An unwitting intro to Turkish pop music

Two Turkish pop music stars. One night. Two separate locations. It might seem unlikely, but it just goes to show that anything can happen in Istanbul. The Queen of Cities has been leaving visitors awestruck for more than a millennium.

Apart from hearing Turkish rap blasting from vehicles on the motorways, I have been somewhat inattentive to investigating Turkey’s music scene.

Just as the discovery of Turkish rap was inadvertent, so too was my unwitting introduction to Turkish pop music on Monday night, June 17, 2019.

As you may remember from my last blog post, my friends, Kubilay and Zeynep, took me to a whirling dervish ceremony on Monday at a dergah (house of worship) in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Before entering the mosque, a bald man with expressive eyebrows started talking to us. When he learned that I was American, he zoomed in on me. He had a lot to say about Americans and U.S. President Donald Trump, specifically.

He started out by expressing his hope that Trump will follow through on his plan to visit Turkey in July, as first reported by Middle East Eye last month.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are already scheduled to meet at the G-20 summit June 28-29 in Osaka, Japan, where, according to Turkish media reports, Erdoğan hopes to dissuade U.S. officials from imposing sanctions over Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.

I had no idea who this man was.

“He’s a famous Turkish singer,” Zeynep whispered to me, before we took a group photo together.

Later, I found out his name. Mazhar Alanson is a Turkish pop music singer and guitarist who represents the “M” in the famous Turkish pop music band, MFÖ (Mazhar, Fuat and Özcan).

Alanson explained that Americans have major misconceptions about Turkey. A visit from Trump could shed more light on this secular country that sits strategically where the East meets the West.

“They think Turks are Arabs who carry guns around everywhere,” Alanson said.

That sounds more like America, I thought, considering all of the mass shootings at schools, malls and other public places.

“Americans are very pure-hearted,” Alanson continued.

The problem between Turkey and America is between the governments, he said.

“People are people everywhere in the world,” he said.

As if that weren’t enough for one evening, Zeynep, Kubilay and I had another chance encounter with Turkish pop stardom while stuck in a traffic jam in Beşiktaş, on the way to my home in the Ortakoy neighborhood.

Eurovison star Can Bonomo and his wife were sitting in a shiny black car directly next to us. A Syrian beggar was badgering them to buy a bouquet of wilted roses. Bonomo handed the man a 10-Turkish lira note but didn’t want the roses, so the man pulled off the petals and scattered them over the couple’s car. People in neighboring cars were hanging out of windows to snap photos of the musical celebrity.

I had never heard of Bonomo either, but my impeccable luck for running into Turkish pop stars did prompt me to look them both up on YouTube.

Alanson sounds a bit like American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Here is MFO’s song, Yandim, which means “I have a burn.”

Bonomo’s music is really catchy. Here is one of his songs called Bardak Tasiyor, which I believe is an idiom that means, “That tears it!”

I have yet to learn what that means.

The moral of this story is I never would have known whom I had met if it hadn’t been for my Turkish friends, Zeynep and Kubilay. I think that speaks volumes about how important it is for foreigners to befriend the natives in the country where they live. It’s more comfortable sometimes to cling to those whose cultures are most similar to ours, but we miss out on so much that way. For instance, I would have never been at that mosque that night if it hadn’t been for Kubilay’s inside knowledge, and I might never have known that I had encountered Alanson and Bonomo if I had been out with non-Turkish friends, who like me, probably wouldn’t have recognized them.

And if you’re just a traveler, there are ways to befriend natives in the country you’re visiting. An app called Couch Surfers allows you to stay with people who live in the country, but if you’re not comfortable doing that, you can just meet someone for coffee or a meal. It’s a good way to learn the inside scoop on the country for which you have probably paid a lot of money to visit, and you might make a lifelong friend.


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