Turkey: Interview with exiled musician Fuat Talay


Fuat Talay: ‘I escaped and cannot return’

Baglama-player and singer Fuat Talay doesn’t make much noise about how the Turkish authorities kept him in a police station’s cellar for 23 days, and later on convicted him to 12 years in prison. In July 2008 he is in the media limelight because of a new album, and Freemuse asked the singer to give a more detailed account of his experiences.

By Mik Aidt, Freemuse

                       Fuat Talay

On Fuat Talay’s MySpace profile is only mentioned this single sentence: “Political unrest along with the lack of freedom of speech in Turkey forced him to abandon his native country, which he still cannot return to.”

The 32-year-old singer prefers to focus on the list of positive things that became an indirect result of the fact that he escaped out of Turkey 10 years ago and eventually managed to establish himself as a professional musician in the northern part of Europe.

If he hadn’t been convicted as a Kurdish terrorist, simply because he was playing certain Kurdish folk songs, he would most likely never have ended up publishing an electronica album together with a Norwegian musician and producer such as Mashti (real name: Mads Nordheim), or have been touring with a Danish-Iraqi musician and singer such as Aida Nadeem and her ’Arabtronic’ band.

Trio playing Kurdish tunes
Fuat Talay grew up near Van – a town in the eastern part of Turkey, near the border to Iran and Iraq. He has been playing and singing the Anatolian and Turkish folk music of the region since the age of 10. At that time, in the 1990’s, Van was a town where a mix of both Turkish, Kurdish, Azerian and Armenian cultures flourished.

Fuat came out of a Turkish family. His brother was active in politics already from the age of 13, and when Fuat and two of his friends began performing as a trio, they were invited by the brother to perform at political meetings and demonstrations. Here, they mostly played Turkish folk music, and also played certain Kurdish tunes. The trio didn’t have a name.

“We were just three friends who were playing,” says Fuat Talay. “I played the baglama. A friend played percussion, another was singing.”

The baglama is a kind of three-stringed ‘Turkish guitar’, it also often referred to as the ‘saz’ (which literally means ‘instrument’ in Turkish).

“We were around 15 years old when we one day we heard that our lead singer, Ibrahim, had been arrested in the evening as he was walking on his way home. The next day he was found unconscious, lying on top a garbage container. He had been badly beaten up, and it took him more than a month to recover. After that incident, he left our band, and moved to another town.”

Monthly tv-programme
A year later, Fuat Talay and his friend were offered to host a monthly tv-programme about folk music at the local Van tv-station. The police had been monitoring their tv-programmes closely, and one day, as they had just finished recording a programme, two civil-dressed police officers were waiting for them outside the studio. Fuat was taken to the police station and put in a cell for a couple of hours. Then he was blindfolded so he couldn’t see the person who interrogated him. He was told by the officer:

“You are known to be politically active in this town, and the young people symphasize with you. More and more people in Van were watching your programme. So we want you to stop hosting that tv-show.”

“We weren’t going to be intimidated or threatened just like that,” tells Fuat Talay. “We went to the vali of the town, a kind of state administration mayor, and asked him to review our programme. After he had watched it, he told us that we had his permission to continue producing it.”

At that time Fuat Talay was 17 years old and had just finished high school. He soon got so many live gigs as a musician that he stopped producing and broadcasting the tv-programmes. Not long after, he heard a rumour that some of his friends from high school had been arrested.

“We had been performing at a concert venue 15 kilometres outside Van. On our way home, our car was stopped at a road block, where 15 armed police men apparently had been waiting for us. They took us, three musicians and our driver, in a police car and drove off. For weeks we were held behind bars in the cellar of the local police station, without being able to contact our family or anyone outside.”

According to the Turkish law, police was not allowed to do something like this for more than a maximum of 48 hours, but in this Kurdish territory a special terrorist law allowed police to hold arrested groups in up to 15 days without trial. They held Fuat and his friends in 23 days. Most of them were under 18 years old.

“The driver and the singer were released after a couple of days. But the percussionist and I were put in a cell together with three other persons who we knew from our high school days. We could often hear screaming when people were tortured, and they started with us as well right after we had arrived. They took me into a room and forced me to sign a lot of different papers while they were kicking and beating me. I got an injury in my back which was very painful. The pain continued years later, and when eventually I was hospitalised the doctors told me that the beating had slipped a disc in my spine.”

Nevertheless, in the evenings, when the lights were off in the cellar, the young boys and girls would be singing together and doing their best to keep the spirit high. They were only allowed to drink water once a day, and Fuat explains that this in itself was a kind of torture:

“The only food we were given, twice a day, was a loaf of bread and some salty cheese which made us very thirsty. Actually, the first three days we were arrested we didn’t get any food at all because we refused to eat.”

In court
When, finally after three long weeks, they were taken to a court room, they found out that all together they were 25 people who had been arrested at the same time.

“This was the first time we could talk to a state lawyer, and apparently our parents had been informed about this court hearing, because they were present in the court room. We weren’t allowed to talk with them, but at least they could see that we were alive.
In the first couple of weeks our parents didn’t know what had happened to us or where we had been taken, and when they had asked at several police stations, the police refused to confirm that we had been arrested.”

After the court session, 16 of the young people were released. Fuat Talay and eight others were taken to a prison in Van. His family found a lawyer who had good contacts at high levels in the legal system, and after just four days in prison, Fuat was suddenly informed that he was free to leave.

“You can go now. You have been released,” said the guard.
“But why?”
“Just go!”
“But I won’t leave until you release my friend as well.”
“He will be released too. Tomorrow.”

And so it happened: The next day, his friend – the percussionist in the band – was released as well.

Under cover in Istanbul
The court proceedings were moved to the Court of Diyarbakir, 400 kilometres from Van, and Fuat was in the meanwhile accepted at the Academy of Art at the Yuzuncuyil University in Van where he began the study of music.

After three and a half years, only six months before his final exams, Fuat got a phone call from a friend who asked: “Haven’t they taken you?! Didn’t you hear the the court has given you a penalty of 12 years and six months in jail?”

Fuat called his lawyer to check up on the case, and an hour later, he returned the call, saying: “There is nothing I can do. You simply have to escape. Now!”

With only six months left of his studies, it seemed a very drastic move to make, but after having talked with his family, he decided to drop the education, and only two hours later, he was sitting in an airplane to the capital Ankara. From there a bus took him to Istanbul where he could stay with some friends while figuring out what to do.

After some weeks he found a place which could help him with producing a false ID-card and a false student card, and soon after he was employed as a music teacher under a false name.

Visa to Denmark
One and a half year and his 22nd birthday passed while Fuat Talay taught children how to play baglama and dance in traditional style in an association for Kurdish children. During all this time, his family and his lawyer were still trying to get the 12-year conviction overturned, but in vain.

An international organisation assisted Fuat Talay in getting a 10-day visum to travel to Denmark to take part in a workshop about Turkish music, and from there he was adviced to move on to Sweden which had a community of Turkish and Kurdish refugees in Stockholm. He went there, was allowed to stay and work with some specific music projects, a ‘world music laboratory’. He applied for political asylum, but since Denmark was where he had first arrived, he was instructed that he could be granted an asylum, but only if he moved to Denmark.

After two years, he received a recidence and work permit in Denmark to work as as a music teacher at a school in Jutland.

This gave him the incentive to study to get a tearcher’s certification which he is presently studying for at the Frederiksberg University in the capital Copenhagen. In 2002, he graduated the first of two training modules.

Today, Fuat Talay is settled in Denmark in Copenhagen, and the members of his family in Turkey come to visit him there, since he is unable to go back to his home country. Fuat has been touring with his baglama instrument around Europe and Africa. In the later years he has played with artists such as the exiled Kurdish singer Sivan Perwer, and the diva of Turkish folk music Sabahat Akkiraz.

Activities in Scandinavia
In 2008, Fuat Talay og Mashti released their album ‘Sufisticated’ on the label Wan Production. Fuat Talay has participated as organiser and has played baglama on numerous other albums, and he regularly performs with the orchestras Efkarens Ensemble and Hicaz Ensemble, as well as in other group constellations playing tradtional Turkish music, and as a soloist. In 2006, together with Efkar Ensemble in Sweden, Fuat Talay released the album ‘Back to Anatolia’ on the Swedish label Caprice Records.

In August 2008 he will be performing a number of concerts in northern Jutland as part of the Go Global Festival.


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Fuat Talay’s MySpace profile – with songs from his latest album, ‘Sufisticated’:


Efkar Ensemble’s official home page:


Click to go to myspace.com/fuattalay

 ‘A Song for Copenhagen’ – video on YouTube

Excerpt from documentary film – 5 February 2008:

Fuat Talay participated in and was interviewed for a documentary film which captured the processes and the cooperation which took place between 20 musicians while they composed ‘A Song for Copenhagen’.

 Solo performance – video on YouTube

Fuat Talay performs at Naz Bari in Stockholm in 2002:

More video clips…