Monday, January 6, 2014

Song #462 of 9999 - Yassassin (Turkish for "Long Live") by David Bowie

Song #462 of 9999

Title: Yassassin (Turkish for "Long Live")
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1979
Album: Lodger

The blog is BACK! And I thought I'd start with a song from what is probably my favorite album of 1979 even though I surely did not discover it until at least ten years later. Lodger is the third and final record of David Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy, which also includes Low and "Heroes", both of which were released in 1977. Bowie embarked on a world tour following the release of "Heroes" and the recording of Lodger was undertaken between legs with the touring band. While most of the musicians appeared on the other two records, the most notable changes include the absence of Robert Fripp (replaced by Adrian Belew) and the addition of violinist Simon House whose presence is particularly felt on "Yassassin."

Lodger is a quirky hodge-podge of a record, with musical influences from all over the globe and random experiments including musicians swapping instruments, different songs using identical chord progressions, and guitar solos being recorded in complete isolation with Belew not even knowing the key of the song. So it's no surprise that "Yassassin" features a rather unusual blend of reggae and Turkish music!

The harmonic progression consists essentially of just two chords set a semitone apart: E7 (I) and F (bII). This chord relationship suggests Phrygian mode and, in fact, the scale employed by Bowie's synthesizer parts and House's violin solos is essentially what jazz musicians may call a Phrygian dominant scale (in this key: E F G# A B C D E). But the 7th scale degree is raised (D-->D#) in keeping with the Turkish scale known as the Hijaz Kar Makam. (What? You didn't know that?) For those unfamiliar with Turkish (or Arabic) music, the makam is a system of melodic modes for composing and performing music.

So what is Bowie doing messing around with Turkish music while hanging out in Berlin anyway? The connection seems to be the so-called Gastarbeiter, "guest workers" who came primarily from Turkey to Germany to work for a specified amount of time during the 1960s and 1970s. The song's lyric appears to comment on the state of these workers, many of whom stayed in Germany after the program officially ended in 1973 and were perhaps disadvantaged or victims of discrimination. Bowie chooses to alter the spelling of yaşasın ("long live"), apparently combining it with the word assassin, and perhaps suggesting that his protagonist is in Germany to perform a rather different job!


  1. It's hard not to feel, in my bones, that this is the most anyone has ever written about this song. But I know that can't be true considering the number of Bowie aficionados there are... probably a whole chapter on this song somewhere. But still, that's a lot of info packed into 4 paragraphs! Good one!

    1. Thanks! To be fair, I borrow and steal from a variety of sources (and I am not ashamed to admit I am a Wikipedia proponent) but I always try to bring something new to the table.