TURKEY: Gülümse - Sezen Aksu
Updated: Mar 7
The powerful vocals and contemporary style of this album is what made this such an influence on the Turkish music scene
When Sezen Aksu rose to prominence, she changed the face of Turkish pop music, and became embedded as an enduring figure of Turkish pop culture. Her work with Onno Tunc in the 1980’s became very influential, and it was with the release of Gülümse in 1991, again collaborating with Tunc, that she hit her commercial and critical zenith, with it not only being her best-selling album, it is one of the highest selling albums in Turkey altogether, having sold over two million copies since its release. As a Brit who has little knowledge of Turkish music, it was initially hard to see why exactly Aksu was so influential and continues to be so. The album is very good, I enjoy it, but it does not seem like something that broke the mould. It is in the vein of a singer like Madonna or Ofra Haza – consummate, professional pop with a powerhouse voice at the centre of it. However, Turkish pianist and composer Fahir Atakoglu managed to sum up why she was so important to Turkish music. He was interviewed for NPR’s piece on Aksu, where they named her one of the 50 voices of the world alongside such titans of global music as Khaled, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Celia Cruz, and he states her influence thusly: “Turkish is not a good-sounding language. You know, it's not musical like French or English… but with singers like Sezen, for the first time, the Turkish words became much more musical. It started saying something really deep; it wasn't simple anymore."
“She brings the musicality out of the words and conveys the emotions of the words she is singing even if you don’t know what she’s saying.”
With that in mind, it is easy to understand why she became the phenomenon that she did. Not only does she have a powerful voice that is equally suited to belting out power ballads such as Güllerim Soldu or Tutsak, as it is to gently crooning, softly emotional songs like the title track or Vazgeçtim, but she brings the musicality out of the words and conveys the emotions of the words she is singing even if you don’t know what she’s saying. Obviously, I had no idea what she was singing about when I first listened to it, and even though the significance of her work was lost on me as well, I was always able to appreciate the emotion that she manages to convey. Her singing style is dramatic and often close to operatic, wringing the emotion out of every note. This is of course amplified if you understand the language. For example, the title track, which is rather melancholy, means ‘smile’ in English, and now having read the lyrics the song takes on a bittersweet character that it wouldn’t have otherwise done for me. That said, it’s not all emotional ballads and sad songs, there’s plenty of upbeat pop songs, like Namus and Hadi Bakalim, which are both just pure fun to listen to. As such, the album has a nice variety to it, which keeps it fresh.
Aksu’s vocal and song-writing talents reign supreme here, though the actual music itself can let it down somewhat. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but it is heavily reliant on synths and drum machines, which means it sounds very dated in some respects. There are some moments where it delves into exploring the vast influences and styles of Turkish music, but it mostly sounds like something firmly of its era. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that on an instrumentational level, I was less impressed. Nonetheless, Gülümse remains a good album with a barnstorming vocalist at the centre of it. If you’re into pop music, this is certainly a record to check out, as it is not only hugely influential in the Turkish music scene, it’s also an album that genuinely does have the power to express emotions across language barriers. And that’s no mean feat.