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Arif Erdem Ocak: Turkey’s Breakout Musician of the Year

Meet the Jet-Setting Star Who's Defying the Rules of Rock

Moonlight on tight shorts and bikini tops… A secluded beach lapped by hot Aegean waves… The dark green of woods within which stalk predators hunting furry prey... And then— a rainbow of lights cross each other like sniper beads seeking targets as a boom of unnaturally amplified guitars disrupts the ambient airwaves.

The calm is over and the girls are going nuts. Veteran rock group Seksendört has stormed the stage on Love Beach to light the assembled masses aflame with Rock n’ Roll!

As the set progresses, vocalist Tuna Velibaşoğlu never runs out of hits to belt out, to the careening delight of half-naked beach youth as they drink their Turkish beers and smoke far too many cigarettes. This is the summer’s packed Gençlik Festivali, and the band, fresh off another successful European tour, strums and hammers with the assuredness of a well-lubed machine.

Are they experienced? You’re damned straight. 


The summer left, and the band went home and so did I. It was my first concert in the country of Turkey, and I wanted more from the group. Luckily the band’s albums are easy to find over here so I grabbed the one the store clerk recommended. And it blew me away! (It was Akıyor Zaman; I'll link to it below...)

There’s a just reason Seksendört has enjoyed the pleasure of such a long shelf life on this side of the pond. In an industry as unforgiving as the musical one, it ain’t coincidence. It’s TALENT! They know how to pen and produce instant classics and—an often overlooked element for too many bands today—they know how to please a live crowd.

I couldn’t get the show out of my head. But it wasn’t just the band as a whole that had hooked my ear. It was those riffs, man, the riiffffsss…

Yes, the singer of any group generally leads the band, as Velibaşoğlu confidently does with his dramatic vocals and charged lyrics. But—it is guitarist Arif Erdem Ocak who continues to shine on like a crazy diamond in my mind. Shortly after the festival, Ocak broke from the band to launch his solo album, Bahar, under the name AEO. Lucky me!

The album has yet to be released in his native country of Turkey, due to distribution issues, however the West has been treated to this diamond’s brilliance…and is rightfully in awe. No jewel in the rough, Ocak, after over a decade in the business, is more polished than ever before. 

Read on for the review! Get ready...

Who is Arif Erdem Ocak?

Born in Giresun, in the Black Sea region of Turkey, Erdem Ocak and his family later moved to the capital city of Ankara. He began studying classical guitar around the age of 12, and has been a constant fixture of the music scene since his high school days.

By 1999, Ocak and school friend Serter Karadeniz launched Sexendört (originally a pun on “Sex and Dirt,” but later changed to “Seksendört,” which means Eighty-four in Turkish. Legend has it the change was made in order to appease conservative governmental sentiments, and to avoid complaints of immorality…Indeed, many simply call the band “Group 84”).

His surname means “furnace” in Turkish, and it’s as apt a name as you could ask for. Why? Because every year, for the last several years, Ocak’s talent has burned hotter and hotter, culminating in the 2016 zenith event of his career to date—the aforementioned, long awaited release of his solo album, Bahar.

Get set... Here we go!!

Bahar, by Arif Erdem Ocak (AEO)

Like so many talented musicians within the world’s greatest rock bands (Sting, Don Henley, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, every member of the Beatles), Erdem Ocak sought an outlet for his own creativity, an outlet separate from the group he founded. So, branching off for a spell, Ocak the guitarist has now emerged as AEO, singer, songwriter—and lead guitarist—for his new groundbreaking release. 

He’s become the total package, the whole enchilada.

And Bahar? It’s everything you’d expect from a rock star’s first solo album, plus a few things you wouldn’t…and that’s a very great thing.

In some industries, it’s unwise to upset a fan base by altering the existing formula. But true artists grow and evolve; their musical muse cannot survive in a vacuum. Restless when confined, the muse grows weary doing what it has always done and must either break out or suffocate. 

That is why Ocak busted out tracks tapping the wells of several genres—blues, funk, jazz, hard rock, contemporary rock, traditional Turkish pop…and running like a vein of gold throughout the album, some ethereal quality one can only label PURE ERDEM.

Listeners can check out the album on Spotify, here.

Ocak’s breakout was perfectly timed, for the Turkish music scene (and indeed the international one as well) is in dire need of a fresh sound, of a “new level” of musical artistry. 

Despite large outdoor concerts such as the Gençlik Festivali, Turkey has yet to have its rebellious Woodstock-type event, and perhaps it never will now. Increasingly the country is leaning towards conservatism and with that, ultra-nationalism. Non-Anatolian music is heard less often. 

In modern Turkey, it seems, Western musical influences are more and more shunned. 

Near the same time as the Gençlik Festivali, a group of music fans listening to Radiohead’s new album were attacked in Istanbul by a mob of Islamic fundamentalists armed with bottles and sticks. 

Certainly under the current administration such an overt celebration of rebellion as Woodstock would be unwise, to say the least. And yet the spirit is there, in Ocak’s style and in his sound (he sometimes favors using a Fender Stratocaster, the preferred make and model of Hendix’s guitars). 

Eschewing traditional but widely popular “Turkish Arabesque” musical stylings (or, “imitation of Arabic music due to the infusion of the Egyptian melodic nuances and the style of the string performance” – Meral Ozbek), Ocak deftly embraces Western modes without trying to merely copy them. Indeed his lyrics are all in Turkish, and the themes he sings of? Very much Turkish.

Black Earth (Kara Toprak)

Note, Black Earth (Kara Toprak) is not on the Bahar album but it can be bought as a single! It's one of my favorites!

Take the first track of Bahar (meaning “Summer”)… Yara, or “Wound.” (The video is up above the Black Earth vid...)

Certainly the album begins with that air of Turkish fatalism before moving to the aggressively-drummed Bi Kız Vardı, or “There is a Girl.” Of course; there is always a girl involved with melodramatic Turkish music! 

The next track is uber-cool, jazzy-ish Ankara, followed by the grungy, quasi-hard rockin’ Söyle de Bilelim (“Say It Well”), the sweet Bir Aşk (“A Love,” or perhaps “One Love”), the definitely hard-rockin’ Biz Onunla Dövüşürüz (“We Are Fighting With Him”), the emo-ish, prog ballad Ölsen N'olur (had trouble translating this one, but I think it’s “Die, Please”), the heavily-distorted Trip Yapma (“Make a Trip”), and the bring-it-on-home honey of Mutfak (“Kitchen”).

So…summer, girls, love, hometown, fighting, death, and kitchens. Yep, sounds like Turkish themes to me! 

Yet in many ways it’s referential to American pop. The guitar riffs and hooks remind me strongly of classic American rock bands from the '70's and 80's. Hear those synthesizers? Catch those backup singers echoing the chorus? 

It’s a mixed bowl of nuts to be sure, and who doesn't love long as there's a cool lager to knock back with 'em? And at least drinking, so far, is still widely accepted in Turkey! So I'll be hear keeping an eye out for the next local tour of the band...or better yet, AEO's solo tour! 

And I'll have my beer money in my pocket...

Who's Afraid of a Little Seksendort?

For those who want to hear more of Arif Erdem Ocak's main band, here are a couple vids to watch... Be warned; the songs are pretty addictive, even if you don't understand the lyrics! 

I did not see their albums available for streaming from Amazon's U.S. site, however you can find them on the German one. You did know Amazon has international sites, right?

And to wrap it up, that single I told you about. It's not on the Bahar album, but I highly recommend snagging a copy! Not collection is complete without it... 

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