Müslüm Gürses: The father of Turkish arabesque

Müslüm Gürses: The father of Turkish arabesque

ISTANBUL-Anadolu Agency
Müslüm Gürses: The father of Turkish arabesque

Turkish singer Müslüm Gürses, a national legend for his mournful, melancholy lyrics and contributions to arabesque music, will be remembered this week at an Istanbul cemetery, as March 3 marks the seventh anniversary of his passing. 

Gürses’ musical talent was unimpeachable, according to Songül Karahasanoğlu, a professor of musicology at Istanbul’s prestigious İTU-Turkish Music State Conservatory.

“The way he sings and reflects his feelings in music was very successful. He was a good musician with a fine ear,” Karahasanoğlu told state-run Anadolu Agency.

Caner Işık, a sociologist at Aydın Adnan Menderes University, echoed these sentiments, saying Gürses had the gift of perfect pitch, meaning the rare talent to properly identify the musical note of any sound without a reference tone.

Gürses was best known for his mournful tunes blending Turkish folk instruments with Arabic or “arabesque” (arabesk) melodies, and his albums sold millions. He died of heart failure in 2013, when he was just 59 years old.

The Turkish public had a love-and-hate relationship with the popular singer. While the 1980s saw his songs banned in Turkey, some of his passionate fans are known for having cut themselves with razor blades at his concerts.

Yılmaz Bulut, 35, a hardcore Gürses fan, said harming yourself out of love for the singer was not appropriate, as Gürses himself “stood against such actions and always rejected them.”   

'Pain in his voice'

The socioeconomic situation in Turkey, and especially the wave of migration during the 1950s from villages to cities, and the struggle of these newcomers to adjust to urban life, also played a large role in his music.

“There’s a pain in the voice of Müslüm Gürses,” said Karahasanoğlu, adding that even if you listen to his songs while at the peak of happiness, after some time you will find yourself falling into that pain.

“Maybe that is his tragic life being reflected in his voice,” she added.

Gürses was born in 1953, in a village in Sanliurfa, a southeastern province long known as underdeveloped.

When he was 3 years old, his family had to move to the southern province of Adana due to economic difficulties.

But perhaps the most tragic incident in his life came when he was still a young man, in 1969, when his father stabbed his mother to death.

Caner Işık, the co-author with Nural Erol Işık of Arabesque and Müslüm Gürses: Understanding Our Cultural World, went and lived in the Adana province to better understand Gürses’ music.

He met fans of Gürses in the place the Turkish legend lived since he was 3 and where he got on stage for the first time when he was around 14.

Meeting and spending months with the fans gave Işık a new appreciation of his songs, which he had not previously been a big fan of.

According to Işık, the main difference between today and Gürses’ popular heyday, during the 1980s and ‘90s, is that back then people had a greater belief in social mobility, and climbing up the ladder, whereas now “money is more dominant in daily life.”

Karahasanoğlu highlighted the changes in Gürses’ music as well as his diehard fan base.

“Müslüm Gürses made his own music as a person coming from the Turkish heartland, but there was a change between where he started and his fan base in recent years,” she said.

“This may also be connected to Turkey’s changing socioeconomic conditions,” she added.

Gürses’ 2006 collaboration with Turkish novelist and songwriter Murathan Mungan is one of the reasons his fan base changed. The album they made together, Ask Tesadufleri Sever (Love Loves Coincidences), features western musical instruments and reinterpretations of songs by such luminaries as Leonard Cohen, Bjork, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan.

Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever was a turning point for Gürses,” Karahasanoğlu said.

This album was very different from his previous ones, as in it he sang foreign songs with Turkish lyrics, she added.

‘Father Müslüm’

For Muhammed Zülfü Yalçın, a professional player of the ney or end-blown flute, Gürses’ modesty won him many fans.

“The Turkish people deem only him worthy of the title ‘Father’,” Yalçın said, referring to Gürses’ nickname Müslüm Baba, or Father Müslüm.

According to Yalçın, most any person living in Turkey has a song or songs by Gürses that they adore.

“Although we couldn’t appreciate the value of his [talent] when he was alive and healthy, we will continue to keep it alive in its songs,” added the 35-year-old musician.  

Pop and arabesque music

Turkey has seen big changes in arabesque music over the years, especially starting in the 1990s, when it first became intertwined with pop music.

“There are many arabesque elements in the sound of pop music that we listen to nowadays,” Karahasanoğlu said.

Müslüm enjoys such a huge following because he was very skillful in expressing his feelings in his voice, she added.

“Müslüm was a musician who could control his voice in a very talented way, and the important side of this is that the sound he created affected people and transmitted emotions,” she explained.

Turkish people who migrated from villages to cities in the 1950s, who found it hard to express themselves in their new homes, are one of the key influences in arabesque music, she said.

Another factor was the ban by Turkish public broadcaster TRT in the ‘70s and ‘80s on arabesque music, in favor of other styles of music, said Karahasanoğlu.

People's living conditions were changing during those decades, and the Turkey in which Müslüm was popular was undergoing big changes too, she said.

Today most people listen to music using smartphone apps and quickly consume music, songs, and singers. “Nobody buys albums anymore, but instead music is served up to them,” she added.

“If Müslüm Gürses was still alive and making music, he would not have been able to achieve the popularity he enjoyed in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” she added.

“Müslüm is a very important figure, in a way a reflection of honesty and naiveté. Even his marriage is a typical indicator of this,” she said referring to his union with well-known actress Muhterem Nur, which lasted over a quarter-century.

Bulut, now one of the administrators of the late singer’s official Facebook page, describes Gürses as the “forefather of the oppressed and those who suffer,” especially referring to the legendary singer’s tragic life.

A textile worker, Bulut first encountered Gürses’ songs when he was working with fabrics at a workshop in Istanbul. His songs tell “the story of my own life,” he said.

Bulut was lucky enough to personally meet Gürses, sing together with him, and even managed to visit his home

He told Anadolu Agency that his ties with Gürses were as close as those with a father or between two brothers, adding: “He had a special place in our hearts with his humility and friendliness.”

Bulut said he will be one of those around 200 people who will gather on Tuesday at Istanbul’s Zincirlikuyu Cemetery as they have for the last seven years, to commemorate their own “father,” an enduring Turkish voice that spanned the decades.