A Voice As Clear As Ice


Among its many manifestations, Turkish folk songs are probably the most profoundly characteristic of Anatolian culture. And for the artists who perform those songs, the refined product of a heritage going back millennia, this means being steeped in the culture of that place. 

Aysun Gültekin is one of the best-loved singers of recent times. When asked what is responsible for her style, she replies, “I’ve always loved Turkish folk songs. And they love me. They have never let me down. I bow before them, because I am very insignificant by comparison. Such is their power!”

Clear as a bell, this voice can paint a picture of Anatolia for you in an instant, even if you are a complete stranger to this land. For it speaks to us now from Elazığ, now from Sivas, now from the Aegean, now from Central Anatolia, ranging wide through every town and every region, the deepest valleys and the widest plains.

You never get tired of it. And that’s not all. It also takes us to Kerkük and Azerbaijan, even the Balkans. When you ask Gültekin if she is adequately rewarded for what she does, her answer is, “Spiritually, yes.” Her silence and dignity deter us from inquiring about the material aspect.

Her first foray into the world of Turkish folk songs was at Erzurum Radio in 1982. She remembers those days fondly and enumerates her colleagues one by one: Mehmet Çalmaşır, Fuat Lehimler, Raci Alkır, Mükerrem Kemertaş. Great folk artists who, with their talent and ability far exceeded the cultural bounds of their native Erzurum.

But without a doubt, as in the case of every great artist, inevitably something went before. Her father’s interest in music, the instruments so frequently played around the family hearth, her mother’s crystal clear voice - these were the first school in which she learned the sounds and voices of her region. Suddenly she is humming the first song she ever sang:??“Go away, my boy,

Are you lord of these mountains?
Who are you to lord it over me?
Or are you a thorn in my side?
My mother isn’t home. I won’t do what you say.”

Despite the opportunities offered by the media channels that promote her, she says she is concerned about the uniformity and impurity they foster, and insists that to eliminate inauthenticity in the performance of folk music in particular it is essential that the songs be heard sung by the right people with the right voices.

We can’t help but inquire into the true sources of that crystal clear voice:  “Ali Ekber Çiçek, Turan Engin, Muzaffer Akgün, Ümit Tokcan, Mükerrem Kemertaş, Raci Alkır, Nezahat Bayram, Neriman Altındağ Tüfekçi….” she reels them off one by one.

She came to Istanbul Radio in 1992. Although she could have come sooner, she stayed to serve the vast culture of her native city for two more years out of loyalty to station chief Fuat Lehimler. Of Istanbul Radio Gültekin says, “It was good I came here. It really developed me.”

It was here that she met Mehmet Erenler, of whose contribution to her art she speaks highly. If you ask her what makes Aysun Gültekin what she is, she doesn’t hesitate: “Practice, practice practice.” And not to be forgotten, the love and appreciation of the people. So what does folk singer Aysun Gültekin listen to for something different? Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra!

The fact that the so-called ‘uzun havalar’ (literally, ‘long airs’, or songs without a regular beat or rhythm) of Turkish folk music are not usually sung by women is what makes Aysun Gültekin so distinctive. The uzun havalar she sings from regions like Kerkük, Erzurum and Urfa especially are the key factor in the popularity of her voice in Turkey.

But as she herself admits, it can sometimes take months for one of Gültekin’s uzun hava’s to appear or to come to the point of being performed for an audience. At the same time, she also sings the ‘kırık havalar’ (‘broken airs’, or songs with a regular rhythm). “Not everyone can sing every folk song. You should sing according to the timbre of your voice and the locale you know best.”

When we ask what her favorite uzun hava is she says she doesn’t distinguish among them. But I immediately think of ‘Değimen başında vurdular beni’, and when I insist she sings a little of it:

“They shot me at the mill
And wrapped me in a dirty shroud.
Don’t shoot me, Ragıp,
I’m my mother’s and father’s one and only...”

This pure soul, who sings such folk songs as “I came to Erzurum, what beautiful gardens”, “The winter barracks filled up today,” and “The phoenix calls from on high”, preserves the cultural values she stands for like rare honey, losing none of the essence, and adds, “One mistake of ours can undo all the good we do.”

Aysun Gültekin is one of the most unusual artists and voices to come out of Turkey in recent years. The stark beauty of her voice disarms listeners, burning whatever it touches with fire or ice. Like frost it can either sting or make stronger. With her clear, light touch, pure as the driven snow that symbolizes her land, she too has become a symbol of the country in which she lives.

Demanding experience and mastery, ‘uzun hava’s (songs without a regular beat or rhythm) are sung almost exclusively by men in Turkey. Aysun Gültekin has now broken this long-standing taboo by performing many of them herself. 

At home with the traditional Turkish folk song repertoire, which includes melodies both with and without a regular beat, Gülteken conveys the fine points of the tradition when she sings, and judging by the links to her performances on the social networking media, the uzun hava’s get a lot of hits. The importance Gültekin gives to authentic singers and regional dialects is one of the main criteria of her success, and her rendition of so many well-known uzun hava’s is an example to the next generation of women folk singers.

Aysun Gültekin is eager to perform authentic folk songs with Turkish folk music greats like İzzet Altınmeşe, Mehmet Özbek and İbrahim Tatlıses.