Index award winner, Ferhat Tunç has been sentenced to 25 days in prison for a speech he made during a 2006 concert. Tunç was charged under article 7/2 of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law and article 220/6 of its Turkish Criminal Law, namely “spreading propaganda” for a terrorist organistion. Here Turkish novelist Kaya Genç talks to Kurdish musicians —including Tunç — about making their voices heard despite continuing discrimination and prejudice
I have been sitting in this coffee house for a while now, drinking a large cup of Americano and listening to Rewend (“Nomad”, a Kurdish song) through my earphones for the third time. It is a curious song: I don’t have a clue what it is about and yet the vocal is profoundly moving and strangely familiar. “The night is dark, it is pitch black/I have lost my senses; the darkness has made me mad.” It seems to come from the mountains high above the Anatolian plateau, from heights only eagles can reach. “Like a parched thistle swept up by the wind/I am without place and time.” The voice travels across the country and, as I suddenly realise, my being. It has no centre, it is a voice that belongs to all places and all times. “Like the prey of a merciless eagle/I was swept high and mercilessly plunged deep.”
The performer of the song, Aynur, appears in Fatih Akın’s beautifully vibrant 2005 documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, where she sings in the delicate acoustics of a hamam, a Turkish bath. I went to meet her at the headquarters of Sony Music in Istanbul.
“When the audience perceives me as a creative soul, it is a wonderful feeling,” she tells me during our interview in a depressing conference room.
“But there are times when you don’t have a clue what the reaction may be. I try to figure out the reaction and at that precise moment I am no longer free. But we all know that music is about the freedom of the soul, and in moments of anticipation that is taken from me.”
Aynur isn’t sure who her audience is. Is it mainly Kurds, or does she have more Turkish fans? She cannot be certain. But she knows that among her listeners are angry souls, those who seek to ban her music along with all other Kurdish music. In an article published in December 2007 in the ultra-nationalist Türksolu (“the Turkish left”), a columnist complained of the so-called “Kurdisation” of Turkey’s culture: “When I turn on the television it is filled with Kurdish serials and films,” the columnist protested. “And when I seek solace in music, all I have is Kurdish songs, Kurdish music videos. Getting onto a minibus I realise that they are playing a Kurdish song! ‘Is it Kurdistan?’ I ask myself. On the way home I meet drug-dealers, pimps, gays and transvestites. It is a strange coincidence that they are all Kurds!”
While such articles that appear to incite hatred are freely distributed in the country, Kurdish musicians such as Aynur still suffer from the discriminatory laws of the Turkish Republic. Her album Keçe Kurdan (“Kurdish Girl”), released in 2004, was banned by a court in Diyarbakir, in south-eastern Turkey, in 2005, although the ban was lifted later that year. The problem was with the title song, composed by S¸ivan Perwer, perhaps the most influential Kurdish musician alive – he fled to Germany in 1976 and now lives in exile in Germany. “It was a song against the oppression of women,” Aynur explains. “But they took it to be a call to arms.”
There are signs, however, of a more liberal atmosphere in the country. A year after Aynur’s album was banned, she made a guest appearance in Gönül Yarası (Lovelorn), an extremely popular film seen by almost a million viewers in Turkey. Her latest album, Rewend, has been an instant hit. A prominent figure at European festivals, Aynur’s admirers include Martin Scorsese, Keith Richards, Emir Kusturica and Robert De Niro. Recently, Johnny Depp visited her backstage and asked whether he could play alongside her group. “Why not?” she answered.
Publications ranging from the London Times to the New York Times Magazine have used her image on their front pages as a representative of a blooming cultural ethos in Turkey. She is proud of her position but shows no signs of arrogance. “I am singing in sold-out concerts all over the world. But sadly there are still prejudices in my homeland,” she says. “Of course, a great deal has changed over the past decade. Organisers would unplug my jack ten years ago.” In 2010, Aynur began working with Sony Music in Turkey, which created a sub-label that will release its first albums this autumn, totally devoted to Kurdish music – in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
It was Ayhan Evci, a Kurdish producer and composer living in Hamburg, who came up with the idea of the new label and put the idea to Sony. He has collaborated with musicians such as Ciwan Haco, a popular figure in Kurdish music, as well as many alternative Turkish and German artists. “We could no longer work with the traditional recording companies in Turkey,” he says.
“Kurdish music grew less productive for a while and the sales were low. We needed new means of production, international standards.” The new label is called Pel (“Leaf” in Kurdish). “It is a small but important step for Kurdish music. If we manage to produce first-class records then perhaps luck will be on our side as well.”
This article first appeared in Smashed Hits 2.0, Index on Censorship magazine, volume 39, number 3
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