There are songs that grow on you. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, they turn up suddenly when you’re least expecting them, calling you to account for the way you’ve lived your life. This may sometimes take a while since the breaking point usually occurs when the singer dies. Just like now. There’s no way I can listen to ‘The Tears in the Picture’ nowadays without my eyes misting over, because the singer of this song, Cem Karaca, is gone. Gone way too early, at 59, when he might still have sung so many more songs. And we are reminded of our own past and of Turkey’s introduction to Anatolian Rock, protest music and pop, its argument, and eventual reconciliation, with it.
A CHILDHOOD IN THE WINGS
Karaca was born in 1945. His family, especially on his mother’s side, were actresses, or singers--Grandmother Mari, Great Aunt Roza, mother Irma, whom you know not as Irma but as Toto Karaca, because when she married she took the name of her husband, theatre actor Mehmet Karaca, an Iranian Azeri like herself.
When the couple, who married in 1939 at the Iranian Consulate, had their union registered officially by the Republic of Turkey in 1952, little Cem was confused. Discovering the marriage certificate in the house at the age of nine or ten, he was quick to accost his parents, “Tell me quick, am I illegitimate?”
Cem Karaca’s childhood was spent in Istanbul’s Bakirköy district, in the backstage of theatres. He dreamed early on of a musical career, but while his mother supported him, his father, who had got it into his head that his son was going to be a diplomat, did everything he could to thwart him. He booed his son when he went on stage at the family nightclub and even went so far as to hire a man to go on stage and say, “Give it up, son. Here, take this fifty liras and let a real Adana man play so we can dance.” But the indomitable Cem went on performing the songs of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
ROCK COMES TO TURKEY
The first group Karaca formed while he was a boarding student at Robert College was called ‘Cem Karaca and the Dynamites’.
This was followed by ’Cem Karaca and Your Expectations’ and ‘Cem Karaca and the Jaguars’. The ‘saz’, a traditional Turkish string instrument, that Karaca heard during his military service, changed course of his music.
No longer could he make music from outside his country’s tradition. This transformation was the harbinger of Anatolian pop. Researching Anatolian culture, Karaca began composing and performing his songs in its folk tradition. His first composition in this style was a setting to music of folk poet Emrah of Erzurum’s verse ‘Yok Yok’, which won Karaca and his new group, ‘The Apaches’, second place in the Golden Microphone competition in 1967. The song was also recorded by the daily Hurriyet, sponsor of the contest.
Karaca and the Apaches turned next to 16th-century folk poet Pir Sultan Abdul’s ‘Hudey’. Karaca was the latest rage with Turkey’s youth, and his group’s first concert at the Site Cinema would be remembered for a long time.
Despite being swindled, they turned a six-month stint in Germany into a worthwhile musical experience, one product of which was ‘The Tears in the Picture’, sales of which topped 600 thousand. Karaca and his group attracted bigger audiences by turning their concerts into spectacles, a development in which Karaca’s theatre experience in high school, in fact his role in a play by Altan Erbulak, played a big part.
But Karaca and the Apaches were headed for a breakup. For Karaca, disturbed by the political unrest in Turkey at the time, was gradually turning towards the left, even though the other members of the group, including Mehmet Soyarslan, composer of ‘The Tears in the Picture’, believed their work lay exclusively in music.
EXILE IN GERMANY
Forming a group called ‘Kardaslar’ or ‘Brothers’ with Seyhan Karabay, Erol Büyukgonenc, Cengiz Turksoy and Muhabbet Kokar, Cem Karaca continued to enthrall audiences with songs like ‘Dadaoglu’, ‘Emmoglu’, ‘I Had It Coming’, and ‘Forget Me’.
Meanwhile he enriched his instrumental ensemble, and the group boldly began combining folkloric motifs with pop and rock forms. But the political message was getting louder, and songs like ‘The Saplings of Niksar’, ‘Doctor, Have Pity’ and ‘Black Snake’ were followed by more explicit, even militaristic, lyrics that captured the spirit of the times, such as ‘Parka’, ‘You Drove Me Crazy’, ‘First of May’ and ‘The Struggle’. But the ‘Brothers’ split up and Karaca joined first the ‘Mongols’, then ‘Dervishan’. At least one of Cem Karaca’s songs was on every hit list, and Karaca and his group walked off with several of that year’s music awards. But a further polarization of the political situation in 1979 brought Cem Karaca and his group to a parting of the ways, and a fed-up Karaca left for Germany, a visit that was turned into exile when an informer’s denunciation led to his being stripped of Turkish citizenship.
Eight years later, with the help of then-Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, Cem Karaca returned to Turkey with new songs in his pocket. He was strongly criticized and frequently condemned for returning as he did with the Prime Minister’s backing.
No longer the darling of the public, they couldn’t let go of him either. But he sang for the masses, and this was enough to keep his voice and his songs alive. Again he sang his own songs, again he went against the grain. His first album after his return, ‘Hello to the Young and Forever Young’, was well-received. At the beginning of the nineties, Karaca answered those who had turned their backs on him with his song ‘Hey Daddy’: “If I’m a turncoat, I’ve come back to my country/Hey Daddy, I’m back, oh yes.”
’Where Were We?’, an experiment with rap, was one of Karaca’s last efforts. When asked, he said of himself: “I’m a Muslim with a bit of Armenian and a love of performing from my mother, and a little of the Azeri from my father. In a nutshell, I’m a man of Turkey.” Of his voice, he said, “It’s my means, not my end”. Now Karaca, who put that means to many ends, is gone. The songs will outlive the singer, and time will again prove right.
Text: BERAT GUNCIKAN
Photos: MUHSIN AKGUN
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“Tears in the picture” and... Cem Karaca
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