Turkey will gather to mourn on March 4 following the passing of singer Müslüm Gürses, whose death has deprived arabesque fans of their ‘father’
Müslüm Gürses. Hürriyet Photo
The legendary name of Turkish arabesque and folklore songs, Müslüm (Akbaş) Gürses, widely known as “Müslüm Father,” has passed away at the age of 59, leaving not only his fans but also many memorable songs orphaned, having lost his battle for survival after nearly four months.
With his exceptional voice, modest way of life and eccentric character, Gürses walked a remarkable musical path, with dozens of albums and movies in a country where his musical genre was once banned and even recently labeled as “treason.” Married to actress and singer Muhterem Nur, Gürses will be laid to rest in Istanbul this afternoon.
Born into a poor family in a village in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa’s Halfeti district in 1953, Gürses’ musical heritage was conveyed to him by his farmer father, who enjoyed playing the bağlama, a stringed musical instrument. After spending his early days in Fıstıközü village, Gürses migrated to southern Turkey’s growing then-agricultural center, Adana, with his family, after encountering economic difficulties in Şanlıurfa. The migration and his life in Adana was a turning point for the young Gürses, and he made his first musical debut in the southern city.
Gürses was not able to continue studying after elementary school and started working as tailor, as well as a shoemaker. His mother and young brother passed away due to illness, creating an initial trauma that lingered over his musical and personal life as “internalizing the grief and even turning it into an absolute must.” Despite his father’s harsh objections, the 14-year-old boy attended a local musical competition, in which he came first. It was also then he changed his surname to Gürses (roughly meaning "stentorian voice"), from Akbaş.
Echoing his usual modest character and personality, Gürsel described those days as simply "coincidental," saying: “I graduated from elementary school. And that is it, nothing afterwards. In Adana, I started singing on the housetops. My friends used to go to the community center, so did I. Then, I became an artist at Çukurova Radio.”
In 1967, Gürses started a bi-weekly program, during which he sang folk songs for the state-run broadcaster TRT’s regional radio Adana-Çukurova Radio, and in the following year he released his first single, “Emmioğlu/Ovada Taşa Basma,” selling 300,000 copies – a record number in those days. The single was followed by many others, and Gürses achieved nationwide fame that he never expected.
During the early days of his renown, Gürses went on an Anatolian tour but was involved in a serious car accident, after which he was first pronounced dead. That was not the last time his death was announced, as Turkish media had already declared his “passing” late last week after a Twitter gaff. Soon after the crash, he was discovered alive and underwent critical surgery, which turned his olfaction to nothing and made him partially deaf, in addition to giving him heavy headaches, from which he suffered his entire life and was supposedly linked to his alleged drug and alcohol addictions.
After the surgery, he started to have gestural and speaking difficulties, which later became part and parcel of his eccentric personality. Calling the accident “horrific,” Gürses was still modest even while explaining his near-death experience: “The driver died and they thought I did too. Actually, I experienced death. My front bone was crushed and now a single blow can kill me or make me blind. But Hallelujah, we are living anyway.”
Appearing before cameras for his first movie, “Ağlattı Kader” (Fate Made Me Cry) in 1984, Gürses also continued releasing a large number of albums, becoming a “cult” figure - particularly in the 1990s - with a “hardcore” group of fans. The acts of self-harm, namely cutting themselves with razors, of his most dedicated fans during concerts sparked widespread controversy. While many attacked Gürses for his fans’ actions, he tried to calm both the reactions over fans’ acts as well as the fans themselves. But his calls on both sides fell on deaf ears. His active but unintentional role in creating an “underground arabesque cult” continued to be despised by “elite” circles and he and his fans were scorned as “lowbrows.” In the eyes of manly working class but lumpen hardcore fans, he was a divine symbol of their ill-treated lives in poor slums, and of their fury at those who had patronized, belittled them and even ignored their very existence.
However, discontent among the “hardcore” fans came with a Gürses music video shot on a luxurious yacht in the early 2000s, and many parted ways with their hero when he set sail for different climes, releasing songs that were popular but unusual for him. First, he sang a song by leading Turkish pop music diva Nilüfer before moving to a more radical path by singing the songs of popular “soft-rock” singer Teoman and even pop music icon Tarkan. The long list of songs that Gürses re-made or staged duets on included several others, such as pop diva Sezen Aksu, rapper Ceza and late singer Tanju Okan. So, he was no longer an “odd cult arabesque” singer for elites who have turned blind eyes to him for years. His fan base also underwent changes as the “hardcore” – upset with his “new style” – departed him as he leant toward a new genre and style other then arabesque, a moved rewarded with increasing general popularity.
Actually, what Gürses did was to re-craft popular songs with his rare and self-styled sound and character, and while he was “popularized” among the general audiences by a new hybrid tone it was, in fact, the ordinary appetite that was “arabesque-ized” through him. This change led to a further popularization and return to arabesque by rockers, pop singers and others in different productions, such as TV series and films.
The funeral will see the final respects from perhaps not just the “we” and “others” to “the father of arabesque,” but to “the father of all,” who reportedly wished to name his last album “Farewell” ahead of his last surgery, saying: “Life was tough on me, but it was beautiful.”