In Turkey’s Kalan label has produced three extraordinary debuts by strong modem women singers working out of local roots, the latest being Özlem Taner. Nick Hobbs talks to the artist and the label about their projects.
In 2007 Kalan released Türkmen Kızı (Turkmen Woman or more exactly Young Woman) by the Turkmen singer Özlem Taner, the third contemporary solo female singer on Kalan, along with Kurdish Aynur Doğan and fellow Turkmen, Feryal Öney.
Turkmen Woman (reviewed fR290/1 and hear a track on fRoots 30) is a fine collection of traditional and neo-traditional Turkmen songs arranged in a variety of rather Kalanesque styles, both Anatolian urban folk and folk-rock, as epitomised by labelmates Kardes Tiirkuler (in which Öney is one of the main singers). The album is beautifully packaged and includes the lyrics, though translations await an international edition. Some tracks work better than others; the three main elements: singer, song and arrangement, don’t always gel as well as they might.
With Riza Okçu (one of Kalan’s project managers, who also plays on the album) interpreting and freely expanding on the others’ answers, I interviewed Kalan owner and the album’s executive producer, Hasan Saltık, followed by Taner, at Kalan’s crowded and smoky office in lstanbul’s Unkapanı district, where most Turkish labels are based in one sprawling complex. One of the charming aspects of ‘old’ Istanbul is the way firms of a type bunch together; sadly the Unkapanı building is scheduled for demolition – though of no architectural merit, it’s a hive of creativity, and it will be a pity if the tenants are dispersed.
Saltık: “Özlem Taner was a music teacher from Gaziantep [a prosperous city in south-east Turkey not far from the Syrian border, generally known by its Ottoman name of Antep, famous for its pistachios and copperwork, and an area into which the formally nomadic Turkmens were settled by the new Republic’s government]. Like many would-be recording artists, she arrived at our offices saying she wanted to release an album on Kalan. She didn’t even have a demo, and I said ‘Sorry now’s not a good time for us’. She replied without hesitation: ‘I’m not interested in any other label, I’m off back to Antep’, and walked out of the office. Impressed, I went after her and said: ‘Come back, take our baglama, go to the studio, and make us a demo’. When we heard the results we liked her way of singing and playing barak [a highly ornamented Turkmen folk style in irregular metre with a vocal range of less than an octave] and so decided to produce an album.”
Taner: “When living in Antep, I tried to follow Kalan’s releases, as I felt they were thinking similarly to me about what should be done with folk music in Turkey.”
Saltık: “The hardest thing was selecting the songs for the album; if we’d only included barak songs, the album would have sounded too local and wouldn’t have been of wider interest in Turkey. A pure barak album’s sales would have been limit- ed to the Antep region, that’s how things are here. And in recent years some seven thousand Turkish folk music albums have been released – there’s been a huge growth – and of these, 80% are local productions which don’t sell nationally, even though their sales can be bigger than national stars’.”
“To not compromise, we decided to make a Turkmen, rather than Turkish, album which included both barak and other Turkmen styles, one which could appeal in the whole of Turkey. We had a similar approach with Aynur’s and Feryal’s albums. We tried to create a wider idea of Turkish folk styles based on ethnic roots, not like TRT’s [Turkish State Radio &| Television] state folklore stuff. As with those albums, we used different arrangers and musicians for each song – everyone was so bored with hearing the same arrangementson folk music records. We wanted to reach people who were down on folk music.”
“Another aspect of Turkmen Woman is that each song is identified with a certain Alevi Turkmen tribe, whereas with Feryal’s album [Bulutlar Gecer reviewed fR286, feature in fR288 and a track on fRoots 29], songs come from Alevi and non-Alevi Turkmen tribes. Alevism is both a cultural identity and a syncretic religion, combining, I think, the good elements of shamanism with the good elements of Islam, and this historically persecuted culture has always been important for us, and this fed our ambitions for the album.”
Taner: “Mainstream Turkmen music had degenerated into pastiche, while barak music had remained as it always was traditionally; I felt that Turkmen music wasn’t being presented nationally in the way it deserved, in a way which kept the tradition alive while reinterpreting it in a good way.”
“Kalan’s ethnomusicological and political side was very important for me, its promotion of minorities in Turkey, meaning that whilst Kalan releases ‘Turkish’ folk music, no one could confuse that sense of ‘Turkish’ with Turkish nationalism, a disease which even Alevis suffer from.”
Saltık: “Making the album took a long time, all in all four or five years, for various reasons — Ozlem’s family suffered a tragedy and other problems, and it took a while for her to transfer her teaching job to Istanbul, and a long time between us to choose the songs — nearly forty of them, pretty much each with a different arrangement.”
“Many didn’t get used because we didn’t like the arrangement, or we didn’t like Ozlem’s interpretation or the song didn’t her voice. We worked similarly with Feryal and the projects overlapped, though Feryal’s started second and finished first, partly because she’s had a lot more recording experience. Also we delayed releasing Ozlem’s album so it wouldn’t clash with Feryal’s.”
Taner: “l don’t suppose we’ll ever release the songs we shelved, as I don’t like the way I sang them. Even though we selected the songs together, I didn’t feel I was able to sufficiently connect to those as a singer, I couldn’t live them. They were recorded in a spirit of ‘let’s give it a try’ and they just didn’t work.”
Saltık: “We introduced Ozlem to some exceptional folk musicians but she always wanted to try new things, like western instruments, which is why the album goes in both directions.”
Taner: “I live in the city, I hear all kinds of musics, I can’t imagine an album which represents me having only traditional instruments. Also our experiments had the idea of asking if it were possible to give universal appeal to our quite local music. It’s a difficult question, one with no clear answer, but we wanted to explore it; rather than not take risks, we worked with the tension between local and non-local.”
Okçu: “Ten years ago we couldn’t have done it. because the musicians playing western instruments didn’t listen to Anatolian folk music, now we have electric guitarists and drummers who listen to folk music. Previously, rock guitarists couldn’t feel folk songs, couldn’t play maqams, now some of them can.”
Taner: “I’m someone who uses electric instruments but that doesn’t make me a rock musician. If I’d felt that those instruments couldn’t fit with traditional songs or couldn’t fit with my voice then I wouldn’t have used them. I sing with an open throat, on the edge of howling, and I think the electric guitar parallels that in a way which traditional instruments don’t. I didn’t use these instruments to sound western or to be more commercial or to please other people; I don’t have such complexes about what I’m doing, I don’t work according to theories, these sounds are part of me and that’s why I wanted them.”
Saltık: “Sometimes we had fights about what to do, and some of the fights ended in tears. It was like that with Aynur’s first album [Keçe Kurdan; reviewed fR254/5, feature in fR257, track on fRoots 24], the ultimate producer’s album, and that’s why it was so successful! I would compromise but not much. With Kece Kurdan I was the producer, with Bulutlar Geçer more like executive producer as Feryal was experienced already, with Turkmen Woman it was somewhere in the middle.”
“For a given song, sometimes the arranger is more like the producer, sometimes I come in. we chose the arrangers and musicians and we feel free to be radical. We work regularly with around fifteen arrangers, and we also like to try new ones. Of course the way we work varies from artist to artist, but working with the arrangers the way we do is our speciality. Now, there are many imitators of the ‘Kalan sound’.”
“Normally if an arrangement doesn’t work we throw away the song, rarely we try it again. With Ozlem we even recorded two songs with full orchestra which are not on the album — we have hundreds of unreleased songs from our artists — and let’s not speak of the cost! Still this way we don’t get bored. We have to be openminded about the mixes, the songs which go on the record, everything to do with the conception and plan. Things change! Some mixes take minutes, some take days. Generally the arrangement determines the mix but not always. The final album is the result of what both we and Ozlem wanted – there are some songs which I wanted on the album which aren’t because she didn’t.”
“Thanks to our connections with TV producers, we were able to make Ozlem’s voice known in Turkey even before the release, and now her voice is imitated a lot.”
Taner: “lt was a very stressful process. It took a long time to make – Kalan was working on other projects at the same time — also because of Ka|an’s style of doing everything as well as possible, while trying many different approaches — and of course everything had to suit my standards too, so it wasn’t a calm record to make!”
“Some songs were recorded with click tracks, some without. There would be a guide vocal which would be replaced later. Instruments were added at different stages. The musicians mostly only played in the studio, we didn’t rehearse before recording, we decided which arrangers and musicians we wanted for each song and worked in the studio accordingly.”
“Calling the album Turkmen Woman was to underline that this was a Turkmen album, just as Aynur’s first album declared its Kurdishness. There are more familiar Turkish versions of the folk songs on the album around, but those are sung in Istanbul Turkish. We used the Turkmen dialect, which in Turkey was usually regarded as uneducated. Thanks to its geography, my dialect is influenced by both Arabic and Kurdish, likewise essential parts of the barak style.”
“There isn’t any particular lyrical connection between the songs, but it’s important for me that the lyrics are narrative rather than abstract. About half of them are anonymous, existing in different versions, and I chose the versions according to what I felt, to the meaning, and to which were the most musically harmonious. As a matter of principle, I didn’t change anything, and the song which is clearly written from the point of view of a man, I kept that way.”
“While making the record, I wasn’t thinking about a certain public, otherwise you can end up in populism. I prefer to work without such limitations.”
Okcu: “The most important effect of these albums has been to encourage women singers in Turkey. We showed that things can be done differently. Aynur’s first album was very successful and this was something really notable for a Kurdish woman. Most singers in the Anatolian folk tradition are men. Usually in Turkey,
women singers are presented as sexy, flighty pop stars; in these albums the artists stood there, without compromise, with their art and tradition while being completely modern and urban.”
Saltık: “The timing of Aynur’s album was perfect while that of Feryal and Özlem’s was horrible. If we could have released them four years ago, everything would have been different, the Turkish folk music market has declined, the market is saturated, people are bored with it; then there’s piracy, people buy fewer CDs, and unfortunately the decline is so great that our international growth doesn’t compensate. Equivalent sales have gone from hundreds of thousands to mere thousands.”
“The way we’ve been able to sell records is by being different — we don’t make videos, we don’t advertise, we sell record! in Turkey mostly thanks to good press, and that’s because they sound different. We’re aware of what’s going on in urban folk all over the world and it influences and inspires us, but also we’re aware of the extraordinary richness of Anatolian music and that is what influences us more than anything else, and that’s the material which we try to re-imagine in our releases, which, by the way, we don’t consider as ‘world music‘ but as Anatolian music.”
“People are ignorant of that Anatolian richness; they might be aware of Turkish national music and their own local music, but of the rest they’re mostly ignorant. One million Turks migrated to Anatolia in the eleventh century but there were seven million people of many different cultures already here, and they didn’t go anywhere. During the formation of the Turkish nationstate, all culture was labelled ‘Turkish’ and this has been so destructive, in music as well.”
Taner: “With some trepidation, I’m thinking about making another album. But now, after the experience of the first album, the path is clearer, and I have a better idea of what to do. Particularly about selecting songs with a focused concept, and also there are sounds I don’t wish to return to, and some ways of singing I want to improve on. With Turkmen Woman I’m most happy with the freestyle forms and less happy with the more fixed forms. My favourite songs on the album are Seher Inende (At Dawn) for its simple structure and emotional depth, and Ezo Gelin (The Bride Ezo) for its sonic complexity. The next album might include some of my own songs but the most important thing for me is they fit the concept of the album.”
“The response to Turkmen Woman in Turkey has been good. People especially appreciate the album’s genuineness. Aside from a plan to play in Paris, I’m not performing much. I don’t have my own band which makes things difficult, and I only want to work with great musicians. I play baglama, on the record on one track only, in fact there’s hardly any baglama on the record – part of not wanting the record to sound like a barak album.”
“My favourite singers are Sabahat Akkiraz, Yasmin Levy, Sussan Deyhim. Whitney Houston, and many other black singers. Of my peers at Kalan I feel emotionally and musically nearer to Aynur than Feryal. I think that for Feryal’s album the main focus was the sound, for my album it was voice and emotion.”
“I’m working as a music teacher in a state school in Istanbul and I’m enjoying it. I though l’d rather concentrate on making my own music full-time. Music classes are obligatory so unfortunately there are not only students who wish to study music seriously, anyway I work with different student bands each year and that’s rewarding. Also I can teach what and how I want there’s no fixed curriculum – though I did get a warning from the headmaster because I had the kids dancing to a Kardes Turkuler version of a Kurdish song! I try to introduce them to different kinds of musics and understand what they want to do. When the album came out they asked me for autographs, some complimented me on my voice, some said ‘What is this folk music?’ and many put Ezo Gelin as
their ringtone. Here the boys tend to be more into folk music than the girls but it varies a lot. Sadly, aside from singers, there are still far fewer women musicians than men and I don’t see this changing. Girls don’t want to stay at home studying an instrument, they want to get out.” (If you
look at Taner’s videos on YouTube from Turkish TV you’ll see a largish studio band of all-male musicians.)
“I’ve no wish to return to Antep except to see my family. My family loves music, all good singers, my brother plays guitar, my father used to play baglama. My brother would like to play professionally but so far hasn’t had the opportunity, so I feel very lucky.”
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Kalan CD 406
Özlem Taner is a singer steeped in the folk song of Turkey, in particular the traditions of her native Gaziantep. This CD, which has been some years in the making, is her first. These twelve pieces are all either traditional or composed by traditional artists such as Muhlis Akarsu and Asik Mahzuni. This led me to expect a rather homogenous production but in fact this is the most diverse of CDs, as if Taner had set herself the challenge of devising the most imaginative and unexpected interpretations of the material. The opening a cappella section of Seher Inende and the saz accompanied final piece, Sunam, demonstrate Taner’s türkü credentials and bookend the CD, but I suspect it is those arrangements that most defy expectation that will guarantee the CD’s success. I was especially impressed by the electric guitar of Sunay Ozgur, who eschews the jazzy twiddlyness of much Turkish guitar work to display instead a grounding in the best rock traditions of elegant harmonic simplicity. Bu Mezarda Bir Garip Var is transformed by this into a gentle rock ballad, while Ezo Gelin has Evanescence-like moments. Like rock, Turkish folk music is people’s music in every sense and it is absolutely fitting to find elements of heavy rock, rock ‘n’ roll and country in this context. Exceptions like Paula Darwish and her Country And Eastern project aside, it is only snobbery that has prevented more experimentation in this direction.
There are some inevitable points of comparison with Aynur in one or two of the arrangements but any suspicions that Taner is being promoted as a Turkmen version of the Kurdish Aynur can be laid to rest – Taner’s singing and approach to music are very different and these two artists are not in competition.
Taner has an emotional delivery whose strength is in total confidence and control within a relatively narrow range, and this and the selection of material are the unifying factors here. Her aim has been to discover new and universal resonance in Turkish traditional song whilst affirming its identity as folk music and in this she has succeeded.