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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Other Turkish Diva

Read "Two Turkish Divas"

Nazan OncelIn the history of Turkish pop music much is made - and rightly so - of its two great cornerstones Sezen Aksu and Ajda Pekkan. However, there is another diva that is sometimes overlooked, Nazan Öncel. If Pekkan is Turkish pop's voice, and Aksu Turkish pop's sound, Öncel is its dark psyche.

The singer/song-writer's low exposure can be attributed to many factors. She is very experimental in her music and hard to compartmentalise by music critics. After a first few attempts in the late seventies, she found her niche in the early nineties and quickly branched out into other genres with none taking precedence. Yet, it's mainly because she has spoken out about things not often discussed in public that has contributed to her marginalisation.

She is the Turkish diva of the "others": a courageous woman who has put to music what run-of-the-mill songs shy away from, which as a result has brought credibility and humanity to a genre often rebuked for its shallow image. From singing about street children,

I never had a childhood/I stole for food/Pieces out of the rubbish dump/Chased by the cops/Played cops and robbers/I am a street girl/Don't treat me good
("Ben Sokak Kızıyım" (I'm a Street Girl)/Sokak Kızı (Street Girl), 1996)

to rapping angrily about child molestation from her own personal experiences,

His hands on my thighs/All over me Mum/I said Daddy no/He was breathing like an animal/Between his two thighs/He had me in a vice/Though somehow/I managed to escape
("Demirden Lebebi" (Hard to Swallow)/Demir Lebebi (Woman of Steel*), 1999)

proved that she sang in a different language altogether. Even though she has never been above writing escapist pop songs too, her harder hitting work made other songs of the late nineties seemed tame in comparison.

Polemy in the Press

Although Öncel is generally respected by her peers in the Turkish press, she has not been immune to the speculations of gossip columnists, most notably for the rumoured song writing rivalry between Aksu and herself.

Due in one part to Aksu and Öncel consistently churning out hits in the Turkish music scene - and another to Tarkan first working with Aksu and then after a copyright dispute over "Şımarık" moving to work with Öncel for Karma - the Turkish celebrity press have always suggested a cold and cruel competition between the two women that has never suited their characters.

Celebrity gossips are known for inventing polemy where there is none to spice up their entertainment pages. They have done this between Aksu and Pekkan (even if their fanatical fanbases might have some healthy rivalry the two stars do not), and with Aksu and Tarkan after they had resolved their old differences, too.

However, in a March 2008 music news report printed at Billboard's Turkish division, Aksu and Öncel couldn't have given a more beautiful example of how wrong Turkish gossip columnists are about any such rivalry between the two women.

Bread and Medicine

While guest hosting a radio programme for a good cause, Aksu played some of her favourite tracks from her artist friends, and of Öncel she said,

"I really wanted to play something from her Demir Leblebi album. But knowing what it took from her to make it, I don't want to suddenly remind her of that painful process. But in my opinion the album is one that she should be proud of, a crowning achievement."

She went on to comment about Öncel's recent battle with the 'flu: "I hope very much that you are well ... Thank God you have extraordinary songs. For you and for us, they're what keep us going."

Öncel replied back to the warm wishes publicly by posting a letter to Aksu on the front page of her official website:

However much I might have suffered during the Demir Leblebi period, what really upsets me is that today, as then, my country's people still lack complete freedom of expression. Thanks to my dear Sezen ... and her sensitivities towards my songs about our social concerns, I was moved deeply.

Some people are like bread, they're needed daily, some are like medicine, only wanted when needed. "Sezen is like my daily bread to me." Don't worry my dear Sezen, as I told you too, illness doesn't enter a house of song. We'll sit down again one day and speak of these things.

I don't want to embarrass you, but you do know that if I don't listen to a Sezen song every day, that day is a little empty, a little downcast. Whenever we speak, I feel a release, I can't help saying to myself this is what peace must be like. We'll speak again; we'll have our friendly chats. We'll start off with music and end on the Aegean. What else do we have but your songs to make our lives a little easier? Oh, and before I forget, let me tell you: I planted a tree in my garden today, its name is Sezen. With old and new longing I salute you, my friend.

True Artists

In paying this short homage to Öncel after reading her letter, I repeat the hope I expressed in my "Two Turkish Divas" post nearly two years ago: that these beautiful and talented women will become an example for journalists and artists, and for all those who mistakenly believe bickering in front of a camera or in ear-shot of the paparazzi will bring them fame.

With this post, I salute all three divas; strong women that have given Turkey a fine musical heritage, and new artists a coda of what real artists should be.

* While both expressions demirden leblebi and demir leblebi literally translated can mean "a chickpea made from iron" or "an iron chickpea", the meanings are different. Demir leblebi is a Turkish phrase used to indicate an impossible task, or a person who is strong i.e. "made of steel" or "a hard nut to crack" - in context of the album "Iron Chick/Woman of Steel". Öncel took this phrase (with which she named her album) and distorted it for the song "Demirden Leblebi" to indicate how the terrible events depicted in the song stay stuck in the conciousness like an iron chickpea stuck in the throat and hard to swallow. It has even more of an impact when we learn that the word leblebi is also slang for a bullet or piece of lead.

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