Discovering The Women Singers of Turkey from the 70s and 80s

Discovering The Women Singers of Turkey from the 70s and 80s

May 3, 2018

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Andrei Rusu

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Reports about today’s state of affairs in Turkey rarely mention the struggles of one particular ethnic group. Inhabitants of, largely, western parts of the country, the Afro-Turks, as they are commonly referred to, don’t seem to have any prominent individuals or groups actively campaigning for their rights, and their cultural heritage is mostly still undiscovered. They are descendants of Africans who have been brought to the Ottoman Empire as slaves, starting with the second half of the 19th century, up until the early beginning of 20th century.

Their number is still a matter of debate, with varying estimates of 10,000 and even 100,000 figures. But what is evident is the fact that their community is relatively unknown, and which only in the past two decades has been starting to come together. There are now various local efforts to reclaim the lost history of the Afro-Turks, a noticeable one having been led by late writer and activist Mustafa Olpak. Even if one believes that their identity is not defined by the nation or ethnicity that one might belong to, it is arguably important to have a clear understanding of one’s own ancestral heritage. At least for anthropological reasons, if for nothing else.
Turkish women singers were easily forgotten, unnoticed or, in worst-cases, even prohibited from performing in the name of ideology, religion or restrictive law. Sometimes they were crowd pleasers and beloved divas, other times were censored rebels and messengers of change.

From Krakow To Istanbul

Perhaps one of the most well-known representative of the Afro-Turks is late singer Esmeray Diriker. Unsurprisingly, when one comes to Istanbul to research and discover the music of Turkish women singers, one’s initial discovery is in many instances the music of Esmeray. Such was the case for anthropologist researcher, DJ and festival curator Kornelia Binicewicz, who, about three years ago, has decided to drop everything and move lock, stock, and barrel from Krakow to Istanbul, in order to explore, analyse, collect and promote the music of Turkish women from the 60s, 70s and 80s respectively.

Ms Binicewicz is a passionate record collector, spending a good deal of time unearthing music, but lately having become more focused on music exclusively composed, produced or performed by women. From 2008 to 2013 she was also curator of the Music & The World Film Festival (Muzyka i Świat Festival), the very first event in Poland devoted to showcasing music film documentaries.

Having had a growing interest in music from the East Mediterranean and Middle East regions, she was introduced to the Mevlevi spiritual music, than later explored the music of Bariș Manco, Erkin Koray, Kamuran Akkor, or Selda Bagcan. It soon became clear that by living in Poland, you can only reach so much of it, that the possibilities there were limited. So she decided to go on, what was supposed to be, a one month trip to Istanbul. She then packed some 30 Kg of records, a few summer dresses, arranged some DJ gigs and took off for the Bosphorus to explore Turkish music, by women in particular. Not long after she had set foot in Istanbul, it became clear that this will be her new life and had only briefly returned to Krakow in order to put things in order and permanently depart on the new adventure.

In Istanbul, Ms Binicewicz met with Kaan Diriker, Esmeray’s son, and besides having been introduced to the mesmerising music of Esmeray, was also introduced to the story of the Afro-Turks, which is still largely unknown to the Western world. Esmeray is very well known in Turkey as the singer of military related songs, but it was her “13,5” song that intrigued Binicewicz the most, which spoke to her about the hardships of being a black Turkish girl. Binicewicz discovers that the song is addressing an old prejudice towards dark-skinned persons in Turkey, with lyrics which roughly translate to: “Kids are scared, they run away/With a pinch and 13,5/But your skin can be black/As long as your heart is not”. The superstition, which is referred to as “13,5”, suggests that you should pinch yourself whenever you see someone with a dark skin.
Kornelia Binicewicz; photo credits: Hüseyin Özdemir
Kornelia Binicewicz; photo credits: Hüseyin Özdemir

Diving Into Turkish Music

Before her initial trip to Istanbul, Ms Binicewicz also setup a Facebook page called Ladies on Records, a project now serving as her principal creative outlet, and which she perceives as a life journey. An ambitious and commendable initiative, promoted through writing, lectures, DJing, mixtapes and collaboration with record labels in order to uncover treasures from their back catalogue. Diving into Turkish music has undoubtedly enabled Binicewicz to expand her perspective on women issues from across many different cultural backgrounds – “from cosmopolitan, Western oriented, bourgeoisie to traditional, conservative folk culture of diverse origin”, she explains.

Ms Binicewicz has began to have a deep understanding and passion about Turkish women singers from the 60s and 70s especially, and she explains how, in her view, “even if they have been part of the business and created music, they were easily forgotten, unnoticed or, in worst-cases, even prohibited from performing in the name of ideology, religion or restrictive law. Sometimes they were crowd pleasers and beloved divas, other times were censored rebels and messengers of change.”

Binicewicz’s long term vision has been from the beginning to start an independent record label, licence music which she discovers through her research, and release it again on her own imprint. After three months since relocating, she received a proposal from a Swedish label to create a compilation of Turkish music from the 70s. The offer didn’t materialise and the Swedes pulled out from the project, but the experience that she accumulated while working on the project lasted and was quite substantial. Ms Binicewicz managed to make connections and have a deeper understanding of the music industry in Turkey, so much so that soon after, she started to collaborate with Uzelli Kaset, an old Turkish cassette label. After six months of going through their back catalogue, she put together a carefully crafted selection of Turkish rock, pop and folk music from the 70s and 80s, which was released as Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu.

Female Singers of Turkey

Presumably it was the work with Uzelli, and also the Ladies on Records project, which had prompted Sony Music Turkey to approach Ms Binicewicz with a collaboration proposal - a compilation of Turkish music written or performed by women. Called “Turkish Ladies. Female Singers from Turkey 1974 – 1988”, the project is an effort to bring into the limelight the work of Turkish women singers from the 60s, 70s and 80s, who, in Binicewicz’s opinion, have been, for the most part, “underappreciated and hardly known, even in Turkey”. The compilation, which is released this month on vinyl, CD and digital, features music from a broad selection of artists, from different social and cultural backgrounds. There are the representatives of the Gazino music scene, Yeşilcam movies, Arabesk and Fantezi, as well as Türku, folk and Alevi. One might hear while listening to the compilation various Turkish music styles, such as Oyun Havalari (Turkish Cypriot folk music), Arabesque, Türku, Uzun Hava, Türk Sanat, Alafranga, which are infused with Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, Arab, Balkan and Gypsy influences. Furthermore, Binicewicz explains that “the songs are arranged in modern, innovative, sometimes edgy way. The selected tracks show a variety of influences - from classical Ottoman Türk Sanat Müziği, Argentinian tango, Spanish flamenco, Egyptian classical orchestras, traditional folk songs, worldwide popular disco, psychedelia and funk. All these styles were popular in Turkey, but they all sounded in a different, local way.”

Ms Binicewicz feels it is important to state that, in most cases, the songs on the compilation have been written and composed by men, and some of them are love stories of desperation, lost, or betrayal. Such is the opening song, “Bir Şans Daha Ver”, performed by Huri Sapan, including lyrics which roughly translate to “I beg you for one more chance, I'm crying my eyes out for one more chance”. The songs of Handan Kara (“Aşkım ve Gururum” - “Could never confess my words of love. Silenced my desire to ask you stay”) and Esmeray (“Ölmeden De Yaşamak” - “Will make no difference now. Living or dying without your love”) reflect the same line, to various degrees. Other songs which belong to Türku or folk genres may suggest more individual power for women in relationships and society, such as “Tut Kalbimi Tut”, by Nese Alkan or “Yanıyorum” by Gülden Karaböcek. Binicewicz feels that the songs by Alevi singers, such as “Ara Leyli” by Gül Sorgun and “Yıkılla Köyler” by Dilber Doğan, present perhaps “the most open and straightforward perspective on social and family issues”. Lyrics from “Ara Leyli” roughly translate to: “Pear tree has been pruned so that it won’t sprout again. I have been displaced from the village so that I won’t love again”, while “Yıkılla Köyler” says something like: “In my beautiful garden owls used to sing all the time. So, instead of roses only mustard leaves grew. So we ended up in this far away land. That town of Şavşık should fall apart. That town of Güneş should fall apart”.

"Turkish Ladies. Female Singers From Turkey 1974 - 1988" - The Compilation

Kornelia Binicewicz with Huri Sapan in Elenor Plak. Photo credits: Ali Çetinkaya
Kornelia Binicewicz with Huri Sapan in Elenor Plak. Photo credits: Ali Çetinkaya
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, three particular record labels were very active, namely Elenor, Şah Plak and Türküola, and it was their back catalogues on which Binicewicz based her selection for the compilation: “Elenor was one of the most powerful and successful record labels and their catalogue is extremely impressive. They produced a massive amount of albums in the ‘70s – mostly from popular genres like Arabesk, Anatolian Pop and Türku. Şah Plak, a record label established in 1964, was a company with a strong ethical and cultural character. The label was focused on presenting the diversity of the Turkish music scene, with a special spotlight on folk and Alevi music. No wonder Şah Plak was a major hub for Aşık music, female singers and musicians. Türküola was mostly focused on cassettes and their catalogue was very diverse, with a big emphasis on Arabesk and religious music. Going through their catalogues was a beautiful experience”, Ms Binicewicz recalls.

Ms Binicewicz also recalls an inspiring episode when she was personally introduced to Huri Sapan - the singer whosw photograph was chosen as the cover of the compilation. Ms Sapan, now in her 70s, and born into a conservative Laz family on the Black Sea coast, is still regularly performing, and she expresses visible joy and delight when she finds out that her song from 1974, “Bir şans daha var”, would become the opening song of the compilation.

While working on the compilation, Binicewicz also faced some obstacles on making her selection, however alternatives have presented themselves: “I couldn’t include my beloved Esmeray’s song, but I found another track of her from ‘Sürpriz 81’ album that I never paid attention to before. I couldn’t select Kamuran Akkor, whom I truly adore, but found the extremely disco funky song of Neşe Alkan from her Türku album, that I perceived before as too much ‘Ala Turka’”. Even though some of her favourite songs were not selected, due to catalogue and rights limitations, Kornelia Binicewicz seems to be pleased with the overall result, and it looks very much like a triumph for the Ladies on Records project.

"Turkish Ladies. Female Singers from Turkey 1974 -1988" is released on May 11th, 2018, on Sony Music Turkey (vinyl, CD and digital).

About the Author

Andrei Rusu

Co-founder of The Attic, Andrei is mostly overseeing technical operations of the platform, and occasionally acting as Senior Editor.

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