“At last,” was one of his first remarks to a wild, cheering crowd at İstanbul’s traditional summer concert venue on a pleasant Saturday evening. George Dalaras, or simply Yorgos, as we all know and call him, was surprised and moved when he finally faced his devout followers and admirers.
One could say “everybody” was there: prominent Turkish musicians; young fans; members of high society; intellectuals; Kurdish dissidents; diplomats; politicians such as Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator; and Turks from Greece’s Western Thrace region.
The concert ended years of vicious campaigning against this wonderful singer, the “golden voice of sorrow and hope” in this part of the world -- certainly a musician of the highest caliber, of world class, placed among Sting, Caetano Veloso, Pino Daniele, Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour.
His hope was to play in Turkey, where, like many Greeks, he has his roots. His grandparents came from the vicinity of İzmir -- then Smyrna -- and the roots of his music are certainly inseparable from the Aegean folk tradition.
Deeply engaged in politics, and highly suspicious of Turkey’s painful struggle to shake off its military tutelage, Dalaras previously struggled with the dilemma of appearing here, whereas many of his colleagues, including Haris Alexiou, Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Vassilis Saleas, Savina Yannatou, Mikis Theodorakis, etc., visited Turkey’s venues, to great welcome. He chose to stay away, even when joint “friendship projects” between renowned Greek and Turkish musicians developed.
Not long ago, his mood changed. It was the post “earthquake policy” era, when Greece came closer to Turkey, which became more visible with its struggle for change and reform. But, when he felt ready, Turkish nationalists blocked it. Let us read what Wikipedia tells us about the sad incident three years ago:
“Dalaras had been scheduled to perform a concert on the closing night of the second International Orthodox Youth Conference held in İstanbul from July 11 to 15, 2007. The event, organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, had drawn the ire of the Turkish press and Turkish nationalist politicians who filed complaints to the İstanbul Governor’s Office to revoke the license for the concert it had issued, and the concert was abruptly cancelled by the Turkish authorities of the İstanbul Governor’s Office on the grounds that the country’s Archaeological Service did not permit the use of the planned venue, the 15th-century Rumeli Hisarı castle. The site had previously been used for international theater festivals and for an international dance festival, until its use was prohibited by the Archaeological Service. The last-minute cancellation of the concert attracted strong media coverage and criticism in neighboring Greece.”
The campaign to block his appearance was led by an ultranationalist and influential opinion writer who was with the Hürriyet daily at the time, and it was primarily Dalaras himself who felt disappointed, as well as his fans. The cancellation was indeed a scandal.
Those times are now over. When I met him after almost three hours of music, performed in its perfection with a 15-man band, his relief and joy were visible. As he watched the Golden Horn from the restaurant we were in, he agreed with me that it was indeed a “new beginning.” We talked at length about politics and the ordeal Turkey has been going through and agreed to be hopeful about the future. I was struck by his profound reading and analysis of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and where Turkey is actually heading. I conveyed to him my expectations about what artists like him can do to change the mindset of Greeks about Turks from negative to positive.
How Dalaras feels and acts about Turkey counts. He is a national hero, a cultural landmark, a symbol of freedom, pride and celebration. My sense of hope of seeing him here, at last, in Turkey stemmed from the fact that an artist of enormous popularity like him can move mountains, in order to set his people into the correct mood. Today, many Greeks are fearful of Turkey and of Turks. They perceive their eastern neighbor as a threat and dread the possibility of seeing their islands in the Aegean Sea invaded. Many Greek politicians -- excluding George Papandreou -- thrive on that fear; the Greek media feed those sentiments constantly.
The more Dalaras notices that these fears are unfounded, that today’s Turks are overwhelmingly globalist, that they share the same values on democracy and freedom, his domestic message and his choices of going further with artistic projects with Turkish musicians, the easier it will be to change his countrymen’s perceptions and concerns.
He knows the value of living in a democracy. He strikes a chord with his Turkish and Kurdish colleagues, who like him had to go through censorship and suppression to sing freely. On a magic Saturday night, when this fantastic musician shared some of his vast repertoire (coming from 70 or so records that mark his career), with enormous concentration and devotion, his personal history connected with that of his father (Loukas Daralas, a rembetiko musician) and his ancestors. It was a closure for him as many Turks, some with tears in their eyes, felt, again, how much Turkey lost when it lost its Greeks and other ethnicities in the last century due to the foolish, inhumane policies of many of its politicians.