Years before it was possible in the traditional Kurdish lands, four young men in Soviet Tbilisi formed the world's first Kurdish rock band.
Koma Wetan (Group Homeland) was founded in 1973, with three Yazidi Kurds and one Armenian. Frontman Kerem Gerdenzeri was born and raised in Tbilisi, part of the small but longstanding Kurdish communities in the Caucasus. But his family had roots in in the eastern Turkish provinces of Kars and Van, still home to large Kurdish populations.
“Kurdistan is the land of our fathers and grandfathers, the motherland and fatherland of our people,” go the lyrics of one of the group’s songs, 'Welate Me' (Our Homeland). “This song is for you, Kurdistan, for your mountains and springs. This is our place and our home.”
That kind of sentiment – sung in the Kurdish language, at that – would have been impossible at the time in neighboring Turkey, where it was illegal to speak Kurdish until the early 1990s. Using the word “Kurdistan” is still banned in the Turkish parliament.
But in the multiethnic, relaxed atmosphere of Tbilisi of the time, Koma Wetan was not only allowed to perform, but got state support. The city was one of the centers of Soviet rock, and in 1980 hosted the first official rock festival in the Soviet Union.
One of the group’s boosters was prominent Georgian-Kurdish intellectual and politician Kerem Anqosi, a major advocate of Kurdish culture in Soviet Georgia who operated Kurdish-language programming on Georgian state radio for more than 25 years. Anqosi helped Koma Wetan secure financial assistance from the state so they could purchase instruments that they otherwise would not have been able to afford.
Koma Wetan managed to achieve formal recognition as a “vocal-instrumental ensemble,” the Soviet term for pop and rock bands operating with official sanction. The groups “were state-funded or state-approved collectives with a repertoire that was based on local musical culture; and they were allowed to experiment with forms, albeit within the confines of what was acceptable,” Georgian music critic Kakha Tolordava told Eurasianet.
And given Turkey’s position at the time as an enemy NATO member state bordering the Soviet Caucasus, it is perhaps not surprising that the authorities would at least tolerate sentiments that Ankara would have seen as separatism.
“I don't think mentioning Kurdistan in songs during the 1970's was problematic for the Soviet state,” Tolordava said.
Koma Wetan appeared repeatedly on Georgian and Soviet television, Gerdenzeri later recalled. “We performed in a lot of festivals and concerts,” he said in a 2012 interview. “We were recognized around the Soviet Union and wherever Kurds lived.”
The group wrote the demos for its first and only album, Baye Payizê (“The Winds of Fall”), in 1979, though it took until 1989 for the record to be released. It combined a classic rock style, some psychedelic flourishes, and lyrics written by Gerdenzeri but drawn from the works of iconic Kurdish poets from the Caucasus.
“It was inevitable that Kurdish rock would emerge in the territories of the Soviet Union,” wrote anthropologist Özkan Öztaş, in his book Kurdish Art in the Soviet Union. “Both the chance to get the best and most advanced equipment, and the ability to benefit from mother-tongue language education and musical education contributed to the creation of the first Kurdish rock music in history.”
The group’s big debut, however, came at a tumultuous time.
"The year 1989, when the album was released, coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on the one hand, and on the other hand, when Kurds were massacred kilometers away in [the Iraqi Kurdish city of] Halabja by Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons,” Öztaş wrote. Koma Wetan donated the proceeds from the albums to support the people of Halabja.
The collapse of the Soviet Union proved fatal to the band, as the disappearance of state support forced members to seek other work outside Georgia, Gerdenzeri recalled. Gerdenzeri himself moved to Moscow.
But in Turkey, home to the largest number of the world’s Kurds, the popularity and influence of Koma Wetan has only grown, and it has served as the inspiration for many subsequent Kurdish musicians. Strictures against Kurdish language, literature, and music began to be loosened in the 1990s, and when a reassembled version of Koma Wetan performed a concert to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its formation, they did it in Istanbul, the city with the highest Kurdish population in the world.
At that concert, Koma Wetan shared the stage with another history-making group: Ferec, the world's first Kurdish-language heavy metal band, formed in the eastern Turkish province of Hakkari in 2004.
Ferec’s frontman, who performs under the stage name Reh, told Eurasianet that Koma Wetan was “one of the most important bands for us. … As the first Kurdish group, Koma Wetan paved the way for and influenced many Kurdish rock groups.” Reh first bought a cassette tape of Baye Payizê in the late 1990s, he recalled.
“When I first listened to it, I felt it to my bones,” he said. “It was a tape that would never get old, no matter how much you listened to it, it always brought enjoyment.”
Paul Benjamin Osterlund is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.