Murat Meriç spoke to the “Here I am, Zeki Muren” exhibition’s curator Derya Bengi, also a research assistant and a writer.
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Hidden for many years, The great Zeki Müren archives have now been made into an exhibition in the hands of Derya Bengi,. With great anticipation, we took a wander through the Yapi Kredi Kultur Merkezi last December and felt like we were getting to know Zeki Muren better. Murat Meriç, an expert when it comes to Turkish Pop Music, and Derya Bengi had a few interesting things to say about Müren. For the ones who missed the exhibition, let us remind you that the catalogue is available through Yapi Kredi, and well worth it.
Where did you get the idea to start a Zeki Muren exhibition, after all these years? Why were these archives hidden?
All of Zeki Muren’s belongings were divided between TEV (Turk Egitim Vakfi) and Mehmetcik Vakfi according to his will. And his costumes, photos and personal belongings have been sitting in a room for 18 years. An archive that no one has access to was a waste, so they thought that it should be public. Yapi Kredi Kultur called me, and since it was a great opportunity, I couldn’t say no.
Was it difficult to dig through this great archive?
It seemed easier at first, since you don’t have to contact anyone else to get more material - everything you need is already there. We had to come out with a concept concerning his drawers, his boxes, things he collected and things he hid. That is why the exhibition deserves its name: “Here I am, Zeki Muren”. Muren kept everything since his childhood, and was very attached to his memories. But the problem was that there wasn’t any information concerning the pictures or the objects. So we had to do some research and sometimes guess our way through his belongings. If you know who is beside him in a picture, fine. But if you don’t, then you have to guess. Which club is this? He has golden hair in this one, so it must be from 1968. We also swept through the press archives from those years. It is an exhibition that pays attention to the small details in Muren’s life - a great story that was turned into an exhibition and a book.
Zeki Muren was very open, but there is also a hidden side to him. Can we say that in this exhibition, we get to know the unknown Zeki Muren?
I would prefer to call it remembering the Zeki Muren that has been forgotten. Our main goal wasn’t revealing his secrets. Every picture we’ve come across was happy and surprising in a way. I personally think that Zeki Muren is forgotten. The new generation, only remembers him as an old “kitsch” guy from the 80s, as if he hasn’t lived through the 50s and 60s. That is why we wanted to remind everyone of his journey from the beginning, from a historical point of view.
The exhibition consists of his music, interests, collections, personal belongings… Is there anything that you added to these?
We studied the newspapers and the magazines such as Hayat, Ses, Hey and made some additions, There are also some magazines from the 50s from his own archive.
Has Zeki Muren kept the newspapers or the magazines with news about him?
Not much. There are some journals from his fans, where they glued press cuttings about him in notebooks without taking any notes. Their own Zeki Muren archive, in a way, which they presented to Muren. I would have kept that for myself though. (laughs)
You’ve had the opportunity to explore Zeki Muren’s books and record collection. Is it possible to reach a different version of Muren through these? Was there anything in particular that surprised you?
I had no idea that he was such an Ummu Gulsum fan. He wrote about her in an article in Hurriyet, in 1974 though. That is how we solved the great mystery behind the 10 Ummu Gulsum records that were found in a cabinet. He was such a great fan of hers. Some musicians from TRT met Ummu Gulsum and learned that she listened to Zeki Muren as well. In that article, Muren proudly wrote: “The person that I adore, listens to my music at home”.
And his books? It seems like he read everything that he owned.
His books mainly consist of the classics. We only took a third of his books for the exhibition. There are writers such as Bilge Karasu, James Baldwin, Attila Ilhan, Orhan Pamuk.
We also know that he writes poetry. Does he enjoy reading it as well?
Besides Attila Ilhan and Lorca, there were some poetry books that were presented to him. In the exhibition, there is a display of the signed copies of Umit Yasar Oguzcan, Attila Dorsay and Murathan Mungan books. I don’t know if this is a different side to him, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He seemed like the person that you can talk to for hours. I regret not interviewing him as a journalist.
Did you get a chance to see Zeki Muren in person?
Once, as a tourist in Bodrum. I’ve been listening to many people’s memories since the beginning of the exhibition now. Our friend Hakan Ezilmez, the photographer went on a vacation in Bodrum with two friends. It was the 80s and they didn’t have any money for the return trip home. So they decided to ask Zeki Muren for the money. They sat at his table and explained him the situation. He listened to them and gave them the money for the return trip. When Sadik Karamustafa, the designer of the exhibition was studying at Ankara College in the 60s, Zeki Muren came to his school. He chatted with the students and signed the albums they had bought. For some reason, there were only two records sold that day and Zeki Muren didn’t make a big deal out of it. Everyone has such nice memories of him.
He wasn’t like the celebrities of our time - there was something unapproachable about him as well.
Everyone knew his address, the coffee house or the beach he goes to. They even know his phone number. He answers his phone. He didn’t have a manager. He was also friendly with the press.
That is why everybody loves him.
Exactly, but he doesn’t communicate with anyone. He chooses people who treat him like he is the star that he is. I don’t think anybody dared being too familiar with him. People used to call him “pasam”. The word is formal and, it connotes hierarchy. I don’t know if I could call him that.
How did your Zeki Muren journey begin?
We were preparing an issue of Express when he died. I loved his music. Two years ago, we opened an exhibition called A kind of electricity appeared in outer space, and that was when I realized how Zeki Muren influenced the 50s, the 60s and the 70s.
What about the 80s?
Let’s not go there. He spent 30 years on the top, and following his footsteps teaches us a lot about the historical background of Turkey. We are talking about someone who recorded every popular song in Turkey.
Has he really recorded all of them?
He wouldn’t sing “Camlica Yolunda” (on the road to Camlica), because he didn’t like the lyrics: “I’m on his right and he’s on my left”. He found it absurd. Muzeyyen Senar says that she is not singing, but communicating the song, which applies perfectly to Zeki Muren as well. He takes his lyrics very seriously. He noted the word “yasanti” in one of his journals, a new word for life. Apparently he wasn’t sure whether to use it or not. He pays attention to the language and where it is going, what the song is about and how to act it. He is old school but open-minded, and he belongs on the stage.
He also supports the story of these songs with his costumes and the setting.
I think that he sees it as a way of doing justice to the song, but not as a way of grooming himself.
He also chooses his costumes relevant to his songs. He wears an Ottoman soldier costume following the coup in 1960, or his “The prince from outer space” costume. Dressing accordingly to the songs is a revolution. Erol Buyukburc also followed his footsteps. We could consider his contribution greater than Munir Nurettin Selcuk’s, right?
He didn’t like Munir Nurettin Selcuk that much. He used to sing his songs, but then stopped, saying that he didn’t influence him. Maybe he ignored him. But he has an idea of what is going on in the music industry. He loves Bekir Sitki Sezgin and sings his songs, and doesn’t understand why he isn’t more successful. He appreciates what is good and tries to help musicians.
He also helped many people he loved…
He helped Ajda Pekkan and Zehra Eren. We know that he supports Popular Anatolian Music such as Cem Karaca and Selda. Looking at Ajda Pekkan and Selda, it is clear that they have very different styles, but Zeki Muren helps them all.
We know that he loved Mogollar, and put them in his gazino band and rejuvenated them. Is there anything interesting in gazino documents?
I read some contracts and it is quite funny. If the audience harasses or disturbs Zeki Muren in any way, the owner has to step in and do what is necessary. I don’t know if that is a common issue or is it just for Zeki Muren, but I guess that back then, it was a necessity.
Did he really keep everything, even his contracts?
He is self-disciplined. He’s not the bohemian artist type. He kept all of his receipts, books of account etc. He had three buildings in Sisli and he used to collect the rent for all of them, and buy the coal as the landlord.
It is a weird obsession. Weren’t you surprised by it?
It seems weird that he could be this self-disciplined and shine on the stage, but it is real. He did everything without an assistant. He designed his costumes, talked to the people in charge, found his own tailor. He was revolutionary on stage and conscious in real life.
When it comes to these innovations, he takes his time and goes step by step. We know that when he wore a mini skirt he also had a pair of pants in backstage just in case. He also respects all of his fans. Is it because he wants to be on the good side of the conservative crowd?
He started belly dancing at a concert in Bodrum, 1984. He was singing “Hayriye”. TRT aired the concert but cut his belly dancing parts. When they asked Muren about this censorship, he said that it was a wise decision considering the conservative people in the Anatolian side of Turkey. He said that they wouldn’t be able to digest his songs and dances. But he also added: “I am Zeki Muren and I will keep belly dancing like that”. We also know that TRT always changes the lyrics to his songs. There was a great deal of censorship back then.
His habit of collecting everything goes back to his childhood. Is it his mother who used to keep everything?
I am sure that if his mother threw anything away, he would stop seeing her. There is an old letter where his mother sends him a pillow case and apologizes for using it after him. She says that she had no idea that he would become such a star.
How is his relationship with his mother?
He had an unhappy childhood. But looking at his interviews as a teenager, he portrays a happy childhood. It gets serious as he gets older. We learn that his parents didn’t get along well and reflected it to him. He complains a lot about his father. He says that he didn’t care about his academic success and ignored him. One day, he made this beautiful portrait of a woman for an art project and came home to find his mother using it as some kind of fan while cooking. His parents’ indifference probably helped him get more ambitious. That is why he did everything by himself. He starts singing and makes his way through the TSM communities in Bursa. He becomes a celebrity at age 15. He meets Muzeyyen Senar, Hamiyet Yuceses and Suzan Guven when they come to Bursa. He starts taking lessons from Izzet Gerceker. He chooses his friends from this community and rich people such as Hayri Terzioglu support him. When he starts school at Bogazici High School in Istanbul, he starts a new life and becomes unstoppable.
Can we consider him revolutionary?
Of course he is, but in his own way. He doesn’t sacrifice himself or anyone for the revolution. So maybe it would be absurd to call him that. He is a revolutionary with his clothes and his attitude. We cannot overlook his contributions to Turkish music. It is not only about his glitter and clothes, but also about his songs, “Manolyam” and “Yaprak Dokumu” or him insisting on composing waltz music, or singing Turkish folk songs from Pir Sultan Abdal.
Could we write a pop music history through Zeki Muren?
I think he is the first Turkish pop star. His attitude and bravery helped the rock musicians of the 60s. We also have to start the rock music history with him. After 1973, there was David Bowie and before that, there was Liberace. Many people say that Zeki Muren imitates Liberace but I think that he was only influenced by him and used him as a mirror while creating his own style.
He also changed the arrangement style in music. Fecri Ebcioglu writes “Bir Varmis Bir Yokmus” in 1961, but Zeki Muren has already done it before.
In 1959, he wrote Turkish lyrics to a Napoliten song, for a film: “Yaseminler solmadan gel”. He is the one who adapted “Avare” with Turkish lyrics, o be performed by Sadri Alisik. It was one of his first songs.
He even sings Sezen Aksu or Zulfu Livaneli in the 80s.
That is different.
Does it have a commercial purpose?
It is not that the songs are commercial, but his singing style after the 80s that disturbs me. There is clearly a deformation in his singing style. I love how he pronounces the letter “R” in his songs. I find it very Rock’n’roll. Just like Roy Orbison roaring in “Pretty Woman”.
He also imitates himself in his last years. Just like Cem Karaca in his last years.
It is like a cry for help. He wants to be heard.
Was there a downfall in his last years?
We can say that for the years after he stopped performing. Not being able to perform was not being able to survive for him. That is why he struggles during his recordings, because he isn’t on stage. For instance he slaughters the song “Hava Nasil Oralarda”.
Everything starts with his Muhlis Sabahattin admiration. Can we talk more about that?
Zeki Muren plays no part in the 80s’ polyphonic tsm (Türk sanat müziği, Turkish classical music) movement, even though he does that in the 50s. Maybe it is because he is tired. He can be polyphonic and he can sing it, but he prefers not to. He is also very open minded and interested in both the revue, the music of the Balkans or Muhlis Sabahattin’s music. He really wanted to sing for Ataturk, but he wasn’t of age and after his death, it wasn’t possible of course. He realized that that period had ended and he had to move forward. He is the one who resurrected the TSM.
TSM also fades away after his death.
Exactly. Because there is a legend like Zeki Muren as an inspiration to the composers. Avni Anil, Yusuf Nalkesen compose their music only for him. That may the reason they weren’t inspired after his death.
In the book, there is a story about Zeki Muren teaching Mick Jagger how to sing. Can you tell us more about that?
Mick Jagger comes to Bodrum in 1977 for a few days as a guest of Ahmet Ertegun. Zeki Muren is also there at that time. We only know the story from Ayla Algan’s point of view. At a dinner party with Ahmet Ertegun, Mick Jagger, Ayla Algan, Zeki Muren sings his song “Madem derdimi sordun, dinlemeye mecbursun”. Zeki Muren also said that he was going to teach Frank Sinatra “alaturca” when he went on his USA trip in 1963. So, in the book I wrote: “He couldn’t teach Sinatra, but he taught Jagger instead”.
(Translated by Zeynep Nas İnansal)