songs. He never played a bubble. I saw the bubble in the BBC Documetary from Island records. He tells them that he is playing Nyabinghi on the piano. This white guy talks about how he had this conversation with Earl Wya Lindo. He also couldn’t understand the bubble. And he is explaining how to do it and that it is coming from the Nyabinghi. We were doing the same thing to our keyboard player.”

After the year of practice, their friend “Osman” insisted that they come and play his club Nya in Istanbul. Sattas brought their whole crew of friends and everyone loved the club. It was a great vibe and the band has been working hard ever since.

In fact, since 2005 they have been the hardest working live band in Turkey. They play more shows than any other Turkish band. They play all over the Turkey as well as the western surrounding nations of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, etc.

For a long time, people were confused about who they were and what they did.  They would ask where the dreadlocks were. People in Turkey were mostly unfamiliar with reggae.

On one of their first visits to Ankara, the Turkish capital, they came face to face with a motionless audience. Leo said they were playing in a very rich club. Reggae music. 1st song, 2nd song, 3rd song, people just sat still and stared at them. Then they started playing the Ankara rhythm and everyone got up and started dancing.

It was frustrating for Sattas because they were trying to showcase reggae music to Turks, but no one danced until they heard Turkish music. Afterwards everyone in the club sang the bands praises. In fact, Leo says that there are some similarities between the Ankara rhythm and the one-drop, and they plan to incorporate more of Turkish culture into the reggae sound.

“East and North of Turkey people will not know what reggae is. People say it is always the same song. I tell them , no it is coming from the heartbeat, no it is coming from the earth. It is not the same. You have to listen to the lyrics.”

In 2012 Sattas released the first Turkish reggae album ever. The lyrics are in Turkish and English. They plan on recording another one in the fall. Recording plans were postponed due to the situation in Gezi Park, which took precedent over everything else for Leo.

As a fellow reggae musician from across the ocean, it was quite redeeming to be able to meet and speak with Leo. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to travel to Jamaica where I met a Turkish woman named Oya who told me about Sattas. It was as easy as a google search. Soon enough, I was linked with the only Turkish reggae band in the world. That is the power of the internet.

Always more interesting to me though, is the power of reggae. What was amazing to me about linking with Leo was how similar our journey through reggae had been. We were both turned onto music at an early age and had landed on the one-drop. Not dancehall, not techno, but roots reggae.

Leo knows pretty much everything there is to know about reggae and Rastafari. It is one thing to have the internet as a tool to find information, but it is much more powerful to be inspired to seek that information. The ability to learn about reggae has changed the course of both of our lives, simultaneously in two separate continents, and certainly a world of difference away from Jamaica. Neither of us are of the African Diaspora. Neither of us have dreadlocks, worship Haile Selassie, or speak in Patois. Yet we both hold infinite respect for the reggae aesthetic. I believe it is because there is something in the music that draws a thirst for more truth in life, the revelation of all powerful love, and the desire to push for equal rights and justice so that all can be witnesses to the love that life can provide.

What I am still coming to learn is that football and fandom do not have to be the antithesis of this desire that reggae fuels. If Bob Marley had not been an international reggae super-star, he would have been a professional football player in Jamaica.

“Football is a whole skill to itself. A whole world. A whole universe to itself. Me love it because you have to be skilful to play it! Freedom! Football is freedom.” (Bob Marley – 1979)

I have always had a deep respect for the game of football (soccer) for the same reasons that Bob did. Football is open to all classes. There is a democracy to it. There is little special equipment needed or financial resources required. Despite the commercialization under capitalism of the industry, in its essence, football requires no frills. Just a ball, two goals, and skill.

I have never really played the sport, but my love of reggae has always kept me interested. Finding out about the Çarşı fan community and their combination of political activism with the love of the sport has been a revelation. Upon further research I have found that this is a world wide phenomenon. “Football Rebels” is a new film presented by Al Jazeera which documents the history of some progressive football politics:

“Presented and narrated by former Manchester United star Eric Cantona, Football Rebels is a five-part documentary on five football legends whose social conscience led them to use their fame and influence to challenge unjust regimes, join opposition movements and lead the fight for democracy and human rights in their countries.”

I suppose that, like football, music could be thought of as another potential opiate of the masses. Certainly we do not see Celine Dion fans rushing to the streets in droves demanding equal rights and justice. However I cannot be sure about that, since there are two sides to EVERYTHING. It seems that music can suffer the same a-politization that befalls any passion under consumer capitalism. It is really up to the people to unite in their passions and use the camaraderie for the good of humanity.

I would like to end this post by saying that I was relieved to go home, check out the music of Sattas, and love it. I am somewhat of a music snob. It is not always that meeting cool people translates into finding good original music. Sattas is real roots-reggae from the Turkish heart. There is no posturing or hypocrisy to it, one of the many pitfalls that can be found in commercial reggae worldwide. Leo is really a charismatic and true human being. Many thanks to him for his time and insight. I would like to think that we are cut from the same cloth, along with my wife, who greatly helped build this friendship. We were all working together to bring about this understanding of how reggae, football, and political awareness can be combined into a conscious lifestyle. I think this is the ethos of Rootfire, PANDA!, and Sattas. This world is what you make of it. Turn on, tune in, and feel it in the one drop.

by Sehmaj Surreal & Perin Gurel

Bass player and songwriter for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, James feels, plays and lives the music. Lucky for us he also has the knack for remembering what happened and writing it down in his own voice.

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  • Rodney Redson

    Very good band & singer !