Life and Music of Selda Bağcan: The Bitter Voice of Turkey

By Beren Şahinoğlu and William Smith

The globalization of the music industry shaped many local genres and subgenres around the world which we know and enjoy today. Predominantly, these new musical influences came from Western artists in the form of Jazz, Rock and Pop during the 20th century with these genres becoming the new blueprints used by many emerging international musicians. A perfect example of this is Turkish music during the 20th century. Following the popularization of Western music and the increasing relations between the West and Turkey during the post-war era, Western music had become very popular in Anatolia. In the 60s, this Western influence gave birth to a unique genre of music known as Anatolian Rock.

Altin Mikrofon 1965

Tülay German’s “Burçak Tarlası”, released in 1964, can be seen as the birth of this new genre of music which was to become a prominent part of Turkish youth culture during the 60s and 70s. The following year, Hürriyet Newspaper’s creation of the “Altın Mikrofon” (Golden Microphone) music contest, which had aimed to encourage the production of popular folk music with Western influences, had proved to be a great success and infusions of traditional Anatolian and Western music began to be produced throughout the country. However, many of the songs played at the “Altın Mikrofon” contest conveyed a similar message, which was the shared anguish and lamentation of the Anatolian working class. Despite many of these songs being reinterpretations of decades-old folk songs, the messages behind them were still very relevant to many Anatolian people who had long been suffering away from the public eye. As Selda Bağcan once stated, Anatolian Rock musicians “sang the songs of peasants in a way that appealed to the townsmen”, and by doing so, they provided an audience to the silent sufferings of the Anatolian people. These artists sang of poverty, hunger, drought and underdevelopment, which was a far cry from the lives of the upper and middle classes living in highly developed cities of İstanbul and Ankara. By the time the contest ended in 1968, many people had come to discover the hardships of rural life in Anatolia and its contrast to urban life.

Selda Bağcan, 9, during April 23 (National Sovereignty and Children’s Day) Celebrations in Van.

It was around this time that one of the most prominent and influential names in Anatolian Rock made her way onto the scene; Selda Bağcan. After growing up listening to Western music and playing both the guitar and mandolin from an early age, her interest in singing started at 14 after watching the French-Italian singer Catherina Valente’s performances. In 1962, the Bağcan family purchased a Grundig sound recorder which Selda and her brothers used to record the Latin songs off the radio. She transcribed the lyrics of the songs she had recorded and would attempt to sing them. At age 15, she started singing foreign songs at the Güney Park Club in Ankara alongside her brothers. Around this time, she started listening to Alpay on the Ankara Radio, an artist who sang English, Italian and Spanish songs. Selda was a big fan of Alpay and bent over backwards to meet him. When they met, Alpay welcomed her into his studio and helped her record a tape which consisted of several Spanish songs and was later sent to the Ankara Radio Station. The songs were a great success and played on the radio for over a year. Alpay introduced Selda to the famous Turkish singer/songwriter Fecri Ebcioğlu, who was able to get her songs played on İstanbul Radio. In the radio program, she was introduced as the ”Rita Pavone of Turkey”.

Ankara Radyo Evi

But just as it seemed to be taking off, her music career came to a halt. After failing her second year of high school, her mother wanted her to focus on her education and she was forced to take a break from music. After graduating high school, she was able to secure a place in the Physics Department of Ankara University. However, the late 1960s would prove to be a turbulent time for many university campuses across the globe.

Selda Bağcan was introduced to folk songs during her university years in the late 60s through her close friend Nükhet’s aunt Saniye Can, who was a well-known folk singer of the time. Selda fell in love with these songs and started reinventing traditional songs in her own Western-leaning style using the guitar instead of the traditional bağlama. Whilst she was discovering folk music in Saniye Can’s house, the popularity of Anatolian Rock was also rising. During the late 60s, leftism gained momentum within university campuses on a global scale and Turkey was no different. Folk songs became the pop music of the era in Turkey which aided in the discovery and the radicalisation of the Anatolian population that was devastated by hunger, poverty, and the oppression of the government. By the time the 70s came, the Turkish youth had started a journey to self-discovery. Music, particularly Anatolian Rock and protest music, played a central role in the Turkish youth’s search for their roots. In this setting, Bağcan herself began to feel a pull towards the enthusiasm for potential socio-political change of her friends and peers.

Cemberimde Gul Oya

In the early 70s, Bağcan had been playing on stage in bars and clubs in Ankara and had stuck out for her interpretations of traditional Anatolian folk songs being played on guitar instead of the bağlama. Her brothers Savaş and Sezer opened a club in Ankara called the “Beethoven” where she met many famous Anatolian Rock musicians of the era. She recalls that she met Cem Karaca and Barış Manço at the Beethoven and that they listened to her interpretations of a few select folk songs. This was followed by an invitation to İstanbul and a promise to help her put out a record. However, Manço and Karaca released their own versions of two of the songs Selda played for them instead. Despite this, Selda was able to record her songs ”Tatlı Dillim”, ”Katip Arzuhalim Yaz Yare Böyle”, ”Mahpushane İçinde Mermerden Direk”, ”Çemberimde Gül Oya” and sent out the tapes to TRT’s Supervisory Board. Songs that were accepted by the Board were distributed to radio stations across the country. However, her attempts at securing a record deal proved difficult. Erkan Özerman took Selda to the Saner Plak studio in İstanbul to make a record deal but the owner of the studio was not interested. When Selda returned to Ankara, Türkan Poyraz, who was a reporter for Ankara Radio, helped her improve her diction and re-tape the four songs she had previously sent out to TRT. Poyraz also helped these songs pass the TRT review and her songs were distributed to radio stations across the country. Selda’s recording of ”Katip Arzuhalim” was also included in TRT’s ”Unutulmayan Hatıralar”(Unforgotten Memories) program. Poyraz also used Selda’s interpretation of Neşet Ertaş’s ”Mahpushanelere Güneş Doğmuyor” (The Sun Doesn’t Rise in Prison) as the theme song of TRT’s TV program ”Mahpushaneler” (Prisons).

Her songs were received well and managed to secure a large fan base. However, no one knew who the singer of these songs was. In her early career, Selda’s manager Erkan Özerman was trying to introduce her to the international music market under the stage name of Zelda and used the same name when submitting her songs to TRT. Due to the mismatch of names TRT chose to leave out the name entirely. So, she remained anonymous despite the great success of her songs. Selda’s interpretation of ”Mahpushanelere Güneş Doğmuyor” which spoke of the hardships of life in prison was thought by many to be in relation to the treatment that the imprisoned Deniz Gezmiş, a notorious Marxist radical who had been the spearhead of student leftist uprisings in Turkey, received in the early 1970s. Due to the lack of identification on the artist singing the track, some speculated that the unnamed singer was actually Deniz Gezmiş’s fiancée.

In 1971, Selda Bağcan released her first two records which would see her musical career skyrocket and be a catalyst for her relationship with the Turkish state which was to follow. She released two singles “Katip Arzuhalim Yaz Yare Böyle/Mahpushane İçinde Mermerden Direk” and “Tatlı Dillim Güler Yüzlüm/Mahpushanelere Güneş Doğmuyor”, which sold over a million copies.

Katip Arzuhalim Yaz Yare Böyle

After their release, her fame quickly began to build up momentum not only from those with leanings towards leftist politics but for the millions of working-class Turks who could relate to not only the songs that she sang but Selda as a person, an Anatolian from a humble background affected by the injustices of the state. The message that she expressed through her music and her deep connection with the people of Turkey led her to being nicknamed ‘The Bitter Voice of Turkey’, a title that she would wear proudly. The attention that Selda Bağcan received from the left and the Turkish working class had already begun to raise the suspicion of state officials who believed she was fueling the fires of the Turkish left. With the official release of her song “Mahpushanelere Güneş Doğmuyor”, the unnamed singer who was the alleged “fiancée” of Deniz Gezmiş finally had a name. This led to her infamous twenty-year- long ban from TRT which began in 1972 and wouldn’t be lifted until 1992.

Despite her ban from state-run TRT which held the monopoly for broadcasting in Turkey, her fame continued to grow among the left and the working class. Driven by a passion shared with thousands of people of her generation to see the injustices and shortcomings of the government within Turkey put to rest, Selda Bağcan quickly became known as a voice for the Turkish left. Although for her, it wasn’t the politics that she was passionate about but the chance to point out struggles and injustices within the country she lived in and hope that her words could be an advocate for change. As she stated once in an interview.

‘The role of an artist is to be independent. I would oppose the existing soviet regime if I lived in the USSR. It’s the duty of an artist to criticise existing conditions.’

Ms Bağcan had seen great success in the early 70s. She represented Turkey in the 1972 Golden Orpheus contest in Bulgaria, she had toured Europe and she was named among the most successful female vocalists in many magazines. She also collaborated with Anatolian rock group Moğollar and put out a joint record ‘’Yalan Dünya/Kalenin Dibinde’’, although their collaboration was short-lived at the time. In 1973, she founded her own record label ‘’Değişim’’ and put out a total of 17 records until 1974.

Even though she was well-liked among the people, TRT’s ban still affected her music career negatively. She was no longer heard on the radio and her songs received very little exposure, causing her record sales to drop. She decided she’d try her chance on the stage this time. She played at various bars and clubs and even went on stage alongside the famous singer/songwriter Zeki Müren. Her acquaintance with Zeki Müren changed Selda’s style drastically. She started wearing fancy stage costumes similar to Müren’s, put on wigs and applied heavy amounts of makeup. She’d later state in an interview that no one wanted to see her in her tacky clothing on stage. Selda made a name for herself in the respectable clubs of the country by the mid-70s, but her left-wing supporters were not happy with her stage persona and expected her to continue making protest music. She talks about these times saying she had been appointed a revolutionist persona without her knowing and that she had never reckoned that she’d become a household name for leftists.

Aşkın Bir Ateş

Selda’s TRT ban was still in effect, and in an attempt to pass TRT’s supervision she decided to put out songs that didn’t have protest themes. She recorded ‘Aşkın Bir Ateş’ and ‘O Günler’ for TRT. Both songs had dominant Spanish folk tunes. Despite her attempts to break away and re-invent her music career, the leftist movement was accelerating rapidly and Selda found herself unable to overlook the socio-political environment in the country. Selda released her studio album ‘Türkülerimiz-1’ (Our Folk Songs-1) in 1974. The album featured songs that hadn’t passed the TRT review such as ‘Adaletin Bu mu Dünya’ and ‘Gesi Bağları’ as well as new reinterpretations of folk songs from different regions of Turkey. She reinterpreted Şemsi Belli’s poem ‘Anayasso’ into a song with Moğollar. The poem was a major hit among the Anatolian population when it was first released and became an anthem for those who felt like they couldn’t make their voices be heard. Selda chose to sing the song the way it was written, with heavy regional accents. The poem told the tragedy of villagers from Şavata in the province of Hakkari that didn’t have roads or bridges that linked the village to the main road. This resulted in the villagers having to cross the Zap River in harsh winter weather to seek medical help for their sick children. The song used very harsh language against the government.

"Small, small graves under the snow in the dark mountain
Seven lifeless bodies swimming in the Zap River
If I called out to the government, they’d scold.
I’m mute
I’m an orphan
Our voice doesn’t reach Ankara from Şavata.
We don’t have the strength to reach Ankara.
We have no possessions
We have no roads
We have no voice to call out to Ankara
We have no wings, no arms
What sort of a homeland is this?’’


Now that she was back to making protest music and embraced the leftist persona that was bestowed upon her, her ban became much more pronounced. Her songs were no longer on radios or TV and her record sales started dropping once again. In 1976, Selda put out her first LP ‘Selda’. This LP was her second attempt at making her debut. The LP had some of her most popular songs to this day, like ‘Yaz Gazeteci Yaz’ and ’İnce İnce’. A majority of the songs on the album were originally written by Aşık Mahzuni Şerif and Neşet Ertaş and contained the similar striking language found in ‘Anayasso’

''Why isn't your İstanbul like Urfa?
Poor Maraş, dry Urfa, and what about Diyarbakır?''
-İnce İnce bir Kar Yağar

Meanwhile, political tension was growing in the country and there was a large opposition to the leftist movements from both the state and the people. Selda was also the target of these oppositions. Many labelled her a ‘communist’ and demanded she’d be banned from the stage as well. The musician didn’t mind the criticism she received and continued to sing her songs on stage.

In 1977, she was investigated for her song ‘Vurulduk Ey Halkım Unutma Bizi’. This would be the first of 7 trials she faced.

''We've been shot, O my people. Do not forget us!
We've been crucified for torture, O my people. Do not forget us!
With each bullet fired from fascist barrels,
we come back to life, O my people. Do not forget us!''
Vurulduk Ey Halkım Unutma Bizi

She would be detained and imprisoned three times in total following the 1980s coup and would spend 4 and a half months in prison.  6 months after the coup, the artists name was mentioned on a list of artists that were ‘speaking badly about the country abroad’.’ The list was published in the newspapers alongside a picture of Selda and Cem Karaca holding a megaphone in Munich. It turned out the list was curated by the manager of the magazine department of the newspaper, who was the ex-husband of Cem Karaca’s then lover. The list was a smear campaign on Cem Karaca, and Selda was included on the list for introducing Karaca to the manager’s wife. Following the newspaper article, TRT issued a ‘return to Turkey alert’ for her even though she had remained in Turkey. She’d hear the news from Saniye Can, who called to let her know that she was ‘’on TRT.’’ She took the news with a pinch of salt, saying TRT wouldn’t play her songs, reminding her she was banned. Can had to clarify that it wasn’t her song, but a call for her return to the country. Upon hearing the news, the artist packed a small suitcase in case she’d be held in jail and went in to testify for whatever she was accused of doing. However, the doorman, seeing her leave the apartment with a suitcase, reported to the army that she was fleeing, which resulted in armed officials barging into her house to detain her after she had already testified and was let go. The misunderstanding was resolved with a simple phone call, but Selda recalls how terrified she felt that day.

The first time she was detained, it was because of her song ‘Koçero’. In 1978, Selda composed Koçero’s (an infamous bandit) lines from the revolutionist poet Hasan Hüseyin Korkmazgil’s poetry book ‘Koçero Vatan Şiiri’ but she didn’t dare to put the song out in Turkey. She sent the tape out to Germany for distribution instead. However, pirated copies of the song later found their way to Turkey and got the attention of the Political Crimes department, which launched an investigation on the matter. The police took Selda in custody for interrogation in 1981. Selda recalls she was asked if she was the one singing the song and says that it never occurred to her that she could deny it. She adds that she was glad she didn’t deny anything as the police would then torture her until she confessed. She remained in a cell for 40 days and had to go to the toilet in a milk box. She points out that she was imprisoned for composing Koçero, but the book she got the lyrics from was still sold in bookstores across the country.

Whilst many renowned Turkish artists fled to Europe after the coup, there were many others who stayed and defied the draconian persecutions of the government during the 1980s. Well-known socialist folk singers such as Bilgesu Erenus, Ruhi Su, Rahmi Saltuk and a group by the name of ‘Yorum’, also remained in Turkey along with Selda Bağcan and continued to perform and all suffered some form of state intervention in their work which led to bans on their music and the detainment of some during the decade.

The second time she was imprisoned, it was because of her song ‘Kaldı Kaldı’ in 1984.  She mentions she was welcomed into the prison ward with great enthusiasm by the inmates and that they’d sung banned marches for her. She’d be taken into custody one more time in the same year. In the end, she was acquitted from all 7 of the trials she faced. Around this time, her passport had also been confiscated. But due to a plea from the organizers of the English WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) Festival and Peter Gabriel, her passport was reinstated in 1987 and she was allowed to travel to the United Kingdom to play at the festival.

Article from Cumhuriyet Newspaper headlined “I was innocent, but I was trialed for 8 eight years”

The artists time in prison had taught her one thing: After seeing many colleagues face various forms of persecution due to their working relationship with her and record labels being influenced by the government on what was seen as ‘suitable music’, she decided that in order to carry on in the same fashion as she had, something had to change. In order to do this, upon her release from prison she set up her own record label named ‘Majör Müzik Yapım’ (Major Music Production) where she would release her music from then on and is still running today. After her TRT ban was lifted in 1992, she re-published her old records in hopes that she could reach a bigger audience now that she had better means to market her albums.  It is also worth mentioning that Cem Karaca was also signed to this label after having similar conflicts with the Turkish State during the 1980s.

With the reinstatement of her passport, her musical career had turned a new page and she was welcomed back onto the international music scene with open arms. From the late 80s onwards her fame has spread from the USA to the Levant. Over the last few decades, she has returned to England a number of times, headlining the 2012 Meltdown Festival in London and returning to ‘WOMAD’ for the second time in 2016. She has played concerts in Europe, predominantly in Germany, but also in Spain and Poland in recent years and she has also been a staple at many music and cultural festivals in Israel on numerous occasions. The latter has been due to her collaboration with the Tel-Aviv rock band Boom Pam in 2014 which led to some of her most revered songs such as ‘Yuh Yuh’ and ‘Yaz Gazeteci Yaz’ being reinterpreted with new instruments and influences.

Today Selda Bağcan resides in Istanbul where she has recently been working on an album which will be a collection of her 40 favourite songs she sang during her career and shall be released through her own record label. She still plays live venues to packed-out crowds who excitedly scream her name when she ascends the stage and she is still revered as one of the most fearless and influential members of the Anatolian Rock cohort of the 1970s. Although she never meant her songs and lyrics to be aligned with any political party or ideals but instead  to speak from the heart and criticise the state of life in Turkey, Bağcan’s legacy will always be entwined with the story of the Turkish left and the turbulent decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Her defiance of the Turkish state and her time in prison showed the people of Anatolia that there was someone willing to stick their neck out for them and sacrifice aspects of their life in order for their voices to be heard. She remains one of the most important Turkish artists of the 20th century.    


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