Mortissa (Asphalt Tango, 2013)
Skilled vocalist Çiğdem Aslan dedicates her debut album Mortissa to rebetiko and the strong Greek and Turkish women of Smyrna, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul, who lived peacefully next to each other during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
Although she grew in Istanbul, Aslan has Kurdish roots and now lives in London. “My neighborhood was full of leftist groups. There were always police there. It was a ghetto, it wasn’t even considered Istanbul. So I’m an ‘other,’ too; I come from a minority background and that usually makes you more open and understanding towards others. My luck was that I encountered many ‘others’ to expand my vision.”
Mortissa contains a mix of traditional and original songs with modern arrangements based in Greek, Turkish and Klezmer folklore. “Most of the songs are in Greek,” Aslan explains, ”and I didn’t know the meaning when I first heard them. It was the music I could relate to, I felt close to them even if I didn’t understand a word. Once I learned what they were about it was even better. Most of them are love songs. They’re familiar to me in the way they express things. The way a woman tells off her lover is similar to what I heard in Turkey.”
Aslan describes her modern form on rebetiko: “what I’m doing is adding details and highlighting the similarities between the cultures. Even something like a double bass in there makes it more modern. It’s adding your personality. What I’m doing is putting my feelings into the songs, trying to reflect what they make me feel.”
In London, Aslan joined a Balkan band called Dunav, and she also began singing with the She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble, who perform on three tracks on Mortissa. “I’m the addendum,” she says. “They’re mostly instrumental. I saw one of their gigs and wished I could be part of it. That was three years before I joined. Some of them came to jam sessions with the SAOS Rebetiko band and then asked me to perform with them.”
The lineup on the album includes primarily musicians from North London Greek and Turkish communities, as well as kanun master Nikolaos Baimpas, who works with renowned musicians back in Greece.
Rebetiko includes smyrneika songs, from the Aegean port city of Smyrna, a crossroads that absorbed the influence of travelers from across the Middle East into its music. “The thing about the Smyrna school of rebetiko,” Aslan explains, “is that females were more dominant as singers, unlike Athens.”
Mortissa introduces international audiences to one of the great new voices from the eastern Mediterranean.
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