A tenor in the Turkish State Opera and Ballet, İlhan has been in love with folk songs since his father presented him with a musical instrument years ago. Since then, İlhan has created a unique synthesis of opera and folk styles. In this interview we spoke about Abdal -- a music project revisiting traditional folk songs and distributing recordings over social media, and also the name İlhan goes by on social media -- his musical career, his hit song “Ervah-ı Ezelde” and the album of the same name.
You are an opera singer, but you also perform folk songs pretty impressively. Considering that you have become a social media phenomenon with “Ervah-ı Ezelde,” can we expect to hear more folk songs from you?
In fact, folk singing is not something that I discovered after opera. We could refer to folk songs in my life as a family tradition. I have attempted to retain the traces of the folk songs left by my uncle and father during my childhood. I could say that music became part of my life after that. In the end, opera is [a product of the] culture of different peoples. At this point, what matters is to preserve the folk traditions of the Anatolian soil, and our values. But if I have to give a precise answer to the question, I would say that my work in the near future will be on folk songs.
While you were working with the Turkish State Opera and Ballet as a tenor, your project Abdal attracted attention. How did this project develop?
When I was sent from the Ankara State Opera to Istanbul, I had an idea I would be starting a process of making music where my non-operatic works could be gathered together. However, I did not have an exact idea of what form this would take. We decided to record the folk song “Ervah-ı Ezelde,” which I had performed at an event as part of the Abdal project, and we shared this over social media. Like you said, it attracted attention over the Internet and was listened to by many people. Given that this folk song appealed to the people, I decided to do some more in this vein. This is how I made the “Ervah-ı Ezelde” album. I would say that the guitar arrangement, variety and uniqueness of the performances contributed to the success of the album.
Could you tell us the story of “Ervah-ı Ezelde,” the folk song by Aşık Summani that made you very popular?
Like I said before, the story of this folk song is based on a family tradition. My family has been known for generations as “aşıkgiller” (sons of folk singers). “Ervah-ı Ezelde” is a powerful and famous song that has been passed through generations. It was one of the songs that I used to listen to at family gatherings. When somebody asked me to sing a song, I performed that song. I think now how many people have listened to this song, and this makes me extremely happy. Of course, it is a very strong and rich song in terms of composition, lyrics and other artistic elements. I tried to perform it without making significant changes to the performance and the music.
While you have been making progress on the Abdal project, there has been a problem in the group. How do you continue to carry out the project?
Yes, we parted ways with Ali Kayış, who contributed to the Abdal project. Now I am working with a different musician. We are working pretty hard. We use Abdal-Haluk Tolga İlhan or Haluk Tolga İlhan in the social media pages, videos and billboards. This is how we carry on with the project.
Folk songs became part of your life after your father gave you a folk instrument. In childhood, which folk songs from which regions appealed to you most?
In general, I used to listen to Eastern songs, folk songs of Erzurum, Erzincan, Sivas, Kars, Elazığ, etc. But we used to listen to songs by Ruhi Su in our house. And because he performed almost all songs, I am familiar with the songs of all areas. For instance, I like performing Aegean folk songs.
Some compare you to Su, and to Apollo Granforte, the teacher of your teacher, who was also taught by Su. Do you feel you are close to Su’s style?
Because of the connection between opera and folk songs, such comparisons have been made in recent times. Of course, this is flattering; but Su is a phenomenon. We could talk about some similarities in terms of sound, and it is also true we hold the same background or style. But Su is a bass voice and I am a tenor. In performance, I try to remain loyal to the local melodies. I wish we had more assets like Su.
In addition to singing opera and folk songs, you have also competed in taekwondo at a national level. Do you still engage in this sport?
True, I was a national taekwondo athlete in the past. In fact, music and sports have always been in my life, complementing each other. Music is something you can do by feeling it, but it has to be supported by regular exercise as well. For this reason, of course, sports are an essential part of my life.
In a sense, you have synthesized the modern and the traditional, without destroying the traditional. Sometimes famous pop stars draw inspiration from our folk songs. If you were asked who would be the best candidate to perform a Turkish folk song, which pop star would you choose?
True, like you said, there have been such attempts. But, above all, it is hard to say whether pop stars could be associated with folk songs, due to their appearance and the people they appeal to. To this end, I cannot imagine it in my mind. However, setting aside the dynamics of pop culture, I would think that Elvis Presley would have been successful in folk songs, thanks to his artistic charisma, sound and stage performance. I also believe that folk songs would suit the tone and color of Amalia Rodrigues’s sound, not as a pop star but as a global asset.
Finally, could you talk about your future projects?
In fact, as a project, I would say that Abdal has filled a void in the field of folk songs. I would like to perform hundreds of almost forgotten folk songs in new arrangements with a unique style. The “Ervah-ı Ezelde” album is pretty recent, but folk songs need to be heard by many more people. Even though [the album] has attracted attention, I would not want this project to become an object of consumption. For this reason, I would like to make another folk song album by the end of the fall.