Sezen Cumhur Önal

Radio and TV programmer and presenter Sezen Cumhur Önal is a music man who has revitalized Turkish pop and written songs that swept the world.

Here we are in the Istanbul district of Maçka… On the screen the TV program, ‘The Musical Spectrum’. In beautifully clear Turkish a romantic voice is presenting sentimental songs ‘amidst the falling leaves of autumn, from chocolate-faced singers to artists with voices like velvet’. I am transported back to the past. A short break and the picture changes. This time it’s a black-and-white film. Filiz Akın and Türkan Şoray are singing songs he has written. ‘Love is an old lie, going back to Adam and Eve…’ Or it’s Fatma Girik, Hülya Koçyiğit, Sadri Alışık singing, ‘I’m drunk, I’m so down, if only you knew…’ 
I have to confess I’m astonished. I’m too young to have known those years personally, but I realize that I’m sitting next to the man who wrote those beloved songs of mine. I am starting my interview with Sezen Cumhur Önal, surrounded by hundreds of photographs, old newspaper clippings and films, awards by the dozen, and of course the memories.

You were very instrumental in the emergence of western-style light music in Turkish. What can you tell us about those years?
It was the fifties… The young Republic was just developing. We had our faces turned towards the West. Think of it, there was no television yet. We were virtually studying and observing what was happening in the world every day in the movie theaters. We followed current events and developments in art, science and social life in the written press. Then suddenly the radio appeared and the boon of audio communication at the speed of light. Those radio frequencies changed the frequencies of our lives! Our view of the world, our social life, our concept of music. We listened to the radio all day long and in our beds at night. We were fixated on the radio in every aspect of our lives from culture to politics. And not just in the cities either with their power grids but even in villages without electricity there were radioholics with battery-powered sets. It all began back in those days.

What was music like in Turkey in those days?
Radio broadcasts in those days were characterized by a certain seriousness and discipline. The music played was Turkish Art Music and our ‘türkü’ or Turkish folk songs. The great masters of Ottoman-style Turkish music as well as traditional folk singers performed in the nightclubs. Performers of western music would come on stage for the overtures. The melodies were often taken from famous operettas. Works like Muhlis Sabahattin Bey’s ‘Ayşe Kız’, and the Ekrem and Cemal Reşit Rey brothers’ ‘Alabanda’ and ‘Lüküs Hayat’ were popular. After the waltz and the charleston, the Argentine rhythms of the tango caught on in Turkey too.

How did Turkish pop music get started?
There was no such thing as Turkish pop music back then. Songs in Turkish were limited to tango songs. I was aware of the limitations of Turkish as a language for western-type songs. I was making radio programs for Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir radio in those days. My own musical career began at Istanbul Radio in the 1960s. I was just a DJ, but that isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s the art of questioning and exploiting the aesthetics of music and communicating that to millions of people. My colleagues, the late Fecri Ebcioğlu and Aykut Sorel, and I were aware of that, so we played popular songs from the outside world. From Spain, Italy, France and the U.S. And while we were doing that, Turkish singers were also performing those same songs in the clubs. They sang things like Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’ in English, or Gilbert Becaud’s ‘Et Maintenant’ in French, or Nina Bravo’s ‘Mi Querida Mama’ in Spanish.  That’s what gave us our inspiration.

Where did you get the idea of writing songs in Turkish for the popular foreign singers of the day?
In those days a Spanish song composed in Madrid would be sung in Rome in Italian. An Italian song might be sung in Paris in French, or a French song sung in Spanish in Madrid. In other words, a song would come to us in the language of the country in which it was played and sung. So we started thinking, “Why not sing these songs in Turkish?” We had a lot of imagination. What’s more we had a knack for writing lyrics. We wrote words for those foreign songs that blended in familiar feelings not at all alien to our youthful imaginations.  When the things we wrote and did gained acceptance, music lovers in Turkey quickly coined a term for this western song fad: Aranjman, in other words, ‘arrangements’. In the beginning we had a hard time persuading the Turkish singers. They were reluctant, even nervous. So we said, okay, let’s write Turkish lyrics for foreign singers. The initial impetus came from the late Fecri Ebcioğlu. He made a start with ‘Bak Bir Varmış Bir Yokmuş’, which was sung by one of the biggest names in Turkish music, İlhan Gencer. But it wasn’t enough. So he wrote Turkish lyrics to ‘Tombe La Niege’ for Adamo, a young star of the day, and won people over.
I too inspired our western-oriented singers in Turkey with the lyrics I wrote for a song. I worked together with my valued Italian friend Peppino de Capri. ‘Melankoli ne Güzelsin’ (Melancholy, how beautiful you are) was the first song in Turkish to be recorded by an Italian singer. It was followed around the same time by other songs sung by the great Italian singer Mina.
I also worked with Mario Zelinotti, one of the great singers of Italian music. He recorded his San Remo song, ‘Cuore Matto’, in Turkish under the title ‘Deli Kalbim’. I am happy to have introduced so many Italian singers to Turkey back in those days. Turkish music lovers came to know some of those singers through the lyrics I wrote. Peppino Gagliardi, Elsa Quarta and Tony Cucchiara honored me by singing my lyrics.

You were knighted by the French and Italian governments for your work. What brought you those honors?
The Turkish lyrics I wrote, which were sung so beautifully by the famous French singers, won me a medal and the title of ‘Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ from the French Ministry of Culture in 2005. Johnny Hallyday sang my lyrics for ‘Ne Joues Pas Ce Jeu La’ and ‘Anneau d’Or’, Patricia Carli my lyrics for ‘Les Mals Aimées’ and Guy Marchand my lyrics for ‘La Passionata’. ‘La Chanson Distale’, sung by the famous Sacha Distel who died in 2004, started a trend in Turkish pop music. That song and ‘On Se Croit Libre’ sung by Theo Sarapo were major contributors to the great bounds that were made in Turkish music. Sacha Distel was the first singer to put my lyrics on a 45 rpm record. Famous Italian singers also sang songs for which I wrote the lyrics, and in 2006 I was honored with the title ‘Chevalier’ and awarded the ‘Ordine della Stella Solidarieta’ by Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who regarded those performances as a token of the traditional friendship between our two countries. I owe this honor to the work I did with Mina, Peppino di Capri, Tony Cucchiara, Peppino Gagliardi, Elsa Quarta, Mario Zelinotti and Luigi Tenco. They have blessed my life with awards.
My interview with Sezen Cumhur Önal has come to an end. As I am saying goodbye, the lyrics of one of his songs are on my lips. As I make my way down the hill from Maçka to Beşiktaş, I think about all the things he has told me and sing softly under my breath: ‘All my prayers are with you… May you be happy for life… I plead day and night… Your image before my eyes… That you may be happy.”