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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Aysel Gürel: Lyricist of Love (1928-2008)

Aysel Gürel is a lady that defies all description, because she always wrote her own definitions - and in a style that no one else could match.

Aysel GürelGürel was a Turkologist, Thespian, teacher, actress and writer. Her most notable contribution to music was as lyricist to some of Turkish pop singer Sezen Aksu's most unforgettable tracks, immortalised in their original performances by Aksu ("Firuze" 1982, "Sen Ağlama" 1984, "Ünzile" 1986) and Sertab Erener's self-titled 1999 album, which won Gürel a "best song" gong from TV music station Kral for the song "Vur Yüreğim".

UPDATE: Tarkan sings posthumous Gürel song (2010) >>

Upon accepting the award the following year for the Erener track she had said, "This song is not a cry against God, but an acceptance of the very nature of life that continues to beat in the face of all indignity. It's a call to embrace life with every beat of our hearts."

She had perfectly summed up her own life's motto that saw her break the shackles of a stereotypical female's role in Turkish society and become her own woman, on her own terms. She became the subconscious of all Turkish women; what women secretly wanted to be.

Fame came at an early age, while first appearing on stage as Juliet in Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet when she was fifteen. Her performance had wowed the audience, with the local press praising her the next day. She gave up a full-time career in acting to pursue poetry, but her daughters followed in those footsteps, with one, Müjde Ar, becoming a prominent Turkish actress.

Gürel was well educated (studying literature and cultural studies at the prestigious University of Istanbul), well-spoken, outspoken, with the sharp wit necessary for a single working mother bringing up two daughters to survive. She dressed in outlandish designs, was a firm campaigner for the environment and animal rights, and the right of women to be financially and sexually free to make their own choices. Gürel also gave lyrical form to some of the greatest descriptions of love ever penned, even though in one interview she claimed that love was just a fairytale. Although this didn't stop her, even in her seventies, entering into relationships with men fifty years her junior.

Her songs were not always about love, however, with a few focusing on socio-political issues, more specifically the popular Aksu track "Ünzile" (1986) that highlighted the plight of women in a closed, feudal society. Aksu had re-produced this song in 2005 for an album for the benefit of the Kardelen Project, a program supporting the education of up to 5,000 impoverished girls.

Aysel GürelGürel was the complete opposite of the clichéd woman and her ideal role in society. To the Turkish public she was affectionately known as "Crazy Aysel", but really this lyricist of love was just a crazy fan of living. She was a lady that held on to life with both hands. Having nearly died eight times by accidental drowning in her youth, it was something she didn't take for granted. Of her near-death experiences she said, "I can't forget those colours and images. Firstly there's a light green hue, which turns to a dark green and then suddenly to black."

In February, 2008, Gürel finally succumbed to the darkness.

The Daughter of Common Sense

Aysel Gurel, centre, pictured with her two daughtersBorn in the Aegean city of Denizli in the Denizli Province, where the Turkish girls are said to be the most fair, she was raised in a family environment which she described as "if not modern, with a lot of common sense". Speaking of her younger years in an interview, Gürel said:

"I'm a swimmer. But [Denizli] was a conservative area and [in those days girls] didn't go into the sea with a bathing suit [but fully dressed by moonlight]. Except for me of course. ... In a lot of places in the world they go into the water naked. We start life in the amniotic waters of the mother's womb. What's the use of covering up once we're on land!"

Her father, a public prosecutor, was a religious man who never forced his beliefs on to his children. Gürel spoke highly of her father, who was a genteel man that would "light my cigarette even when he was seventy-eight, not because I was his daughter, but because he was a gentleman. I was a lady in need of a light". Arguably, this may have been one freedom she could have done without, as she died from complications connected to cancer of the lungs, which had spread to her spinal cord just on the eve of her eightieth year in the world.

Born on February 7, 1928 (though some cite 1929), Gürel died ten days after her eightieth birthday at four-thirty in the afternoon on February 17, 2008. Luminaries from the Turkish music world attended the funeral, including Aksu and Erener. Laid to rest on February 19 in her signature luscious pink livery and gaudy sunglasses, she is survived by two children, and a body of musical work that will keep calling those willing to listen to always face and embrace life.

Her last words were for Turkish women never to stop working and for society to "help the young."

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