One of my guilty pleasures has always been Zeki Muren. The first time I stumbled upon his image on a cassette cover, my reaction was,"Who is that... woman?" By then, Muren was well past the definition of "over the top" and working into peculiar. But then, I had just arrived in Turkey and I still had a lot to learn about Turkish culture. Artists here have, in many respects, much more latitude than in the West. One of the reasons for his public approval may be the fact that Muren was able to merge high Art and an understanding and sympathy for his audiences together with a unique style and stunning flamboyance. Muren was given the freedom to live and perform as he wished because he was recognized as a cultural asset and a contribution to the appreciation of classical Turkish music. I was impressed by how easily Zeki Muren was accepted by Turkish audiences despite the fact that his appearance was extremely feminine, especially in the second half of his long career. He was the cultural equivalent to Liberace except with a lot more talent.
Imagine sitting in nearly empty diner in a backwoods Turkish town and watching with a few bored middle-aged waiters what I mistook to be a masculine lesbian. By that time, he was into the frosted and elegantly arranged hair, pink sparkling tops, rings as large as ice cubes. It was a bit too easy to make a hasty judgment and write him off as just another cultural oddity that foreigners, from time to time, have to accept when they live abroad. Still, the waiters didn't look like all that disturbed by this singer's appearance. In a nation that prides itself on his macho image, here was a performer who had found his niche as far on the opposite side of male bravado as possible and yet there was none of the shocked revulsion that one might have expected. One point for Turks- they seemed better able to separate the artist from the Art.
Zeki Muren was born in Bursa Turkey, on 6th December 1933. He began his career by performing in local summer theatre and in 1944, moved to the big city of Istanbul with his father's support to pursue his dream of becoming an singer. After completing his training at the Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul, he recorded his first single in 1951 when he was a regular singer on Istanbul Radio. Its success began a forty-five-year professional career in which he composed more than one hundred songs and made more than two hundred recordings.
His first musical film “Beklenen Sarki” with Ms. Cahide Sonku the greatest female Turkish film star at the time received the success it deserved. Zeki Muren made 18 consecutive films with all great success.
If you have never seen a Zeki Muren film, you really ought to hunt one down, especially one of his black and white ones. Playing the romantic lead was no doubt problematic and for the most part, he tended towards playing shy and yearning types that loved the female lead from afar. The technical quality of his films are, for the most part, impressive but the story line can take some striking and outrageous turns. One time I watched a film, which plodded along from song to song but then ended with a wild chase in which Muren tries to kill himself by running into an oncoming train while he is being chased on the railroad by a bride in full wedding gear!! anybody know this film? I would love to see it again.
Muren's stage performances were novel and extravagant by any standard and Muren was one of the first to use a catwalk stage in order to mingle with his audiences. In fact, it was this dialogue with his audiences, his manner of interacting and his diction and pronunciation of the Turkish language that probably best explains his appeal.
Between his films, Zeki Muren appeared in daytime matinées for women only. "Only women come to listen to singers, and they bring their food and tea with them, like a picnic. They eat together, they dance together, they laugh together, they cry together." as Terken Hacaloglu, a graduate student at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, explains, "Zeki was very popular at these matinées and made many jokes about the fights between mothers and daughters-in-law. My mother has told me that not one single seat could be found, and at some matinées there was standing room only."
By the time I arrived in Turkey, Muren was fighting accumulating health problems. He tended to lead a solitary life in Bodrum and appeared only rarely in public. Perhaps it was vanity and perhaps, he wisely chose to be remembered his past performances and his previous film and television appearances.
His failing health in the last five years of his life lead him to write many songs about death and dying. Muren died of a heart attack following a live performance on stage in Izmir for TRT television on September 24, 1996. His death caused the greatest public grief in years and thousands of Turks attended his funeral. Terken Hacaloglu observes, "For those who felt sadness over Zeki’s death, there was still comfort in playing his music on records and videos. Zeki was unique, without precedent—an original ".
Zeki Müren - İşte Benim Zeki Müren
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By the way, as a commenter has pointed out, I was remiss in not including the link to the entire interview cited in the text above. The interview from which quotes were taken was conducted by the late Mr. Sean Killeen whose colorful life and contributions are noted in the links below. . I encourage all readers to look at the links below.
The interview in full. http://www.pcasacas.org/SPC/spcissues/22.3/killeen.html
A dedication to Sean Killeen: http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/babbles/2009/03/25/the-passion-of-rpcv-sean-killeen/comment-page-1/
Sean Killeen’s obituary -Feb. 8, 2003 http://www.nyfolklore.org/pubs/voic29-1-2/obit.html