My Baby and Me - Fairuz and Kamuran Akkor

My Baby and Me - Fairuz and Kamuran Akkor

November 20, 2017

Written by:

Kornelia Binicewicz

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Beirut and Istanbul

Beirut, 1947
A 12-year-old Nouhad Haddad, later known as Fairuz, was listening to radio performances of two extraordinary women singers of Egypt - Laila Murad and Asmahan. Fairuz was raised in a poor Lebanese Christian Orthodox family, with classic and traditional virtues. According to her father, a woman should have a good and respected profession – being a teacher should be an ambition of his daughter. Fairuz agreed to this vision, while secretly dreaming of singing. Soon it would be revealed to her that music was to become her life path. Fairuz’s outstanding voice was recognized very early on as of unique quality by her music teacher - Muhammad Fleifel. Soon her dream to sing on the radio would be fulfilled and she would be opened new unlimited possibilities. Being a Christian, she eagerly started to learn the Quran’s verses which helped her to embrace the Arabic art of singing. Her relationship with her lover, husband and musical partner Assi Rahbani was perceived a classic example of a creative and powerful connection between a diva and a composer. The recently established polyphonic country of Lebanon (1943) with Beirut as its capital was in need of a national voice that would bring power and hope to its people. Soon Fairuz was to become the cultural treasure of Lebanon and whole Arab world.

Istanbul, 1959
Kamuran Akkor was spending her teenage years in her room, passionately listening to radio performances of two of the most gifted women singers of the Arab world – Oum Koulthum and Fairuz. Even though she was 12, Kamuran was learning Fairuz’s songs by heart, carefully repeating and singing all the lyrics. Her older sister – Gonül Akkor was already working in Ankara Radio, on the road to her stunning musical career. 7 years younger, Kamuran was going to become a teacher, as all good girls from Turkish middle class houses should do. In less than 10 years, Kamuran would start her new path and win everything that was possible to win in the Turkish music business of those days. Her marriage with Vasfi Uçaroğlu, a talented jazz drummer and arranger, was to become the most beautiful story of love and passion between a Turkish diva and a musician. Her voice was to become an iconic sound of Turkish popular music of the 60s and 70s.

Fairuz – the jewel of Beirut; Kamuran Akkor – the pearl of Istanbul. Their resemblance is striking. Their voices are not only similar in color and structure, with their deep and trembling sounds; they are also perfectly different and original in the way that only great voices can differ. Both Fairuz and Kamuran mastered the ability of singing in typically Eastern as well as Western modes. Their biographies are different in details, but similar in trivialities and life paths. Their stories tell of the cultural and musical situation in both countries, especially depicting the music business in Lebanon and Turkey.

Women’s music

I came to Istanbul to understand more about women’s music of the region from the 60s and 70s. I came with Fairuz’s voice in my mind. Her powerful influence reached not only all the Arabic countries, but also inspired and fired up the musical imagination of Turkey and its multicultural and polyphonic cultural center in Istanbul. Before I arrived in Turkey and launched the Ladies on Records project, I didn’t understand the complexity of Turkish music. Initially I was mesmerized by psychedelic Anatolian music with big male heroes put on a pedestal of Turkish music of the 60s and 70s – Bariş Manco, Cem Karaca, Erkin Koray. And I knew only a few Turkish women singers that seemed to be somehow recognizable and significant in Turkey. I was mostly familiar with Ajda Pekkan, Selda Bağcan and Kamuran Akkor, whose natural beauty and outstanding voice fulfilled all my dreams of a Turkish female singer from the 60s and 70s. I found my heroine, who guided me in discovering the history of women’s music in Turkey.

Masculine domination in Turkish music from the 60s and 70s is confusing. Diggers and music lovers from around the world followed the paths of the great Turkish heroes of the era. However, it was women who created the sound of the era in terms of quantity and often quality. Simple diving into any Turkish label’s archive can change the common opinion that a typical Turkish music representative has a mustache and an avant-garde oriental outfit. Quite the opposite – Turkish music from the 60s and 70s was in large part represented by long blonde-haired beauties starring gutsily from the record covers. Female singers won the attention of the public on radio, in gazinos (Turkish music halls), TRT (Turkish National Television) shows and yeşilcam movies. Still their presence seemed to be underappreciated and kept in the shadow of macho artists. In most cases they were perceived as decorative additions to male-only orchestras of the Turkish music industry. Music perception is not a naïve activity. It is rooted in the cultural recognition of genders, creativity and potential.

Kamuran Akkor was one of the artists who attracted my attention and pushed me to move to Istanbul to explore Turkish music. I was guided by her taste. A miscellaneous repertoire of hers can be treated as a compendium of knowledge about Anatolian pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Throughout her whole career she has recorded albums of various styles and genres, always blending her favorite Türk Sanat Müziği (classic Turkish music) with popular styles of the era. She worked with the biggest Turkish orchestras, Dün Bügün Orchestrası and Suheyil Denizcı Orchestrası, recorded for the most prominent and influential labels such as Sahibinin Sesi, Istanbul Plak, Kervan and later for cassette labels such as Turküola and Uzelli. She sang songs arranged by masters of Turkish music – Nemir Demirci, Doruk Onat, Turgut Dallar and Fecri Ebcioğlu. But the most important musician and arranger of her life was Vasfi Uçaroğlu – her husband and artistic partner.

Fairuz and Kamuran

The story of Fairuz should never be told without a spotlight on the love that united her with Assi Rahbani. Their common life and collaboration lasted decades. Their common achievements shall never be forgotten. Their paths crossed in 1951, when Fairuz’s voice was still kept a secret and was known only to a few people in the music business of Beirut. Introduced to the Rahbani brothers, they became the most creative music trio in Lebanon. The great music education of Assi and Mansour Rahbani covered not only folk and classical Arabic music, but was stretched to classical Western music, as well as the latest music genres such as jazz, latin sounds or tango. Fairuz was a missing link. Together they opened a new chapter in modern Arabic music – starting with a blend of classical, traditional, folk tunes with fresh, westernized dance-song arrangements. Their collaboration as well as their love, went on more than 20 years. Fairuz perceived Assi as a creative part of their relationship. He had a vision of their work, which she adored and sincerely accepted. Their love – work relationship was to bear amazing fruit. At the age of 16, their son Ziad would start composing music for Fairuz, who he has worked with until now.

Kamuran met her love and musical destiny in 1966 in Çakal Gazinosu in Istanbul. As an 18 year old girl, she didn’t think of a music career those days. While enjoying the performance of her elder sister – Gönül Akkor - in one of the most important music halls of Istanbul, she unexpectedly got noticed by the leader of the orchestra - Vasfi Uçaroğlu. Soon after that day, Vasfi invited Kamuran for an audition. Luckily the orchestra was looking for a female chorus singer. Kamuran mesmerized the musician with her voice, similar to the already famous Gönül, but brighter and more youthful. But it was her vast knowledge of classic Turkish modes and her passion for songs of the greatest diva of Lebanon – Fairuz - that made the older and highly experienced Vasfi Uçaroğlu so set on choosing young Kamuran. Their artistic collaboration started with a love and lasted 43 years. For Kamuran, Vasfi was everything and everyone – lover, husband, manager, arranger, composer. Since their first common recordings for Sahibinin Sesi, most of Kamuran’s singles achieved the status of gold records. This was the case of the groundbreaking recording of ‘Reyhan‘, an Azeri folk song. The 9-man Vasfi Uçaroğlu Orchestrası, in collaboration with Turgut Dallar – the arranger and pianist made this tune fresh and hip again. Reyhan became extraordinarily popular among Turkish youngsters of 1968. The sound of Turkish bağlama, played in a style of tar, and reflected a new perspective on modern music - without geographical borders and ethnic divisions.

Music, radio and theater

In the 50s, the real success of a singer was reflected by the popularity of their radio performances. The first major success of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers on the scale of the entire Arab world happened in 1955, when they got an invitation to Cairo to perform their songs in the Egyptian radio station. The cultural capital of the Arab world – Cairo accepted Fairuz as her new diva, put her beside the brightest star of Egyptian song – Oum Koulthum.

For Kamuran it was not radio anymore, but cinema and records that allowed her to reach her audience. In the 60s and 70s, the Turkish music business was deeply tied with cinema. Shortly after releasing a single, audiences demanded to listen and watch the singer they adored. Each of Kamuran’s record was a huge success, starting with the 1966 hit ‘Aşk Eski Bir Yalan” with a peculiar “Paint it black” kind of guitar intro, released by Sahibinin Sesi. It was noticed by film producers and became a soundtrack of the movie under the same title in 1968. This became a standard for a great number of the songs of Kamuran Akkor and Vasfi Uçaroğlu, recorded in the 60s and 70s.

Since the beginning, Kamuran’s musical career grew simultaneously with her cinema achievements. Besides providing the soundtracks and theme songs, Kamuran was also an actress. The demand was huge and Kamuran couldn’t handle all the productions. Treating music and recordings as priority, she could perform only in some of them. It meant that her songs were to be sang by other actresses. Some of them, like Türkan Şoray, performed Kamuran’s songs with great success. In other cases, Kamuran was working long hours with actresses to teach them lip syncing, which resulted in a more or less convincing scene of an actress singing a song with Kamuran’s voice. During her career, Kamuran Akkor was more focused on music rather than on acting. But the situation has changed recently. After opening her own theatre in 2008 – Kats Sahne in Istanbul, Kamuran has returned to acting. Performing in musicals and movies was and still is Fairuz’s natural way of artistic expression. Together with Assi Rahbani, his brother Mansour and later her son Ziad, they created outstanding performances on the stages of the entire Arab world.

For both of them, Fairuz and Kamuran Akkor, performing at music festivals was essential. In the Arab world, it was one of the most important international music festival - Baalbeck in Lebanon. Fairuz got invited to the Festival in 1957 for the first time. The performance in Jupiter Tempel, where she sang “Lubnan Ya Akhdar Hilo” (O Green, Sweet Lebanon) opened a new chapter in her career. Since then, the trio, Assi and Mansour Rahbani and Fairuz, were to produce some 21 musical plays or operettas. Fairuz travelled with her concerts to almost all places in the Arab world. She also didn’t forget about Arab emigrants in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, London, Paris, and many other cities throughout the world. Sadly enough, she never arrived in Istanbul, though she had a huge faithful audience there. In the late 70s, her professional and personal partnership of Fairuz and Assi Rahbani came to an end due to his health problems, which finally resulted in Assi’s death in 1986.

During those times in Istanbul, Kamuran was already highly respected in Turkish music business as a singer as well as a music companion of her artistic partner and husband - Vasfi Uçaroğlu. Besides recordings and film performances, as well as soundtrack compositions, Kamuran performed live in music halls. Live concerts in Turkish music business were mostly gazino performances. These expensive and glamorous shows for the Istanbul high class and nouveaux-riches lasted into the early hours and consisted of many gigs of various orchestras, soloists, comics and belly dancers. The show was perfectly designed to meet the expectations of the public. Since the late 60s, gazino’s repertoire was supposed to please not only members of higher society, who enjoyed mostly Alaturka (classic music of Ottoman Empire) and Turkish popular music, but also the new working class coming from Anatolia appreciating mostly Arabesk. The elder sister of Kamuran - Gonül was one of the biggest stars of Turkish gazinos. For Kamuran, as for many Turkish artists, it was Izmir Fuarı – a summer festival held during International Izmir Expo, where she would perform live. This annual art, music, tourism and technology show was brought to Izmir visitors from all around Turkey. It was also the most important music industry opportunity for all Turkish artists. The highly commercialized music sector in Turkey was blended with other branches of economics. Performance in Izmir’s Manolya Gazino or Lunapark Gazino during the expo was “to be or not to be” in Turkish music business in forthcoming year. The end of gazino culture as well as music shows at Izmir Fuarı came together with the growing power of public television by the end of 70s. Since then it was not an owner of a gazino, who freely decided about making a singer popular, but TRT – the national Turkish broadcasting TV channel.

Biographies of Extraordinary Artists

Exploring biographies of extraordinary artists from the past often led to a classical music education, which played a key role in their future career. In both cases – Fairuz and Kamuran Akkor were classically trained singers. Both attended a conservatory – in Beirut and Ankara. Fairuz got into conservatory despite her father’s will. Worried about his young daughter, he finally agreed on her education only on the condition that her brother would accompany her all the time. Not only was the conservatory a milestone for Fairuz but so was entering the Lebanese Radio Station. The teenage Fairuz was discovered by the head of the radio - Halim alRumi and since then was surrounded by successful singers, musicians and poets in the Lebanese Radio Station. This unique artistic atmosphere gave Fairuz the opportunity to work with the best from a very young age and to absorb the polyphonic and cosmopolitan vibe of Beirut in the 50s. Working with Rahbani Brothers shaped her style the most – Assi was extremely demanding towards all his musical companions. Fairuz was no exception – he constantly put new challenges on the whole team – from adopting folk tunes, Arabic poetry to Latin influenced modes and rhythms.

Kamuran Akkor’s family house was full of music. High respect for music in the family came along with admiration for the Turkish Republic of Ataturk of her father who was a great fan of Turkish classical music. For both of sisters the father was a huge support, encouraging them in their decisions. Her sister Gonül left to Ankara to take internship in Ankara Radyosu. Kamuran took similar steps to her sister and studied in Ankara Devlet Konservatuari (National Music Conservatory), learning classical Turkish music, and later moved to Ankara to cooperate with Ankara Radyosu. This most influential music agency was bringing the most talented and well trained musicians of Turkey. There was no better place to be and to learn.

Fairuz’s artistic path was guided by her education, musical taste and the artistic personalities who she worked with. Being born just 8 years before the establishment of the new country of Lebanon, she has been praising the land and its people throughout her life. She became the voice of all the people of Lebanon, no matter their political, religious and cultural diversities. She became an icon of Arabic people in need, in despair, in love. She started her career with the Latin orchestra of Eduardo Bianco from Argentina, singing traditional songs, folk tunes, arranged in a new catchy way. Undoubtedly meeting Assi Rahbani was the most important moment in her professional and personal life. Interesting that their first common song was the melancholic tune “Itab” (Blame):“You keep blaming me, and I have had enough of blame.” The song was super successful and reached not only Lebanon but also foreign countries. It definitely reached Turkey as well, where the young Kamuran Akkor was listening to Fairuz on the radio. The dramatic lyrics of “Itab” were full of pain, so characteristic of lyrics of Turkish folk music and Arabesk.

Kamuran Akkor moved so freely between many music genres, however for many of the young generation she has been remembered as an Arabesk singer. The music business of Turkey has always been heavily commercialized. Kamuran followed trends and fashions, experimented with various styles, including Arabesk, that strongly monopolized show business in Turkey in the late 70s and 80s. However her music path should be always perceived through her love for Türk Sanat Müziği – the most elegant and classical style from Turkey. Her voice is full of colors and gives a wide spectrum of performance – from soft tunes, arrangements of Western and Arabic hits of the 60s, new versions of folk songs, samba or bossa nova flavored tracks, weeping Arabesk dramas, psychedelic pop-rock pieces. But in each song of every repertoire she used all her skills and abilities from classical Turkish singing. Her love and life partner Vasfi Uçaroğlu understood that and let her grow in all the genres, carefully taking care of her and supporting her musical career. Due to the conditions of music labels in Turkey, Kamuran recorded with many orchestras. Each label had their own producers, arrangers and orchestras that worked with contracted singers. This gave great outcomes for Kamuran’s talent and flexibility. But for Kamuran there was only one musician who she trusted, adored and wanted exclusively to work with. Vasfi Uçaroğlu – extraordinary drummer, arranger and musician died in 2011 and nobody has ever filled this void.

The teenage Turkish girl was passionately listening to Fairuz’s songs. Soon she was to met her only lover and music companion, a great fan of Fairuz’s music. Hard to believe but their first meeting and conversation was about the music and art of a Lebanon diva. There is no doubt that it was Fairuz and her music that connected Vasfi Uçaroğlu and Kamuran Akkor - these two amazing artists and lovers. You can hear pure love in one of their songs from 1970. “Yavrum ve Ben“ (My Baby and Me), which is a Turkish arrangement of Fairuz’s „A´tini al-Nay”. This tune has always had a charm. But music definitely sounds deeper when you recognize the story behind it.

*Special thanks to Kamuran Akkor for sharing her life story with me, Menekşe Uçaroğlu for all the support, Irem Aral for making all of this possible, James Rand for editorial work, Levent Sevi for great help in research.

About the Author

Kornelia Binicewicz

Polish DJ, record collector, music writer, curator, compiler and anthropologist, residing between Kraków and Istanbul. She is the founder of Ladies on Records – Female music from 60s and 70s project, exploring women music from Middle East and beyond. She is living in Istanbul since September 2015.

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