Saturday 9 May 1998


The following article is an overview of the career of Macedonian composer, arranger, and conductor Aleksandar Džambazov. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Džambazov, conducted by Bas Tukker in may 2014. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Aleksandar Džambazov's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2014

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Aleksandar Džambazov
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: February 3rd, 1936, Stapar, Danube Banovina (Yugoslavia)
Died: January 25th, 2022, Skopje (North Macedonia)
Nationality: Macedonian


Aleksandar Džambazov (Александар Џамбазов) was involved in two Macedonian Eurovision attempts. In 1996, he conducted ‘Samo ti’, the winning song in the Macedonian pre-selection, performed by Kaliopi. However, Kaliopi did not get to perform it in the Eurovision Song Contest, as she was eliminated in the audio semi-final. Two years later, in 1998, Džambazov conducted the orchestra in Birmingham, when Vlado Janevski represented Macedonia with ‘Ne zori, zoro’. As Macedonia was drawn to perform last of the 25 countries competing in that year's contest, Aleksandar Džambazov is the last-ever musician to have conducted a Eurovision entry on the international stage.


The history of Aleksandar Džambazov’s family is almost as complicated as the history of Macedonia itself. “My grandfather and father were komitadji, rebels fighting Turkish and later Serbian rule over Macedonia,” Džambazov explains. “Father was a bright student; he graduated from secondary school with the highest possible marks. Due to his revolutionary activities, however, he was arrested by Serbian authorities and sent into exile to a town not far from Nissa in Serbia for five years. After that, he was forced to do five more years of hard labour in the Vojvodina province. It was there, in Stapar, that I was born."

"After being allowed to return to Macedonia, our family initially went to Kocani and eventually settled down in Štip, where dad became a teacher of mathematics. World War II brought more havoc. I spent most of the war with my grandmother, as my parents and the rest of my family were either in internment in Bulgaria or fighting Bulgarian occupation as partisans. My grandmother and I survived mainly thanks to the baker in Štip charged with preparing bread for the Bulgarian army. I was a little boy back then. He called me to his bakery every day, secretly handing me one loaf of bread to bring to my grandmother.”

“It is fair to say that the music gene was part of my family. My father was a Wunderkind at the prim (the Turkish version of the mandolin - BT). As a child, he was even sent to Istanbul to further master that instrument. My aunt, who was widowed and lived with our family, also played the prim. She used to sing lullabies for me as a baby, accompanying herself with it. As I was told later, I ended up singing lullabies for her, singing the songs she had sung to me… and she fell asleep instead of me!"

Džambazov (far left) as a young man, playing the guitar in a jazz group (1950s)

"I was very lucky to meet Sergej Michailov. He was a Russian aristocrat who had fled the communist regime in the Soviet Union and settled in Macedonia. He was an excellent composer and pedagogue. He had even taught the King of Japan. In Štip, he managed to stimulate the miners and factory workers in our town to such an extent that they performed operas. He also taught music to the local children. Thanks to him, all children in town were fond of music, discussing the basics of music theory amongst one another! I passed an audition with him. Following that, Michailov became my violin teacher. I attended his lessons for three years” (1945-48 - BT).

In 1948, Aleksandar’s father, who prospered under new Titoist rule in communist Yugoslavia and had become supervisor of all schools in Štip, moved to Skopje. It was there that young Aleksandar continued his education. Apart from secondary school, he attended music school. Meanwhile, it had dawned to the people around him that he possessed a special talent for music.

“The headmaster of regular school called my father, telling him that he should allow his son to focus fully on his music studies. He said that I had the abilities become Macedonia’s Paganini. It had been discovered that I possessed perfect pitch, being able to recognize eight, and later ten, different tones simultaneously. As I was so far ahead of the rest, the music school’s principal regularly sent me out to do some shopping for him while my classmates were toiling on tests in solfège and other basics of music theory.”

As a teenager in Skopje, Džambazov slowly lost interest in the violin and classical music altogether. “Though I had an excellent violin teacher, Ettore Balestri who played in the Scala in Milan before coming to Skopje, I did not enjoy playing very much. Parallelly, I got more and more fascinated by jazz. I discovered the recordings of American band leaders such as Xavier Cugat and Glenn Miller. The crucial moment, however, was in 1952, when I saw the old Hollywood movie Bathing Beauty, which featured the big band of Harry James. From that moment onwards, I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician. My objective? To become Macedonia’s answer to Gershwin! To achieve this, I had to learn to play another instrument, as it is hardly possible to play polyphony on the violin. A friend helped me on the guitar. By that time, I had also mastered the piano, which was my second instrument at music school."

With three friends of the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Day, 1964, from top to bottom: Aleksandar Džambazov, Gavrilo Suplevski, Miroslav Stantić, and Zoran Dimitrovski

"Being the favourite of the school’s principal, I was allowed to play jazz after the regular school hours. This was an immense privilege, because, in the first years after the war, jazz was frowned upon by communist authorities as it originated from the capitalist West. All of that changed after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. After it, there was absolute artistic freedom in Yugoslavia. I got in touch with Dragan Djakonovski-Špato, who was five years older than me. Really, that man is the father of pop and jazz music in Macedonia. He allowed me to join his jazz sextet. In 1953, when I was seventeen, I did my first public performance with Djakonovski’s band. I stayed for the next three years. As Italian music was extremely popular in Macedonia in those days, our band’s regular repertoire was full of Sanremo songs for which Dragan had written out the arrangement by listening to the original Italian records."

After finishing secondary school, Aleksandar Džambazov moved to Belgrade, where he studied music theory at the Belgrade Music Academy (1956-60). 

“There was no conservatory in Skopje at that time, so I had to leave Macedonia in order to fulfil my ambition. Like other Macedonian students in Belgrade, I couldn’t afford proper lodging and stayed in a dormitory. For that reason, I couldn’t have studied piano – there were no possibilities to practice at home. Therefore, I chose music theory as my main subject, whilst I took piano, harmony, composition, and conducting as minors. My favourite teacher was Marko Tajčević, who taught the piano and composition. He wanted me to stay in Belgrade for one more year as his assistant, but, by that time, my finances had been exhausted to the last penny and I had to decline. In spite of the fact that Belgrade in the 1950s did not have the cultural buzz of Zagreb or Ljubljana, both of which enjoyed more western influences, the years I spent in Serbia were unforgettable. During my student days, I played in the jazz orchestra of Vojislav Simić. In 1960, we went to Joan-les-Pins on the French Riviera, where our big band won first prize in the local jazz festival. An indelible memory!”

By the time of his graduation in Belgrade, Džambazov was beginning to make his mark as a composer of popular repertoire as well. In 1960, two of his compositions were selected for the Opatija Song Festival. One of these songs, ‘Pesma povratka’ (lyrics: Sava Šandorov) was interpreted by the famous Croatian singer Gabi Novak. 

“In 1960, 402 compositions were submitted to compete in Opatija,” Džambazov recalls. “It was an honour that my creations were selected from that bunch to take part in the festival final. Opatija was the Yugoslavian answer to the San Remo Festival and became the most popular music festival in Yugoslavia by far. Everyone wanted to take part. In those days, there was lots of enthusiasm amongst singers, songwriters, and arrangers, whilst bribe and corruption to get your song selected did not exist yet. In the following years, more of my compositions competed in Opatija. This resulted in my melodies being published in Yugoslavian songbooks along with the most popular San Remo songs.”

In total, between 1960 and 1976, 21 of Aleksandar Džambazov’s compositions took part in the Opatija Song Festival, making him the record holder amongst Yugoslavian composers in terms of number of participations. Some of his most popular Opatija compositions include ‘Pred branovi’ for Radoslav Graić, ‘Ti i jas’ for Marjana Deržaj (both 1961), ‘Ljubav i motor’ for Miki Jevremović and the 4M quartet, which was awarded a special jury prize in 1962, ‘Stom te vidam’ for Dime Popovski (1966), and ‘Dojdi’ for Violeta Tomovska in 1967. For most of the songs mentioned, Džambazov worked with lyricist Gjoko Georgiev. In the 1960s and 1970s, Džambazov’s creations were recorded by many other Yugoslavian artists, such as Nina Spirova, Tereza Kesovija, Vice Vukov, Zdenka Kovačićek, and Ambasadori. Moreover, his composition ‘Sunčani januar’, interpreted by Zvonko Špišić, took part in the 1963 Belgrade Song Festival.

Meanwhile, Džambazov had returned to Macedonia, being employed by local broadcaster RTV Skopje, editing radio opera programs and producing classical music recordings for radio broadcasts (1962-64). Prior to that, in 1961, RTV Skopje had made him president of the committee charged with the foundation of the broadcaster’s big band.

“My old friend Dragan Djakonovski became the chief conductor of the big band. Because of Dragan’s enthusiasm, I approved of the inclusion in the band of two musicians with no music school background at all! It was a set piece big band of some twenty elements. Because Djakonovski’s wife wanted him to move to Bitola, however, he moved the entire orchestra there, and soon after that he left for Belgrade, leaving the musicians without a conductor. Though I would have preferred to stay on as a radio producer, which left me more time to write my own compositions, I undertook the musical directorship of the RTV Skopje Big Band & Jazz Orchestra at the request of the broadcaster. That was in 1964.”

Conducting his radio big band (1970s)

Aleksandar Džambazov was the chief conductor of RTV Skopje’s Big Band & Jazz Orchestra, renamed the MKRTV Big Band Orchestra in 1993 after Macedonian independence, for 37 consecutive years (1964-2001), possibly a world record for any light entertainment conductor. During the latter half of his tenure, Džambazov was assisted by Berklee-bred musician Ilija Pejovski. 

“Most of the orchestra’s work took place in the TV and radio recording studios. We did two recordings every week, with instrumental and vocal music, ranging from folk and pop to jazz, depending on what our producers asked us. We also did some touring in Macedonia, but not very often. The most important thing was… we had absolute artistic freedom to play the music in a style we wanted. Younger people seem to think that, under communism, state control was everywhere, but this is simply not true; we could do as we pleased. That is why Tito was the idol of many Yugoslavians: after all, he stood up for our freedom against Stalin.”

When Džambazov is asked about his fondest memory of the big band, he struggles to come up with an answer “That really is an impossible question. Perhaps I should mention our participation in the Radenci Festival for Instrumental Music in Slovenia. That was a wonderful manifestation, organized with the objective to popularise instrumental music in Yugoslavia. All big bands taking part were given the same piece of music – often a folkloric theme from some part of Yugoslavia – and the award was given to the best arrangement. In 1984 and 1985, my orchestra won first prize for best program choice in this Radenci Festival. Maybe slightly more high profile were the commissions to accompany all songs in two editions of the Opatija Song Festival and two editions of the Split Song Festival in Croatia in the 1970s. Our band was given the honour to be part of those big events!”

Aleksandar Džambazov stood at the cradle of the Festival na Zabavni Melodii Skopje, commonly known as the Skopje Fest, the most important Macedonian pop music festival, which ran until 1980, and was given a second life after Macedonian independence from 1994 onwards.

All conductors of a 1970s edition of the Opatija Song Festival (possibly 1975), from left to right: Esad Arnautalić (RTV Sarajevo), Aleksandar Džambazov (RTV Skopje), Miljenko Prohaska (RTV Zagreb), Vojislav Simić (RTV Beograd), Dragan Djakonovski-Špato (RTV Skopje), Ilija-Baćko Genić (RTV Beograd), Jože Privšek (RTV Ljubljana), Julio Marić (RTV Sarajevo), Stevan Radosavljević (RTV Novi Sad), Nikica Kalogjera (RTV Zagreb), Mario Rijavec, and Bojan Adamič (both RTV Ljubljana)

“I was approached by the government of Macedonia to hold a concert of Macedonian classical and pop music to stimulate composers. After consulting my composer colleagues, however, we decided to turn it into a competition. I suggested to allow twelve compositions into the festival each year, which would each be performed by two or four different artists – ideally two, one from Macedonia and one from another Yugoslavian republic, each in his or her own mother tongue – in different arrangements."

"After my proposal had been approved by the government, the first Skopje Fest was held in 1968. All songs were accompanied by my big band, which was turned into a true Revijski Orkestar or Festival Orchestra with the addition of classical string and woodwind players from the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra and the local opera orchestra especially for the occasion. In the first twelve years of the festival, I always was the chief conductor, usually helped by Dragan Djakonovski and one or two conductors from other Yugoslavian broadcasters, such as Bojan Adamič from Slovenia.”

Maestro Džambazov did not make his mark in the Skopje Festival as an arranger and conductor only, but as a composer too. His composition ‘Sramežlivi luge’, interpreted by Violeta Tomovska, Ljupka Dimitrova, Zafir Hadzimanov, and Dime Tomovski, won the first edition of the festival in 1968. Later onwards, two more of Džambazov’s compositions were declared winners of the competition: ‘Samo ti’, interpreted by Miki Jevremović and Zoran Milosavljević in 1971; and ‘O, ljubav neverna’, performed by Zafir Hadžimanov in 1978. He took part in the festival with many more songs, which were interpreted by the likes of Ɖani Maršan and Zoran Georgiev. In 1969, Josipa Lisac and Elda Viler sang his composition ‘Doviduvanje’ (arranged by Stipica Kalogjera), which only came second, but went on to become a huge hit success across Yugoslavia.

Another of Džambazov’s brainchildren is Zlatno Slavejče, the Golden Nightingale Song Festival, a singing competition for children which has been held annually since 1971 (with the exception of 1981) and therefore is one of the oldest children’s song festival in Europe, second only to Italy’s Zucchino d’Oro. In the early years of the festival, Džambazov wrote dozens of arrangements and composed no fewer than thirteen songs for the competition, of which ‘Mojata učitelka’ was declared winning entry in 1976. This song constituted the debut of the later famous Macedonian pop star Kaliopi, at that time just nine years old, who had been discovered by Džambazov during an audition in Ohrid. Apart from that, Džambazov composed the theme tune for Zlatno Slavejče, ‘Za site deca’ (meaning, literally translated, 'For every child'), which has become an evergreen in Macedonia. Between 1971 and 1989, Džambazov and his big band accompanied all songs competing in the Golden Nightingale. Though the big band was skipped from the competition in 1990 due to a lack of budget, Džambazov has remained involved as a member of the selection committee.

Conducting the orchestra in the Golden Nightingale Song Festival, Skopje (c. 1978)

In spite of his long spell at the helm of RTV Skopje’s Big Band, Aleksandar Džambazov found time to create a quite impressive oeuvre of serious music. In 1966, his ‘Rhapsody For Skopje’, a piece for piano and orchestra with unmistakable Gershwin undertones, won the 5th International Competition for Symphonic Jazz in Italy. Moreover, he composed ‘Smile Before Dawn’, a piece for piano and vocalist based on a poem by Jovan Koteski (1967), ‘Seven Dance Variations’ for piano and orchestra (1977), and several choral pieces. In the genre of brass band music, Džambazov wrote countless orchestrations, while many of his compositions, such as ‘Te čekam’ for Olgica Andonova (1970) and ‘Zemjo naša najskapa’ for Dragan Mijalkovski (1975), took part in Yugoslavian music festivals for revolutionary and patriotic songs. Apart from all this, he composed the music to radio and TV plays as well as several movie soundtracks, most notably for the film ‘Memento’ in 1967.

For the first edition of the MakFest (1986), another pop music festival held every November in Štip, Džambazov submitted two compositions, both arranged by Stipica Kalogjera, ‘Ti si moja sudbina’ and ‘Pej za ljubovta’. On the 11th of October 1998, three years prior to his retirement from the conductorship of the MKRTV Big Band Orchestra, Džambazov was honoured with the Award of the City of Skopje in recognition of his entire oeuvre and his contribution to Macedonian music. Since his retirement, several more oeuvre prizes have been bestowed upon him. In the 2014 edition of the Days of Macedonian Music Festival, his masterpiece ‘Rhapsody For Skopje’ was performed in public for the first time in forty-six years by the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra. 

“The Rhapsody is the composition which is dearest to my heart”, says Džambazov. “As I mentioned before, I did not have as much time as I wanted to create my own music, but the prize which this piece won in Italy as well as the critical acclaim are ample satisfaction to make up for that. With this piece, I feel I have given Macedonia something which will live on to following generations.”

The Library of the Macedonian Association of Composers, Lyricists, and Music Publishers contains 1,450 pieces of sheet music in which Džambazov was involved as a composer, arranger, or producer. His son Igor (born in 1963) is one of Macedonia’s most popular actors, singer-songwriters, and TV hosts.

Maestro Aleksandar Džambazov passed away in Skopje in January 2022 at the age of 85.


In 1994, the Skopje Fest, which had not been held for fourteen years, was revived by MKRTV, Macedonia's broadcaster. In 1996, for the first time, the Macedonians were given the opportunity to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest as an independent nation. MKRTV decided to use the Skopje Fest to determine the country's Eurovision candidate. All songs were accompanied by Aleksandar Džambazov’s big band, extended with classical string and woodwind players. The winner of the 1996 Skopje Fest was Kaliopi with her self-penned song ‘Samo ti’. 

Unfortunately, this melodious song never reached Oslo’s Eurovision stage, as Macedonia was eliminated in the audio pre-selection, held to determine which 23 countries would be admitted to the international Eurovision final. Kaliopi finished 26th among 29 participants and therefore, her first Eurovision adventure ended there and then.

Džambazov relationship with Kaliopi was special, as he had discovered her back in 1976. “When she was just nine years old, she did an audition with me in Ohrid to be admitted to the children’s song festival Zlatno Slavejče. As most of the children coming for such auditions were nervous, I always attempted to make them feel more at ease by telling some jokes. Here, to the contrary, walked in a young girl who claimed that she wanted to sing opera repertoire and knew over 100 songs by heart. I was somewhat sceptic about her confidence, but when she started singing, I was blown away. She sang real arias from ‘La Traviata’ and other operas. Of course, she passed the audition and, what was more, she gave me the inspiration to write a song for her with intervals, specifically suited for an operatic voice. With this song, ‘Mojata učitelka’, she won Zlatno Slavejče in 1976. Later onwards, she became one of Macedonia’s most popular singers, touring in Yugoslavia and abroad. It is a privilege to have discovered her and to have written her debut song."

“At the time of her participation in the Skopje Fest in 1996, however, she was passing through a psychological crisis with some personal drama, including the divorce from her husband with whom she lived in Switzerland, and the illness of her young child. Purely as a singer, she is one of the best of our country, but in 1996, she wasn't really in good shape, so to speak. ‘Samo ti’ was chosen as the winner, and I remember well conducting it in Skopje, but, musically speaking, the song didn't have a future, because it did not have anything special to appeal audiences. I wasn't really surprised when we were eliminated.”

The songwriting team behind 'Ne zori, zoro', Macedonia's Eurovision entry in 1998 - Vlado Janevski and Grigor Koprov

It took sixteen more years, until 2012, for Kaliopi to finally make it to the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Crno i belo’. In Baku, Azerbaijan, ‘Crno i belo’ managed to qualify for the Eurovision final, finishing 13th.

In the 1990s, with many countries from Central and Eastern Europe eager to enter the competition, the European Broadcasting Union tried several formulas to avoid the concert exceeding the three-hour mark. After the one-off solution of an audio pre-selection in 1996, a relegation rule was introduced, meaning that the countries with the worst scores in the past five years would have to miss out on one festival edition. Due to these complicated regulations, Macedonia was doubly punished, as Kaliopi’s failure to qualify automatically relegated the country from the 1997 competition as well. Finally, in 1998, the Macedonians made their debut in the Eurovision Song Contest, with ‘Ne zori, zoro’, a ballad composed by Grigor Koprov. It was performed by crooner Vlado Janevski.

‘Ne zori, zoro’ was selected for the Eurovision Song Contest using the old formula of the Skopje Fest. In the 1998 edition of the Skopje Fest, Aleksandar Džambazov shared the burden of conducting the songs with Kire Kostov. Since Vlado Janevski’s song was amongst the portion of songs conducted by Džambazov, he was allowed to accompany Janevski as a conductor to Birmingham as well. 

“Unfortunately, ‘Ne zori, zoro’ was not the best song in the competition," the conductor comments. "At least, that was my opinion. I believe the entry which finished second (‘Samovilska svadba’, also written by Grigor Koprov, arranged by Slobodan Marković, and performed by Sašo Gigov-Giš, BT), would have stood a better chance of doing well in the Eurovision Song Contest. Vlado Janevski won because he is such a charming person; not because he is a good singer. Moreover, he was very good at writing appealing lyrics. He won on the wings of his huge popularity with the Macedonian public.”

Eurovision 1998, Birmingham - Džambazov having his photo taken with host Ulrika Jonsson (left) and one of the Macedonian backing vocalists

When asked about his memories of his stay in Birmingham and the rehearsals with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Aleksandar Džambazov tells, “When I arrived at the first orchestra rehearsal, the English maestro (Martin Koch - BT) guided me to the conductor’s podium. I said, “Thank you, maestro”, to which he replied, “No, I am not the maestro… you are!” That was witty and very polite of him at the same time, making me feel very welcome indeed. The way the orchestra played was phenomenal. This kind of songs – with easy arrangements – was a piece of cake for that great ensemble. The sound engineers did their work wonderfully too. They made sure the string section could be heard well in the sound mix – often a problem in live shows. The British organisation was perfect and I was much impressed by the interval act with violinist Vanessa-Mae. I liked her a lot! I also had a chat with one of the hosts of the show, Ulrika Jonsson.”

For Džambazov, one of the nicest aspects of his trip to Birmingham was meeting Stipica Kalogjera and Mojmir Sepe, his old friends who conducted the entries from Croatia and Slovenia, respectively. 

“We were part of the nucleus of arrangers and conductors who regularly met back in the days of those countless music festivals across Yugoslavia. Kalogjera had often conducted in Macedonia. We always had an excellent connection. Because of the falling apart of Yugoslavia and the disappearance of the festivals, I had not seen him for years. We were together at every opportunity, having a drink and a chat.” 

Stipica Kalogjera himself confirms he and Džambazov had a good time in Birmingham. The Croatian conductor comments, “The three of us, Mojmir Sepe, Aleksandar, and I, spent some hours together remembering the glorious days of the Opatija Song Festival. We also went on an excursion together to the Swan Theatre in Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon. It was very nice meeting my old friends again.”

During rehearsals in Birmingham, Džambazov also met Dana International from Israel, the transgender artist who eventually won the contest with ‘Diva’. 

The Macedonian delegation to the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest in the greenroom of Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena. Seated next to Džambazov are singer Vlado Janevski (his face hidden behind a flag) and composer Grigor Koprov

“I was not aware of the fact that ‘she’ had been born as a ‘he’. I happened to be in the concert hall during one of the Israeli rehearsals and noticed that Dana International had a hard time reaching the higher notes. Conducting from the front row, I tried to indicate the correct pitch to her. After the rehearsal, I went to see Stipica Kalogjera and some others, commenting about how badly she had sung, but how pretty she was. At that point, one of the others – I do not remember who it was – told me she had been born a man. I was flabbergasted to hear that! Only moments after, while I was still in shock, Dana International walked past our group and stopped to say, "Thank you maestro" for my help in the rehearsal. I was so confused that I did not immediately know what to say and, in the end, I exclaimed some swear words in Macedonian or Croatian. I was greeted by a surprised face… and she walked away. That was the end of my affair with Dana International!”

In the Eurovision final in Birmingham, Vlado Janevski and ‘Ne zori, zoro’ picked up a mere sixteen votes, finishing 19th in a field of 25 competing songs. 

“As I said before, Vlado Janevski is more of a charmer than a singer… and he didn't manage to charm Europe like he had charmed us, Macedonians! The final score for our song was absolutely correct. In spite of the choice of singer and song for Macedonia, which was a slight disappointment to me, I thought it was a special event to be part of, first because it has such a huge audience. Generally speaking, it is always worthwhile to participate in international events. Funnily, afterwards, many of my friends who had watched the program on TV commented how many times the camera showed me while conducting the orchestra during Vlado’s performance.”

The 1998 Eurovision Song Contest was the last festival edition with a live orchestra in place. As Macedonia was drawn twenty-fifth and performed its song after all the others, Aleksandar Džambazov is the last person ever to have conducted a song competing in the Eurovision Song Contest. What is more, he is the only-ever Macedonian conductor to have taken part. 

“Well, I deserve to be in the Guinness Book of Records anyway for being the conductor of the RTV Skopje Big Band for 37 consecutive years,” the old maestro jokes, “and here are two more reasons why I should be in it! Do you know if I can make any money out of all these records? On a serious note, I was quite upset that Dana International won Eurovision without using the orchestra at all. I am very sad about the destiny of most music festivals. The live orchestras have virtually disappeared everywhere. The notable exception is the San Remo Festival in Italy, which still upholds its tradition of quality. Dana International’s victory was the start of a big tragedy for music.”

In later years, with singer Maja Vukičević, one of the participants in the 1998 Skopje Fest


Croatia's Stipica Kalogjera is a pianist and arranger of the same generation as Aleksandar Džambazov. In 1998, Birmingham, he conducted the Croatian entry. “Aleksandar Džambazov was successful as a composer and arranger in many editions of the Opatija Song Festival. I wrote arrangements for several of his compositions, most notably ‘Doviduvanje’, which was interpreted by Elda Viler and Josipa Lisac at the Skopje Fest. Maestro Džambazov is a nice character, a fine composer and arranger, and lastly an excellent band leader.” (2014)

As a child, Nataša Guleska participated in the Golden Nightingale Children’s Song Festival, organized by Aleksandar Džambazov. She remained in touch with him for the remainder of his life. “Maestro Džambazov is my spiritual father and I love him very much. Since his wife passed away in 1997, he has not been the same person – he has become more introverted, but he is an adorable man… a humanist and a non-materialist, like all true artists. He keeps a huge alphabetical archive of all members of his family, which contains many artists and musicians. He has a tendency to take care of everyone except himself.” (2014)


Country – Macedonia
Song title – "Samo ti"
Rendition – Caliopi
Lyrics – Caliopi Grill
Composition – Caliopi Grill
Studio arrangement (demo) – unknown
Live orchestration – Ljupčo Constantinov
Conductor (Macedonian final) – Aleksandar Džambazov
Score audio semi-final – 26th place (14 votes) - eliminated

Country – Macedonia
Song title – "Ne zori, zoro"
Rendition – Vlado Janevski
Lyrics – Vlado Janevski
Composition – Grigor Koprov
Studio arrangement – Valentino Skenderovski
Live orchestration – Valentino Skenderovski
Conductor – Aleksandar Džambazov
Score – 19th place (16 votes)

  • Bas Tukker interviewed Aleksandar Džambazov in May 2014. 
  • Many thanks to Nataša Guleska for her tireless work as an interpreter during the interview
  • More information about the 1998 Skopje Festival, in which ‘Ne zori, zoro’ was selected to represent Macedonia in the Eurovision Song Contest: EuroSong News, No. 61-62 (1998), pg. 73-76
  • Photos courtesy of Aleksandar Džambazov and Ferry van der Zant


The following article is an overview of the career of Turkish pianist, arranger, and conductor Ümit Eroğlu. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Eroğlu, conducted by Bas Tukker in La Wantzenau (France), May 2015. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Ümit Eroğlu's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2015

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Ümit Eroğlu
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: July 7th, 1947, Ankara (Turkey)
Nationality: Turkish

Ümit Eroğlu conducted two Turkish entries, ‘Gözlerinin hapsindeyim’ for Kayahan in Zagreb (1990) and ‘Unutamazsın’ for Tüzmen in Birmingham (1998). In both cases, the arrangement and orchestration were written by Eroğlu himself.


Ümit Eroğlu’s talent for music was passed onto him by his father Kemal (1913-2007), who studied the clarinet at Istanbul’s State Conservatoire. After having worked as a music teacher across Turkey, Kemal Eroğlu was commissioned by the country’s president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to found Turkey’s first private music school.

“Atatürk visited all corners of Turkey, inspecting how his country was run,” Ümit Eroğlu explains. “He met my father, who was teaching his lessons in a cultural house in some outpost village. It was Atatürk’s policy to bring music and other arts to the countryside. He aimed at westernizing Turkey. My father was complimented on his job by Atatürk, who invited him to come to Ankara to bring culture to the new capital. My dad accepted. He taught at colleges and primary schools, while at the same time running his own music school.”

It was in Ankara that Ümit was born in the summer of 1947. “Perhaps my first memory is of riding my children’s bike – but not out on the street, but inside the house amidst music sheets! These sheets had been printed by my father. He always put the carbon papers on the floor of our living room to dry. In a way, that was how my music lessons began! My father was an authoritarian man. He did not want me to play with the other children outside the house. That was why I had to ride my bike in the living room! Dad was determined that I should learn to play the accordion. He had founded an accordion orchestra… in fact, that is how he met my mother, who was one of his students at that instrument. When I was five, he started giving me accordion lessons… and he was a strict teacher. I remember being punished by him, because he felt I was not putting in enough effort!”

Young Ümit on his bike amidst his father’s music sheets (c. 1951)

Ümit studied with his father until he was seven. By that time, he had also taken up mastering the piano, an instrument which he loved from the beginning. Kemal Eroğlu, acknowledging that teaching one’s own child can be a liability, found a better teacher for his son. 

“This piano teacher was a German lady who had married a Turkish violinist. She guided me for a couple of years. I was more profoundly influenced by Mithat Fenmen, a virtuoso piano player who taught at Ankara’s conservatoire. My father sent me to him for private lessons when I was ten years old. Fenmen liked my playing and was adamant that I should go to the conservatoire. He was a great teacher and effectively laid the foundations which allowed me to get into the conservatoire. Meanwhile, I made my radio debut as a member of my father’s accordion orchestra.”

In 1961, Ümit was duly accepted to the Ankara State Conservatoire, at that time the only academic music school in Turkey. Here, he stayed until 1965, continuing his piano studies with Mithat Fenmen and moreover being taught sight-reading, composing, and harmony by Ulvi Cemal Erkin, one of Turkey’s most influential classical musicians. After one or two years in conservatoire, Ümit started earning some extra money, though the way he had to go about to do so was slightly unorthodox. 

“Friends of mine bought jazz records at the American army base in Ankara. That is how jazz music arrived in Turkey! There were a few clubs for the Americans in town. I was attracted to this type of music rightaway. Oscar Peterson became a favourite. With four friends, I formed a group, the Jupiter Quintet, with which we performed at a US officers’ club. All of this had to be done in secret, because the conservatoire was a boarding school and we were not allowed to go out at night! Moreover, the staff disdained any music genre that was not classical. Somewhere late in the evening, we had to escape from the dormitory... with some of the school’s instruments, including a big double-bass which we tied to a rope and lowered from a balcony on the second floor! Beforehand, we had arranged a taxi which was waiting for us. Of course, we were often found out by our teachers when we got back, but they kind of liked us, so we got away with it!”

Turkish pop singer Erol Büyükburç and his accompanying band in Istanbul, 1965, from left to right: Altan Severcan (drums), Uğur Başar (guitar), Ümit Eroğlu (piano/arrangements), Erol Büyükburç, and Işık Tapan (bass).

Consequently, Ümit began having second thoughts about the education he was receiving. “As a student of classical piano, you are taught to become a soloist, but only genuine virtuosos really get there. All the others have to find a job as a teacher or répétiteur, accompanying ballets. That kind of work paid some 700 Turkish liras a month, which is very little, while one night in the officers’ club earned me 50 liras! In the summer months, our quintet went to Istanbul to play there. In 1965, I decided to go for it. I found a job as a pianist in Istanbul and called my girlfriend Firuzan, who was a ballet student at the conservatoire in Ankara, to join me. She escaped and we got engaged. In 1966, we married! The Jupiter Quintet fell apart, as all members were picked up by different dancing clubs. All of us stopped playing jazz; even back in those days, there was no money in jazz. It was pop music that people wanted to hear.”

In Istanbul, 18-year-old Ümit met Erol Büyükburç, originally a jazz singer who had thrilled Turkish teenagers with his hit song ‘Little Lucy’ (1961). 

“He mostly sang in Turkish, though,” Ümit adds. “He sang adaptations of folk repertoire. At that time, he was really popular. He hired me to be the leader of his stage band. It usually consisted of five or six persons. In effect, that was the start of my career as a music professional. From the start, I wrote the arrangements. In 1968, Erol released his first album record... albums were a relatively new phenomenon in Turkey at that time. I arranged this album too."

"In the tour which followed, we wanted to bring the album sound onto the stage. Therefore, I brought together an orchestra which included ten strings and two brass players. Maybe I cannot claim that I created the orchestra on stage in Turkey, but a pop concert with a full orchestra was certainly something which the Turkish audience had never seen before. The LP and tour were a huge success and Erol became an even bigger star than he had been before. On tour, Erol, me, and our wives were driven around in a luxurious Ford Galaxie. At one moment, the crowd even lifted the car up, while we were seated in it; they carried us to the stage. We were young and not afraid of these huge masses of people."

Ümit, Firuzan, and their son Cenk, who was born in 1967

"Even in those days, though, I was wondering if this was the life for me. Back then, being an arranger wasn't a job in Turkey, but I told my wife that, if it was to become a profession someday, I would prefer it to going to play somewhere in some bar or nightclub. Staying home to write music and make a living like that; what could be better? In 1967, my son Cenk was born and, in a way, I longed for a more quiet life with my family.”

In 1968-69, Ümit was called up to perform his two years of military service. Except for four months of obligatory military training, he spent most of his time in Ankara, playing the piano in the local officers’ club. In these twenty-four months of exile from Istanbul’s pop scene, he constructed a small studio in an unused kitchen of his father’s music school and started making arrangements for some low-profile music projects. 

“Career-wise, it was a disaster having to leave Erol Büyükburç’s band, since we were so successful at that time... on the other hand, these two years in Ankara gave me the opportunity to experiment with this new studio and earn a little money at the same time. I was trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

A couple of months after being released from the army, an interesting opportunity came Ümit’s way. Turkish drummer Turhan Eteke asked him to join his five-man-band for a European tour, which also included bass player Onno Tunç. Not only did Eroğlu accept the offer, he ended up staying with Eteke’s dance orchestra for five years (1970-75) and working in five different European countries. 

In Berne, Switzerland, with Ruli Karaca (left) and Eyol Duygulu (centre), two of his colleagues in the Turhan Eteke Band (1973)

“Turhan had connections with a European agency which arranged tours for us. The first season I joined, we started in the Mocambo, a dancing hall in Berne, Switzerland. Our repertoire? We played anything that was in the charts; the popular tunes. The arrangements we played were never written out. We didn't really have to, as this was a small band with guys of a good, professional level and all of us had enough experience to play this kind of music easily.”

“Usually, we played at a venue for one month. After our contract expired, we travelled on to the next town. We were on the road all year. Sometimes, we finished playing somewhere at two o’clock in the morning, packed our stuff and drove 1,500 km to the next club in Germany. Instead of going to the pension, we went to the local dancing hall, did a rehearsal with the local singer, and in the evening performed without having had a second of sleep. We were young and never felt exhausted! We enjoyed our work and it was inspirational too. In Europe, it was far easier than in Turkey to obtain sheet music, records, and modern equipment. Moreover, we were friends; perhaps even comparable to a family, travelling as we did from one place to another with five cars and one minibus. I had my wife and son with me. We enjoyed seeing new cities and new countries.”

Astonishingly, Ümit managed to hold out life on the roads of Europe for five years, working with Eteke’s band in clubs and halls in Switzerland, West Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Norway, performing as far north as Haparanda on the Swedish-Finnish border. In 1975, however, he decided to come back to Ankara.

At work in his ‘kitchen’ studio (c. 1979)

“The main reason was that my son was of school age. We could have stayed, but that would have implied that he had to go to international school somewhere. I would have been away from him and my wife for virtually the whole year; unbearable. Back in Ankara, I initially worked as a piano teacher in my father’s school. Of course, I still had my kitchen, the tiny studio I had constructed during my military service. I could not resist taking up recording again. I had always been fond of the recording table and sound engineering. In my kitchen, I recorded the single ‘Bodrum, Bodrum’ with MFÖ, a band consisting of three friends of mine from Ankara. That song was quite successful and paved the way for bigger projects.”

In 1977, Eroğlu, bolstered by his first success as an engineer, founded a fully-fledged recording studio, simply called Stüdyo Ankara.

"There were two or three good studios in Istanbul at that time, but none in Ankara. My studio offered singers modern equipment, allowing a technically well-balanced recording of their work. After a while, many artists from Istanbul started coming over to work with me. Back then, TRT was the only TV channel of the country and it was based in Ankara. TRT had high requirements. Officials didn't want audiences to have to listen to badly recorded music. I helped singers making a good version of their song with which they could make a playback performance on television – and thereby achieve a nationwide breakthrough."

Working on an arrangement (c. 1989)

"In the course of the years, dozens of artists recorded their work in Studio Ankara. If their work required additional arrangements, I was usually the one they turned to to write them. I never became their producer, though. I'm not the kind of person who is able to make a business from music; I am simply the guy in the kitchen! I started this job in my father’s kitchen and continued doing the same job, but in a slightly bigger ‘kitchen’, for decades. The studio did well from the beginning. We earned a good life from it for some thirty years.”

Over the years, Ümit wrote arrangements to songs for many famous Turkish folk and pop artists, resulting in countless chart successes. He is adamant, however, not to mention specific songs or artists. 

“It is not important to list all these names,” he insists. “I was simply doing my job. It is the songwriter who deserves credit for his creativity in making a new song. Songwriters are good at writing lyrics and combining melody and words, whilst my job is to put in the music theory bit. Though I composed perhaps a dozen of pop songs, I was happy to remain in the background. If I should be remembered for some contribution to pop music, it is certainly for my work with Kayahan. With most of the others, I just did one album or a couple of songs, but with him, I had a working relationship which lasted for over fifteen years.”

At work in his recording studio in Ankara (c. 1990)

“It was sometime in the 1970s, just after my return from Europe. A moody man stood at the door of my studio. After I had allowed him in, he sat down and explained to me he didn't have the money required to enter a song in Turkey’s Eurovision pre-selection. That man was Kayahan. He wasn't a total stranger to me. I had seen him on TV, performing a song called ‘Istanbul’da bir güzel’, a single he had made with Atilla Özdemiroğlu. Until then, he had had limited success and he mainly worked in bars and clubs. I felt there was something promising to this man. In 1975, I arranged and recorded Kayahan’s first album (entitled ‘Bekle gülüm’ – BT). It took several years before he managed his breakthrough, though. From the early 1980s onwards, he got more and more popular with the Turkish public.”

For seventeen years (1975-92), Ümit Eroğlu arranged and recorded all of Kayahan’s single records as well as eight studio albums. In 1995, Eroğlu co-arranged another of his album releases, ‘Benim penceremden’. 

“Over the years, Kayahan became a friend. He wasn't always easy to work with. For one song, he could change the lyrics a hundred times; same thing with the melody. I hardly ever met someone who was so meticulous. He was an excellent songwriter, but not a professional musician. He did not even read notes. Therefore, he needed an arranger by his side – and that is where I came in. The two of us proved a good combination; and with good combinations, miracles can happen. He could call me in the dead of night, asking advice about some song he was working on. Many times, he also contacted me for personal reasons. He didn't have too many friends, but I was one of them."

With his son Çenk, who followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a music professional (1990s)

"After some years, when he became one of the biggest acts of Turkey, it became increasingly hard to work with Kayahan. At some point, he brought in some inexperienced, young musicians and wanted them to get involved in the arranging process. In the course of time, we slowly, slowly separated, but even after we stopped working together, he called me for advice each time he was working on an album. Years later, we teamed up again and made a last album (called ‘Biriciğim’e’, in 2007 – BT) for which I was the pianist and arranger of two pieces.”

Away from his involvement in recording pop music, Ümit Eroğlu composed the music to five entire series of TRT soap operas. In 1978, he invented the intro tune to TRT’s news programme, which was used for three consecutive years. As a conductor, Ümit performed in the 1989 edition of the Sopot Song Festival in Poland, leading the orchestra for the Turkish entry performed by Nilüfer, whilst he also led the orchestra for the ‘Golden Antenna 1995’, a Turkish song festival televised live by TRT. 

From the 1990s onwards, Eroğlu also regularly worked as a session pianist and orchestrator for his son Cenk, a rock guitarist who managed to establish himself as an arranger and producer in his own right. In 1993, at the request of Ankara’s Opera House, Ümit Eroğlu founded a thirty-piece-big band, allowing classical musicians to play lighter genres once in a while. This so-called ‘Ankara Pop’ ensemble existed for three seasons. In 2007, after exactly thirty years, Ümit closed down his recording studio. 

Conducting the big band of the Middle East Technical University, 2009

“There was no longer any money in the studio business. The budgets of record companies have become so much smaller. Bands and songwriters usually prepare their playbacks on a computer – they do not need a professional arranger to do it for them. In 2007, my father passed away at the age of 94. I inherited his music school. I knew it would be hard to take over from him. He had been such a passionate teacher and able business man, keeping this music school alive for sixty years. Though I am not businesslike at all, I decided to switch careers. Apart from becoming the manager of the school, I started teaching piano and music theory. There are two other institutors teaching the guitar and the violin. Usually, we have some fifty to sixty students a year.”

From 2008 onwards, Ümit has been the musical director of his own big band at the Middle East Technical University, where he teaches jazz music one day a week. On top of that, more recently, he finally devoted himself to creating the music of his own preference. 

“I never made a solo album, as I was always busy working on other people’s music. I am not bitter about that – quite the opposite. Arranging was what I was best at; my special talent. Music notation is a language of its own. Everyone can learn languages, but few manage to write a novel or poetry. The same is true for music: hundreds of students graduate from conservatoire every year, but few of them are able to write or arrange music successfully. I have no reason to complain. At heart, though, I still am a jazz musician. It is more interesting, more intricate than rock and pop music. Therefore, I have been recording jazz piano solo pieces now – just for fun, but I am toying with the idea of creating a solo album. Now that I am more or less retired, it would be great to create something as a memory to my children and grandchildren.”

Interviewed for this website - La Wantzenau, May 2015


Ümit Eroğlu wrote dozens of arrangements for Turkish Eurovision pre-selection hopefuls, first and foremost for his protégé Kayahan Açar. After five fruitless attempts between 1981 and 1989, Kayahan finally won the Turkish heats in 1990 with his song ‘Gözlerinin hapsindeyim’. 

“Like so many other of Kayahan’s songs, we essentially created it together, step by step,” Ümit comments. “He invented the song on his guitar. Following his ideas, I made a vocal pattern, based on his reach. Finally, I wrote the orchestration which I conducted in the Turkish final. Though I don't really remember myself, for Kayahan winning the ticket to the Eurovision Song Contest must have been a fulfilling moment. I had been trying for so many years. He wanted to do Eurovision at all cost.”

This initial arrangement was totally different from the version which was performed in the international Eurovision final in Zagreb. Why was the song changed so profoundly after the Turkish pre-selection? Frustration about Turkey’s bad Eurovision scores in the 1980s lay at the root of this decision, as Eroğlu explains. 

“Our broadcaster TRT was always looking for solutions to do better in Eurovision. They had a special budget, which was sometimes used to make a new recording of the song abroad. Another time, they hired a choreographer from Europe. They were always looking for people who could help making our songs more palatable for the general public in Europe. For ‘Gözlerinin hapsindeyim’, Kayahan’s manager Nino Varon suggested to TRT to contact Jean Claudric, the arranger of Enrico Macias. He argued that Claudric’s oriental style of arranging, which had been so successful for Macias, would suit our song as well.”

In the end (as can be traced in detail in Jean Claudric’s biography on this website - BT), TRT managed to lure the acclaimed French orchestrator to come to Istanbul in order to make a new arrangement to Kayahan’s Eurovision entry. Accompanied by a guitar player and an accordionist from Paris, he spent twelve days in Hotel Dedeman, whilst Kayahan and his entourage were waiting for the result of his work. 

Working on the remake of ‘Gözlerinin hapsindeyim’ in Istanbul, from left to right - Nino Varon (Kayahan’s manager), backing vocalist Demet Sağıroğlu, Kayahan, and Ümit Eroğlu; to the right of Ümit are Jean Claudric (far right) and one of the Parisian session musicians whom Claudric had taken along to Turkey

“It was a funny situation,” Ümit recalls, laughing. “We were all in this hotel: Kayahan, Nino Varon, the manager of Kayahan’s record company, and Bülent Osma, the man at TRT responsible for the Eurovision Song Contest. Me and my wife – we were also there, because I was supposed to conduct the song in Zagreb. Jean Claudric made the most of his stay in Istanbul, giving the impression that he was working on the song. Most of the time, he spent in his hotel room, not communicating with any of us. Kayahan couldn't curb his curiosity and asked a bellboy to knock on Claudric’s door and have a peek, just to check what he was doing. All the boy could tell Kayahan was that he had seen sheets of music paper on the desk...”

“Kayahan was right to feel nervous, because we were really close to the submission deadline. If we did not send in our orchestration in time, we would be disqualified from the Eurovision Song Contest. With just one or two days left, late in the evening, Nino Varon came to my room and told that Jean Claudric wanted to use a countermelody from my arrangement to turn it into the chorus of the song. In the Turkish final version, there had been no such chorus. Claudric felt he could catch an interesting melody from that counterline. I agreed, but Nino immediately told me to keep it a secret. Kayahan hated the fact that the chorus of the Eurovision version was not really his invention! He never managed to write lyrics to that bit... he found it impossible. Therefore, he simply sang ‘hay-la-la-la-la’.”

“That last day before the deadline expired, Claudric finally finished his version. He recorded it in Melih Kibar’s studio in Istanbul, but just with the accordion and guitar – there were no strings, no nothing! He left, saying, “I will complete the strings and brass later onwards and send it to you from Paris,” but there was no time for that! He left for France, taking the money TRT had promised him; I don't know the exact amount, but it must have been thousands of dollars. I remember all of us were sat at Kayahan’s house. Nilüfer (famous Turkish pop artist – BT) was also there. We listened to the tape Claudric had left us. I remember seeing disappointed faces all around. I was asked for my opinion and said, “Well, I don't know... it sounds like a typical French chanson, a bit démodé, but it's alright.” The others were more outspoken. They said they liked my old arrangement better.”

“What to do now? Claudric had not left us anything else but this recording. Though he deserves credit finding this idea for the chorus which became the trademark of the song, he failed to do what he had been hired to do in the first place! He took the money and was never heard of anymore! Kayahan and his entourage now wanted me to make an arrangement based on Claudric’s version. By that time, it was 8pm. I went down to the same studio and worked until five o’clock the next morning. In one night, I finished the job and everybody congratulated me on it. Kayahan felt guilty and wanted to book a room for me and my wife in the Grand Tarabya, the most expensive hotel in Istanbul, but I declined! Our sheet music arrived just in time in Europe to avoid being disqualified from the Eurovision Song Contest.”

Finally, Ümit Eroğlu and Kayahan with the Turkish backing group travelled to Zagreb as one of 22 participating acts in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest. After the particularly complicated preparations in Istanbul, the rehearsals were relatively easy, as Eroğlu recalls. 

The big night in Zagreb: Ümit and Kayahan minutes before their Eurovision performance

“There was just one thing; the trumpet players had a hard time playing the high notes in the chorus of our song. The brass players were classical musicians and, with their embouchure, they failed to make the steep climb in the melody – but in the end, they nailed it. Most members of the orchestra spoke some basic English, just like me. But when the subject is music, communication problems can hardly arise. After all, music terminology is the same in all languages. Conducting the orchestra was easy. I mean, of course I am not properly trained to conduct a classical symphony, but this was my own arrangement; and what could be more logical than to have the guy who wrote the arrangement to conduct the orchestra himself? Perhaps some other, trained conductor would not have been able to get the result that I wanted from that music score.”

The Eurovision edition of 1990 saw the ‘famous’ conductors’ strike. The producers of the show wanted to leave out the customary presentation of the conductor at the beginning of each song. 

“I heard of it during the rehearsals. The Yugoslavians said they needed to save time to avoid the broadcast dragging on for too long. Now, that year, all conductors were in the same dressing room, just like athletes in a sporting event, so ganging up together was easy. We didn't have to go looking for each other. I guess it was right before the general rehearsal when we had a meeting and decided not to accept this. We took off our official clothes and refused to go on stage. Upon that, the matter was solved fairly quickly. We negotiated with the organisation; the result was that we were shown without taking a bow, but while counting in the orchestra. As you can imagine, we had a good relationship amongst one another that year. We were united against a common enemy."

In spite of a spirited performance, Kayahan failed to impress the international Eurovision juries, finishing 17th with just 21 votes, but, according to Eroğlu, “We weren't really upset, because Turkey always lost. The performance was cooked, in other words: well-prepared, and everything went well. We had nothing to feel sorry about. Needless to say that we had hoped for more points, but even now, years later, when I watch that performance on YouTube, I think to myself, “Yeah, that was good!” And what was more important: the song was a huge success in Turkey. In our country, it's still one of the most popular Eurovision songs of all time."

"Of course, politics played a major role in Turkey’s bad scores, but I have always maintained that if the song is good enough, you can push away cultural and language barriers no matter what. At that international level, apparently our song did not stand out enough. In Eurovision, the most important thing is to be there and participate. Losing is part of the game. Just look at Norway’s Eurovision history. They came last many times, but they persevered and won it. I never accepted the idea of Turkey withdrawing from the contest. You have to come to terms with the fact that there can only be one winner each year.”

Ümit (far left), Kayahan, and the remainder of the Turkish Eurovision delegation in the greenroom in Zagreb, waiting for the votes to come in

After having participated as an arranger and conductor of many entries in the Turkish Eurovision pre-selections many times, Ümit Eroğlu was commissioned by TRT to mount an orchestra and be the musical director of the national final on three consecutive occasions (1996-98). 

“These three programmes were all recorded in Ankara,” he explains. “TRT gave me full freedom to assemble a good orchestra. The rhythm section consisted of the guys I also used for recording sessions in my Studio Ankara, while the brass elements came from the TRT Big Band. I recruited most of the string players from the Ankara State Symphony Orchestra.”

As was customary in the Turkish Eurovision selection shows, each act was allowed to choose the conductor of its preference to conduct the orchestra. All remaining participants were conducted by Eroğlu himself. Among the guest conductors to appear in front of Eroğlu’s TV orchestra were Timur Selçuk and Levent Çoker. The latter won the pre-selections in 1996 and 1997 with his songs ‘Beşinci mevsim’ and ‘Dinle’, both performed by Şebnem Paker. ‘Dinle’ did spectacularly well in the Eurovision Song Contest, finishing third – better than any Turkish entry had done before. 

"‘Dinle’ was the right song at the right time," Eroğlu comments. "Oriental elements in music were popular at that time and everybody tried with songs in that style. The song successfully combined the Turkish rhythms with Şebnem Paker’s voice.”

Single release of the 1998 Turkish Eurovision entry ‘Unutamazsın’

The 1998 Turkish pre-selection was won by one of the entries arranged by Ümit Eroğlu himself, ‘Unutamazsın’, a ballad composed by Erdinç Tunç and performed by Tarkan Tüzmen (in arte simply referred to as Tüzmen). Like Kayahan, Tüzmen was particularly motivated to win the right to represent his country in the international Eurovision final – and for him, it was a case of ‘third time lucky’ after two botched attempts in the Turkish pre-selections of 1996 and 1997 (both arranged by Ümit Eroğlu as well). 

When asked about Tüzmen, Ümit adds, “Yes, he tried several times. He was married to the sister of Erdinç Tunç, who composed ‘Unutamazsın’. He created it on the guitar. By profession, Erdinç is not a musician, but a surgeon! Before the Eurovision Song Contest, I had already worked on several songs of his in the studio.”

“Basically, the melody of the song was not very complicated; a standard form. It needed something to make it more interesting. Therefore, I invented a piano arrangement. In the Turkish final, I conducted the orchestra and simultaneously played the piano myself for this song. After Tüzmen won the Turkish selection, everybody I talked to afterwards was sure that I had been improvising, but the opposite was true; I had written out that arrangement note by note!"

"When we went to the Eurovision final in Birmingham, I was slightly worried about someone else having to play such a complicated piano solo. Not every pop pianist could have played it. Therefore, I requested the organization to allow me to play the piano and conduct at the same time, the way I had done in Ankara. They claimed that, due to the stage design, it was impossible, but that, if I chose to, I could play the piano with the English resident conductor (Martin Koch – BT) leading the orchestra. At that point, I thought to myself, “Being a conductor is better than being a pianist…”, so I decided to conduct it myself. The pianist in the BBC Concert Orchestra must have had a hard time with the music score, but he played it exactly right – he proved to be a good musician.” (… and therefore, France's Jean Musy remains the only conductor in Eurovision history to have led the orchestra seated at the piano in 1975)

In the 1998 contest, the Turkish song was one of very few entries which were performed entirely live, without any backing track including pre-recorded elements. What was more, the ballad did not have any drum parts, thus lacking a fixed rhythm. 

“The first time we rehearsed it, we were well over the three-minute time limit; and the second time, again. As a conductor, for a song like this with a free tempo, you usually listen to the artist on stage, indicating the tempo to the orchestra that he has chosen. Because Eurovision has this time limit, this was a problem. We were reminded by some BBC staff that we needed to solve it. Part of the problem was that the stage was huge. Tüzmen was so far away from me that we were waving hands to each other across the stage. I wore headphones just to be able to hear his singing. Of course, we had been aware of this time limit when we prepared the song in Ankara, but even if I indicated the right tempo to the orchestra, Tüzmen could slow it down by his singing; and I had to follow. In the end, we found a way to just stay within the three minutes. I don't remember being particularly stressed about this. It was something that was addressed properly in the first rehearsal. After that, we didn't have any problems.”

Tüzmen on the Eurovision stage in Birmingham 

In spite of this slight hiccup, the BBC Concert Orchestra was firmly on the side of the Turkish conductor. “When the host conductor introduced me to the orchestra at the first rehearsal, I was applauded by the musicians. As he told me, they liked the song and the arrangement... one of the few entries with a classical approach. Perhaps, with such a traditional song, we were out of place; I don't know."

"At any rate, I noticed that, since Zagreb eight years before, the Eurovision Song Contest had changed. Tuxedoes had become a rarity. The event had lost its gravity. It was a sign of the times. Being a musician, I preferred the contest the way it was before – but you cannot stay behind. I never expected Dana International to win the festival, but having said that... I never predicted the correct winner. As a musician, you tend to focus on vocal qualities and interesting harmonies, whereas in a thoroughly commercial event like Eurovision, you have to try to look at things from the audience’s point of view. Having said that, I'm not very good at that!”

Amongst the twenty-five competing entries, ‘Unutamazsın’ finished fourteenth. Not a bad score, but after good Turkish results in the previous two editions of the festival, it came as a bit of a disappointment. Tüzmen’s album, arranged by Eroğlu and released after the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, didn't receive much attention in Turkey either. 

“Tüzmen is a good singer and he has the looks, but his career in Turkey never really took off – don't ask me why! Nowadays, he works as an engineer. The song wasn't a hit, but I look back at the experience in Birmingham with pleasure. The BBC did a good job on the organisation; everything was much better taken care of than in Zagreb. Birmingham had whole-heartedly embraced the festival. In shops, you did not have to line up in queues; as soon as the staff noticed your Eurovision accreditation, you were immediately given priority." 

"It was nice to represent my country twice in such a big event. In hindsight, I was there at a turning point, as the contest in Birmingham was the last with a live orchestra; an important moment perhaps, but it was something which made me sad nevertheless.”

Ümit with Tüzmen to his left (white shirt) and Ümit's son Çenk (2019)


Tarkan Tüzmen, singer of the 1998 Turkish Eurovision entry, says, “Ümit is the greatest musician I have ever worked with by all means. We have lots of memories concerning song contests and albums. He is full of humor, easy to work with and utmost talented. We have had great times in the studio, arranging the songs and performing them. He’s like a father and best friend at the same time.” (2015)


Country – Turkey
Song title – "Gözlerinin hapsindeyim"
Rendition – Kayahan Açar
Lyrics – Kayahan Açar
Composition – Kayahan Açar
Studio arrangement – Ümit Eroğlu / Jean Claudric
Live orchestration – Ümit Eroğlu
Conductor – Ümit Eroğlu
Score – 17th place (21 votes)

Country  Turkey
Song title – Unutamazsın
Rendition – Tüzmen (Tarkan Tüzmen)
Lyrics – Canan Tunç
Composition – Erdinç Tunç
Studio arrangement – Ümit Eroğlu
Live orchestration – Ümit Eroğlu
Conductor – Ümit Eroğlu
Score – 14th place (25 votes)

  • Bas Tukker interviewed Ümit Eroğlu in La Wantzenau (France), May 2015
  • Heartfelt thanks to Ümit’s daughter Deniz for acting as an impromptu translator in some parts of the interview
  • Thanks to Tarkan Tüzmen for sharing his memories of working with Ümit Eroğlu
  • Photos courtesy of Ümit Eroğlu and Ferry van der Zant