While Selda Bağcan was getting ready to rock the world with the Tel Aviv based Mediterranean surf rock tuba driven power trio Boom Pam and Gaye Su Akyol was riding the success of her debut album Develerle Yaşıyorum, the idea of bringing these two women together for a conversation thrilled us. We knew Akyol idolized Bağcan and had been covering “Yaz Gazetici Yaz” in her concerts. We got excited by Akyol’s enthusiasm to make the interview happen, and finally we received the okay from Bağcan, who rarely gives interviews. When the day arrived, we were transfixed by the stories and memories in the responses Bağcan gave in a café near her house in Tarabya.
Bağcan’s career is full of heartbreaking and admirable stories. Listening to her, you understand how she has internalized everything she went through, how she guards some of those experiences, and how well she’s aware of the attention she receives from the Western world. She’s someone who buys the pirated version of her own discography for 1 TL and can laugh about it as she tells the story.
We are lucky that we were able to make this interview happen, uniting these two enchanting voices from two different generations and bringing Bağcan’s memories and ideas to you. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
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Gaye Su Akyol: You were born in Muğla, but a lot of people think you’re from Sivas. What’s the story behind that?
Selda Bağcan: Because both my parents were civil servants, I was born in Muğla by chance. My father was a veterinarian, and my mother was a teacher. Due to reassignments, I was somehow born in Muğla, so I’m from Muğla accidentally. When you say Sivas, I have no relation actually. I was singing the folk songs of Sivas, so people wanted to think I was from there. Where my roots go is actually very complicated. I think I can say I’m from Turkey. My father’s side is from Macedonia, and my mother’s side is from Caucasia. So I just say I’m from Turkey.
G.S.A.: With a vet father and a teacher mother, how did you end up being a musician?
S.B.: My father was also a very good musician. He could play any instrument. When I was a kid, the mandolin was very popular at schools, and my father taught me how to play it at a very early age. Before I started school, I could already play the mandolin, I could read the notes and everything. I used to wish we had a piano at home back then. All of this happened in Van, and it would have been absurd for a vet to own a piano in Van at the time. We weren’t an aristocratic family. We were common people. There used to be hafiz people in the family back in Macedonia. Talent is probably in our genes. My brothers had the talent too.
G.S.A.: There used to be a bar called Beethoven, right?
S.B.: A night club, actually. It was turned into a bar later. They were called night clubs earlier. It was the most immaculate club of Ankara. My brothers used to play in this other club called Van Gogh at first. Then they wanted to found their own business. They opened Beethoven Club as an answer to Van Gogh. They hosted many artists. It was 1970s; Barış Manço, Cem Karaca, Esin Afşar, Fikret Kızılok—all the celebrities of Turkey played there. And me, as the daughter of the owners, I used to perform after them. I was just a girl singing and playing the guitar after the actual headliner left. People were shocked. That’s how my music career kicked off.
G.S.A.: All those guest artists, did they listen to your music at all?
S.B.: They heard my music there for the first time. Then they brought my music to Istanbul and made albums of it, even before I did!
G.S.A.: Cem Karaca got “Tatlı Dilim” and Barış Manço got “Katip Arzuhalim”…
S.B.: That’s right. I didn’t want to name those since they’re both deceased. But I did emphasize the fact every chance I had when they were alive! They never forced me or anything. After they died, I didn’t want to talk about it. I had a song called “Maden İşçileri” back then. All my friends were in the medical faculty, and I was in the physics department. A friend of mine dreamt that Timur Selçuk played a gig and played my “Maden İşçileri” song there. What a dream! I felt like all my songs were being taken, so I decided to make an album myself. But years later, I gave the song “Maden İşçileri” to Timur Selçuk. That’s an interesting, beautiful story too.
G.S.A.: Erkan Özerman listened to your music, and he insisted on recording your album. That started the Istanbul part of the story, right?
S.B.: Erkan Ağbi used to sweep me off my feet. I was a senior, and I used to say to myself, “There’s no way I can finish school if I yield to this guy.” He constantly told me that he was going to make me world famous but only on the condition that we changed my name to “Zelda.” He wanted to make me seem like I was Jewish. Since Jewish people owned most of the music market, I was supposed to be “Zelda.” I didn’t want that, of course.
There was a program on TRT in 1971. It was about prisons. Deniz Gezmiş and his contemporaries were still in prison back then. Türkan Poyraz, who owned an advertising agency, helped me record the first tapes. I owe her so much. She was a very strong woman, and she was also very influential on TRT. She followed the necessary inspection procedures for my song “Mapushanelerde Güneş Doğmuyor,” and she played it on this program. Can you imagine it? Deniz Gezmiş is in prison, and I’m singing “Neden Mapushanelerde Güneş Doğmuyor” on television. I wasn’t on the TV though, it was only my voice. In the meantime, the LPs came out as “Zelda.” There was a friend from Van there, Atilla Ilvan, who intervened and prevented the LPs from being distributed because he knew my name was Selda. I remained anonymous on that program. Luckily, I did! Afterwards, there was a lot of curiosity about who that woman was.
“Years later, I was back again for the Jerusalem Festival in Israel. I took a cab—this was almost 12 years later—and the driver turned around and said, “Zelda!” I was astounded! I asked him how he still remembered!
G.S.A.: Then you get a lot of phone calls and people start running after you?
S.B.: Well, years later Erkan Ağbi’s predictions came true. They call me Zelda in Israel; when I’m there, my name is Zelda. They pronounce ‘s’, ‘z’ in Israel, just the opposite of that in Germany. I was in Israel in 1990 for the first time for a beautiful festival. The festival took place in an Ottoman Castle, and there was an Ottoman flag on top of the tower. I took a cab—this was almost 12 years later—and the driver turned around and said, “Zelda!” I was astounded! I asked him how he still remembered. It’s a very small country, it’s like those first days of TRT. If someone is on the screen, they immediately become celebrities, their songs become hits. When I was blacklisted for 20 years, every song became a hit, other than mine.
G.S.A.: When you released the song “Mapushanede Güneş Doğmuyor,” Deniz Gezmiş was in prison, and rumors of a possible romance between you two spread all over. What’s the story behind that?
S.B.: I had no idea about the rumors at first. Back in 1976, somebody asked me about it backstage at a concert. It was very shocking to me. I couldn’t make sense of how it had spread so far. People wanted to think of us as a couple. Deniz and his friends had probably heard of me. My songs were on the radio and radio was available to inmates. But we never knew each other in person, never met in person or anything. Years later, a little girl came to me backstage after a concert and said, “Can I ask you something?” I knew what it was, and I let her ask. She asked if I had ever dated Deniz Gezmiş. Some people thought I was really his girlfriend, and I lied about it. They thought I was denying the fact. I wish! I have a friend who lives in Paris, Arzu Okay, who was a Yeşilçam artist. She was getting her house painted in the early 2000s. She called and told me that the carpenters were big fans of me, and they wanted to talk to me. I said ok, and one of them brought up this Deniz Gezmiş subject, and then he said, “After he died, you couldn’t’ marry anyone ever again, right?”
G.S.A.: Well… Urban legend.
S.B.: Exactly! Urban legend…
Aylin Güngör (Bant Mag.): Do you have all of your work in your personal archives? Is there stuff—artwork or LPs—that you don’t have at home?
S.B.: I think I have everything. I had only one thing missing. It’s so ironic actually. For some reason, I didn’t have “Aldırma Gönül.” I made an LP of it in 1977 or 1978. Somehow I couldn’t find it at home. It was either stolen or a friend took it. I was ready to buy it on the black market. Recently, a young man came from America for an interview. We talked about so many things, and at the end he took out 45 of “Aldırma Gönül” for an autograph. I asked him to give it to me immediately. He was surprised, but he had to give it to me. What else was he supposed to do?
“When Anglo Saxons get sick of each other, they open their eyes to new communities. Even Sting says a Muslim prayer in a part of one of his songs. When things like this happen, people got curious about us.”
“Three young English men were guests at a program on TRT; I was still banned from the screen back then. Korhan Abay was the producer and the host. He asked who they knew among Turkish artists, and they said “Selda Bağcan.” But I was still banned, so Korhan was shocked! I said to myself, “Censorship always fails.”
G.S.A.: You’re expectedly among Times’ list of 81 legendary female musicians. We all know how and why, but what do you personally think about it?
S.B.: I attribute the attention to that urgency in my voice. My vocal tone is unique, and it’s such a sincere way of singing. Also, there’s the fact that it’s the music from the heart of Anatolia, it’s authentic and frank. That was new for people. It’s the music of the Middle East. Ethno music, as you know, has gotten really trendy lately. When Anglo Saxons get sick of each other, they open their eyes to new communities. Even Sting says a Muslim prayer in a part of one of his songs. When things like this happen, people get curious about us. It just tipped somehow. There’s of course a long history to it. I was in the WOMAD Festival in London in 1987. The festival LP was distributed around the world, which laid the groundwork. I also performed in numerous festivals in Germany.
Three English young men were guests at a program on TRT; I was still banned from the screen back then. Korhan Abay was the producer and the host. He asked who they knew among Turkish artists, and they said, “Selda Bağcan.” But I was still banned, so Korhan was shocked! I said to myself, “Censorships always fails.”
G.S.A.: When we’re in Europe for concerts, we go to lots of record stores. There are always two Turkish artists’ LPs there, Selda Bağcan and Erkin Koray.
S.B.: His music is also very intriguing. “Şaşkın” and “Estarabim” are fascinating! I really appreciate his music.
G.S.A.: I’ve read an anecdote of yours. You, Seyyal Taner and Erkin Koray were at a summerhouse…
S.B.: We rented a summerhouse in Büyükçekmece. We were there all together. Seyyal and Erkin were really close friends. We naturally expected Erkin Baba to pick up the guitar and play something. He didn’t even touch it! We waited for three days. Then we learned his reason: If he played something in that house, I might have stolen the song from him. No way, it’s not possible!
G.S.A.: Maybe he thought so, as he was steadily influenced by the music from Egypt, Africa, the Middle East and carried their features into his music.
S.B.: “Şaşkın” and stuff, they’re all from abroad. I listened to the Arabic versions.
G.S.A.: When somebody asks him about it, his answer is, “My lyrics are really solid.”
S.B.: Anyway, even coming up with the idea is terrific. I had made this song “Ziller ve İpler” in 1992. It was originally an Israeli rocker’s. When I first went to Israel, I got really popular. I constantly went to rockers’, musicians’ houses. It was as if I came from outer space. One of the guys there gave me his cassette. I listened to the first track, it was an instrumental one, and I was amazed! I knew it would be a hit in Turkey. Luckily, the song was anonymous. It’s a Greek song, “rembetiko”. His family were immigrants from Greece, so I guess he learned the song from them.
G.S.A.: I remember the music video for it.
S.B.: Little children were playing around.
G.S.A.: I was in love with the video. I was six or so. That’s the first song of yours I listened to. Naturally, then the rest came.
S.B.: Those who learn about me through that video, they’re really surprised when they see me as a middle-aged lady. They can’t understand how this old lady appeared. They never saw me because of the ban. Only those who love ‘türkü’ and Alevi communities knew about me. I always say I’m where I am thanks to the Alevis. But I’m not an Alevi, though I wish I was one.
G.S.A.: You have an aphorism that really strikes me. You said, “You can’t be international without being national.” It reminds me of what Ruhi Su said: “From the local to the national, from the national to the universal.”
S.B.: Seriously, my music makes sense to the people who live here. I come up with compositions with the taste of a folk song. If you make music for this geography, you have to be national. Then the international community recognizes you. We’ve been noted much, thanks to the Internet. All information spreads at the speed of light. I released an LP in London in 2006. I had a contract with a company there. In two or three years, the songs became hits, and they kept spreading all around the world. It did so thanks to the Internet. If we had the Internet earlier, people would have found out about us much earlier…
G.S.A.: I believe the American rapper Mos Def sampled one of your songs. And there was a lawsuit following that, and you lost the case, right? That was really surprising for me.
S.B.: We didn’t lose the case. We couldn’t have it in the first place. We paid the lawyer, and he sat on the money. He’s not giving it back. There’s a record company called Finders Keepers. They’re unbelievable. They paid 4,000 liras twice, and that was all! They sent us the invoice, but there was no actual payment. It was a huge swindle. They even sold the songs to Americans. They sold it to Mos Def and a company called Electronic Arts. It was used in a series called Beverly Hills, where some musician called Dr.No sang it. It was even used in a computer game called Skate 2. These four are the ones we could determine. My lawyer kept writing to their lawyers. But they somehow made the case exceed the statute of limitations of three years. Then we couldn’t sue anyone because the case was from three years ago. They didn’t send the money back either. Then we found another American lawyer, and he didn’t send our money back either! After getting to know the British and the Americans, I realized how honest and decent people we are! I’ve always stuck to my contracts. I never break them. These guys were unbelievable frauds. Mos Def has no guilt in the case. It’s all about his record company, they’re the ones who didn’t pay me for my song.
“Reaching this point in my career has so much to do with my lyrics. As I took very good care of it, I never lost my voice. But I can totally say my lyrics brought me where I am today… And my posture of course, I have a very firm posture. I’ve never fit into the common idea of a woman.”
G.S.A.: As a female musician in a male-dominated society, you’ve kept making your music in your own way. Have you ever suffered because you are a woman? Besides the general hardships, was there anything specific?
S.B.: No, almost never. First of all, reaching this point in my career has so much to do with my lyrics. As I took very good care of it, I never lost my voice. But I can totally say that my lyrics brought me wHere I am today. It’s all about solid melodies and lyrics. And my posture of course, I have a very firm posture. I’ve never fit into the common idea of a woman. I go everywhere without wearing makeup, except when I’m on television. There they put make up on me. Under those circumstances, I actually quite like the makeup on myself.
G.S.A.: You said, “My leftism breaks the pattern.” I think that’s so true. The content of leftism has changed in Turkey. Yours really doesn’t fit anywhere anymore.
S.B.: True, the pattern has changed. I’m a leftist, but still, the left wing is so much more conservative than me. You can’t do any wrong there.
G.S.A.: Who does Selda Bağcan listen to?
S.B.: I listen to basically everything. Every beautiful sound naturally gets my attention. I make no differentiation among them. I listen to arabesque too. There are very good compositions in arabesque music. The songs İbrahim Tatlıses sang and the ones Burhan Bayar made… Pop music has gotten pretty bad lately, but there is some really good stuff too. Seventy-five percent of the pop music released is bad, and 25% is very good. But it’s generally bad. My friends and I can barely take it most of the time.
“I’m a physics graduate. I’ve always stayed away from the Internet. I’d like to live more freely from the digitalised world. The internet freaks me out.”
G.S.A.: Do you use the Internet?
S.B.: I’m a physics graduate. I’ve always stayed away from the Internet. I’d like to live more freely from the digitalised world. The internet freaks me out. Actually, I have a rock song about it.
Sen ne dersen de
Ben de varım burda"
(“Computer world / World that pushes the feelings away / Whatever you say / I also exist here”)
G.S.A.: What are your favorite movies?
S.B.: When I was a kid, I was very much impressed by Spartacus. The revolt of the slaves. I guess Spartacus lived around 2000 BC, and he rebelled against slavery. There’s also Dr. Zhivago among my favorites. It’s an amazing movie. It’s such a great narration of the October Revolution. I saw the movie first, then I read the novel. Gone With the Wind also had a great impact on my childhood.
G.S.A.: Another survey question: If you were to give any advice to 20 year-old Selda Bağcan, what would you tell her?
S.B.: That’s a really hard question. It’s never been asked before. You’re a very smart young woman. I made mistakes, I can’t say I didn’t—both in my career and in my private life. With the consciousness I have now, I may have not made them. They’re not like huge mistakes, they’re trifles. Everybody likes to think their mistakes are slight ones.
G.S.A.: I think you’re the biggest female rock star of this country has ever had. Do you have any thoughts on that?
S.B.: I am the greatest, no one can compare!
This piece was originally published on Bant Mag. No:34 in Turkish
Translation by Ege Yorulmaz, Edited by Chris McLaren