Interview: Olcay Bayir (December 2015)

If the Anatolian peninsula had its own bard, it would probably include Olcay Bayir. Of Kurdish origin, the Turkish singer-songwriter epitomises the voices, sounds and stories of her native region. In her music, she gathers together all the influences and references of the Turkish tradition, but also crosses national borders widening her musical identity. A resident of London since she was fourteen, her music sweeps from the Caucasus Mountains through the Black Sea, the Bosporus Strait and Mediterranean Basin at large, from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia to Spain and Portugal.

We met Olcay a few days before her Rich Mix show in London. This would be one of the few opportunities to enjoy her vocal expressivity in the British capital this year. We chatted for more than half an hour about her musical life that drifts between Turkey and the UK and her wide-ranging influences.


Our interview began by pondering the hard times afflicting her hometown. Olcay was born in Gaziantep, a major historical South Eastern Turkish city less than fifty miles from the Syrian border, where Turks, Arabs and Kurds have always lived peacefully together – until the last months.

What’s happening now in my hometown is very upsetting. Since I haven’t been there for the last few years I can’t really give accurate updates, but I haven’t heard good news from my people. Every time I speak with them they tell me that things are getting worse, and the relations between people of different ethnicities are changing too. When I was I child I remember that our neighbours were Arabs and we were used to live in a peaceful environment together. I lived there until the age of fourteen, but I still have good memories from that period. That’s why I really, really want things to turn out for the best.

The region where Olcay comes from is extremely rich from a cultural and musical perspective. We asked whether the current troubles are influencing the musicians there.

Even if this situation is not directly affecting the cultural and musical scenes people are suffering, and musicians have started to make music to express their feeling and pain. But at the same time I reckon that the diversity of the region will always be the main feature and influence for musicians. As well as the Kurdish tradition you find a lot of diversity in the harmonies, and this is also what I try to promote with my music. I’m deeply inspired by this factor because I’m part of it. It represents my cultural richness and I couldn’t get away from it. I tried to play something else, but every time I go back to that.

In fact, Olcay started her musical career as an opera singer. She initially received a classical training, but at the bottom of her heart she always knew that she wasn’t made for that profession.

My family has always been really into music. My father and my brother are musicians and they were my first teachers. But, then I decided to study classical music and moved to London. At that time I was trying to convince myself that that was my path and I was going to become an opera singer. I was into the discipline and practicing everyday professionally. I eventually earned a music degree in opera performance. However, somewhere in my head I knew that that wasn’t the kind of music I wanted to play. I wanted to do my own thing. So as well as my training I was also making my own music and writing my own songs.

Olcay has indeed often proved that the main driving force behind her music is tradition.

I always loved tradition and wanted to find where I come from. I’m far from being a nationalist but I always looked for my origins. It is a common feeling that I find all around the Mediterranean region because there are so many different origins blended together there. So I started a journey to find myself, and I found it quite natural to follow my instinct.

Besides her inner journey she also has an outward one, which is leading her all round the world, mirrored by the tunes she plays.

I have to say that I really feel attached to Armenian and Georgian music. I like them a lot. For example, I deeply love the Georgian chants. I’m also fond of Azerbaijan melodies. At the same time I feel very connected to Greek, Italian and flamenco traditions too. As I said, it is all about a Mediterranean feeling. It’s hard for me to categorise music because I reckon that it goes beyond any borders. I strongly believe in the values of people and their culture, more than their names and labels. So I feel an attachment to Turkish culture at large and its remarkable variety, and I love to perform it too. But if you listen to my songs you can understand that there are many different influences in it.

In fact, Olcay’s live performances are journeys throughout the Anatolian region. She is skilled in leading her listeners around Turkey, the Mediterranean and further afield to Latin America. But how has she developed her shows?

It’s all about practice and how I feel about a particular song, thinking it over again and again. My shows are not built in a day because I conceive them as journeys too. In addition, my musicians and their stories represent a huge influence for me. They give me different angles to look at in my music. Finally, it’s about researching and going through the creative process, meeting new people and sharing ideas with them. So the final outcome is related to all these features, the result of putting together all these elements.


The years she spent involved with London scene and Western music have helped Olcay to develop an objective impression of the Turkish music scene and the differences with the European one.

When I played in Turkey I realised that the audience is completely different there. Even though I played in my hometown I always found different expectations and reactions. I have had really good experiences in Turkey and good feedback too, which made me really happy. But I reckon the Turkish audience is different than the London one. It is easy to say that London is very cosmopolitan: it is the centre of everything! The audience here is used to listening to different stuff. It is open-minded and welcomes different styles, while in Turkey music listeners are not so used to listening to foreign music. It’s all about tradition there – except Istanbul. People find hard to listen to foreign influences. They might like them. For sure they won’t throw tomatoes at you if you play a foreign style, but of course it’s something different for them.

We wondered how it is to translate Olcay’s Anatolian roots to a foreign audience such as the British one, whether people easily understand the messages she sends through her lyrics and what the process involves.

People have understood my songs so far, so yes, I believe they can figure out what my music is about. Maybe they can’t understand the lyrics, but they surely understand the feelings. It is something that really impresses me sometimes. It happened that after some performances I received emails or was stopped by people who told me that my music made them cry. That happened after my Womad performance. People confessed to me that they cried, and that made me really happy because it proved that I could convey the feelings of my songs and my tradition.

Despite her multicultural and wide-ranging music approach, many of Olcay’s songs are borrowed, inspired or related to legends and stories from the purest expressions of Anatolian tradition.

My first album ‘Neva’ is mainly comprised of arrangements of Turkish and Anatolian traditional songs. Every song has a story behind it, which is related to everyday life or popular legends. It’s quite common for Anatolian tunes to narrate a story. That’s because all these compositions come from the oral tradition, and music was the best way to carry it on. For example, ‘Melamet Hırkası’ is a tune which has an Alevi origin, because I’m deeply connected to the Alevi tradition too.

Neva helped Olcay to spread her name and perform all around Europe, and she’s hoping to release her first album of original material soon – which looks to be just around the corner!

Despite ‘Neva’ being only one year old it is still going really well. We have already started to record a new album, which will be mostly my own songs. The process is going on, and I hope to release it in 2016. I’m already playing some of those songs at gigs, even if I usually refer back to ‘Neva’ for my set list. But as an artist, my aim is to play my own tunes. I really like to show who Olcay is, my lyrics and music.

Since starting her career Olcay has juggled the roles of singer, interpreter, songwriter and composer. But is there one that represents her better than the others?

I reckon that I can fully express myself as a singer and interpreter. I’d also love to start singing in languages other than my own. I have already sung in Spanish, and I’d like to try with Italian and other Neo-Latin languages. I’m not sure about English, which perhaps is not a great thing to say if you live in London doing an interview with an English magazine! But I don’t feel very attached to the sound of the English language.

But she undoubtedly feels attached to the British audience, because in few days time she will be playing in London on Rich Mix’s stage. Even though she’s becoming more popular in the UK there will hopefully be members of the audience who will encounter Olcay’s music for the first time. So we closed our interview by inviting her to introduce herself to the ones who still haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying her voice and “Pan-Anatolian” style.

This is something I have been dwelling on! What is the best way to introduce myself without being labelled? This has always been a fight for me, but at the same time I reckon that once people see me and listen to my music live they will have have a clearer idea of what I play. I’m just a person who was born in the Kurdish area of Turkey and has a passion and love for her own values and background. Since I studied in Europe I digested European sounds and culture. I reckon I’d say that I’m just a fusion of my background and my personal journey. I’m just trying to interpret things the way I see them. I don’t look at myself as a traditional singer, more a contemporary orientated one. Although many of my compositions are traditional I try to open new windows. In a way I’m attached to my roots because I’ve studied and researched them to understand who I am, but I also want to be free and interpret them in the way I want, looking forward to adding new things. That’s who I am.

[justified_image_grid ng_gallery=215]

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *