Ramie Reviews Altin Gün at Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia

Ramie Reviews Altin Gün at Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia

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Ramie takes a trip to Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia to check out Altin Gün, a band that brings ties together the nostalgia of the Middle Eastern music he grew up with, and his favorite modern, funky Western music. RPM review:

Growing up, I always dreaded the long car rides my family would take across the country. It wasn’t because of the inevitable fist fights my brother and I would get into the back seat (solution: “you look out one window, and he looks out the other”) or even because we’d have to spend the whole day cramped in the car only to stop once or twice to eat some watermelon at a rest stop. What I really dreaded, what I would spend the trip pleading not to have to endure, was my dad’s old Egyptian music. To a kid who grew up on the upbeat and easily accessible genre that was 90’s pop, the song’s my dad would blast during our road trips seemed to have two equally painful halves: an inordinately long instrumental introduction performed by instruments that were nowhere to be found in popular music produced in America, such as the Oud and the accordion, followed by what appeared to be an endless section of unintelligible moaning that was designed specifically to torture me. 

As I grew older, I started to realize that there must be something that my dad – and many others who emigrated from the Middle East – appreciate about this music, some sort of appreciation that didn’t travel over with them from their home countries, something that didn’t translate to American tastes. Many times over the years, I’ve tried to figure out what it is that makes this music likeable, only to be disappointed by how different it is from the Western music I’d usually listen to. This conflict of musical preferences began to represent a larger issue: a cultural divide between my father – and more broadly, my heritage – and myself. To extend this, I started to resign myself to the belief that even in a country as diverse and welcoming as the United States, some aspects of immigrants’ cultures wouldn’t be appreciated or popularized, and that culture clash may be something that can’t be overcome.

It took me 25 years before I found a band that, thankfully, proved me wrong. I don’t remember how I first found Altin Gün (maybe as a recommended artist based on Khruangbin?), but I remember how I felt upon hearing them for the first time. The sound, the instruments, the way the singer injects a section with tension by holding out notes – it was all so familiar. Somehow, I was transported back to those drawn-out car rides, but I was also reminded of moments in high school, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” for the first time. I felt just as comfortable bobbing my head to the groove of the bass or the funk of the guitar as the twang of saz, an instrument I’d never heard of before. Rather than making me want to cover my ears, the vocalists’ mournful and protracted crooning imparted a sense of loss and nostalgia for some place I never knew. I felt as though the two halves of my upbringing had coalesced, seamlessly knit together to create something that drew from and magnified the best that each part had to offer. But still, I had to see if the aspects of this music that were unfamiliar to Western listeners would be appreciated in their own right, and to do this, I swung by Philadelphia’s Kung Fu Necktie to see the band play live and to see what sort of crowd the show might attract.

And boy did it draw a crowd. The show had sold out, and the two-roomed venue was packed nearly wall-to-wall. By the time I’d arrived, audience members had to weave through the crowd to find an open spot with a decent view. The venue’s small stage, nearly on the same level as the crowd, was tightly filled with instruments. Front and center were the band’s two vocalists, the Dutch-Turkish Merve Daşdemir and Erdin Ecevit Yildiz. Daşdemir had dressed in a black crop top and black jeans, and held her star-shaped tambourine throughout most of the set, ready to chime in for her parts. To her right, Yildiz stood behind his keyboard in a pineapple-adorned dark blue hawaiian shirt, with his saz by his side, waiting to mesmerize the crowd with its sonority. 

In a way, this image of modern fashion juxtaposed with age-old traditional instrument echoes the band’s own diverse influences and musical style. The band draws its material from decades-old Turkish rock music, adding a modern, distorted, and psychedelic vibe to what was already some very solid music (some of which were based on traditional Turkish folk songs themselves). If you were to listen to the source material for the band’s songs, the original folk or psych tracks produced in Turkey between the 70’s and the 90’s, you’d probably think there’s no way that these could be any kind of danceable. But this is where Altin Gün’s talent begins to present itself; by picking up the pace and adding on layers of upbeat and varied instrumentation to the original version, the band completely alters the feel of the songs while preserving a palpable influence from the original. When played live, the modern versions of these classic tracks immediately elicited a wide array of dance moves across the dance floor. This variety of dance moves mirrored the diversity of the crowd – you’d be just as likely to find a youngster hopping around in a Hawaiian shirt and a backwards cap as a group of older gentlemen watching the bass player and alternating between head bobs and sips of their beer. 

The contrasting choreography of the crowd was interrupted by an impromptu dancing lesson from Daşdemir. In a matter of seconds, she had prompted the audience to follow her lead in a traditional two-step-esque dance, though it was a struggle for the crowd to keep up with her belly-dancing. 

Early on in the set, the band broke out into their “Vay Dünya”, one of the first songs with Yildiz as the vocalist. Watching the singers, viewers may have noticed that there was quite a contrast between songs led by Daşdemir and those with Yildiz as the frontman. While Daşdemir was smiley, dancing, and interacting with the crowd, Yildiz would stand stoic behind his mic and face out and look over the crowd at nothing in particular, with a few head nods in sync with beats from the drum. Despite this relative aloofness, Yildiz still delivered sweeping riffs from the Saz and his keyboard. And the crowd provided the energy that Yildiz held back – hopping around with each note that rang out from the unusual stringed instrument, all with an energy that signified a familiarity with the song and an excitement to be witnessing it live.

The band followed this up with their unforgettable one-two punch of “Şad Olup Gülmedim” smoothly transitioning into “Cemalim”, a seamless switch from a slow, forlorn tune with a focus on the Saz and Yildiz’s bittersweet vocals to a Turkish darbuka drum-driven section that picked up the piece and laid the groundwork for a bouncy guitar riff. These instruments were soon joined by distorted, psychedelic chords emanating from the keyboard, altogether creating an otherworldly soundscape that got the crowd going more than any song thus far in the show.

The most surprising part of the night was to follow: as the band started their most popular song, Goca Dünya, the crowd responded with cheers and applause, with many joining Daşdemir in flawlessly singing the song’s lyrics. This was the crowd-pleaser of the night, the climax of the show, with nearly the entire audience moving to the music and taking advantage of whatever limited space was available on the dance floor. At the song’s end, Daşdemir seemed as surprised and impressed with the audience as this writer, calling out, “Wow, it’s quite the Turkish crowd out here tonight!”.

The band kept the energy high with their next song, “Tatli Dile Günya Yüze”, a song that offered Yildiz the opportunity to show off his instrumental flexibility and the variety of sounds he can produce with his Saz. He spent the duration of that song effortlessly alternating between generating the catchy, electric riff on the Saz and promptly responding to his own tune on the keyboard. As the song came to an end, the band didn’t wait a beat to make a quick switch to “Kirşehirin Gülleri” and maintain the momentum they’d developed with the preceding song. The band took a moment to thank the crowd before starting their last song, “Kaymakamın Kızları”, which had the dancers breaking out the traditional dance moves they’d learned earlier in the night one last time. The final notes of the show were overwhelmed by cheers and applause from the audience. 

Getting out of the venue was almost as hard as getting a spot for the concert, as the crowd had swarmed towards the exit to greet the band, buy merch, and get signatures – one of the audience members had even brought his very own Saz to get it signed by the band members. It was clear that these attendees had not just happened to be at the venue when this concert happened; they were long-time followers of the band who had been waiting and preparing for the opportunity to meet them in person. Just as they had been onstage, the band was friendly and engaging towards their fans, taking time to get pictures with them, sign records, and chat about their future endeavors.

Since I discovered Altin Gun and saw them live, I’ve revisited my dad’s old music. While it could be that I’ve grown older or expanded my musical palette, I think that the newfound appreciation I have for his old CDs is partially mediated by Altin Gün’s ability to translate sounds and instrumentation from the Middle East to be more accessible to those with a Western musical background. The band has an unmatched ability to interlace traditional Turkish songs and sounds with core aspects of modern Western rock in a way that provides the listener with an awareness of what there is to enjoy in decades-old folk music from the Middle East. Now, when I play those Abdel Halim songs or, what used to be even more of a challenge, Oum Kalthoum’s half-hour anthems, I’m not looking for what I’m used to, but I’m seeing what I had been missing before, and I’m listening more intently to the instruments and intonations that differentiate those pieces from the songs I usually seek out on Spotify. And in a sense, what this represents is a greater understanding of my father, his tastes, and where he – and I – come from. 

To me, Altin Gün’s impressive Philadelphian fanbase was a bridge between cultures, proof that entirely foreign genres can be appreciated in their own right, even and especially by those who don’t know the contemporary history of the music. Just as I could gain insight into my family’s culture through Altin Gün’s unifying art, so too could listeners all over the world begin to understand a place and people from a different society and upbringing. On top of that, by drawing from songs from generations ago, the band revives their own heritage and history while sharing it with others across the globe and simultaneously creating a new genre and sound of their own. 

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