After a two-year absence from singing live Sezen Aksu returned to the stage with a new album for 3 concerts at Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Theatre Istanbul on 16th 17th and 22nd July performing to a total audience of 15,000 people. The atmosphere as the ancient Greek-style amphitheatre filled on a warm summer evening with a deepening blue sky was full of anticipation to see one of Turkey’s best loved stars in the 37th year of her career and to hear the first live performance of an already hugely popular new album Öptüm (Kisses).
Filling the stage was a huge array of instruments and seats and a 60-piece band took to the stage led by producer Aykut Gürel on bass with a string section, brass, 4 percussionists including an eccentric-looking kettle drummer and backing choir. But it was with Sezen’s solo off-stage voice that the concert began, accompanying a dancer. She came on stage to start with the song Unuttun Mu Beni? (Have You Forgotten Me?) which has become the hit single of the new album. Only released two months previously the new songs were already classics and everyone was singing along from the beginning. Sezen looked comfortable on stage happy to be back amongst her fans, wearing a cheeky black leather bodice, which needed occasional adjusting (she asked for her seamstress to help out since as she said she hadn’t got her bits out in public for a long time and was not intending to do so now). After the first song the audience on cue held up sheets of paper that had been put on seats saying Öptük (We kiss you) in response to her album title. This was supposed to be a surprise for her.
Sezen then worked through new and old songs with the band clearly enjoying every minute. She was not phased at sometimes not remembering all the words (the audience was always there to fill in) and chatted between songs with her fans. One shouted out that she was there to hear Sezen talk (always part of her charm for Turks). She spoke of her family – her son with whom I, possibly wrongly, understood she didn’t always have and easy relationship, things her mother said to her, and growing up with a very different from her brother. Sezen seemed genuinely to want to hear the things people were shouting out and to respond, which she always did wittily with the skill of an experienced stand-up comedian. After one song she looked up to the deepening sky, waved and said some words to Onno, her husband who died in a plane crash.
At the start of the concert she mentioned how wonderful it was to be in the open air theatre, and that in fact the whole country should be ‘acik’ or open. I wondered if this was a reference to the previous day’s concert in the same venue which featured Aynur alongside Buika, Rita and Glykeria as part of Istanbul Jazz Festival. A nationalist organisation had bought a few hundred tickets to that with the express intent of disrupting it and began booing when Aynur started singing in Kurdish causing her to have to leave the stage. The nationalist group, which apparently does this kind of thing at other prominent events, then left the theatre. Most newspaper comments the next days were scandalised and embarrassed. The immediate context as I understand was the recent death of 13 young Turkish soldiers at the hands of separatist rebels. Sezen also talked passionately about this saying "It is enough! What's the use of any land if my child cannot live in it. Let our children live." Sezen has long been a champion of ethnic minority rights and whilst she didn’t mention anything specifically about Kurds on stage one of her songs featured Kurdish rhythms and dancing style. She also invited a guest singer to perform who was gay (‘unfortunately I’m not his type’) and one of her songs was sung to projection of extracts of the new film Loose Cannons by Ferzan Ozpetek (sitting behind me) which deals with homosexuality. Sezen often gives a platform to new artists and on this night there were two which couldn’t have been more different. One was clubtastic act complete with pole dancer, and in the second half a folk singer with Sufi-like expression and music. I didn’t get their names.
In the second half Sezen wore a flowing cream dress Greek-goddess style with a long slit up the side. Leg was flashed with humour in a maturing gracefully but still proud of them kind of way - possibly to keep up with a good number of sexy Turkish dames of music who don’t seem to suffer an ageist media. (eg 50 year old Ayşegül Aldinç who used to be a folkie has just released a pumping disco video ‘Li Lal Lal La La’) . Alongside some dancers (not the evening’s strongest point) some songs featured projection. From the new album Aşka Şükrederim – Grateful To Love is a song that speaks of the bad news all around us but that with love we can bear it all. This showed projections of earthquakes, fire, floods (immediately evoking Japan), and war against somewhat cheesy images of couples. The song is quite upbeat and it made me slightly uncomfortable to see these real images. But then that’s just what the song is about and Turkey has more than its fair share of bad news affecting people’s daily lives to make the contrasting juxtaposition a healing reality for many people and not something to be dismissed as flippant. The song Ayar (Fine-Tuning) has a catchy chorus which had everyone singing along – the lyrics about being black or white, friend or foe, the country burning…it is totally ironic and not difficult for people to understand in Turkey’s polarised political context. The choir wore psychedelic coloured wigs, the band cheap coloured sunglasses and Sezen donned a balloon gown, all seeming to represent the multicolouredness of society, with the message to just chill out a bit.. She ended the evening two and a half hours later with a medley of her old songs and songs of her old friends from Turkey’s musical past such as Cem Karaca, MFO (Mazhar Fuat Ozkan), and Zulfu Livaneli whose faces were projected onto the screen in a long litany of musicians evoking a feeling of history and pride in the audience and perfectly contextualising Sezen’s position amongst them as leading lady.
Öptüm is released in the UK in September on World Village.