The following article is an overview of the career of Turkish trombonist, composer, and arranger Levent Çoker. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Çoker, conducted by Bas Tukker in September 2022. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Levent Çoker's Eurovision involvement (part 4).
All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2022
- Short Eurovision record
- Eurovision Song Contest
- Other artists about Levent Çoker
- Eurovision involvement year by year
- Sources & links
SHORT EUROVISION RECORD
Levent Çoker composed, arranged, and conducted Turkey’s entries in the 1996 and 1997 editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, both performed by Şebnem Paker – with the former, ‘Besinçi mevsim’, finishing twelfth in Oslo, and the latter, ‘Dinle’, obtaining Turkey’s best result in the contest until that time, a third place.
Levent Çoker was born in İzmit on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, but completed his primary education in İskenderun (Alexandretta) in the far south of Turkey. “My father was a station manager with the Turkish state railway services,” he explains. “As he was regularly redeployed, we had to move several times during my childhood years. I have the best memories of my father, a man with a vivid sense of humour. As a pastime, he enjoyed listening to western classical music – and he was a good amateur violinist himself. Still, he wasn’t that big an influence on developing my interest in music. My elder brothers were more important in that respect. When I was still quite young, they formed their own amateur band with drums, guitar, and bass guitar. I was in awe of what they were doing.”
“Another of my fascinations as a child was movies. When I was too young to come along to the cinema, my brothers told me about the films they had seen the following day over breakfast – and I absorbed everything they told me about cowboys and Red Indians. Later on, when I was old enough to accompany them, I went to the movies with one of my brothers, watching a black-and-white film featuring Louis Armstrong’s big band. Among the musicians in Armstrong’s band, I discovered some were moving a part of their instrument back and forth with their right hands. I was determined to learn to play that fascinating instrument I had never heard of before, the trombone! That was in 1971, when I was thirteen years old – and I started preparing for the admission exam with a local teacher. My brother took me to Ankara for the conservatoire entrance exam, I took the entrance exam and passed! Thankfully my dear father was very supportive of this, encouraging me along the way.”
“Getting a high score in the exam meant being a boarding student, which meant I had to move to Ankara. Given that I was so young at the time, it wasn’t that easy – also because I had no family ties with that part of the country. Fortunately, I met like-minded fellow-students – in no time, I made many new friends, with whom I spent the weekends relaxing and having a good time. The lessons at the conservatoire were interesting, focusing on a wide range of subjects; I especially enjoyed the theoretical courses and orchestra lessons.”
“During my second year as a student, I started receiving offers to play in radio and television orchestras. Many programmes were recorded in Ankara and there was plenty of work on all kinds of entertainment shows. Officially, conservatoire students were not allowed to work as music professionals at the same time, so we took on pseudonyms to avoid problems with the academy’s board. This was a purely administrative matter, though. Our teachers didn’t have a narrow classical outlook at all. They taught us the basics, meanwhile encouraging us to discover music in the broadest and most innovative sense possible. In reality, a blind eye was turned to students who played in those jazz and pop music shows… I never had a problem.”
“In 1975, the opportunity arose to switch from Ankara to the Istanbul State Conservatoire. Since most of my family lived in Istanbul, I was eager to come over. At that time, it was difficult to travel between Ankara and Istanbul, and, somehow, I had started feeling a bit isolated; not only in terms of family ties, but also because Istanbul is the cultural centre of Turkey. Having moved over, it took me some time to get used to my trombone teacher Ziya Polat, who was rather harsh in his approach – much harsher than the two very calm and gentle guys who had taught me back in Ankara.”
“Of course, the conservatoire lessons focused exclusively on classical music, but I was interested in other genres as well. As a child, I had already discovered the orchestras of Paul Mauriat and James Last. In the following years, as a student, I became fascinated with the music of bands such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The fusion era brought a new outlook on music, with unheard-of brass arrangements which I thought were crazy. For hours and hours, I practised to imitate the style of play of James Pankow and David Bargeron, the trombonists in Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. In 1976, I joined a group called Jazz Junior – and later I also played in several other fusion bands… in Grup Çağdas, I met Onno Tunç and Turhan Yükseler; and later on, in the İstanbul Gelişim Orkestrası, two of my colleagues were Selçuk Başar and Garo Mafyan. All of these guys were hugely talented in their own way; playing with them was the best way possible to get closer to the world of contemporary jazz and pop. Besides, while rehearsing with those groups, the arrangements were mostly created as we went along, experimenting, trying out everything in the book. It was while playing with those fusion groups in Istanbul that my development as a self-taught arranger began.”
“Out of the blue, in 1979, my teacher, Mr Polat, suggested taking the trombone exam of the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra. I was surprised, because I still had two years until my graduation, but as it turned out, there was a vacancy in the orchestra and, apparently, he thought I had it in me – and who wouldn’t want to be in a symphony orchestra after all those years of training? Well, believe it or not, I passed the audition! Honestly speaking, the first year in the orchestra was very difficult. Having studied for so many years, I was convinced I knew everything, but such a professional classical orchestra is something of a completely different league than the conservatoire orchestra. At age 21, I was the youngest member – surrounded by hugely experienced guys, some of whom were over 40 years my senior. Working in their midst, I found out soon enough that I knew nothing, nothing at all! My first few years in the orchestra were spent counting the number of beats in a note; in fact, it took me some ten years before I had gained enough experience to stop counting the beats constantly.”
“Over the years, I worked with many different types of conductors – Vladimir Fedoseev and Alexander Rahbari being among the most high-profile maestros who performed with the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra as guests. Perhaps I felt most comfortable under the baton of Alexander Schwinck, a very versatile musician able to work in different genres. Of course, being an orchestra musician, I have always felt the best conductor is the one who finishes rehearsals early!”
“The most memorable rehearsal experience, though, was when Hikmet Şimşek, who had been my orchestra teacher at the music academy, prepared Stravinsky’s ballet ‘The Firebird’ with us. It was a harsh winter day in Istanbul, with lots of snow making moving about in the city a liability. Not all musicians were able to make it in time for the rehearsals. Now, at the beginning of ‘The Firebird’, there are two trombone solos, but the guy sitting next to me playing the second trombone part wasn’t there. To play a trick on my old teacher, I gave the first trombone part to my former classmate at the conservatoire, Şenova Ülker, who was a trumpet player – and I told him I would play the second part. Some seconds after Şimşek gave me the sign to play the solo, he looked at me confusedly and stopped the orchestra. He heard something was wrong, but he couldn’t work out what it was… so he started again and stopped the orchestra again – and he repeated this several times over. Eventually, he turned to me and asked, “Levent, how can your trombone produce two different sounds at the same time?” I decided it was time to put him out of his misery, telling him that Şenova was playing the other part on his trumpet. Maestro Şimşek then made the whole orchestra burst into laughter when he said, “Ah yes, you were like that back in your student days too!” The man obviously took the joke in good spirit.”
“Alongside my job in the symphony orchestra, there was more than enough time to develop my own activities, certainly after surviving those difficult first couple of years in which I struggled to keep up with the level. Together with my activities in jazz and pop groups, I had become quite heavily involved in studio sessions, playing in pop music recordings with all of Turkey’s best arrangers – guys like Timur Selçuk, someone who was always fully concentrated when conducting, and Onno Tunç; another was Melih Kibar, a very humorous, helpful, and supportive person. My friendship with him lasted until he passed away. The man wrote and arranged hundreds of songs, while also recording dozens of albums. I admired him as a person as well as a musician.”
“Meanwhile, I had developed an interest in modern jazz, specifically the music of Chick Corea which I discovered through his LP ‘The Leprechaun’. The timbre of the Fender Rhodes piano on this album impressed me. From 1980 onwards, electric pianos began being used in recording sessions in Turkey as well. Emin Fındıkoğlu played a big part in this. He was perhaps the most modern of all of Turkey’s arrangers – and a real jazz man. In 1986, Emin founded a jazz band with colleagues from the recording studio – and I was among them. The band was called Euphony. It wasn’t a commercial group; our concerts were a ‘niche’ thing, happening in jazz clubs in Istanbul, and it was huge fun for all of us.”
“The sound of the Fender Rhodes piano impressed me from the first time I heard it. It gave me the idea to write music myself, but I felt I needed my own Fender to inspire me. Finally, in 1986, I had a Mark 2 Fender imported from England as well as a Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier. In the conservatoire, I had been taught to play the piano – and now, finally having such a wonderful electric piano of my own, I felt I could start creating my own work.”
“Thanks to my jobs as a session player, I was quite well-known in music circles in Istanbul, which helped me obtaining my first arranging commissions in the late 1980s. The first time I presented myself to the outside world with a pop song was in 1989, when my composition ‘Gerçek ask’ was admitted to the final of the Golden Dove Song Festival, a domestic music festival for Turkish composers held in Kuşadası. It was a love theme with two distinct different parts, performed by Grup Denk, a singing duo who were quite well-known in Turkey at the time. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage a good result, but it was a nice experience. I liked the process of composing and arranging. It’s as if you are constructing a building, brick by brick. It’s all about combining the inspiration with some mathematics. From the moment I started writing my own material, I’ve always loved creating arrangements. It’s something which comes to me easily.”
“In 1990 and 1991, I took part in the TRT Golden Antenna Song Contest, returning to the Golden Dove Festival in 1991, when it was held in Istanbul – not with a song of my own, but as an arranger and conductor of a piece written by Metin Özülkü. Metin mostly worked as a songwriter for other artists, but for this competition, he performed the song – entitled ‘Sen daha dur’ – in a duet with his wife Eda. I arranged it and conducted the orchestra. As it happened, our song was picked by the jury as the winner of the festival. Obviously, I was happy to be part of the winning team, but it wasn’t a life-changing moment. Being the conductor of a festival entry isn’t something noted by large parts of the audience… but my arrangement may have won the appreciation of orchestra members and musicians taking part in the competition as a songwriter or performer. From that perspective, perhaps that festival helped to establish my name among professionals in the music industry.”
“In the 1990s, I continued working as a session player, while also receiving commissions to write songs and arrangements for artists here and there. In 1995, I took the next step by founding my own commercial recording studio in Istanbul. Record engineering had always fascinated me and I just wanted to give it a try. It was never the most important studio, but it was one of the first in Turkey to go digital. I was working with a computer and a 16-track ADAT recorder – a tape machine developed in America a few years previously. Some artists were sent to me through their record company, while others asked me to find them a company. In those years, I arranged and produced studio projects with many different artists. Still, I never seriously considered building a career on that studio, and after some years I felt it was time to move on. I sold my studio in 1998.”
Apart from his activities in the field of popular music, Levent Çoker wrote contemporary classical music in the 1990s, including a ‘Fanfare for Brass and Percussion’, performed by the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra (1992), a ‘Symphonic Suite’ (1995), and some pieces of chamber music. Moreover, he tried his hand at ballet, composing, amongst other commissions, the music to the piece ‘Hayal Yolcuları’ (‘Dream Travellers’, 1993).
“Honestly, I have never liked thinking in terms of genres or styles,” Çoker comments. “I’m composing because I like it – and, to my mind, any music can be interesting. Yes, I suppose, musically speaking, you could say I am an omnivore. In my symphonic work, I mostly drew inspiration from Russian classical composers, but also from Ravel and Mahler. Of course, some Anatolian scent comes into this mosaic as well. Writing ballet music, on the other hand, can be quite tedious when choreographers ask you for something very specific – let’s say ‘a happy melody which lasts 3 minutes and 17 seconds’ – which stifles any inspiration beforehand. Fortunately, I was always given a free hand in my ballet commissions. For ‘Dream Travelers’, I teamed up with Oytun Turfanda, the chief choreographer of the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet at the time. I had just met him a short time before, so I was honoured to work with him. Based on some general directions about the atmosphere which Oytun gave me, I wrote the desired music according to my own tastes. In the end, the piece ran for several seasons, which was obviously rewarding for me as well.”
“Meanwhile, I was still playing the trombone in the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra. Apart from the regular season, which lasted for nine months a year, we undertook tours across Turkey and abroad. I can’t even remember in how many countries we performed. In 2009, after having been part of the orchestra for thirty years and principal trombonist for the last twenty of them, I decided to quit. At some point, I felt I had seen everything. There were younger replacements who would be more than able to fill the void. Besides, I wanted to stop while I was still at the top of my abilities. Sadly, by the time I left, the position of classical music in Turkey had weakened markedly. Western classical music had been introduced to the country successfully after the foundation of the republic by Atatürk and his friends in 1923, but from the 1980s onwards interest started to dwindle gradually. The same is true for jazz, by the way. Given how much the country has changed over the last decades, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it is unfortunate nonetheless.”
“In effect, I had the luxury of going into retirement quite early on in my life. I’ve been enjoying it to the full, just doing the things I like. For some years, I didn’t pursue any music-related activities, but in 2021 the urge to compose was suddenly there again. The music business has changed profoundly in the last thirty years, but I don’t have any obligations and I can write the things that I personally like, posting them on my YouTube channel – mostly instrumental melodies with a jazzy feel to them. I don’t have any expectations and I don’t have to compete with anybody; to me, that is the best situation imaginable. I feel I have been leading a good life. I became a musician more or less accidentally, but I’m happy with everything which followed after watching that one Louis Armstrong film!”
EUROVISION SONG CONTEST
Long before his participations in the Turkish Eurovision pre-selection and the Eurovision Song Contest as a composer and conductor, Levent Çoker was involved in the competition as a musician. In 1979, he was part of a jazz combo which performed the interval act in that year’s Turkish Eurovision pre-selection. An article appearing in a Turkish newspaper previewed the show as follows.
“After the last competitor has withdrawn from the white-glass podium, there will be a twenty-minute break – just a Eurovision break to allow the jury members from seventeen cities across Turkey to collate their votes. In the meantime, viewers will have the opportunity to watch a jazz concert performed by a small part of the Eurovision orchestra. The combo playing in the interval will be led by Emin Fındıkoğlu and Onno Tunç – it includes Şenova Ülker on trumpet, Levent Çoker on trombone, Raci Çığırtkan on saxophone, Emin Fındıkoğlu on piano, Onno Tunç on bass, and Atilla Cumhurcu on drums. The group will be supported by a guest musician, harmonica player Hasan Kocamaz. The setlist, which is pre-recorded and will be performed in playback, consists of three pieces, ‘Demet’, ‘Leyla’, and ‘Major Major’.”
“To be honest, I don’t remember much of this,” Çoker admits. “I was only twenty years old at the time. I did a lot of work in various jazz and fusion bands at the time – and this was just a one-off performance among many others. I’m not so sure that I was part of the orchestra accompanying the songs in that national final, as the newspaper article states. It may have been a mistake on the part of the journalist who wrote it.”
For the record: the 1979 Turkish national final was won by Maria Rita Epik & 21. Peron with ‘Seviyorum’, but the song – conducted by Tuğrul Karataş – never made it to the Eurovision Song Contest final in Jerusalem, as Turkey’s broadcaster TRT withdrew from the competition; allegedly due to pressure from neighbouring Arab countries, arising from the controversy regarding the status of Jerusalem.
In the following years, the Turkish national Eurovision finals were held without live orchestral accompaniment. “But I think I must have played along as a session musician, either as a trombonist or keyboard player, in the studio versions of all Turkish Eurovision entries from 1978 onwards,” Çoker adds. “In those years, I was part of the so-called Kemik Üç (meaning, literally translated, the ‘three-man backbone’ – BT), three brass players who were there in nearly all studio sessions, irrespective of who the arranger was. The two others were Şenova Ülker on trumpet and Levent Altındağ on saxophone. They were both great jazz musicians with whom I had worked together in all kinds of bands in Istanbul; moreover, like me, Şenova was also a member of the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra. Onno Tunç was the first to give us the nickname ‘Kemik Üç’, because he liked the forceful yet smooth sound the three of us produced as a team. “Solid as a bone,” is what he said. From that moment on, others started referring to us with the nickname he had devised for us. Onno was a very kind-hearted person and an excellent arranger. In terms of musical knowledge, I learned a lot from him.”
In those years, Turkey’s Eurovision entries usually finished in the lower reaches of the scoreboard in the international final. Asked what might have been behind this, Çoker comments, “With the benefit of hindsight, I would say we were trying too hard to come up with songs which sounded like contemporary Western European music. We weren’t trying to be different. Inevitably, cultural and political elements also must have played their part in explaining why some of the better entries we sent didn’t do well. An example was ‘Didai didai dai’ by MFÖ in 1985. That was an excellent song, first and foremost because the original arrangement done by Garo Mafyan was great. It’s what I would call harmony homework, a textbook case where all harmonies are exactly in the right place. This helped to lift the composition to a higher level. When it was picked to go to Eurovision, the harmonies were refined further by Peter Schön, a musician from the Netherlands, and I would say he did a good job as well. In all, that song deserved to do better in the European competition.”
After an eight-year spell of national finals without live orchestral accompaniment, the 1987 Turkish Eurovision pre-selection saw the return of a real orchestra providing the musical back-up for the artists on stage. In the following decade, the orchestra usually remained part of the set-up for the Turkish selection show – the exceptions being the editions in 1991 and 1993. Whenever an orchestra had to be brought together for the programme, Levent Çoker was among the regular musicians to be asked.
“There wasn’t a light-entertainment orchestra at Turkish television,” Çoker explains, “so the festival orchestra was composed of musicians from different ensembles. Usually, the string section consisted of my colleagues of the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra – or, when the final took place in Ankara, they were replaced by musicians from the Presidential Symphony Orchestra. Part of the brass section also came from either of those two orchestras, with the addition of some guys from the Istanbul Radio Jazz Orchestra. Irrespective of the final being held in Ankara or in Istanbul, however, I was always in the orchestra with my friends Şenova Ülker and Levent Altındağ – remember, we were Kemik Üç, so we were booked as a trio! Playing in the Eurovision orchestra was always nice – first of all because it was an honour to be asked. In a way, being picked for that orchestra meant you were considered among the best session musicians in Turkey. The festival final in Turkey was a fixed item in my agenda for many years – first as a musician, later also regularly as a conductor.”
The first time Çoker arranged and conducted a festival entry himself was in 1988 with Grup Piramit and ‘Sana bağlanmıstım’. “It was my first time conducting an orchestra on television, but I don’t remember being particularly nervous. Although I was never educated as an arranger, I was in many jazz and pop groups in which the arrangements were created by the musicians themselves in rehearsal. I also had the benefit of having studied all the main theoretical subjects in the conservatoire. Furthermore, I had been in the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra since 1979. Working with many classical conductors over the years, you watch and learn while they are doing their job, even though I would never have aspired to conduct a classical symphony – that really is something different than a three-minute pop arrangement. In 1988, I was asked by Piramit’s production crew; they wanted me to do the arrangement and conduct the orchestra, and that’s how it happened. The song wasn’t bad, but perhaps not strong enough to make an impact.”
“I remember how proud I was when Switzerland won the contest that same year with Céline Dion and a song written and conducted by Atilla Şereftuğ. The guy was a top session player in Istanbul in the 1970s. I had never met him and I wasn’t established enough to work with him, but I admired him from a distance. One record he did with Erdal Kızılçay and Selçuk Başar blew me away – it was simply fantastic. When he moved away to Europe, I lost sight of him… but there he was, suddenly, taking part for Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest. When his song (‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ – BT) won the festival, it made me very proud to be Turkish. The following year, in Kuşadası, Atilla was invited as a special guest at the Golden Dove Song Festival. I was there as one of the competing songwriters – and was happy to finally meet him. He turned out to be very friendly. One night, we hung out together in a local club. I was excited to talk to him. After all, he is one of the few Turkish pop musicians to have made an impact internationally. We have remained friends ever since. Atilla still lives in Switzerland today – but staying in touch has become a lot easier with Instagram at our disposal!”
In 1990, Levent Çoker took part in the Turkish Eurovision pre-selection as a composer for the first time with his composition ‘Kime ne’ for Sibel Tüzün. “Sibel and I met for the first time at the 1989 Golden Dove Song Festival, where she was a backing vocalist. To my mind, the girl had potential, so I wrote some songs for her. One of those titles, ‘Hakkın yok’, was presented by her on national television in the TRT Golden Antenna Composition Prize, and ‘Kime ne’ was admitted to the Eurovision selection, but without any tangible success. After two years, our collaboration ended. I was happy to note that she had her breakthrough later on, because it was obvious she was very talented.”
“Even though I was the conductor for ‘Kime ne’, I was one of the musicians in the festival orchestra for that show as well. For the majority of entries, I played the trombone, but in the winning song by Kayahan (‘Gözlerinin Hapsindeyim’ – BT), I was asked by the singer himself to play keyboards. Since I had bought myself a Fender electric piano in England, I occasionally used it in studio sessions as well – and Kayahan knew this. For the national final, a keyboard part was written as an extra to be played along to the original arrangement. It happened to me once or twice that the arranger of a piece taking part in the national final asked me to play a keyboard part for him, but the song for Kayahan in 1990 was the only time when a performer approached me personally.”
In 1992 and 1995, Levent Çoker returned to the Turkish Eurovision final as an arranger and conductor of two pieces composed by others, ‘Ben seni isterım’ for Candan Erçetin & Sinan Erkoç (composer: Mehmet Sezer) and ‘Rüzgarlar vedaya karşı’ for Berna Keser (composer: Mustafa Sandal), but neither made an impact on the juries. In 1996, Çoker had two irons in the fire in the national final, first as an arranger and conductor of ‘Hep bir yarın var’, performed by Coşkun Demir (composer: Mine Mucur); but also with ‘Besinçi mevsim’, a song he composed himself for a girl studying at the Istanbul Music Academy – 18-year-old Şebnem Paker. Eventually, the melancholic ‘Besinçi mevsim’ (in English: ‘The Fifth Season’) won the competition, earning Levent Çoker and Şebnem Paker the right to represent Turkey internationally in the Eurovision Song Contest, due to be held in Oslo.
“This was the time when I had just founded my own commercial recording studio in Istanbul. It was a small studio, but one of the first in Turkey to go digital. This made it a popular place to record demo tracks. For the 1996 Eurovision selection, many composers and performers aspiring to take part recorded their demos in my studio – one being a friend of mine, Mine Mucur, who had written a song for Coşkun Demir, a well-known Turkish chansonnier. Around that same time, I was introduced to Şebnem Paker by a mutual friend – and I decided to write her some songs in an attempt to qualify for the Turkish final. The lyricist of Mine Mucur’s song was a lady called Selma Çuhacı. Given that she was around in the studio regularly at the time, Selma was the obvious choice when I needed someone to write the lyrics to the melodies I wrote for Şebnem Paker.”
“Somehow, writing for Şebnem came very easy to me. ‘Besinçi mevsim’ was written with her in mind. The melody came about when I was in a melancholy mood. I was under forty at the time, far too young to feel those kinds of emotions, but yet I felt them… and that’s how the song was written – intuitively. The same is true of the arrangement. I couldn’t describe the writing process to you even if I wanted to. When the melody was ready, Selma wrote lyrics to it. Then, I had a first taste of how easy working with Şebnem Paker was – as far as I remember, we didn’t need more than one studio take in which she performed the song to perfection.”
“Knowing the type of songs usually selected by TRT’s festival committee, I was kind of surprised when I learned that ‘Besinçi mevsim’ had made it to the final. With hindsight, you could say it was a first step to an innovative approach of the Eurovision Song Contest in Turkey. It is a pop song, but with a structure which was different from the entries Turkey had sent to Eurovision until that time. The arrangement was quite unusual as well – and it didn’t have any affinity with Turkey’s music tradition. It was simply too unusual to succeed! Also given that the Turkish final was Şebnem’s first professional performance as a singer, I didn’t have that much hope we could win. When I was proved wrong and we were handed the winners’ trophies, I told myself something was changing for the better in Turkey. Apparently, it was now possible to win the ticket to Eurovision with a different kind of song.”
Before booking the aeroplane tickets to Norway, Levent Çoker and Şebnem Paker had to wait and see if their song would pass the international audio pre-selection, which was the method in 1996 to whittle down the number of participating countries from 29 to 23 – but ‘Besinçi mevsim’ sailed through with ease, finishing in seventh place, although the leaked jury results for this audio selection were never confirmed officially by the European Broadcasting Union.
Coming to the international festival final in Oslo, Levent Çoker left the orchestration he had used for the national final in Ankara intact – including the wonderfully written part for two flugelhorns. Naturally being the conductor of his arrangement as in Ankara, Çoker got to work with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (in Norwegian: Kringkastingsorkestret or simply KORK). According to the annotations in the orchestration of ‘Besinçi mevsim’, which was preserved in KORK’s archives, the violin, accordion, double bass, and snare drum of the Turkish musicians accompanying Şebnem Paker on stage were in fact played by the orchestra – which means that the four backing musicians were miming.
“Are you sure about this?,” Çoker asks in disbelief, when confronted with the sheet music. “To be honest, I thought that there was a backing track for those four instruments. The date given on the frontpage of the sheet is one month earlier than the contest itself – and I think the score was amended according to my wishes later, but I might very well be mistaken. It’s all quite long ago, you know!”
“At any rate, my main memory of Oslo is the moment when I was introduced to the orchestra for the first rehearsal. Although I had been a conductor in the Turkish final several times in the preceding years, somehow I felt I needed to explain to the musicians that I wasn’t a trained conductor. I stood up and said something like, “Guys, please help me! I am not a real conductor – I am an orchestral musician just like you are and your thoughts about conductors are probably the same as mine… after all, the best conductor is a dead conductor!” Of course this last remark wasn’t meant seriously, but it got my message across. My words were applauded whole-heartedly by the musicians, upon which the rehearsal got underway.”
“After playing through the piece three times, I was completely satisfied with the sound. It was obvious I was working with an excellent orchestra consisting of skilled musicians. Even though there was still time to play through the score one or two more times, I decided there was no need. As a musician in the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra, I had always been an enemy of conductors who were over-rehearsing, wasting the musicians’ time over some tiny, unimportant detail in the score. Why continue rehearsing when everything is fine? So I finished the rehearsal and told the musicians they were free to go. They were astonished, but at the same time they sensed how much trust I put in their ability and professionalism – and following that first rehearsal, I became their favourite conductor. One night, I found myself on the roof bar of our hotel with the Norwegian concertmaster and some other musicians in the orchestra. We all probably had a couple of drinks too many which led to some of us misbehaving a bit – without getting into detail, let’s say we had a great night together!”
“That week in Oslo, my admiration for Şebnem grew even bigger. Of course, she showed a little tension now and then, which is normal for such a young girl who was on stage only for the second time in her life. Putting trust in me and her backing musicians, she performed the song perfectly. It seemed that girl was born on a stage – there weren’t any difficulties regarding her performance that needed addressing. The camera work was fine and the communication with Şebnem and her backing musicians on stage posed no problem at all.”
“I don’t think I attended any of the other countries’ rehearsals. Instead, I preferred wandering around in Oslo on my own. Staying in Norway, a country which is so modern and advanced, was a great experience. On top of that, we were offered a cruise around the Oslo Fjord as well as a guided tour in an open-air museum focusing on the daily life of Vikings. Local authorities did an excellent job on the organisation of the festival, keeping everybody smiling all week. The organisation was perfect – no, let me correct myself, it was beyond perfect!”
“In the voting, we finished in twelfth place, which I was happy with – given how badly Turkey had fared in previous years. Still, the overriding feeling when leaving Oslo and its beautiful people was that we could do a little better. I was determined to have another go at the contest with Şebnem. ‘Besinçi mevsim’ was different from an average Turkish entry, but the experience in Oslo taught me that a Eurovision song needed to stand out even more from the rest to really make an impact on the juries.”
“For the following year, my thoughts developed in the direction of a more ethnically inspired melody. Because the Turkish population abroad is quite large, many people in Western Europe have become familiar with the flavour of Turkish folk tunes and traditional instruments. With my eyes firmly set on the following year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, I worked on a melody in which such instruments would have a place without disturbing foreign ears too much. The idea for the main theme of ‘Dinle’ came to me when I pressed my fingers on the B and C notes of my keyboard simultaneously. Once I had found this, the rest of the melody came out naturally. For the lyrics, I worked with Mehtap Alnıtemiz; together, we created a poem which consciously avoided an accumulation of vowels – the goal being to avoid deterring non-Turkish speakers.”
“In the instrumentation, I chose to include two traditional Turkish instruments, the bağlama and the ney (Ottoman lute and flute – BT), with some pizzicato strings in the intro. I could try to impress you with all kinds of further details, but essentially writing an arrangement is a mathematical endeavour in which a thorough knowledge of instrumentation and harmony is required. It’s like building a construction with Lego bricks – and once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s possible to write an orchestration rather quickly. The arrangement of ‘Dinle’ is straightforward and it didn’t take me that much time to get it on paper.”
“Submitting the piece to TRT, I wasn’t extremely surprised when it was picked for the final – without wanting to sound immodest, I felt the final version of ‘Dinle’ suited my plan of writing a Eurovision entry which could do better than ‘Besinçi mevsim’ – while this song fitted Şebnem’s vocal range perfectly as well. As the year before, the song was tailor-made for her. For the national final, she was accompanied on stage by a group of five musicians who were friends of mine from the recording studio (the quintet was dubbed ‘Grup Etnik’ – BT). Given that the sound mix of ethnic instruments with an orchestra can be tricky, we pre-recorded a backing track. With Şebnem giving a very confident performance, we were runaway winners in the Turkish selection – winning the prize for the second time in a row, which naturally was gratifying. We were on our way to Dublin!”
“Both Şebnem and I came to Ireland as more seasoned musicians than the year before in Oslo. We knew what to expect. While she intuitively had given a good performance in the contest in Norway, she now behaved as a fully professional singer, moving confidently about the stage. Unlike the year before, I had brought along a choreographer to the contest – a friend of mine called Erdal Uğurlu, who I knew from my theatre commissions. He usually worked on ballet performances. Erdal was of great assistance to Şebnem in perfecting her stage performance.”
“With large parts of the arrangement, including percussion and keyboards, being on a backing track, the orchestral rehearsals were easy for me as a conductor. Everything went just perfectly. At the first rehearsal, I was surprised to note that singers and delegates from other countries were in the auditorium, singing along enthusiastically to our song. At that point, I realised my ambition of doing really well in the voting might actually turn into reality.”
“Of the other competitors, we were closest to the delegation representing Greek Cyprus. We had conversations with their composer and singing group. I liked their song, ‘Mana mou’. To my mind, there was no problem at all in getting in touch with Cypriots – or with Greeks, for that matter. TRT officials explicitly encouraged us to mingle with competitors from other countries. Politicians might have their own problems, but I have many Greek friends and, on that occasion in Ireland, I was happy to get to know our colleagues from Cyprus.”
“For the general rehearsal, I bought myself removable hair dye in red and white and painted a Turkish flag on my head. The members of the orchestra told me I looked great – but, unfortunately, for the concert, I found that shops in Dublin had closed early. The hair dye I had used the day before had come off in the shower; and there was no possibility of finding new hair dye in time. When walking onto the conductors’ platform for our performance, waiting to take my bow to the camera, the orchestra players reacted instantly; they joked they refused to perform the arrangement to ‘Dinle’ without me wearing the Turkish flag in my hair. We had a laugh together, which relieved any stress that I might have felt at that moment – and then the performance given by the orchestra was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything more of them.”
In the voting, Turkey obtained an unprecedented number of 121 votes, finishing third – the best result the country had ever had in the Eurovision Song Contest. “After the positive reactions we had had during rehearsals, I was expecting a good result – but coming third was even better than what I anticipated. At the party thrown by the Irish broadcasting service after the contest, the whole Turkish delegation got together to celebrate our success. When we returned to Istanbul, we were greeted with flowers at the door of the plane – and we received a lot of press attention, much more than was usually given to the Eurovision candidate in Turkey. The proudest moment for me as a Turkish patriot came when we were received by our country’s President Süleyman Demirel at his private mansion.”
“What I hadn’t heard while conducting the orchestra, but only found out after returning to Turkey and watching a video of the contest – one of the guys in the backing group produced a strange sound while Şebnem was singing. It could be heard rather clearly in the television broadcast. Of course, nobody could take away from me the pride of finishing third, but I’m a perfectionist and that sound ruined the performance for me. Needless to say, I never worked with the man again.”
“Later that year, we released an album, Şebnem’s first solo album, which naturally included both of her Eurovision songs. Due to a disagreement with the lyricist of the original version of ‘Dinle’, we had a new, slightly amended poem written for this song by Zerrin Alporal.”
In 1998, Levent Çoker and Şebnem Paker qualified for the Turkish final once more – and yet again with an ethnically flavoured piece, ‘Çal’. This time, however, there was to be no success. ‘Çal’ was ignored completely by TRT’s professional jury, while the winner’s trophy went to a traditional festival ballad composed by Erdinç Tunç, ‘Unutamazsın’. This prevented Şebnem Paker, who had won a considerable number of fans among Eurovision followers across Europe in the meantime, from taking part in in the festival for the third year in a row.
“You won’t hear me berating the quality of ‘Unutamazsın’”, Levent Çoker comments. “Each song has its own beauty – and, generally speaking, there’s no accounting for taste. I feel ‘Çal’ was a song which was at least as good as ‘Dinle’ – and I’m convinced it could have made an impact on the international stage, but it wasn’t to be. It was a bit strange that we hardly received any votes, but things like this happen in Turkey. We had to admit defeat and turn our attention to other projects. Incidentally, 1998 also was the year when I sold my recording studio in Istanbul. As I felt I had nothing left to prove in the Eurovision Song Contest, I refrained from entering the competition again. The collaboration with Şebnem lasted for some five or six more years. I produced another album with her, but it was never released. In 2003, she took part in the Golden Dove Song Festival in Kuşadası with ‘Be güzelim’, a song composed and conducted by me. At some point, we felt it was time to part ways, each of us eager for new artistic opportunities. As for myself, by the early 2000s, I was less interested in pop music projects than in the previous decade.”
“To my surprise, in the years following the festival in Dublin, ‘Dinle’ became a Eurovision classic. The song has tens of millions of views on YouTube – something I am very proud of and never could have imagined when writing the piece. Somehow the melody touched a chord with music listeners across Europe. Something which fewer Eurovision fans might know… the song was also included in a film called Square One (directed by the Iranian Navid Nikkhah Azad – BT). The composer of the soundtrack, Abuzar Saffarian, called me, asking me for my permission to use ‘Dinle’ in this movie, because he felt it fitted in well with the atmosphere of the film. I saw no reason why he couldn’t, and so ‘Dinle’ ended up being used as background music in a short scene. Funnily, I am now credited at that film’s co-composer without having had to do anything for it.”
In 2003, Turkey finally won the Eurovision Song Contest for a first time, with the country’s pop superstar Sertab Erener. Following the example of ‘Dinle’, her entry ‘Every way that I can’ was an ethnically flavoured song, but performed with English lyrics – something which wasn’t allowed yet under the Eurovision rules which were in force in 1996 and 1997.
When asked if he believes his composition ‘Dinle’ paved the way for Sertab Erener, Levent Çoker reflects, “Those 121 points we received in 1997 gave Turkish music credibility in Europe and also gave the Eurovision Song Contest credibility in Turkey. In that sense, perhaps Sertab Erener wouldn’t have participated in 2003 if ‘Dinle’ hadn’t done so well some years before. On the other hand, Sertab deserves full credit for her song and her effort. Winning Eurovision is no mean achievement – and I don’t want to take away anything from that. As for the language issue, I don’t believe the obligation of having to sing in your mother tongue was a disadvantage for us in the 1990s. Eurovision isn’t a poetry competition, but a contest between composers. If you put in an effort to come up with intelligently written lyrics, in which attention is paid to harmonies as well as phonetics, you can succeed with a song in Turkish or in any other language.”
After having turned his back on the world of music for nearly a decade, Levent Çoker started composing again in 2021. When asked if he could be convinced to enter the contest again, he comments, “Well, first of all my country’s state television service would have to decide to enter the contest again. I haven’t seen the international final in years. I don’t even think it’s being broadcast in Turkey any longer. After my extensive involvement in the 1990s, I saw no reason to try again, but if a new possibility presents itself… why not? Admittedly, though, the contest has changed quite a bit. Speaking generally, the show became more commercial; and the orchestra no longer being part of the setup is a logical consequence of this. I don’t know if I would fit in well in this environment. When I took part, the element I liked best was having your arrangement performed by a professional orchestra. To my mind, music ought to be live, and to me, there is no better way of generating live music than with a grand orchestra.”
OTHER ARTISTS ABOUT LEVENT ÇOKER
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EUROVISION INVOLVEMENT YEAR BY YEAR
- Bas Tukker interviewed Levent Çoker in an email exchange, September 2022
- A wealth of music written by Levent Çoker can be found on his YouTube channel
- A playlist of Levent Çoker’s music can be found by clicking this link
- Photos courtesy of Levent Çoker and Ferry van der Zant
- Thanks to Mark Coupar and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Tin Španja for uploading the videos