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A Turkish Pop Diva’s Musical Tour: Passing Through Generations and Borders

We all love music, but do you know the stories behind the wonderful sounds? In Turkey the singer Ajda Pekkan is nicknamed Superstar. Ms. Pekkan, now 63, got her start as a singing actress in the early 1960s, and she has had pop hits in Turkey ever since, selling millions of records through the decades. On Friday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom she gave a rare concert on this side of the Atlantic, and she had a multigenerational audience singing along, dancing, bringing her roses and waving the Turkish flag.

Her voice is a lustrous, flexible alto, mingling assurance with grand dramatic flourishes. To an American listener she is something like Cher without the campiness and with considerably more cosmopolitan reach. Ms. Pekkan lived in France in the 1970s and became a pop star there. She represented Turkey in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1980 — singing “Pet’r Oil,” a love song about oil — and has recorded in many languages, including Japanese, Greek, German and Spanish. Lately her songs have been riding the steady thump and scrubbing rhythm guitar of disco. One of her biggest hits is a Turkish version of the Gloria Gaynor hit “I Will Survive,” and the lone song she performed in English on Friday night was Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.”

But during an indefatigable two-hour set that had her singing virtually nonstop, she looked east, north, west and south — situating her Turkish pop where many cultures meet. Various arrangements drew on French chanson, bossa nova, flamenco, tango, light 1960s rock, an Israeli melody and what sounded like a Greek folk dance, even “Bir Gunah Gibi” (“Like a Sin”), which shares its tune with the Slavic standard “Dark Eyes” (“Ochi Chyornye”).

And, for an audience filled with Turkish expatriates, Ms. Pekkan regularly touched down in Turkish music. As her keyboardist simulated traditional instruments, she switched from pop phrasing to modal lines and quavering Middle Eastern ornaments. Some of her pop tunes interspersed Western melodies with Turkish-flavored instrumental licks.

Ms. Pekkan also reached back to older material like “The Road,” a song about an endless journey, from the Turkish folk patriarch Asik Veysel. She performed it like an art song, with quasi-classical piano chords and a tearfully determined crescendo. But soon afterward she was back to the disco beat, Euro-pop melodies and love songs — all in a night’s work for an international pop diva, in any language.

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