The Slick Man of Europe

By Sunu Erdem
The Times


The most British listeners, the words "Turkish" and "pop" conjure up the dubious sounds of summer disco hits you can't stop humming after your holiday. Now, thanks to Sertab Erener's Eurovision Song Contest win, with the catchy "Everyway That I Can", you could be humming them all year around.

"Many Turkish acts want to open out to Europe now," says Demir Demirkan, who wrote the Eurovision song and hopes to record an English-language rock album himself under the name D. Walker. "Turkey has been very successful recently so we're being noticed- there is a wave we must catch." With Uzak (Distant) winning prizes at Cannes, the Turkish football team coming third in the World Cup and a Turk winning the European 1,500 m women's championship, the once "sick man of Europe" seems to be doing rather well these days.

Erener, who caused controversy in Turkey for singing the Eurovision song in English, is recording an English-language album for release in Europe, and others are queuing up to follow.

But the Turkish music scene, as seen on any of the country's numerous music TV channels, is a bewildering mix of inexplicable "stars" and gratuitous belly-dancing --- the gyrating, leather-clad Nez, whose flexible nether parts have turned her into a Turkish Shakira; the talentless actress-models overexposing their flesh; an ageing Arabesk singer trying to revive his career; a former Big Brother contestant singing off-key ballads...

Talent sometimes gets through, however. Take Tarkan, perhaps Turkey's sole successful export so far. His hit "Şımarık" went to the top of the UK charts in the guise of Holly Valance's Kiss Kiss. He's the Turkish Rick Martin -- although the thick eyeliner and following locks make him look more like a Bollywood hunk -- and he not only has a good voice and can spot a good tune but is blessed with extraordinary vibrating abdominals, which make the girls and the gay community swoon. A few established traditional singers still cut it as well, chief among these the entrepreneur and folk-singer Ibrahim Tatlıses (who owns a bus company, music TV channel and Turkish fast food chain.) And then there is Bülent Ersoy, another old-timer, who went from smouldering matinee idol to flamboyant "Queen of the night clubs" after a controversial sex change.

Many Turks' first love is rock – though this genre, which ranges from pseudo heavy-metal to Turkish folk music with lots of shouting and noisy guitars, would not be immediately recognizable to outsiders as "rock" –- but otherwise the solo performer is king in Turkey. Things are changing, however, partly thanks to the "ska" sounds of the group Athena and the Arabesk-grunge efforts of the new trio Duman, famous for their spaced-out vocals and incomprehensible interviews. Now, even Teoman, a morose, anti-fame solo singer, is said to be forming a band.

In the meantime, there are the divas and the doyennes. Sezen Aksu, who launched Turkish pop music at a time when most singers were singing translated cover versions of Julio Iglesias, has become a mentor for aspiring Turkish singers, including Tarkan and Erener.

Erener, who was already a star before the Eurovision win, is aspiring to Celine Dion – like diva status at home and abroad. For those trying to follow her, the Turkish music industry is fraught with difficulties, as talent can be less of a fast –track to success than, say, good connections –- take the recent case of the politician’s wife who decided that she wanted to release an album, and kicked up a big fuss when a record company asked to listen to her demo CD first. She went elsewhere and got the album released after all. And once you are successful as an artist there is nothing stopping you –- films, television series and chat shows soon beckon.

But if you think the Turkish scene is weird, the feeling is mutual. "They live on an island and I don’t know what they do," says Erener, enigmatically of the British.

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