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Liner Notes: Turkish Ladies. Female Singers from Turkey 1974 - 1988

Kornelia Binicewicz

Read the story of Turkish female singers

The story of female popular music from Turkey can be told in many ways and deserves to be explored. This particular narration about Turkish female singers is told through songs recorded in 1970s and 1980s. Those two decades present diverse soundscape of Turkish music in various genres and styles, driven by local and global cultural trends and recording technologies.

Female singers were always a vital part of Turkish music scene. However their presence was rarely acknowledged. A huge amount of music created and performed by men put female singers in the shadows. The Turkish Ladies compilation has been created as a tribute to women's input in the male dominated music of 1970s and 1980s Turkey. Male heroes of the eras – Barış Manço, Cem Karaca & Erkin Koray, still dominate worldwide revivalism of Anatolian pop rock. Luckily one female name, Selda Bağcan, stands out among the superstars of 1970s Turkish music scene. This one exception proves the rule – women were and are hardly visible in Turkish music industry.

The Ladies on Records project aims to increase and spread awareness about women’s contribution to diverse soundscape of Turkey from 60s, 70s and 80s. This compilation is an outcome of 2 years of research, digging through records, listening and tracing the footsteps of Turkish female singers. The selected tracks were released between 1974 and 1988 by three influential Turkish record labels – Elenor, Şah Plak and Türküola, which are now under the licensing umbrella of Sony Music Turkey.

The cover girl

Digging through Turkish records and cassettes from 70s and 80s involved an exploration of women portraits gazing from the covers. Social and cultural patterns could also be traced in the artwork. The image of Huri Sapan on the front cover sits perfectly in the 12 inch square space – the seductive gaze of the singer, her ocean of curls and vibrant crimson dress. The artwork of the whole compilation created by Marianne MarpLondon. The concept combines the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s with respect to picturesque Ottoman tradition. The front cover sports a psychedelic late 70s design, while the inner gatefold is a tribute to gazino poster artwork combined with traditional ebru art. The artwork itself is a detailed graphic tale about Turkish aesthetics with the singers as storytellers.

Our cover girl’s musical career started in the 1960s and mirrors all the challenges and possibilities of a Turkish female singer in popular music scene of the time. Huri Sapan chose her music path at the age of 18, disobeying the will of her parents. If it wasn’t for her Bulgarian husband, Huri could never become a singer and actress. Huri Sapan comes from traditional Laz family (Black Sea culture), where it is not tolerated for women to be in public sphere. According to any conservative ideology, a woman is expected to play only two major roles in society – being a mother and a wife. Too many Turkish female singers finished their brilliant careers the day they got married or expected a child. Rebellious Huri Sapan, with help of a yabanci husband, managed to record over 30 singles and EPs, 7 LPs and 30 cassettes – mostly Turkish pop, folk and Arabesk. The compilation tells the story of women who chose to be singers against social and cultural stigma of the profession.

Familialization of women

Conservative perception of women in Turkey was very strongly connected to familialization of woman. According to Alparslan Nas “Conservative ideologies linked to Islamist politics tended to confine women to their houses by strictly separating the public and private spheres. Women, in this picture, are solely referred as mothers and women’s issues are considered as familial issues”. This attitude played an important role in the social perception of choosing an artistic life instead of (or together with) family life. The selection of artists on the compilation sheds some light on this topic by presenting diverse Turkish singers with various cultural and social backgrounds - gazino headliners (Handan Kara, Gönül Yazar), arabesk cinema singers (Huri Sapan), TRT television stars (Esmeray), Türkü singers (Gülden Karaböcek), traditional folk performers (Ferda Gül) and artists with an Alevi background (Gül Sorgun and Dilber Doğan). Each of them have different story to tell about women’s role in the music industry. What makes their experience individual is their family background, ethnic roots, education and social status.

The case of Esmeray, singer and actress from 70s and 80s, highlights a rarely discussed topic of cultural diversity of Turkish society and within the Afro-Turkish community in particular. An eagerness to unify any difference in Turkey resulted in making cultural diversity neglected or go unnoticed. Esmeray’s deep voice and maqam–like vocalisation was judged by censors in 70s as too Arabic and not appropriate for the European oriented audience. Not before the 80s, when Arabesk became the most popular genre in Turkey, Esmeray was accepted and appreciated by heads of Turkish National Television. “Ölmeden De Yaşamak” an Esmeray’s song released by Türküola label comes from “Süpriz ‘81” album. The LP got approved and exposed on TRT with typical late 70s video-clips.

The lyrics - vocalized dreams and suppression of women

Turkish female singers mostly vocalized the male-made lyrics. Despite the few female songwriters, Ülkü Aker and Fikret Şeneş to name some, lyrics kept on serving the objectification of women. Lyrics of the songs sung by Turkish female singers, were in most cases written by men and originated in the folk tradition or Turkish poetry. The popular songs were usually about an unhappy love or a broken heart. Turkish singers were expressing pain of betrayed wife, rejected lover (Huri Sapan - Bir Şans Daha Ver) or a sorrowful widow (Handan Kara - Aşkım ve Gururum). Passion impossible to fulfil or longing for a beloved (Esmeray - Ölmeden De Yaşamak) were the main topics of the songs.

Of course there were some rare and shy attempts to express more realistic vision of women’s position in Turkish society in 60s and 70s. „Adim Kadin” a song written by Bora Ayanoğlu for Hümeyra was one of the most visible and shocking examples of social and cultural state of women in Turkey. “My name is woman and I have no power” Hümeyra sang in 1972. The projection made onto women on how to behave and feel was widely accepted. Men managed to engineer female psychology. This could have been broken only by matured feminism that occurred in Turkey not before the late 80s. The first wave of Turkish feminism happened in 1914.

Şah Plak, a record label established in 1964, was a company with as strong ethical and cultural character since its origins. The label founded by Ahmed Daymaz was focused on presenting the diversity of the Turkish music scene, with a special spotlight on folk and Alevi music. No wonder Şah plak was a major hub for Aşık music, female singers and musicians. According to Alevi ideology, men and women are socially and culturally equal and have their individual right to choose their way of life. Therefore some of Şah Plak’s female singers can be recognized as freer and more capable of expressing themselves in more autonomous ways. This liberty can be also spotted in the lyrics of Gül Sorgun and Dilber Doğan. The two songs were recorded in the late 80s and touched more explicit issues and concerns of reality like social and physical abuse against women (full of symbols Ara Leyli by Gül Sorgun) or destruction of Alevi villages (Yıkıla Köyler by Dilber Doğan). Meral Akkent, curator of Women Museum Istanbul explains: “Feminist women in late 80s discovered that the female body was a target of male aggression and assault. They made a point in politicizing private life in order to bring attention to the sexual harassment and violence ever present in society”. It was music from Şah Plak’s cassettes that reached thousands of Turkish listeners from Turkey and the Turkish diaspora in Western Europe with this strong and significant message.

The way to fame – records, gazino, cinema

According to Muhteşem Candan, one of the founders and owners of Elenor, female singers in Turkey needed to be much braver, stronger and more determined than men in the music industry. Restrictive rules of recording a song in the studio didn’t allow for making any mistakes. There was no place for imperfection. The orchestra and the soloist recorded the track in one take, without any possibility of correction. The mastertape was immediately sent to be cut and pressed in the record plant on the same day. Singers were perfectly prepared for the recording. They knew the lyrics by heart and were fully familiar with the melody and tempo. Hard work and Allah'ın hediyesi (God’s gift) were two characteristic factors for Turkish female singers according to the memories of producers and label owners.

Gülden Karaböcek sets a good example of a woman suffering from female competition and being stigmatized. After getting married to Atilla Apsakarya, her sister’s former husband and the owner of Elenor Plak, Gülden was spurned everywhere. For many of the Turkish people, Gülden committed an unforgivable sin. Her music career got complicated especially in terms of public performances. Hard work and stubbornness allowed Gülden Karaböcek to establish herself as an independent and original artist, gifted with unique emotional voice and an eagerness to work with forward thinking orchestras and arrangers.

Another excellent example of professionalism was Neşe Alkan, who brought her readymade – recorded and mastered tape of her “Tut Kalbimi Tut” album straight to the office of Muhteşem Candan in 1983. Neşe Alkan personally took control over the production process of the LP. This Alaturka album with extraordinary and unexpected disco track “Tut kalbimi tut” was released as one of the first colour (amber) vinyl in Turkish music industry.

However, whenever the professionalism was discussed it was gazino (music halls) performances that were considered the biggest test of determination and dedication of an artist. For all Turkish performers, gazinos were the most important exposure of their talents. These expensive and pompous shows for the high class and nouveaux-riches in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir consisted of many gigs of various orchestras, soloists, comedians and belly dancers. The shows were designed with a lot of effort to satisfy the desires of the audiences. Alongside the artistic performances expensive dresses, handmade shoes and perfectly designed hairstyles were also part of the show, at the expense of the performers despite the minimal fees they got. It was a “to be or not to be” issue for singers like Gönül Yazar, Huri Sapan, Esmeray or Neşe Alkan in Maxim, Bebek, Lunapark gazinos and in the Turkish music business. High competition and complex relations between the owners of gazinos and the artist did not deter them from participating in the most classy and rewarding music event. The gazino culture came to an end when public television began its heyday at the end of 70s.

Turkish music industry in 70s and 80s was strongly connected to cinema, which in a very short time became one of the biggest movie industries in the world. Popular singers made their appearance in musical movies (sanatçı filmleri) while famous actresses were lip-syncing the songs of the best selling soloists. By making immediate use of successful songs in new movies, Turkish cinema and music became interdependent. Most of the vocalists from Turkish Ladies compilation performed in Turkish movies; Gönül Yazar, Handan Kara, Gülden Karaböcek, Huri Sapan, Neşe Alkan.

Handan Kara – one of the most recognizable Turkish female voices of late 60s and 70s, not only performed in movies, but also dubbed the biggest female stars of Turkish cinema. It was her voice that was heard throughout the entire 1969 blockbuster “Sonbahar Rüzgarlari” starred by the unquestionable queen of Turkish cinema - Turkan Şoray. Adding “Aşkım ve Gururum“ the song released by Şah Plak in 1974 is an opportunity to pay homage to recently deceased Handan Kara.

Heart-breaking dramas in edgy arrangements

Each of the songs from Turkish Ladies compilation represents different musical trends of Turkish music created between 1974 and 1988. At first gaze it may seem that it depicts only two musical worlds – glittering Turkish pop of gazino and more rough folk of Türkü bars, but the subgenres are much more diverse. Styles such as oyun havalari, arabesk, turku, uzun hava, turk sanat, alafranca are melted with Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, Arab, Balkan and Gypsy influences. All the sweet melodies and heart-breaking dramas are captured in edgy arrangements and compositions with eccentric synthesizers, mesmerizing arabesk string orchestras, waka waka funky guitars and narcotizing rhythm sections of darbukas and drum sets. A variety of influences and fusions – from classical Turk Sanat Müziği, Argentinian tango, Spanish flamenco, Egyptian classical orchestras, traditional folk songs, worldwide popular disco, psychedelia and funk in local unique setups from late 70s and 80s, all open the universe of music performed by Turkish female singers.

“Bir Şans Daha Ver” by Huri Sapan – the opening song of Turkish Ladies compilation might be a surprise for many of listeners. This deep and meaningful track, released in 1974, can now reach its new audience after 43 years. Recorded in Elenor studios in Beyoğlu, performed with extremely groovy orchestra of Sabahatin Akdağcık was once used in “Midnight Express” – 1978 movie directed by Alan Parker. Despite being appreciated by American Academy Awards and receiving four nominations and two Oscar awards, the film was banned and stigmatized for years in Turkey. Huri Sapan’s name was never mentioned in the credits of the picture while Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack got one of the Oscar wins. It is high time to give Huri Sapan and all the Turkish Ladies their deserved credits.


Created, curated and compiled by Kornelia Binicewicz - Ladies on Records

Executive producer - Ali Çetinkaya

Liner notes - Kornelia Binicewicz - Ladies on Records

Artwork and design - Marianne Marp London

Research and support - Levent Sevi

Consultancy and liner notes - Meral Akkent - İstanbul Kadın Müzesi

Translation of lyrics and editorial work - Handan Salta

Sound mastering - Gavin Weiss

Support - Selin Ötün

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