The song Deutsche Freunde (German Friends) by Ozan Ata Canani starts with a furious riff on the electric saz, a traditional Turkish string instrument. Its refrain, sung in German, is a quote by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, summing up the ambivalence with which German-speaking countries met Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, from southern Europe: “We asked for workers. We got human beings instead.”
In the 1970s and 80s, the song was a hit among Turkish expat workers in Germany – now it is practically unknown. Canani, who arrived in North-Rhine Westphalia from Turkey as 12-year old in 1975, is part of a generation of migrants whose hard work – as steel workers, bin men or musicians – got little recognition.
But things may be changing: two compilations released this week pay tribute to the cultural contribution made by the first wave of migrants to Germany. While Songs of Gastarbeiter concentrates on music made in Germany by Turkish-born artists, Heimatlieder aus Deutschland (Folk Songs from Germany) casts its net even wider.
Based on a sold-out concert at Berlin’s Komische Oper earlier this year, it collects the songs of Vietnamese workers’ choirs, Portuguese fado, marrabenta from Mozambique and Cuban salsa. The only criteria were that songs had to be found in modern Berlin and originate in a country that used to have a guest-worker agreement with West or East Germany.
Mark Terkessidis, one of the curators of the Heimatlieder project, remembers tracking down a Vietnamese workers’ choir at the Dong Xuan supermarket in the Lichtenberg area of Berlin. “Our jaws just dropped. There’s a real lack of genuine feelings in modern music, but these songs had a really raw emotional edge.”
To Imran Ayata, the German-Turkish novelist who helped compile Songs of Gastarbeiter, the trend is indicative of a wider shift in attitudes towards multiculturalism: “Germany has no choice but to reinvent itself. The days of the homogenous state that would occasionally decide to open or close its doors is over.
“And one way to achieve this reinvention is to rediscover the forgotten achievements of the first wave of migrants,” Ayata said.
“We celebrate the achievements of second-generation migrants like [Arsenal football player] Mesut Özil, [novelist] Feridun Zaimoglu or [film-maker] Fatih Akin as if they’ve come out of nothing.
“But there were creative struggles and achievements among the first generation too”.
Ayata and the musician Bülent Kullukcu, spent a year and a half leafing through their relatives’ record collections to track down retired artists from Turkish expat labels such as Türküola and Minarici. Ozan Ata Canani’s Deutsche Freunde had to be pulled back into the studio, because all the original recordings had got lost.
“I hated Turkish folk music when I was a child,” said Ayata, who preferred listening to Fugazi and The Smiths instead. “But when I sat down with an old record by a forgotten artist like Ali Avaz, I