A concert of Zülfü Livaneli is guaranteed to give you goose bumps. Zülfü Livaneli? Outside Turkey he is not very well known, but in Turkey he has been popular for decades. He is a singer/composer, novelist, and you could call him an activist for humanity too. All these sides of his personality came together in last night’s concert in Harbiye Open Air Theatre in the heart of Istanbul – during the concert, the full moon rose above the theatre.
For me the goose bumps started with the beautiful song Yiğidim aslanım (“My Courageous Lion”, see it on youtube here), about a deceased friend. I got to know the song very well in the weekend after Hrant Dink was murdered, in January 2007. Hrant was killed in front of the office of Agos, the newspaper of which he was editor in chief. Masses of people came together there to mourn, and the music shop next door played Yigidim Aslanim continually. That memory was enough to cause goose bumps all over my body, but it became even more intense when pictures of Uğur Mumcu were projected on big screens. Mumcu was a journalist as well, and he was killed in 1993 when he was investigating connections between terror organisation PKK and the Turkish state. His death was a turning point in modern Turkish history, just like Hrant Dink’s murder was almost three years ago.
Not too long after that, between two songs, all at once the applause was swelling. I didn’t know what was going on, till on the big screens a very old man was shown: Yaşar Kemal (born in 1923) came into the theatre and found himself a place on the front row. Yasar Kemal is Turkey’s most respected writer – many people say he should have won the Nobel Literature Prize instead of Orhan Pamuk. Kemal also wrote lyrics for Livaneli and the two have been friends for a long time. And Yasar Kemal, who calls himself a ‘Turk of Kurdish descent’, has made it into the news often these last weeks, because he has been speaking out about the Kurdish question, which the governing AKP party seems to want to solve. Some people suggested Kemal as a mediator in the matter but he pointed out that no mediators in any matters are needed if just the ways of democracy and human rights are followed. So I applauded along with the rest of the audience. Goose bumps on my arms.
Then came Karlı Kayın Ormanı (“snowy beech forest”). The lines are originally a poem by Nazim Hikmet, Turkey’s famous poet, now deceased, who was stripped of his Turkish citizenship for political reasons, was buried in Russia and was officially rehabilitated earlier this year. The goose bumps hadn’t even subsided yet, when a female singer came on to the stage to sing Yigidim Aslanim again, but this time in Kurdish. The applause was overwhelming.
The goose bumps didn’t only appear because of the beautiful songs, but also because of all the troubled times Turkey went through, and is still going through. And the way Livaneli manages to present them, as non-political issues at the heart of the human condition. Turkey is now, once again, in a transition period, and again Livaneli, dependable as ever, is there to make his contribution to guiding people through it.