It started as good a time as any – on a dolmuş to Hasankeyif with a crate of live chickens on my lap.
I had spent most of the ride defending another box of small chicks from a group of curious toddlers on the back seat. It’s hard to appreciate the magnificence of the south-eastern countryside under such conditions, but I remember the distinct feeling that this chaotic scene was underpinned by something far more stunning. Amongst the fluttering and children’s laughter, a mesmorising sound emanated from the driver’s cassette player – “Gelmezsen, gelme” (I implore you to listen whilst reading) the singer warbled emphatically, with playful stringed accompaniment. This was my introduction to the wonder of Ibrahim Tatlıses.
Tatlıses, or ‘Ibo’, as he is affectionately known, is the ultimate cult figure in Turkey, especially in his Eastern homeland. Every death-defying dolmuş ride in that region feels as though the singer is serenading the mountains by your side.
It all started in the unsuspecting town of Adana. Ibo was a regular young guy making ends meet, when something happened that would instill him with a determination to succeed spanning decades. In the singer’s own words:
“I was getting 20 kuruş a pot selling water at the cinema there, yelling ‘Get your water! Ice cold water!.’ One day, a guy suddenly got out of his seat and slapped me across the face four times. ‘Shut up you idiot, you think any of us are here to listen to you?!’ he barked. Well, those four slaps got me where I am today…”
It was not long after that incident when, whilst singing folk songs at a nearby construction site, Ibo was over-heard by a local club owner, who immediately recognised his talent and invited him to perform at the local clubs and bars. The rest, as they say, is history. Since 1965, Ibo has released an incredible fifty-two albums, with countless hit singles. Some of his most popular hits include Sarhoş (Drunk), Yalan (Lie) and Bir Ayrılık Şarkı (A Break-up Song) to name but a few. Although a musician and song-writer of undisputed talent, Ibo has never strayed far from the “Arabesk” genre which his emotive tenor is best suited for.
Arabesk music is characterised by its raw emotion. The lyrics, invariably about some misfortune, undying heart-ache or unrequited love, are accompanied by a combination of Anatolian instrumentation and silky, Arabic-style violins with makam ornamentation. Orhan Gencebay, Müslüm Gürses and Ferdi Tayfur, are just some of the genre’s most popular exponents, but Ibo’s unrelenting success over the years has made his image synonymous with Arabesk itself.
However, today one finds that to many young, hip Istanbulites, the mention of Arabesk music evokes a cringe and a look of relished disapproval. This owes partly to Arabesk’s over-the-top, self-immolating lyrics and morose style, of which Ibo is as good an exponent as any:
Every night I’m drunk for of my troubles,
I’m a vagabond pacing the road of love,
This is my fate, My summer turned to winter,
I’m a lover trapped in a raging storm…
And that is generally considered an upbeat number! Arabesk, however, suffers from a crude, classist, stereotype directed at its most ardent followers – the prayer bead-swinging, mullet-topped, open-shirted “kıros” of the wretched dolmuş-driving class. But after a couple of rakıs, even the staunchest of the ‘modern’ brigade are requesting Arabesk classics.
For all its dramatics, Arabesk relishes in getting carried away with a dramatic, suppressed and irrational definition of love, therefore tapping into a very core characteristic of Turkish culture, where, as Elif Şafak points out, love is elevated to something to be revered.
I have seen tears flood the eyes of grown men listening to Ibo’s bitterest songs, but on the other hand, I’ve also seen children hang out the windows of buses waving handkerchiefs in the air in typical Kurdish celebration style, singing along to his dance anthems. When the Kurdish language was legalised in the 1990s, it was only a matter of time before Ibo would make a Kurdish classic recognisable not just to Kurds, but also liked by the Turkish public at large, in the form of the Halay dance anthem Şemmame. Bridging this kind of cultural boundary is a feat, perhaps no other singer is capable of pulling off with such finesse.
If James Brown claimed to be the hardest-working man in show-business, he must not have been to Turkey. On top of selling millions of albums, Tatlıses has also enjoyed a successful film career, starring in thirty-two movies and at least two TV series. If that wasn’t enough, for the last nineteen years, his weekly chat-come-music programme – The Ibo Show, has received some of the highest viewings on Turkish television.
With Tatlıses secured as a house-hold name, it was only a logical step for the tireless singer to extend his brand into the business world. Anyone who travels between cities by coach regularly will have probably used Tatlıses’ namesake tour company, and a whole host of other travel services. However, the singer has regularly been on the receiving end of rumours that all is not quite above board in his business dealings, and his reputation as a client of the mafia is assumed as a fact by most.
For many, this was confirmed in March last year, when Turkey woke up to the shocking news that the singer had been shot in the back of the head, by Kalashnikov-armed assailants in a drive-by shooting in Istanbul.
The singer was sent by helicopter to receive treatment in Germany, where he recovered and returned to Turkey to continue his career triumphantly – all this, at the age of fifty-two. Thus, not only harder working than James Brown, but tougher than 50 Cent.
With a decade-spanning career, a host of businesses, a string of scandals and a personal life as compelling and complicated as one of his romantic melodramas, Ibo holds a place in Turkish cultural life that not many others can claim. Love him or hate him, he has yet to give up the limelight.