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Sivan Perwer and Kurdish Music: "I Would Return to Turkey to Contribute to Peace"

 

Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 2, June 2009 -

by Ozan Aksoy

 

Living in exile in Europe, Sivan Perwer is one of the most popular Kurdish figures and perhaps the most political figure in modern Kurdish music, as he has become the voice of a silent nation. He himself is well-aware of the situation, as the title of an interview he conducted with Halil Can (published in 1991) indicates: "My music alleviates my nation's pains and sharpens their rage."


This statement leads us to ponder the relationship between music and politics in the case of Kurds, Sivan Perwer and Kurdish music. For many years, his songs - even those about love - were banned in Turkey because they were sung in Kurdish. Cassettes of his music were passed from hand to hand, despite the risk of imprisonment. Those music stores that dared to sell his albums stored them in a special box, hidden from view. In 1976, he was compelled to leave Turkey and ended up in Germany, where he lives today. An exiled son of a divided and brutalized nation, Perwer has explained, “My music is my struggle.”

 

Sivan Perwer, Live Concert - 2009

 

Born in Urfa (officially known today as Sanliurfa, and also by local Kurds as Riha) in eastern Turkey as Ismail Aygun, Sivan Perwer took for himself a simple yet powerful Kurdish name, "Sivan”, meaning shepherd and "Perwer", meaning protector. Perwer has been a songster for over forty years and strives to be a pioneer in his field. His music comprises traditional and modern compositions that are significant for Kurdish musicians because they convey a certain political and populist message in its protest lyrics conveyed by his powerful voice. On his numerous albums, Perwer has remade old Kurdish folkloric songs and written and produced his own original songs with topics ranging from independence to women’s rights. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has performed almost exclusively in his mother tongue: Kurdish.


Beginning in late 2008, Perwer found himself the subject of a great deal of attention by Turks, as focus on the long-neglected Kurdish issue within Turkey’s border received an increasing amount of attention. Perwer, "The Pavarotti of Kurds" according to a Turkish newspaper, was invited to perform for the newly established official Kurdish TV channel called TRT-6, which began test programming in December 2008 and official broadcasting with the coming of the new year. TRT-6 is the first station to broadcast 24 hours in Kurdish by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), the official government-owned broadcast company of the Republic of Turkey. Perwer's response to the invitation has yet to be positive, as he has questioned the sincerity of the efforts and stated that he wanted to see more concrete peace efforts made by the Turkish government.


TRT-1, the most popular TV channel of the TRT network, broadcast a short documentary about the life of Sivan Perwer and his music on January 8, 2009. Mithat Bereket, a prominent Turkish documentary anchor, produced and presented the documentary on Perwer's life and his music. The documentary explained that Perwer's songs were, at a time, banned in Turkey and at that time one could be arrested for simply having his music cassettes.


In February 2009, Perwer once again found himself the subject of considerable attention as the Kurdish question received further focus. On February 22, 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reminded the people of Diyarbakir that "Turkey has yet to reconcile with its history; too many Sivans and too many youngsters had to live apart from their families." This announcement was interpreted as another invitation to Perwer to return to his homeland. Perwer has called this development as another positive event but he said he is not yet planning to return to Turkey. His reluctance may be in part due to the still unresolved Kurdish question in Turkey.


In March 2009, Perwer's song Keça Kurdan (Kurdish Girls) grabbed headlines of the local newspapers in Adana, southern Turkey. Mehmet Arslan, editor of the local radio station Radio Dünya, was put on trial for having played a cover of the song, Keça Kurdan, performed by Kurdish singer, Aynur Dogan, on November 13, 2007 between the hours of 14:20-16:00 pm. He was accused of "inciting people to hatred and hostility" because of the lyrics of the song, which boldly calls for the empowerment of Kurdish women. On March 19, 2009, the court acquitted Arslan, stating that "as the lyrics had been examined, no elements in the song [that] incite hatred or hostility among the people [have] been found." Mehmet Arslan and Radio Dünya had been going through another similar court case, which has to do with broadcasting of another one of Perwer’s songs, “Mihemedo”. The anti-terrorism unit of the Adana police had filed a complaint, but the Adana Second Criminal Court acquitted the radio station.


Stephen Blum in his Composition article of Grove Music Online tells readers that “…desires for compositions that would symbolize a nation’s identity and aspirations have been expressed by countless participants in national movements and by culture ministries in both established and newly independent nations.”

Sivan Perwer, for that matter, is the Kurdish pioneer of this effort in his compositions, performances, and albums. One could be claim that Perwer's music is a manifestation of an artist who felt the responsibility to call his nation to unite from exile. He calls upon fellow Kurds from a small recording studio in Germany to leave internal disagreements aside. Given the significant developments in the first half of 2009, an optimist would hope that the second half of the year may bring Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation and, with it, extraordinary developments in Perwer's life and music. Indeed, Perwer's high-profile return to Turkey would have great emotional and symbolic value to the Kurdish people and would signify a realization by the Turkish state that the Kurdish identity does indeed exist and cannot be denied. Furthermore, it could certainly contribute to the future efforts towards reconciliation between Kurds and Turks sides in Turkey.


However, recurring attempts to ban Kurdish music in the public sphere in Turkey like the cases filed against Radio Dünya should serve as a reminder that reconciliation is not going to come easily.

 

Ozan Aksoy a PhD candidate for Ethnomusicology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. Aksoy is currently working on his dissertation project, which deals with the relationships between the transformation of Kurdish music and the emergence of Kurdish nationalism among the Diaspora musicians in the last two decades.

 

 

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