Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The International Language?

I'm sick of reading, writing, and thinking about Iraq. Tragic sacrifice and manly grief I can handle (vicariously, of course) but this blood-splattered farce . . .?

Moving on to gentler themes, what about music? Does it really serve as an international language, or is it just another impenetrable barrier between cultures?

Years ago, I knew and occasionally socialized with a group of Eastern European students, most of whom were aficionados of classical music, and one of whom was a commercially-recorded cellist. I would listen rather disinterestedly as they lamented the superficiality of American popular music and our continent-wide ignorance of the great classical tradition. And I did, in some measure, agree. Why bother to dispute the claim that contemporary popular music, which is essentially American popular music, constitutes an uncanny mechanism for profiting from the continuous recalibration of humanity's lowest-common denominator?

I did, however, point out to these would-be elitists that not all of American music could so easily be dismissed. To which they readily agreed. There was no denying that American music, though often abysmal, occasionally attained a certain poignant grace. Who, after all, could deny the sublime fusing of lyric and melody achieved in the works of that American tour de force known as . . . Metallica?


That's right. The one towering exception to the wasteland of musical mediocrity surrounding us was Metallica. Whose soul was so shallow that he could not feel his own torments given voice in the deep, interior longings of "The Unforgiven"? Could one ever say enough about the group that had produced such masterful albums as "Kill 'Em All" (originally titled "Metal Up You Ass"), "Ride the Lightning," and the one which my Eastern European contacts most particularly prized, "Master of Puppets"?

Well, OK, this wasn't exactly what I had in mind* as I sought to point out that American music encompasses of a good bit more than the troubled pop princess pictured above, but, let it stand. Perhaps they had heard something in James Hetfield's dark musings that escaped me. Indigenous American poetry, if you will:

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his
He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is

Throughout his life the same
He's battled constantly
This fight he cannot win
A tired man they see no longer cares
The old man then prepares
To die regretfully
That old man here is me

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never be
Never see
Won't see what might have been

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never free
Never me
So I dub thee “Unforgiven”

Well, if you've ever hung around Eastern Europeans, the affinity isn't a complete surprise.

But of course, there is more. I used to know some Turkish students who could for hours entertain their guests by performing soulful Turkish folk songs on the guitar and baglama. But, the singing couldn't go on forever, and as the evening wore down, we gave ourselves over to the eating of sweets and the drinking of tea, accompanied, invariably, by the dulcet tones of Whitney Houston reverberating from the CD player. I mean, these guys didn't just love Whitney Houston's music, they loved, or imagined that they loved, Houston herself.

I will ask in passing, what is there in the Islamic soul that finds itself so fatefully drawn to Whitney? Is it the chirpy, teeny-bopper innocence, or the lonely struggle with the crack pipe? I've never known. And as you may have read, Osama Bin Laden himself has quite a thing for Whitney. He's quipped to at least one of his wives that he might have to one day arrange for Bobby Brown's "removal." No word as to Mrs. Bin Laden's reaction.

While living in Turkey, I developed a fondness for certain Turkish musicians. But sadly, and despite their indigenous following, they always turned out to be the "wrong" musicians, if you know what I mean.

The first of these would have to be Ibrahim Tatlises. Oh, I hardly knew the depth of the waters I was stepping into. We have no exact equivalent to Tatlises in America. He is perhaps best described as an amalgam of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leadbelly, and 50 Cent.

Tatlises is either venerated or despised in Turkey, with few people taking an intermediate position. He sings in the Arabesque style, which, though it sounds nothing like blues music, plays the role of blues in Turkish culture. It is, to be blunt, considered declasse, and the lyrics are, unsurprisingly, about lost love, loneliness in the big city, and being done wrong in multitudinous ways, though with a decidedly Turkish twist.

My wife and I were once listening a Tatlises concert being broadcast live on TV. (One might more accurately say that I was subjecting her to it.) I asked her to translate some of the lyrics, which went roughly as follows:

When I die,
When I die
Bring her to my grave.
When I die,
When I die,
Bring her to my grave.
When I die,
When I die,
Bring her,
Dragging her by the hair,
To my grave
And show her what she's done to me.

At the sound of "dragging her by the hair," the crowd erupted. Oh, come on. It's only a song.

Since I would like to finish this post sometime before nightfall, I won't go into all of the reasons why Tatlises is considered by many a vulgar enthusiasm, but I can relate one. Tatlises has had in his many years a long string of semi-celebrity girlfriends, frequently singers and belly dancers. If (when) one of them has had enough of his "old-fashioned" approach to romance and attempts escape, he's been known to pull some underworld strings and have her shot in the foot, a well-known mafia punishment in Turkey. This form of retaliation (think of it as a sort of love letter) was once actually filmed by the Turkish paparazzi. Tatlises' former-lover, the renowned belly dancer Asena, had stepped from a car and was on her way into a nightclub, the flashbulbs popping, when a young man appeared from out of the frame and busted one in her ankle.

Oh, come on. It was only her ankle. Tatlises dismissed the whole incident by proclaiming "it's only over when I say it's over."

Anyway, when Tatlises appears on TV, which is frequently, my Turkish father-in-law typically changes the channel in disgust. He has a long list of reasons for disliking Tatlises. But I realized this only after I'd several times concluded my channel surfing by settling on Tatlises' well-mustachioed face. That's what I mean by the "wrong" sort of music.

Sample Tatlises for yourself. You may wind up agreeing that he does exude a certain Saddam Hussein-like charm. Here is the video of Aramam, which in Turkish means I Won't Call. No, he won't call, but that's no guarantee that he won't have you shot in the lower extremities.

Having learned of my error, I avoided Ibrahim Tatlises while in my father-in-law's presence, and moved on to what I though was a Turkish musical enthusiasm more in line with his tastes. This guy, Kivircik Ali, "Curly" Ali, was on TV almost as much as Tatlises, but with a lower profile and possessing a very different sense of style. I soon acquired an appreciation for this traditional baglama player with a plaintive voice, and I felt confident that my father-in-law would endorse this evolution in my aesthetic sensibility.

I remember once listening to a particular dirge by Kivircik Ali, and asking my wife (yet again) what was being sung. Without bothering to look up from her magazine, she replied indifferently, "Oh, something about 'when the angel of death comes to take you to your grave.'"

I was sold right there.

Only later did I learn that my passion for "Curly Ali" (I'm guessing it's a joke about the thiness on top) was again not quite right, rather like a foreign visitor to the America of my youth expressing an unseemly interest in the Dolly Parton show. Why, my in-laws wanted to know, did I want to watch this sort of thing? The consensus eventually arrived at was that I was - out of sheer politeness - feigning an interest in the local culture. This interpretation seemed to reslove the problem, and my wife never bothered to explain that I am not really that polite.

Just to round out my survey of Turkish music, I am including a video by Tarkan, sometimes referred to as the Turkish George Michael, with - so some claim - all which that implies. I'll offer no opinions there. Tarkan is probably the most commercially-successful Turkish pop star, achieving the benign OK-ness to which decent pop musicians aspire. He was really awful at the beginning of his career, and he still struggles with the dancing. He's no Curly Ali, but I won't try to explain that to my in-laws.

And finally, for those whose tastes lie further on the wild side, I am closing with the sinuous gyrations and unabashed lip-synching of Fatih Urek, whom I shall not endeavor to describe. I believe that Ibrahim Tatlises' expression early in the video clip says more than I possibly could.

*What I did have in mind was sharing with my Eastern European students something genuinely, even jarringly, American, a little like the atmosphere of a half-deserted coal town, its inhabitants slowly washing out of the valleys and on toward the West.

That feeling - if it is a feeling - is perhaps captured in songs such as this stark duet by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "Time (The Revelator)." If you only bother to sample one song from this long-winded post, this would be the one.


Anonymous said...

There is not a lot that one can usefully add to this insightful (dreadful American word) piece.

I must say though that the sight of little Fatih manfully (?) jiggling his cellulite, with his botox'd lips all aquiver, reminded me anew why I eschewed visits to Ibo's show. Even the sight of Ibo's hand-picked, nubile belly dancers could never entirely compensate for the sheer unentertainingness of the other performers.

If your aim in this blog is to recruit followers to the banner of Turkish 'pop' music, I suspect that your project is doomed to failure,

Black Sea said...

"If your aim in this blog is to recruit followers to the banner of Turkish 'pop' music, I suspect that your project is doomed to failure."

I am taking the relative dearth of comments as evidence that your suspicions have been confirmed. Oh well, so much of life is an acquired taste.

As to the undulations of "little Fatih" I can only say that you can't fully appreciate his oeuvre until you've seen him perform his "snake dance" in a form-fitting black spandex catsuit.

I searched long and hard for a video on Youtube, but alas, to no avail . . . .

Thursday said...

I liked a good bit of the Black Album. The rest of their stuff really isn't my thing, though even there I can see that they are a cut above other bands in their genre like Megadeath.

Anonymous said...

I've only just caught up with your later comments about poor little Fatih.
Since I am cursed with an over-active visual imagination, the vision you conjure of "...form- fitting black spandex...", has guaranteed me several dozen sleepless nights.