Turkish revivalism: remembering the forgotten musical divas of the 60s and 70s

In the dusty record shops of Istanbul lies a rich goldmine of cultural history and female empowerment. A cultural anthropologist, DJ and record collector writes about how Turkish female artists began to create their own identity from the 1960s onwards.

Kornelia Binicewicz is an avid record collector and the founder of the Ladies on Records: 60s and 70s Female Music project. Courtesy Kornelia Binicewicz.
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I am interested in music that was once very important and reflected the spirit of the times but which is now just a shadow of the past. It can be heard on dusty records found in Turkey's old record shops. The scratched, sleeveless black gold that I collect very often looks like trash. Many of the artists have passed away or are very old. In most cases, they live but are long forgotten.
Turkish female music of the 1960s and 1970s is my passion. Choosing Turkey however, was not a coincidence. This type of music has been growing in popularity among European DJs and music collectors. It's difficult to pinpoint an exact date, but an important one was 2006 when Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, founder of US label Now-Again Records, created a Turkish funk mix for the influential Los Angeles-based Stones Throw Records. He paid tribute to the king of psychedelic Anatolian rock - Baris Manco, who was unknown in Europe.
Soon after, hip-hop and beat producers discovered Turkish music - starting with Dr No in 2007. Then Dr Dre and Mos Def sampled Selda Bagcan's songs. But the biggest credit should be given to record labels such as Nublu Records, Finders Keepers Records and Pharaway Sounds, that shed new light on forgotten albums and compilations of Turkish artists such as Mustafa Ozkent, Bunalim, Erkin Koray, Kamuran Akkor, Selda Bagcan and Cem Karaca. Turkish music then started to be picked up by record collectors, musicians, DJs and producers from around the world. Its popularity can be explained by its fusion of familiar European sounds, popular American and British songs, and Anatolian folk songs, which were then interpreted by Turkish artists on electrified local folk instruments such as baglama. It reflected the duality of Turkish culture of being Oriental and European at the same time.
But today, the music is neglected by Turkish listeners, and crucially, there were few female artists featured in this revivalism apart from Bagcan, Ajda Pekkan and Kamuran Akkor - divas of the Turkish music scene from this time.
Listen: Crossroads podcast: Turkey's forgotten female music stars
The political fighter Bagcan was considered the voice of left-wing Turkey; queen of westernised Turkish music Pekkan was acclaimed as an icon of beauty and cosmopolitanism; while the magnetic Akkor became a role model of sorrowful Arabesque. These three clichéd images gave me a feeling that there was much more to explore. Take Esmeray for example - an Afro-Turk singer of the 1970s and 1980s and explored in a previous article in The Review, whose fame in Turkey drowned out a subtle message of tolerance and anti-discrimination.
Also Zerrin Zeren - a young and gifted singer of the Greek-influenced tavern genre. Her music was a sweet combination of tavern and Arabesque. Take this lyric from her song Karanlik Dunyam (World washed in black): "I can't enjoy life anymore, I'm lost in thoughts. I'm lost in thoughts ... I've got enough already of this loneliness. I wonder where are you right now, in whose stranger's hands?" Playing at gazinos (music cafes) across Turkey, she was accompanied by her vibrant band, Kupa Dörtlüsü. Zeren's career was cut short by a fatal car accident in 1976 while crossing the border into Bulgaria.
Also take Zehra Sabah, a Turkish singer of Syrian origin, who was a voice of an underground 1970s scene. Her story is unknown even here in Turkey. This is despite the fact that her cassettes, produced mostly for the Uzelli Kaset label, were sold in the 80s in huge quantities at local bazaars and obscure music shops. Sabah also gained popularity among members of Gastarbeit culture - Turkish migrant workers, who had moved to West Germany, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gastarbeiters were mostly men, working hard in German factories, leaving behind their families in Turkey. Many suffered from homesickness and felt nostalgic for their culture so they turned to artists such as Sabah. In her song Almanya Dönüsü (Return from Germany) we can recognise some of the sorrows from the women left behind: "What did you promise me when you went to Germany? How dare you make fool of me for all those years? When you arrived in Germany you forgot about us all. When you arrived in Germany you forgot your lover and friends. You wrote lies in those letters and made fools of us. Your children grew and asked 'where's my father?'" After many years on stage and the recording of many records, Sabah eventually quit music and devoted herself to her family.
Read more: Turkish female singers of the 70s: a look at the best albums
Women in Turkey only started to gain significant respect, politically and socially, after the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk promoted civil rights, banned polygamy and granted women equal rights in matters of divorce and child custody. Many women also embraced western fashions.
But despite this progress, in 1960 about a third of Turkish women could still not read or write, according to Valentine M Moghadam's Modernising Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Many of these women had been raised and taught to be model wives and mothers, as well as guardians of traditional Turkish customs and virtues. The music is the soundtrack of this process. The artists that I uncovered reflected this complexity.
Almost every record picked from old piles of vinyl can disclose a story of Turkish female singers or reveal an unknown or forgotten tune that was a missing part of understanding the sound of the time.
Lyrics were either written with singers, taken from folk culture, or written by men. While each song needs to be treated separately in terms of songwriting, the lines were a kind of compromise between woman's needs, social expectations and men's ideas about what women thought.
There are many outstanding Turkish women artists: Gülcen Opel, Isil German, Azize Gencebay, Nurten Gündüz, Nur Yolda, Rüçhan Çamay, Ayla Dikman, Tülay Özer, Senay, Nur Azak and many more. They all deserve fresh listening.
Through diving into local music, I understood how complex the social position of women in Turkey was. Hundreds of singers of all musical genres gazed at me from cheesy record covers and from archive photos of pop magazines such as Hey!, Hayat or Ses - they were blonde, brunette, wore traditional Byzantine dresses or short skirts and high heels. They could look charming or provocative, but their lyrics usually told of betrayal in love, judgments by society or the impossibility of loving someone whom they needed. One of the most beautiful songs about "betrayed love" is Sevmedim mi (Didn't I Love?) by Özer.
I loved you but
You went away
What was my sin?
What did I do wrong?
Does she love you more than me?
The one you love now
All lovers are like you
If they betray the one they love (.)
Turkish identity consisted of many cultural patterns, including Arabic, Greek, Ottoman and Persian. Traditional Turkish folk music was also often blended together with western pop and rock. These old songs tell stories about the fights between the traditional perception of women and the need for freedom on the other hand. Sentiments that still ring through for women across the world today.
Kornelia Binicewicz is a Polish DJ and record collector who works between Krakow and Istanbul. She is the founder of the Ladies on Records: 60s and 70s Female Music at ladiesonrecords.strikingly.com