Turkish underdogs: Mustafa Özkent

Turkish underdogs: Mustafa Özkent

November 13, 2015

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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Hand in Hand with the Youth

Although having certainties in music is not a healthy thing (since the process of filtering and re-filtering has become a constant concern for almost any group or type of audience), there are some rudiments that you can be sure about, that you can rely on. Some call them facts.

When we got the chance to have a Skype interview with Mr Mustafa Özkent, I felt a bit anxious, since his album Gençlik Ile Elele (meaning ‘Hand in Hand with Youth’) it - kind of - introduced me into the hugely cavernous world of Turkish psych / funk music. So it became a fact for my ears that Mustafa Özkent is an extremely important figure for the basis of Turkish funk and also for common Turkish music as well.

Mustafa is a composer, arranger and musician from Ankara. He quickly earned a reputation as a skilled maverick; in the early 1970s he was not only in demand as a session player, arranger and producer, but he also studied in Brussels with Barış Manço. He made dozens of Turkish albums that fused psychedelic and pop/rock melodies with R&B grooves and jazz-inspired improvisations. Although he was active as a musician for almost his entire life, he was relatively unknown to the Western audiences until 2006, when excavators from Finders Keepers re-pressed Özkent’s instrumental album ‘Gençlik Ile Elele’.

’After initial rehearsals of Özkent’s new compositions, Evren were able to secure studio time at Istanbul’s legendary Grafson studios where the full band would assemble to record the live music in single takes without overdubs and in the absence of multi channel recording Mustafa adopted some handy microphone techniques to emulate the total-stereo effect and capture the heavy psychedelic effects and solid close-miked beat breaks.’ - Finders Keepers linear notes

The album was initially recorded in 1972, together with two Turkish musicians (Umit Aksu and Cahit Oben) enlisted by the Turkish record label Evren and released one year later as a ten-tracks LP. Read our review to the album here.

’Despite the cutting-edge approach to Özkent’s eclectic arrangements, the fact that the album was – as originally requested – devoid of vocals, Evren decided not to release any singles from the LP and all the compositions were exclusive to this rare vinyl long player release (many collectors of Turkish vinyl will be aware that within time a huge number of Turkish LPs were taken off the shelves and destroyed or recycled due to oil-shortages, though 45s were spared).’ - Finders Keepers linear notes

90% of the music of today is not music. It’s only rhythm. I always say to the young musicians ‘you have to learn music. You have to learn harmony, styles.
Mustafa Ozkent
Mustafa Ozkent


During November 20-22, 2015, Mustafa Özkent will play his album during the Europalia festival from Belgium. The LP Gençlik Ile Elele is brought to life on stage in partnership with a dynamic Belgian group, expressly formed for this occasion. The band includes musicians Sofiane Remadna (bass), Yannick Dupont (drum), Jean-Philippe de Gheest (drum), Axel Gilain (guitar), David Picard (keyboard, organ), Guillaume Codutti (conga, percussion) and Tadzio Baudoux (percussion).

Mustafa Özkent & Belçika Orkestrası will play three concerts within Europalia’s program: on November 20, in Brussels, at Ancienne Belgique; on November 21 in Köln, Stadthalle Köln Mülheim; and on November 22 in Utrecht, during the Le Guess Who? Festival.

We can start by asking about the Europalia festival in Belgium, that have assembled a band for you and you’ll be touring again in November for the first time ever. How do you feel about that?

Mustafa Ozkent: Yes, I feel very surprised. Even for the music, after almost 40 years, I’m still surprised, because I was forgetting that already. It was in my archive. When they called me in 2006 (e.n. Finders Keepers Records) to make the album again, I said ‘what is it?’ I completely forgot. We didn’t have the master tapes, we didn’t have anything; the company was already finished, the boss was dead. I had only one original record in my studio, so I made a master in a computer program. As I’m an arranger, composer, I made a new master; very clean, very good, like new. They didn’t even know I made a new master from the record. It took a lot of time for all those noises; I took them all out, one by one.

I think a repress of the album will be out in a few months, in the future. A new company from US wants to make the LP again, because my contract with Finders Keepers finished a few years ago. That’s why the people can’t find the LP now. I’m looking at the prices… the normal price for the LP was 25 $, and now it’s almost 100 $; or 100 pounds. That’s why they want to do it again. They sent me the contract, I think it will be out in a few months; only LP, not CD. Because the DJs, they prefer this. Many DJs don’t like CDs, they prefer vinyl.

And then, it was two years ago when Chris (DJ soFa) called me. He proposed me to make a concert. I said ‘no, I can’t’. ‘Why?’ First of all, because I don’t have time. Secondly, the band is not the same anymore. The two musicians are already dead. So I said I can’t. But he insisted. And then, he called me again for the Europalia, he came to Istanbul and he said he wants me to play Europalia in Belgium. He came to Istanbul two times. He said ‘I have a band; it will be very easy for you. You will only take your guitar and the band will be ready to accompany you on stage. They like your music, they rehearse your music, they know it.’ So I sent them the CDs, the partitions, the arrangements and they started to rehearse already in Belgium.

So, all this is still a surprise. Like a miracle! After 40 years…

These musicians playing in this album, this orchestra is not mine. The musicians playing in there, in studio, the old ones, they are not my orchestra. We used to play together in studios for every production made in Istanbul. At Evren Records. I was playing with them, I was accompanying the others. Always the same group. They were the best musicians of Istanbul.

And then I built my orchestra, but it was very long after. Because the musicians have to be the best. But in Belgium, with Belçika Orkestrası, I don’t know the musicians, but I trust Chris.

So at Europalia you will play only the old songs from your album 'Gençlik Ile Elele'?

MO: Only the tracks from the album, nothing else. But each track will be longer. They asked me why are the tracks so short? Because technically, in that time, around the ‘70s, it was not possible to make albums longer than 30 minutes. Maximum 35 minutes. But now, with the new technology, you can do anything you want.

Mustafa Ozkent
Mustafa Ozkent

Dr Frankenstein

What are you working on nowadays?

MO: I have a new project of my own production. I made it with a big jazz band. I like mixing music, that’s why they call me Frankenstein.

Let’s go a little bit into your past. I’ve read that you started playing in a band called ‘Teenagers’ in the ‘60s.

MO: Oo, that’s when I was in high school. We made a group, it was a vocal group with four singers: two girls and two guys. I made arrangers for them; we started to play together. I remember it was the last year of high school. We were playing the music of that time, I don’t really remember now; there were common known songs. And when I finished high school, I jumped directly into the music business, professionally. I started the studies at University in Ankara, but music was the first.

What kind of music were you listening to, as a child, in your family?

MO: My family was born near to the border to Siria. The music that my father was listening was traditional classic Turkish music; my parents were listening at home, I remember I was very young.

You studied in Brussels. How come?

MO: In ‘75 I moved from Turkey to Belgium. I had a friend who used to work in Rotterdam. He was always calling me to come up to Europe. He was saying, ‘You did everything; you have to break your limits. You have to make something else, something bigger in Europe, you can do it in Europe’. That’s why I went there. And then I got an offer and it was a chance to go to school in Brussels, Academie D'e music D'ixelles.

When I was in Brussels, I was waiting at the metro. The Metro came, the doors open, and all of a sudden: Barış Manço. I say ‘Ah, Bariș!’, he says ‘Ah, Mustafa!’ ‘What are you doing here?! What are you doing here?’ And this is how we met there. I was studying and working, and he was doing an album, and a few months we’ve been together there, in Brussels.

I’ve also been to Montreal; in 1976, during the Olympic games, with a big band, as an arranger. It was a big band, mixed of Belgium and Dutch musicians. I stayed there for three months. After three months, the musicians ended their ensemble, because they didn’t really fit together, they weren’t apart.

So you know, life is so unexpected. You never know what will happen.

I started to work with a famous Turkish singer, Ajda Pekkan for two years, and then I built my band in a casino (not gambling casino, but music casino, like a theatre, you know?) And then, ‘till 85 I continued to do that. After ’85, the studio business started more and more, and I said I had to stop it, because I had many productions to do. When two or three productions have success, they always come and ask you to do other artists. More and more.

Can you tell us some of the productions you’re happy with?

I have hundreds!

90% of the music of today is not music. It’s only rhythm. I always say to the young musicians ‘you have to learn music. You have to learn harmony, styles. I write lyrics, I’m also a composer, I have hundreds of songs.

Maybe you heard about Ferdi Ozbegen? I made that for the first time in Turkey, pianist singer. And then only arrangement on the styling. You know, this is funny, I worked with Ferdi Ozbegen in a hotel, who do you think was the drummer? Okay Temiz! 1966.

Mustafa Ozkent
Mustafa Ozkent

A natural touch

You also customized your guitar.

MO: My guitar as Frankenstein, I cut it in two times, adding extra frets, to reproduce a totally different sound. I can replicate unique notes similar to that of a saz or lute. I sing in quarter-tones. My guitar is a Fender Coronado from 1967.

And do you know what I’m doing now? I play over the CD with my guitar, to remember, you know? I play like it's somebody else’s music. Because, after 40 years, I cannot remember all.

What do you think about electronic music of today?

MO: Electronic music… this is not electronic music that they do. Electronic music is other things. They make computer music. Mostly. But the problem is not with computer; the problem has to do music. A drummer doesn’t have three hands. When the drummer plays, he is obliged to use the cymbals. But in computer music, one plays cymbals and attacks drums altogether. This is not natural.

For me, jazz music is my favorite. It has no limits, you can do everything. Especially solos. And that’s why; sometimes you can hear solos in my music. I make all kind of music. For example, here’s my arrangement on this CD for Radio Istanbul Jazz Band. ’72 – ’73.

In many interviews they say I was copying Jimmy Hendrix. Only that for me, Jimmy Hendrix was not a guitar player, I never heard of him. I never listened. I didn’t even know what he plays.

But what was he?

Singer. Then I read about him and found his name, I said I wonder who is he. I listened on the Internet, and then I found out about him. I never copied him.


During our conversation, Mustafa was regularly stopping and digging for a record or a book to show it to us on the webcam. He even played a few parts from his old songs repertoire for us on his famous guitar, despite the rather poor Internet connection. But we can’t complain, as the Internet was also the key factor that could make this (virtual) meeting happen.

He played a track from his solo LP called Elif. ‘’This is something completely different; I play guitar the Turkish folk style. There is nothing mixed in there.’’

Özkent was a demanded studio musician, too. For example he participated at the Özel Türkbas belly dance album “Alla-Turca - The Turkish Way With Özel”. (El-Ay Records 2982; 1975). He is also known as a composer and arranger and still cuts albums. His latest LP “Dijital gitar” was released in 2005. Mustafa also translated a book, Modern Harmonic Technique, in order to learn the classical Turkish nods harmonization, as arranger.

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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