Sezen Aksu: 'Transformation starts when people lose their patience'
In an exclusive interview, pop legend Sezen Aksu told SES Türkiye about her new DVD and ongoing efforts to promote reconciliation through music.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 27/12/2012
"As one of those who experiences all kinds of discrimination as a burden on her heart and conscience, I wanted to satisfy the desire to scream and be heard, to remind society of the ancient legacy of the Anatolian soil because sometimes you wonder how many of us there are," Sezen Aksu told SES Türkiye about her "Songs of Turkey" concert tour of musicians from several ethnic communities.
"As your numbers grow, so do your hopes and power, and official discourse is eventually forced to face reality."
With her new DVD "Songs of Turkey," the queen of Turkish pop aims to show that harmonious co-existence of the country's ethnic groups is possible. The new release chronicles the 2002 concert tour of the same name, which brought Aksu and her diverse orchestra of 174 to Izmir, Antalya, Istanbul and Brussels.
The group -- which included the Izmir State Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Oniro Greek Music Group, Los Pasaros Sefaradis Jewish Music Group, Ferikoy Vartanants Armenian Choir and Diyarbakir Municipality Children's Choir -- performed tunes in Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Hebrew, Arabic and Kurdish.
Aksu's draws on authentic songs from each community as well as the tunes they share, like the Armenian number "Sari Gelin," which are common to Turkish and Armenian culture, and "Harmandali," a Turkish folk dance that's also known in Greece.
"It was a project for refreshing hopes stemming from accumulated human sensitivities," Aksu told SES Türkiye.
Aksu's DVD features performances of 42 songs, adding up to two-and-a-half hours of music. An accompanying brochure includes their original lyrics and Turkish translations for those in other languages.
Adrusan Halacyan, conductor of Ferikoy Vartanants Choir, a prominent Armenian church group based in Istanbul, told SES Türkiye the project affirmed the deep ties uniting the ethnic communities.
"The selection of common songs between all the cultures constituting Turkey was, for me, one of the greatest successes of this project, firstly to re-emphasize our sense of friendship within the country, and secondly to show the entire world that we can achieve such a maturity to combine all cultures under the Anatolian mosaic," he said.
Halacyan added: "We all have good memories from those concert series. We made good friendships that we are still preserving."
But the tour wasn't immune to controversy. It was met immediately with a popular outpouring of anger, disappointment, enthusiasm and curiosity, with media outlets using headlines such as "Sezen will sing in Kurdish, Greek and Armenian!"
"Whoever appears at the boxing ring gets punched," Aksu said of the reaction. "I'm only accountable to my inner conscience. No one can create anything of value unless that's the guiding principle."
In a sign of how sensitive the tour was, Aksu was unable to raise public or private funds to sponsor it, despite enormous demand for her concerts and the project's positive message. Undeterred, the singer and her entourage reached into their own pockets.
But the performers were encouraged by the warm reception they got in other quarters, which only added to their commitment to see the project through.
"We had necessary back-up from the political sphere, as the prime minister at the time, Mesut Yilmaz attended one of our concerts in Belgium and one of the biggest dinners we had following this concert," Halacyan said. "The Armenian patriarchate supported the project with high-level participation as well."
Reflecting on the tour's historical significance, music critic Murat Meric said the project puts into sharp relief the transformations Turkey has gone through over the last decade.
"In those days, there were people who were put in jail and beaten just because they were listening Kurdish singer and composer Ahmet Kaya," Meric told SES Türkiye.
Kaya became a focus of public criticism in the late 1990s when he said he wanted to include a Kurdish song on his next album. Public anger reached a fever point when media outlets published altered photographs showing him performing in front of a PKK flag in Berlin. The singer was later convicted of aiding the group, forcing him to flee the country before being jailed.
Turkey has generally become more tolerant of ethnic diversity and dissenting views in recent years, but Aksu and others are quick to point out that permanent social harmony remains an ideal.
"There are some similarities and differences. It's a strange thing; sometimes I wonder whether it is an inevitable destiny of this country. When we gain hopes, but somehow, some way, we get let down at some point," Aksu said when asked to compare the Turkey of 2002 with that of today.
"People inherently prefer preserving status quo. In addition to this, Turkish people remain stuck in a game of chess between official and unofficial centers of power when it comes to the delicate subjects that need to be faced up to. The system here ensures that we satisfy ourselves with the generally-accepted and imposed reality in order to produce our own opinions," Aksu told SES Türkiye, adding a quote from Persian humanist Haci Bektas Veli: "This too shall pass, so help us God!"
Meric, too, said Turkey has progressed overall since the early 2000s, adding that there's still a need for projects like Aksu's.
"Singing and listening songs in 'problematic' languages like Kurdish, Armenian and even Greek are now used to marginalize some segments of the society," he told SES Türkiye. "Although at the legal platform there is no restriction for that, we are still living in a country where Kurdish songs and albums are considered as proofs during [legal] investigations."
Social tension surfaced at an Istanbul jazz festival last summer, when Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan was forced off stage by booing audience members who pelted her with objects as she sang a folk song in her native language. The incident prompted soul-searching about how one of the most impressive young voices in Turkey could still face ugly displays despite the country's recent progress.
For many observers, the Dogan debacle showed the limits of the "peace through music" approach while highlighting the need for public authorities to support efforts to build bridges among different communities.
"One should not underestimate the power when thousands of people gather around a common feeling where each of them has a contribution to the transformation. However, the power of transforming definitely resides at the hands of power," Aksu told SES Türkiye. "When people lose their patience, the transformation starts."
"Positive steps [like Aksu's] should be supported by further political initiatives because the reason these communities which used to live in peace without problem have become 'divided' is political itself," he said.
"Sure, music is one of the most important bonds that are tying people with each other, but this shouldn't be overestimated because we've been singing these songs for centuries."