In 1993 I was teaching English in a high school somewhere in Istanbul. As I was listening to the students struggle through the reading passage, trying to pronounce their "tr" like an Englishman, I heard a pulsating beat, approaching us, getting louder and rattling the windows. I must have looked perplexed, for the students looked up at me and said with typical adolescent ennui, "[sigh…] elections."
Elections, as far as I had experienced them in the United States and Great Britain, consisted of campaigns of politicians giving debates on television, advertisements designed to make you not support the other party, and the occasional pamphlets handed out on street corners. Rather dry and boring. There was no blaring music, no driving rhythms in the street. The music that I heard that morning so long ago was not something I would normally have associated with political campaigns. However, over the years, I became accustomed to this different approach.
And here it is, election season in Turkey again. Minibuses, vans, coaches are all decked out in orange and blue, red and white, purple, green and yellow….But there is more than just joyful exuberant colors; emanating from these vehicles comes a myriad of sounds. Deep manly voices exhort the listener that the only future for Turkey is the party in question; catchy tunes set to a lively rhythm make the passers-by's hearts skip a beat…I love election season in Turkey. It encapsulates the liveliness and the exuberance of the society.Last Tuesday was May 19, marking the Turkish National Youth and Sports Holiday; of course the parties were all competing with one another to draw in the young people with a variety of activities. There were concerts and festivities throughout the country. The young people (and the old as well) were spoiled for choice. There were also smaller activities; one of these was held in the region of Kadıköy, by the local AK Party branch. The AK Party does not have a majority share of the vote in Kadıköy, and perhaps it is this that adds to their fervor. Whatever the case, the show they put on for May 19 was one that was well worth seeing.
The AK Party took to Bağdat Avenue, a major street going through the region; the candidate for Parliament Faik Işık not only helped finance the festivities, he also took part, leading the way with an energy that belies his years.
The festivities were called the Fener Alayı (Lantern Parade), and hundreds of bicycles and cars joined in the procession. A band, on top of a City Touring Bus, played different marches and rousing tunes, creating an air of great festivity on this crowded thoroughfare.
The participants carried torches as they made their way down Bağdat Avenue and attracted the attention of thousands of local residents. The locals applauded and accompanied the procession. Those who are fortunate enough to live along this street observed from their windows and balconies, adding their support to the celebration. When the procession reached its final destination at Caddebostan, fireworks were left off to round off the day.
İsa Mesih Şahin, the head of Kadıköy's AK Party regional branch, stated that his administration wanted to present a different style of politics, and that this celebration was just one aspect of it. He commented that they took pleasure in the fact that they had given young people a chance to experience May 19 in a new and unique way.
This occasion led me to think; elections in the Indian subcontinent are as lively, if not more so, than those in Turkey. Yet, in the West, they are more boring affair, rather on an intellectual level. There is a certain use of music, but were elections always this way?
A little research turned up some interesting facts.
The first recorded elections appeared in ancient Greece and Rome; these early elections were used to select political leaders, but later were used to select the Pope. Also, around 900 A.D. elections were held in India; at this time, leaves were used for ballots. On the Arab Peninsula, the caliphs Uthman and Ali were also selected through elections.
There is little information on how these campaigns were carried out, but it is pretty clear that they were more staid affairs than their modern equivalents.
The first mention of music and parades being used during a campaign appears in 1856, when the American Republican Party, still wet behind the ears, decided to organize their young male supporters. They formed these young men into marching clubs, known by a number of names, but most often commemorated as the Wide Awakes. The Wide Awakes held a procession in Chicago that stretched for three miles; this event was so striking that it received wide coverage in the press. Describing this group's activities in Indiana, Kenneth Stampp tells us that the Indianapolis Locomotive wrote: "Speeches, day and night, torch-light processions, and all kinds of noise and confus
ion are the go, with all the parties." Stampp goes on to say: "Every political rally [was] the occasion for carefully arranged parades through banner-bedecked streets, torchlight processions, elaborate floats and transparencies, blaring bands, and fireworks." (Indiana Politics during the Civil War)
However, the Wide-Awakes were not content with just bands and fireworks. They learned marching band maneuvers, and performed these stunning moves during their processions.
Later, campaigns started to use popular music. I remember one of my grade-school music teachers taught us different campaign songs; perhaps it was her way of getting us to be more politically aware. However, to us third-graders, it was just good fun. We started with "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." This song was way before my time (1840); only remembering the tune, I had to look up the history of the song on the Internet to understand what it was all about. Apparently this song "firmly established the power of song as a campaign device" (Irwin Silber). It was even remarked that this song played a role similar to that of the Marseillaise for the French.
Our teacher then took us to "Happy Days Are Here Again" (Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign in 1933). Apparently FDR decided to use a song familiar to the people, one that was popular, to draw people in, thus making a first in campaigning history.
Harry Truman was more fortunate; in 1945 there was a Broadway hit "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Naturally, this was appropriated for Truman's campaign, despite certain questionable lyrics like "the heavenly blisses of his kisses."
In 1960 Frank Sinatra changed the words to "High Hopes" to create a campaign song for JFK.
Frank tells us: "Come on and vote for Kennedy
Vote for Kennedy and we'll come out on top!
Oops there goes the opposition – KERPLOP!"
In 1963 Lyndon B. Johnson tried Truman's tactic, but his first name was not so easy to find in popular lyrics. So he had the popular "Hello Dolly" transformed into "Hello Lyndon."
A change of pace appeared in 1972 with George McGovern's campaign, in which he used the lyrical "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." It was a brave choice, but perhaps the fact that instead of using a rousing exciting song, the calm, sedate melody contributed some to McGovern's being trounced by Nixon.
In the 20 years I have lived in Turkey I have overheard the same conversation a number of times as elections approach. As campaign season sets in, people start to ask one another "What do you think the campaign song is going to be? Will it be as good as the last campaign?" That is, the campaign songs are something people actively look forward to. They download them onto their phones, just so they can hear them more often. A campaign without a good song is just not a good campaign. The tune has to be catchy, the words rousing; in this way it brings people together.Music is certainly an integral part of the campaigns in this country, as are festivities. Of course, there are political debates between the candidates, and conversations about serious issues. But campaigns here are multi-dimensional, making them all the more interesting to observe, or indeed, be part of. Maybe it is for this reason the political parties have the advantage of mass participation, unlike political parties in the West. Or perhaps, the songs are a result of mass participation.
Campaigns, be they in Turkey, India or America, can be fun and full of music. So this month, as you are
sitting by your window, open to the spring air, enjoy the music as it comes by. If you see a torch-lit procession, join in. It is all good fun and encourages a positive energy at a time when it is sorely needed.