Just who was Es­meray?

In the dusty record shops of Is­tan­bul, Kor­nelia Binicewicz stum­bled on the sounds of a gifted vo­cal­ist from the 1970s. Her name was Es­meray and as an Afro-Turk, her mes­sage of strug­gle still rings true today

The National - News - The Review - - Music - Kor­nelia Binicewicz is a Pol­ish cul­tural an­thro­pol­o­gist, DJ and record col­lec­tor who works be­tween Krakow and Is­tan­bul. She is the founder of Ladies on Records: 60s and 70s Fe­male Mu­sic at ladieson­records.strik­ingly.com.

The first song from Es­meray I ever heard was Garip Anam (My Poor Mother) a sin­gle from 1975. Beau­ti­ful and chic, she had a hair­style rem­i­nis­cent of The Supremes and she gazes hynop­ti­cally from the cover. An ex­tremely deep and sor­row­ful voice, ac­com­pa­nied by a pi­ano, dou­ble bass and per­cus­sion – Es­meray sounded like some­one from an­other planet. I bought the record and left the tiny shop in Is­tan­bul and its lonely seller with a ques­tion: just who is this girl?

In­spired by the Turk­ish psychedelic rock of Barıs Manço, Cem Karaca and Erkin Ko­ray, I came to Is­tan­bul last Septem­ber to re­search the for­got­ten Turk­ish fe­male mu­si­cians of the 1960s and 1970s. But one stood out: Es­meray, and the search for her mu­sic in the dusty record shops of Kadıköy and Eminönü be­came an ob­ses­sion.

She had an amaz­ing voice, al­most like a jazz vo­cal­ist, but it soon tran­spired that no­body ever per­ceived Es­meray as this type of singer. Re­mem­bered as a mere pop star who sang about sol­diers on TV, her story is much more com­plex and in­trigu­ing.

Es­meray started her ca­reer as an ac­tress in 1960. But in a con­ver­sa­tion with her son – Kaan Diriker – I learnt that mu­sic was also a cru­cial part of her life. Her house was al­ways full of mu­sic: clas­si­cal, jazz and blues and, of course, Turk­ish clas­si­cal mu­sic.

Es­meray Diriker was born in Emir­gan, on the Euro­pean side of Bospho­rus in 1949. Her an­ces­tors came from Morocco and there­fore she was an Afro-Turk, as black Turk­ish cit­i­zens are called. The Afro-Turks were part of a huge Ot­toman mi­gra­tion move­ment as well as long-last­ing slave trade.

But for many years af­ter the Ot­toman Em­pire col­lapse, Turk­ish lead­ers sought to carve a dis­tinct na­tional iden­tity at the ex­pense of its mi­nori­ties: Greeks, Ar­me­ni­ans, Kurds, Cir­cas­sians and Afro-Turks were all sub­ject to vi­o­lence and prej­u­dice. Ac­cord­ing to Mustafa Ol­pak – an Afro-Turk­ish writer and ac­tivist, only about 2,000 de­scen­dants of Africans live in con­tem­po­rary Tur­key now, very few in Is­tan­bul. It was a sim­i­lar situation when Es­meray started her singing ca­reer in 1972.

Today, Es­meray is re­mem­bered mainly for her 1977 hit, Gel tezkere

Gel (Dis­charge Let­ter to Come), which ex­am­ined the home­sick­ness felt by Turk­ish sol­diers dur­ing the manda­tory 18-month mil­i­tary ser­vice. The whole of Tur­key loved Es­meray just for this song. But how was she per­ceived as a black Turk­ish artist in a coun­try where there was lit­tle place for the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and di­ver­sity of the Ot­toman era?

Some feel­ings of frus­tra­tion and prej­u­dice can be heard in her song – 13.5. It was writ­ten by Sa­nar Yur­dat­a­pan in 1976 and tells the story of Arab girl look­ing from a win­dow. March­ing drums break the at­mos­phere and the low, deep and proud

voice of Es­meray takes us into dif­fer­ent level of un­der­stand­ing about what it means to be a black Turk­ish girl. Ara­bic flutes in the re­frain leave us with no doubt where this Turk­ish girl is from.

Look, that Ara­bic girl it is me/ With curly hair/And red lips/Beady eyes/Pearl white teeth/And a black faith.

Kids are scared, they run away/ With a pinch and 13,5/But your skin can be black/As long as your heart is not

It is es­sen­tially a sub­tle protest song that never at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the au­di­ence it de­served.

An­other episode again high­lights the prej­u­dice she faced. In 1974, she won her first and last To­plu Igne Com­po­si­tion Con­test – a con­test or­gan­ised by TRT Tele­vi­sion Chan­nel ( Turk­ish Na­tional Tele­vi­sion). The song

Unu­tama Beni (Do Not For­get Me) was writ­ten by her hus­band and artis­tic part­ner, Semi Diriker, and was cho­sen by the au­di­ence as the best song, ahead of tunes from the fu­ture stars of Turk­ish pop Erol Ev­gin and Nilüfer.

The deep sound of the song was based on Ara­bic maqam (a type of melody in Ara­bic mu­sic). But soon af­ter its vic­tory, it was cen­sored by the chan­nel. Ara­bic in­flu­ences and mu­si­cal pat­terns, which were part of Turk­ish iden­tity for so many cen­turies, were now per­ceived as sym­bols of a for­eign cul­ture. With their eye fixed to the West, TRT’s mem­bers con­sid­ered Es­meray’s mu­sic in­ap­pro­pri­ate to rep­re­sent mod­ern Turk­ish mu­sic. Al­most ev­ery­body in Tur­key knows Es­meray, or to be more pre­cise, ev­ery­body knows this one song writ­ten for sol­diers. But few peo­ple ever paid at­ten­tion to her mes­sage about be­ing dif­fer­ent in Turk­ish so­ci­ety.

Es­meray, who died in 2002, was a Turk­ish artist – she wanted to be ac­cepted as that. But through­out her life she was try­ing to tell her peo­ple some­thing very im­por­tant about be­ing dif­fer­ent in her own coun­try. She de­serves re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion, not only as an out­stand­ing vo­cal­ist, but also as a mes­sen­ger of so­cial equal­ity and mu­tual re­spect.

Courtesy Es­meray Diriker fam­ily archive

Above main photo, Afro-Turk­ish singer Es­meray Diriker. Above, 1975 sin­gle Garip Anam.

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