DMC 2002
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Sezen Aksu is the reigning Pop diva of Turkey where she enjoys a similar stature as do Yulduz Usmanova, the late Ofra Haza, Angelique Kidjo, Mamak Khadem, Haris Alexiou, Amália Rodrigues or Lata Mangeshkar in their respective homelands. A classically trained vocalist, Sezen collaborated for years with her partner, the late Armenian composer Onno Tuncboyaciyan (brother of the phenomenal percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan) who successfully incorporated Western Soul and Jazz into Turkish urban music.

A staunch activist and spokeswoman for the environment and the oppressed, each of Aksu's releases over the last few years have turned huge media events where she often performs with her famous 35-piece Oriental orchestra. This year's Sarki Söylemek Lazim follows on the heels of the stunning year 2000 Deliveren that saw widespread distribution in the US. As one expects by now, Sarki offers a blend of straight-ahead dance-club Pop numbers and songs that liberally borrow from traditional melodies and instrumentation yet inject a distinctly modern element.

Like the reinforced silk thread that strings together ethnic necklaces of gorgeous over-sized amber, turquoise and coral beads, Sezen's unique instrument -- broad of range and dynamics, at times vulnerably broken, at others fiercely heroic yet always supremely evocative and hauntingly emotional -- is what clearly puts her Pop music in a class of its own. Hers is a different league of maturity and social consciousness than what tends to be promulgated on Billboard's Top Ten. One is reminded of the Greek Dalaras who uses a similar blend of the traditional and modern to be politically active. Add very sophistcated tune smithing with extended thematic development that accompanies anything Aksu touches these days and it's a shame she hasn't yet become a household word in the US.

With 14 tracks averaging 5 minutes each, Sarki is again generously long. Once past the uptempo opening title track with its somewhat relentless drum-machine tattoo, one is immediately surrounded by that special Aksu aroma of voluptous, exotic magic. The dreamy intro of "Istanbul Istanbul Olali" with meditative solo ud against acoustic guitar and the sighing of the ney showcases her trademark lower alto register hovering between fragilty and seduction. Then the lilting beat ushers in the main theme with dense backup chorus and has her scale those famous upper reaches that span the gamut from jubilation to a forboding Valkyrie-like intensity.

The bass & drum groove of "Savasma Sevis Benle" shows her equally adept on the dance floor but the electric violin break and spine-tingling undulating chorus overshoot the mark of regular dance fare by a mile. "Su Gibi" is unapologetically romantic. While not understanding the lyrics could misinterpret the literal meaning, the musical message of passion, abandonment and profound depth is unmistakable.

Massed strings certainly compound this impression, as does the long melodic arc building artistic tension. Many friends who don't speak or understand Turkish either have commented on how beautiful a language it is purely based on its sounds. I wholeheartedly concur. Quite unlike my native German -- great for scientific white papers or to issue military commands -- the cadence of sung Turkish is plainly pleasing to Western ears who might find some of the harsher guttural sounds of other Middle-Eastern tongues less so.

"Nihat" is another mid-tempo tune that seamlessly melds the sinuous charms of Turkish clarinet, symphonic strings with solo cello and Dub beats for instant cosmopolitan appeal while the ud/percussion intro of "Dansöz Dünya" is very traditional. That is, until the Gipsy Kings beat with the Flamenco guitar accents shifts gears again to unleash Aksu's benevolent banshee spirit - what I secretly refer to as her stormrider persona. The symphonic opening to "Kiran Kirana" sounds as though it just stepped out of Al DiMeola's testament to Astor Piazzolla's nouveau tango, The Grande Passion while the ecstatic refrain carries the emotive force of a major anthem declaring an end to all wars on this blue planet.

This ease of transitions -- in meter, instrumentation, cultural garb -- speaks of highly developed fluency in a variety of styles. Behind this musical multi-linguist facility, one imagines, just as with Yulduz Usmanova, a strong commitment to preserving cultural values. By simultaneously embracing and catapulting them into a far more modern context, Aksu insures their meaningful survival - these idioms are now interwoven into the very fabric of contemporary Pop, stitched into place, as it were, not by Westerners chasing exotic sound bytes but by a deep love, understanding and mastery of the culture itself.

On a philosophical tangent, this isn't so dissimilar from the ingenious adaptation whereby the Tibetian sacred traditions have insured their survival by translating their previously hidden teachings into the global tongue of English. Despite the ruthless genocide of the TIbetan peoples and an uncertain future, their culture per se has already been positioned to endure no matter what. In musical terms, such highbrow pretensions would amount to little if the raw listening wasn't such a pleasure. But there you have it - listening to Sezen Aksu is pure joy and inspiration, her voice a true marvel to behold.

If you've never heard her and thus have no idea what to expect? Natasha Atlas is perhaps the closest kindred spirit though she tends to veer a bit stronger into the House and Club scene. If you don't know her either? What can I say. Splurge on one CD and take a chance. You can always pass it on if it misses your personal mark. But at least you'll know what passes for superstar talent in Turkey. And don't you owe yourself at least a glance at the bigger picture of music in this, the dawn of the 21st century? I predict you'll wonder how come you've never heard of Sezen Aksu before. The challenge then will be to find more of her music here in the States. Welcome to my little fan club and its -- plentifully requitted -- labors of love!