Connecting Bridges Through Müslüm Baba, Bowie, Cohen & Björk

Arabesk, a genre that emerged in the end of the 1970s in Turkey and received much attention in the 80s and 90s, is viewed not only as a type of music but also a lifestyle. The most important reason why Arabesk was regarded as a cultural phenomenon among popular music movements stemmed from its audience as well as its musical form. Popular music is globally known as a group of genres listened to by city-dwelling youth with university degrees. Arabesk, as an important sub-genre of popular music, on the other hand, emerged as a genre listened to by people who came from villages to the city, struggling to overcome all sorts of economic obstacles there. This made Arabesk the sound of rebellion, nostalgia, and sadness. The big city was tough, it had no rules, love here was unrequited and people were backstabbed. Arabesk rebelled against life, sadness, resisting its degeneracy and pointed fingers at those who gave up on love in return for money. The fact that the pieces were dominated by stories of such themes made Arabesk music a support system for those who wanted to sail through the whirlpools of the big city. Many authors and academicians viewed Arabesk as banal, lumpen, and basic due to the lack of artistic adequacy[1] because its main audience consisted of people from the lower socio-economic classes.

The reason for Arabesk’s musical form and its lower-class audiences is also contradictory to Turkey’s official approach to music that was adopted during the foundation of the Republic. Orhan Kahyaoğlu states that Arabesk did not belong to any musical movement during the popular music history and it was a stand-alone genre that emerged on its own: “The main reason why Arabesk is the most important popular music genre is that it was neither the result of a recycled tradition like Turkish Art Music, nor was it a product of a West-centric synthesis like Turkish pop music.” (2002, p. 104) This situation created an “unfoundedness” in addition to the distant view of the official ideology towards Arabesk music. Therefore, it can easily be said that the main source of these debates was Turkey’s experience with modernity that was filled with contradictions and deformity. According to many sociologists, cultural debates in Turkey during the first years of the Republic were mainly through subjects relating to music. What type of music would facilitate the development of society and which pieces would be played on the radio were strictly monitored. The Republic’s core staff banned Alaturca music with the reasoning that it didn’t have a national identity and that it was a “degenerated” genre. Instead, they adopted folk music recorded with a Western approach to sound in its place as a part of the official ideology. Arabesk music was subject to similar banning, monitoring, and distancing. It was prohibited to play this genre on TRT, the government’s official channel, for a long time. However, despite all these restrictions, Arabesk achieved high level of sales in record stores for a long time.

Arabesk’s conditions of emergence and its contradictory nature to the official ideology makes it similar to jazz and rock music in a historical sense. Jazz[2]  for example, emerged as a music genre performed by black people in the US who suffered from racism and ill-treatment. Similarly, blues and rock were musical movements that came about when factory workers, laborer and youth with no right to speech expressed their rebellion through guitar strings. It almost seems like the devastation and economic problems caused by WWII, and the repression and rebellion of the youth found body in rock music.

Tony Iommi

The Beatles, for example, was a band that was formed in the port city of Liverpool whose audiences consisted of workers and young people. Black Sabbath, on the other hand, was a band formed by young factory workers in the rainy and muddy Birmingham. Tony Iommi, the band’s guitarist, even lost a finger while working in a factory. These bands were rebelling against and rejecting the system, dominant culture, and politics. The conservative English government did not support the rock music movement when it first came about in the UK. As a result, radios were censored or restricted.

The Beatles

Through this point of view, it is possible to claim that Arabesk music went through a similar process while becoming an important movement in its own right within the popular music sphere. Of course, the rebellions of rock music and Arabesk cannot be read as being the same. Rock was rebelling against established rules and the government, while Arabesk’s protest was introverted, sad, and nostalgic. Black Sabbath rebelled against the general situation of the world and wars, while Müslüm Gürses rejected “the irony of fate”. Both these genres were born in communities of similar classes and cultural universes despite the complete opposite nature of the music forms, lyrics, and themes. It could be said that this is where they intersect. In addition, these both became a part of industrial music after crossing borders in a short period just like all popular culture movements that are born in the lowest social classes. Rock’s rebellion quickly became commercialized while Arabesk’s sadness similarly became domesticated within the economy and politics. In summary, rebellion lost against economics and politics.

3 Kings of Arabesk

Personas of the musicians[3] who performed Arabesk were among the main reasons why this genre became a musical phenomenon in a short time in Turkey, in addition to the contribution of the fatalistic, tragic, and rebellious themes of the songs. Orhan Gencebay and Ferdi Tayfur especially found their place in this genre as both singers and composers since the end of the 1970s. Their personalities and looks, which made them look as if they were “people of the same socio-cultural classes” who listened to them, allowed big audiences to fanatically love them. In addition to Gencebay and Tayfur, another name attracted attention despite not being as mainstream as the former two; Müslüm Gürses. Müslüm Gürses was acknowledged to be one of the strongest voices of Arabesk music with Orhan Gencebay and Ferdi Tayfur during the golden age of the genre from the end of the 1970s to the 1990s. Orhan Gencebay was dubbed “The King”, Ferdi Tayfur “The Brother” and Müslüm Gürses “The Father”. Orhan Gencebay and Ferdi Tayfur were both known for their work as composers and singers. Their songs reached more people. The competition between Gencebay and Tayfur was similar to that between Manchester United and Liverpool. Minibus drivers especially were split between two poles as supporters of Ferdi Tayfur “Ferdici” or Orhan Gencebay “Orhancı”.

On the other hand, Müslüm Gürses was known as a singer in contrast to these two musicians. He also kept his distance from the mainstream and chose to speak out from the underground. His melancholy was deep and his lyrics were heavy. The darkness of Gürses’s pieces paralleled his tough life experiences. This is possibly why his voice secretly carried bits and pieces from his own life. Müslüm Gürses was born in Urfa, located in the Southeast of Turkey, in 1953. His childhood witnessed many economical hardships. His music career started when his family migrated to Adana. He sang folk songs in community centers and local radio channels. 1978 brought along the event that burdened Gürses for the rest of his life. He was in a car accident as he was driving from Tarsus to Adana in his friend’s car, and he was mistakenly thought to be dead and was put in the morgue. The people working there realized that he was moving and moved him to a hospital room immediately. He walked that thin line between life and death just like he did in his songs and won his first battle. His path led him to Istanbul after that. He recorded folk songs in this city. These recordings received a lot of attention. The albums he recorded with the arrangements written by Burhan Bayar, who was known as the Arabesk music genius in the 1980s when the genre was quickly becoming popular, brought Gürses the status of “The Father” (“Baba”).

Gürses didn’t receive the attention of the mainstream or “elite” audiences due to his eventful concerts and his fan base. However, the pieces Gürses sang with his voice, shaped by his life experiences, made him a phenomenon in a short time. The members of the audience drew parallels with their own lives through the songs and felt a deeper connection with someone who understood them and has lived through similar hardships. This was correct in a sense; Gürses personally experienced the pain and struggles of his audiences. This is possibly why he sounded sincere. This connection between Gürses and his audiences sometimes stirred too close to fanaticism, though. His concerts always witnessed events of unrest, especially during the 1990s.[4] A similar type of scene could be observed during the concerts of the well-known heavy metal band Pentagram in those years. Seats were broken in the movie theaters that the band performed at, and many members of the audience could be seen being out of it in front of the stage. Rock concerts were the venues for similar scenes as well. Especially bands who performed high volume concerts like Sex Pistols and Metallica witnessed stampedes and “events”. Bottled up rebellion and anger found outlets in both Arabesk and rock concerts. A similar feeling of rioting brought two very different music genres and audience profiles together.[5]

The musical attitude of Müslüm Gürses, away from the waves of what was mainstream, started to evolve towards a different direction in the 2000s. Gürses reached out to a different group of listeners for the first time during this period. The musician first interpreted famous rock musician Teoman’s song ‘Paramparça’ and Bülent Ortaçgil’s ‘Sensiz Olmaz’. Gürses was pointing his microphone towards the listeners of the mainstream and “elite” music for the first time. This unexpected encounter resulted in Gürses receiving a great amount of appreciation, which was unexpected as well. Gürses especially interpreted the melancholic longing towards the lover in the story of ‘Sensiz Olmaz’ exceptionally sincerely. Müslüm “Baba” version of ‘Sensiz Olmaz’ seemed to beckon the listeners to a round table atmosphere where cigarette smoke is never ending and ‘rakı’ glasses are always full. This new path of Müslüm Gürses crossed the well-known Turkish poet Murathan Mungan’s as well. The duo prepared the album ‘Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever’ (Love Enjoys Coincidences) which consisted mainly of re-arranged songs.

‘Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever’ and building of the bridges

Arrangement songs have their special place in the Turkish popular music history. This period gained great momentum during the 1960s and also featured Turkish lyrics written for foreign pop songs. [6] ‘Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever’ is a 2006 album prepared by Murathan Mungan[7] in which Müslüm Gürses interpreted songs by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Björk, Rainbow, Jane Birkin, and Garbage. This album is similar to American Recordings, prepared by Rick Rubin for Johnny Cash. Cash sang songs by various bands which ranged from Depeche Mode to NIN in this album. On the other hand, the Müslüm Gürses album is also reminiscent of the ‘arrangement period’ of Turkish music. However, it is a unique album which showcases the interpretation of Müslüm Gürses and Turkish lyrics written by Birhan Keskin, Mehmet Bilal, Barış Pirhasan, and Murathan Mungan, all of whom are well-known poets. The album stirs clear of cliches and only features pieces that suit Müslüm Gürses’s identity and voice. In addition to this, it is possible to see connections between the life stories of the musicians in the album with that of Müslüm Gürses.

In his book ‘The Arabesk Debate’ Martin Stokes mentions that the pieces are always mystical with an atmosphere about them that almost approaches the culture of Islamic sufism: “Starting with the popular notion that the heart is closer to the soul in the duality of self/soul, the soul is used as the space where emotions are open to influences in Arabesk music” (2012, p.220). Using this description, we could possibly claim that the unearthly persona of Müslüm Gürses is somewhat similar to Leonard Cohen with the mystical, poetic, and cool air his personality and music carry. Gürses was a musician who has cheated death once, been betrayed by the hardships of life, and ended up carrying the marks of his life on his skin. He spoke little and contemplated a lot. Of course, let there be no misunderstanding: Leonard Cohen and Müslüm Gürses are musicians of different worlds. Their spiritual attitudes were what brought them together. We could say that Cohen’s meditative state which enabled him to look for the truth somewhere else than the world which has lost its “magic” is akin to Gürses’s attitude which suggested that he has uncovered all the secrets of the world.

A similar comparison can be made with Bob Dylan. Dylan’s guitar on his back, his rebellious attitude, and him always being on the road suggest how his fate intersects with that of Gürses. Martin Stokes states that the road is one of the main themes in Arabesk music. According to Stokes, the musician is all alone against his dark fate and unluckiness; the only way to salvation is to get on the road to go to the big city. Müslüm Gürses was perpetually in a state of migration with his family since he was a child. He was on a different search in order to escape his fate. Music and singing are important parts of this search. Bob Dylan similarly left his home at an early age to find his own path. He left Minnesota with his guitar on his back and verses in his mind towards New York on his own search. Dylan’s search is a protest, he aims his words at competency. Gürses, on the other hand, is withdrawn, his words are not political. They are parts of a symphony about reproach and loss. However, both these musicians started their journeys early on in their lives, and searched for directions for their lives to follow.

The arrangement music tradition in Turkey entails writing Turkish lyrics for popular foreign songs while the melodic infrastructure of the song is preserved. Orhan Kahyaoğlu mentions that this attitude in arrangement writing is somewhat of a nationalistic reflex (2002, p.93). Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever, on the other hand, does not have such an attitude. The album doesn’t even come with any financial concerns. The arrangements written feature strings, Eastern motifs, and Müslüm “Baba” style through the use of percussion instruments and keyboards. This album brings together the colour palettes of Müslüm Gürses’s go-to melancholic tunes with Bob Dylan’s path, Bowie’s rebellion, Cohen’s melancholy, and Björk’s Northern Lights. A great ‘rakı’ table is set right in the middle of the world in the album and everybody brought their own stories to this table. The door that leads to the table is adorned with identities, flags, and personalities. Müslüm “Baba” addresses the dolefulness and melancholy of the world right in the bull’s eye in every single track. These songs might come from different geographies, but Gürses is able to create a common atmosphere for everyone involved with his experienced vocal style. Of course, we aren’t only gathered around a wistful table covered in cigarette smoke and ash. We find joy as our glasses are refilled. In summary, we travel to a starry night in Iceland where Northern Lights flicker up above, a rainy Glasgow morning and to the Mediterranean seashore; we take a walk with Bob Dylan on train tracks, meet Bowie at the bar, and sip our whisky with Cohen at a hotel’s lobby. We return to Istanbul at the end of the evening and we deliberately build a bridge[8] from the Bosphorus to the rest of the world. The ‘rakı’ table that Gürses prepares almost seems to invite the East and the West to leave their differences aside and share the same table…

During the 2000s, starting especially with this album, Müslüm Gürses was criticised for being too “White” and too domesticated, singing to an entirely different audience than his previous listeners. As I mentioned above, the core listeners of Arabesk music have always come from the lower classes of society. The complaints revolved around the claim that Gürses no longer sang to the audiences who called him “The Father” but to a group of elites. Ultimately, it wasn’t possible for a group of listeners who have been listening to Gürses continuously for 30 years to see head-to-head with a new type of audience who initially looked down upon Gürses for a long time but now discovered him through this album.

Arabesk music was looked down upon by certain circles from the moment of its conception and was outcasted by the mainstream. Educated, city-dwelling people couldn’t say that they liked Arabesk music in public, and would listen to this genre secretly at home. Ünsal Oskay shyly draws parallels between listening to Arabesk music with the complex modernization process in Turkey: “We insist on resisting to see it due to the low level of cultural appeal –which is true—but let go and listen to this music in the company of friends, an entertainment venue or at drinking tables” (2013, p.23). These debates on Arabesk music came to an end with the arrival of the 90s. This music no longer represented low appeal. According to some sociologists, it even had political and revolutionary claims. Orhan Gencebay’s movie personas who stood by the working class and put the rich people in their place supported this claim. Similarly, looking down upon Gürses’s music and Arabesk might have been the cool thing to do in the beginning of the 90s, but this attitude no longer finds any footing today. Gürses never participated in such discussions. Singing the songs properly and expressing the emotions in a sincere way were more important to him. He didn’t become a tabloid figure like Gencebay, Tayfur, or İbrahim Tatlıses. He existed in his own world, singing his songs in his own way. These songs could belong to Leonard Cohen or Bülent Ortaçgil, or even Turkish art music classics… Müslüm Gürses became a revered figure even more so after his passing in 2013. His unique vocal ability started receiving respect and appreciation.

Turkey was a country that didn’t know where and how to position itself for many years. This complexity of identity and culture seems to have taken its toll on music the most. Müslüm Gürses’s different musical journey is just another extension of this debate. Who does Gürses’s sound belong to? To urban white folk? Or those who are marginalized by society? These topics have been the favourite discussion subjects of the past 30 years. This debate on Arabesk and its audiences, on the other hand, is no longer brought up with the same enthusiasm. Arabesk no longer carries deep repercussions or is showered in critique. However, the case of Gürses is still subject to a bizarre duality. I believe the ‘Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever’ album caused Gürses to distance himself from his core group of listeners but also introduced a magnificent sound to a new generation, accompanied by world-famous musicians. This bridge expands from the Bosphorus to the rest of the world. Such miracles do not always line up in such a way.

Kayhaoğlu, O. (2002), Ayrı Düşmüşüz Yan Yana. Chiviyazıları, Litera Yayıncılık
McGregor, C. (2000) Pop Kültür Oluyor. Chiviyazları, Litera Yayıncılık
Stokes, Martin (2012), Türkiye’de Arabesk Olayı, İletişim Yayınları
Öskay, Ü. (2013), Yıkanmak İstemeyen Çocuklar Olalım, Yapı Kredi Yayınları
Özbek, Meral (2012), Popüler Kültür ve Orhan Gencebay Arabeski, İletişim Yayınları
[1] Meral Özbek states this about Arabesk in Turkey: There wasn’t a debate, or the need for one, about whether or not Arabesk was “art”. However, a contradictory critique claims that “arabesk is a product of mass culture”, implying that it isn’t arts. Because as Lowenthal clearly states, “the opposite of art is mass culture” (Lowenthal, 1961: 4). (2012, p.61)
[2] Craig McGregor writes this in his book Pop Goes The Culture: If we are the people of the 20th century, we create blues first, then jazz, swing, rock’n roll and finally rock. These are the music of old slaves who have been mistreated. These old slaves who were looked down upon are also the creators of pop music which the post-Industrial revolution people needed (2000, p.38).
[3] Martin Stokes writes: “The image of the musician is so strong in Arabesk that many composers and lyric writers are not able to produce any work without stepping into the shoes of the third-person they write about in their films and song lyrics. Loneliness is needed just like a bottle of rakı” (2012, p.231).
[4] Martin Stokes describes his experiences during the 1990 Müslüm Gürses Gülhane Concert in his book The Arabesk Debate: “(…) Two young men behind me cradled their heads in their hands, rocking back and forth occasionally. Tears were rolling from their eyes. The singer, who hadn’t spoken a word to the audience until that moment, thanked the crowd and said he would sing one more song. Everybody around me jumped on their feet at once… One of the members of the police hit the man with his baton softly to keep the path open and ordered him to step down…” (2012, p.133. 134)
[5] Martin Stokes claims music is a type of expression: “Music is often described with such terms like expression, discharge, or purging. The musician describes the struggle to write down the notes for a song as the inability to purge. The entire aesthetic weight of the metaphor of fire gains the meaning of bringing the inner world of unspoken secrets to sunlight” (2012, p.226).
[6] Arrangement period lasts until the end of the 1960s, bands and musicians start to write their own compositions in the 1970s. Re-arranged music doesn’t come to mind when 1980s and 1990s see the pop music era. This movement, started by Fecri Ebcioğlu, is then joined by famous pop musicians such as Ajda Pekkan, Erol Büyükburç, Berkant, Selçuk Ural, Alpay. Arrangement music is compatible to the westernization story of Turkey. Songs written in the Western format are adapted as “ours” with Turkish lyrics while paying attention to domestic elements. Arrangement music carried Turkish popular music for a long time and received much attention from people. (Kahyaoğlu, 2002, p.92-93).
[7] Murathan Mungan mentions that he wishes to salute the arrangement music period of his youth through this album: “As someone whose childhood coincided with the birth of Turkish pop, I think the associations and memories resurrected by the word ‘arrangement’ are different in meaning and value for my generation. That is why I can easily describe Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever as an ‘arrangement’ album. The presence of “Kadınım” and “Ayrılık Rüzgarı”, songs sang masterfully by Tanju Okan and Alpay previously, is a salute to the ‘arrangement’ period of Turkish pop. This music genre, which started with popular songs by musicians like Ademo, Marc Aryan, Sacha Distel, Peppino di Capri being performed with Turkish lyrics, was called ‘Light Western Music with Turkish Lyrics’ on radio channels. It was initially categorized as ‘arrangement music’ and various discussions took place later on to find a new name for this genre.”
[8] Murathan Mungan writes: “I won’t hesitate to call Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever ‘an arrangement album’ as it consists of foreign songs with Turkish lyrics. For these reasons I stated, the album takes the ‘West’ under siege from the ‘East’ forty years after these first ‘arrangements’. An Eastern singer performs these Western songs with the influence of the local climate and in his own style without imitating the Western style by refusing to become a ‘local branch’ of them.”
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