Years of Fire and Cinders

Didem Pekün

I discovered the story of Tülay German when I was in England by means of a CD and its booklet brought to me by a friend from Turkey. The CD booklet was telling the story of German, and the CD was a collection that reflected German’s colorful musical past. I spent long years with this CD, and when I returned to Turkey a read her autobiography. The book deals with German’s life spent between France and Turkey for 40 years due to the turbulent politics of Turkey.

Tülay German came into the world in Istanbul in 1935 as the child of a relatively well-to-do family. Both the family’s objection to her singing and their disapproval of her relationship with a left-inclined person caused her ties with her family to be severed.

As I have mentioned above, looking at German’s life, her partner in life Erdem Buri is one of the first things to be mentioned. Erdem Buri; radio host, intellectual, among the prominent educated of his time… Tülay German, who had been playing western music until she met him, quit singing jazz on his suggestion. In Buri’s words she inclined towards “thought singing”. In this process, she released her first hit Burçak Tarlası (Vetch Field). In this way, the first seeds of Anatolian rock had been disseminated.

Exactly during those dates Erdem Buri was tried for 15 years of sentence for translating a book that recounted the Marxist thought and he decided to flee Turkey. In 1966 Tülay German went with him to Paris, where she is still residing, without telling anybody.

It was the 60s and May 68 was a metaphysical revolution where the concept of hierarchy broke into pieces. The world was changing. One by one, the colonies were gaining their independence. On the one hand, the Cold War, and on the other hand, the events in Cuba, China, and Vietnam were opening the eyes of people. A collective voice was rising throughout the whole world against the massacres. The independence wave had pervaded the whole world. As to Paris, she was the center of this revolution. Tülay German was following closely the statements of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Day by day she was breathing the air of this environment of awakening and struggle.

During this time, German recorded many albums and performed concerts in France. She signed a contract with the prestigious record label Philips. Although day by day she was advancing in her career, German was unhappy. The artist was moved by the events going on in her country in those days. First 1971, and then after the 1980 coup many artists like her had been tried, exiled, and imprisoned because of their ideas. In the meantime, Paris was the center of leftist solidarity since 68. Immigrants who had been subjected to similar acts in different parts of the world were organizing meetings, concerts, and demonstrations in this city.

Many artists who had fled their country were getting a place in German and Buri’s house in no time flat. In their small Parisian house numerous minstrels had sang ballads with their instruments, poets had composed verses; and as it were that house had been a secure refugee for intellectuals and artists. After what she had witnessed in her country and relationship he had formed with the immigrants in similar situations Tülay German had revolted and she no longer wanted sing French songs deprived of intellectual value. In time Tülay German transformed into a musician whose political side predominated. Such that with a radical decision she sacrificed all her financial investment and cancelled her contract with Philips years before the expiration date. She began singing Turkish folk songs and songs composed for the poems of poets like Nazım Hikmet and Yunus Emre. From now on, she was the voice of the Turks in Paris and other immigrants who had been subjected to similar treatment in their own countries.

In 1987, German silently quit the scenes and concluded her music career. She narrates that period in this way: “I recorded my tribute album to Nazım Hikmet. I made radio and television programs. I attended festivals. Ceaselessly, I gave countless concerts in France and other European countries. I am at the peak of my singing career. Years brought maturity both to me and to my voice. I am in a kind of soul-to-soul love affair with my audience … It is just the right time. Before my voice fades away and my breath begins to run short, before losing the passion in me, before the fire in me dies out, before getting old and exhausted and breath fade away … it is time to disappear quietly, without any fuss. Tonight I will be performing in Holland. Nobody knows that it will be my last concert, not even Erdem.”

After losing Erdem Buri in 1993 Tülay German chose to lead an isolated life, out of public gaze. As for me when I returned from London to Turkey I was facing my rootlessnes. Thereat, when I once again came across the music and autobiographical book of Tülay German I decided to make a film out of this story.

While I was making visits to Paris to see and try to persuade her to appear in the film Barış Dogrusöz got included in the project as my partner; after all he was rootless too, before the 80s he had moved to France with his family and they were returning to Turkey for good after 30 years.

The historical events that effected Tülay German’s life are still echoing in many common experiences. Compulsory immigration decisions due to political ideas, ideological faith in individual and collective engagement, and the erasure of collective memory in time. To discover this voice with these questions in our minds meant for me and Barış to confront and discover ourselves and our country as well.

As I was trying to persuade Tülay German to appear in the film all through the shooting process she also told me the same thing: “Didem, dear, history always bars us”. What she referred was not only the difference in our generations and me somehow being ‘late’ to catch her; she was also talking about the interruption of historical events and their effect on our present day. But for me, exactly these reasons were binding us together and this film had been shot exactly on these grounds. As Mina Urgan said, we also found it “beneficial that everyone writes their memories in order for us not to be a amnesiac society”.

In the documentary titled “Tülay German: Years of Fire and Cinder” based on the autobiographical book The Black Box of a Plane not Crashed we used the music and pictures of the artist as well as various archival footage. While analyzing a historical process through the musical progress of an artist, the documentary, at the same time, discovers the relation of the past with the present day. While, on the one hand, “Years of Fire and Cinder” conveys the story of Tülay German in a personal language, on the other hand, it reflects the political turmoil her country went through in skids since the 60s to our day.