I finally had the chance to listen to the legendary Turkish musician Selda Bağcan live at her recent concert at KOKO in Camden. I have known of her since my early childhood (the 90s), thanks to my parents who admire her just like many other people their age in Turkey. Today, it’s funny to think how as fans of Selda Bağcan, these Turkish parents and grandparents share something in common with young music lovers all around in the world.
I feel lucky to have witnessed how universal and timeless her music is, especially before she performs at this year’s Burning Man Festival. Unsurprisingly, her London gig took place at a club in Camden where night life is extremely diverse, young, vibrant and cool.
On Sunday 18 February, I went to KOKO in the company of another T-VINE writer, Edward Rowe, who had no idea about Selda Bağcan or her music. He didn’t regret it at all: he was amazed by her incredible performance and started listening to her songs after the concert, remarking how he’d “never expected to see an elderly lady strut out on stage and command one of the most multi-generational audiences” he’d ever seen.
Selda is increasingly seen on the global music circuit, but she is not a new face for hip non-Turkish audiences. She has performed outside Turkey several times during her forty-year career, including at Glastonbury (Britain’s biggest festival of contemporary performing arts) in 1987. Her introduction to different generations worldwide is no coincide either, given she is regularly sampled on tracks by the likes of Mos Def and Dr Dre.
Her blend of Anatolian Folk and psychedelic protest music combined with her distinctive voice has made her a legend among diverse audiences who were out in force at her London gig. She is probably one of the very few musicians who can make Generation X Turks sing and dance alongside hipsters at a Camden night club.
Supported by surf band Boom Pam, the 69-year-old musician gave an incredible multi-instrumental performance to everyone’s delight. Musically the show was a seamless combination of traditional Anatolian folk music and flower power grooves with the added intensity and passion of protest.
Selda’s strong, theatrical voice was complemented to great effect by Boom Bam’s diverse infusion of instruments including electric guitars, drums, keyboards, saz (Ottoman-origin lute style instruments) and tubas, producing a unique sound. Whether you understand her lyrics or not, you can feel her power on stage; hugely influential in her genre, Selda remains committed to the need to protest. Talking to the audience in Turkish, the pensioner says she’s “not changed at all, because the reasons for being a protest musician haven’t changed either”.
Her opening track Yaz Gazeteci Yaz (Write Journalist Write) was definitely the right choice. The song has been very popular at different festivals and clubs in recent years, but is also fundamental to Selda’s protest music. Following the Gezi Park protests of 2013, she added “Gezi de can veren yiğitleri de yaz” (Write about Gezi heroes who lost their lives) into the original lyrics, regularly performing them on stage and TV.
After the concert ended, the audience called for an encore by shouting “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” (‘Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’) – a popular slogan from the Gezi Park protests, and Selda returned to the stage to perform Yaz Gazeteci Yaz one more time.
While performing her other influential protest songs such as Demokrasi (Democracy), Adaletin Bu mu Dünya? (Is this your Justice World?), Vurulduk Ey Halkım (We Were Shot My People), Yuh Yuh (Boo! Boo!) and İnce İnce Bir Kar Yağar (It’s Raining Fine Fine Snow), she reminded us all once again why she is and continues to be a revolutionary icon.
During the concert, she also underlined a few facts about herself. She reminded the audience that she was the very first performer to publicly sing a song in Kurdish in Turkey. She also commented on her upbringing, hammering home that she grew up in Van among Kurds (because of her father’s work) rather than in Istanbul’s affluent Nişantaşı neighbourhood, a sign that she was born to be protest from the very beginning.
It was a blissful experience to join other Turkish-speakers in the audience who knew her lyrics by heart, nostalgically singing her iconic songs that have long-permeated Turkey’s artistic and cultural life such as Tatlı Dillim (My Sweet-Talk) and Çemberimde Gül Oya (The Rose Embroidery on my Scarf).
It’s among one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to and certainly the most memorable of my life so far. Be sure to see her if she appears at a venue or festival near you.