Sezen Aksu: The Voice Of Istanbul A superstar in Turkey, Aksu is known throughout the Middle East and Europe. She's been a sexy pop star, but she's also reinvented herself throughout her career, selling millions of records in the process. Neva Grant recalls discovering Aksu's music for the first time.
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Sezen Aksu: The Voice Of Istanbul

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Sezen Aksu: The Voice Of Istanbul

Sezen Aksu: The Voice Of Istanbul

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Maybe this has happened to you. You visit a foreign country for the first time, a place where you dont speak the language, and everywhere you go - on every radio and every bar on every beach - an exotic voice seems to follow.

Ms. SEZEN AKSU (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is the voice that followed NPR's Neva Grant years ago on a trip to Turkey. It is also the latest of our 50 Great Voices, NPR's series on singers whove made their mark around the world.

Here's Neva with the story of one Turkish diva.

NEVA GRANT: Summer in Istanbul, 1989, her voice steamed out of every doorway, as compelling as the call to prayer. Who was she?

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

GRANT: I finally asked a waiter to write down her name, and he gave me this look like, how could you not know Sezen Aksu?

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

GRANT: She's a superstar in Turkey, and a big name in the Middle East and Europe. She performed near Washington, D.C. earlier this month and filled that hall, too.

Unidentified Man: She's dynamic, smart, funny and gutsy.

Unidentified Woman #1: We grow with her, actually. And her style's very wonderful.

Unidentified Woman #2: She's not so much Michael Jackson or Madonna. But it's more like - I dont even know who to compare it to.

GRANT: And why not compare her to Madonna? Sezen Aksu is a sexy pop star. She's sold millions of recordings over the past 30 years. She invented herself and keeps reinventing.

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

GRANT: And she did this in a language that doesn't lend itself to music, says one of her colleagues.

Mr. FAHIR ATAKOGLU (Composer/Pianist): Turkish is not a good-sounding language, I should say. You know, it's not musical like a French or English.

GRANT: Turkish composer and pianist, Fahir Atakoglu.

Mr. ATAKOGLU: But with singers like Sezen, for the first time, the Turkish words became much more musical. It started saying something really deep, like it wasn't simple anymore.

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

GRANT: This is one of Aksu's most best known songs about lost love, set against the backdrop of Istanbul. Listen to how she decorates the notes with sudden bends and little dips.

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

GRANT: This is the vocal style in Turkey and in much of that part of the world. Being raised in that tradition, Aksu says, is like sitting on treasure.

Ms. AKSU: (Foreign language spoken)

GRANT: We're backstage, now, at Strathmore Hall in Maryland, with Sezen Aksu and an interpreter. And she's talking about her early years and the first time she discovered the riches in her own voice.

Ms. AKSU: (Through Translator) I'd been singing in the choir, and I realized all of a sudden that my voice was louder than anyone else's.

GRANT: She was about seven years old. Her classmates turned to her and said, hey, you can really sing.

Ms. AKSU: (Through Translator) It was a school song, I remember.

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRANT: But her talent did not amuse her mother and father. Aksu says her parents were intellectuals who wanted her to be a doctor or an engineer.

Ms. AKSU: (Through Translator) Once I realized I had this gift, and my mother and my father were opposing it, I used to wait until they went to the movies. I would go out on the balcony and look down in the street to see people gathering to listen to me.

GRANT: Now, this was happening in the mid-1960s, an exhilarating time to be a young singer in Turkey. This is where Eastern music collided with Western rock. Sezen Aksu says she was inspired by it all; by the longhaired Anatolian rockers, and also this music with a heavy Arabic accent from the East.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANT: And, of course, pop standards from the West

(Soundbite of song, "Strangers in the Night")

Ms. AKSU: (Through Translator) My music is like Turkey. For all these years, different thoughts and ideas existed together and borrowed from each other. It's very eclectic, but also harmonious.

GRANT: A harmony she's not always found in her own life: Sezen Aksu has been married and divorced four times. People are so complicated, she says.

And in her lyrics, say her fans, she captures that muddle of human emotion. Take this song, which she wrote years ago with her lover and collaborator at the time, Onno Tunc. It was the middle of the night and they'd just had a fight.

Ms. AKSU: (Through Translator) He woke up at 4:00 in the morning and started writing this music. I wasnt speaking to him so I turned my back to him and started to write these lyrics.

(Soundbite of song, "Git")

GRANT: Lyrics about a woman who has resolved to break up with her lover. Git, she sings - which means go, go. Then a change of heart - dont go.

(Soundbite of song, "Git")

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. ATAKOGLU: How should I say? She has a aura that really connects with people.

GRANT: Turkish musician, Fahir Atakoglu.

Mr. ATAKOGLU: Every person from every kind of background found themselves in her music and in her lyrics.

GRANT: And even if you don't understand the lyrics, there's still a way in. Isn't that the definition of a great voice? One that sings in a foreign language, but still stops you in the street. You don't understand a word she's saying, but on some other gut level, you do.

Neva Grant, NPR News.

Ms. AKSU: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: And you can hear the full songs by Sezen Aksu at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

Ms. AKSU: (Singing)

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