Çiğdem Aslan, Little Mortissa

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #96 (Nov/Dec 2013) p52. Download a pdf here.

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Çiğdem Aslan talks to Alexandra Petropoulos about her debut solo album and the problems facing Turkey’s strong, independent women (Photo: Handan Erek)

This summer the world watched while Turkey erupted in peaceful protests. What started as a small demonstration against urban development in May expanded on an unprecedented level to include a wider range of concerns, including the disappearing freedoms of press, assembly and expression. While the Turkish police were disproportionately retaliating with tear gas and water canons, the London-based Kurdish singer Çiğdem Aslan was putting the final touches on her debut solo album, Mortissa. At a time when not only the freedom of the Turkish people, but Turkish women in particular, seemed to hang in the balance, the release of Mortissa (meaning ‘a strong, independent woman’) became Aslan’s serendipitous offering to her country’s most creative protest.

Aslan was born to Kurdish Alevi parents in Istanbul and was surrounded by music from an early age. “Istanbul is very cosmopolitan,” she tells me. “You have Kurdish people, Armenians, Greeks, Sephardic people, Ladinos, Christians, Muslims, all sorts… So it is inevitable that you hear lots of different music.” She sang and danced as part of daily family life, but only sang in public when she joined her university’s music club. There she learned the music of Istanbul’s ethnic minorities; “we did Kurdish, Greek, Armenian, Sephardic, Arabic and Alevi songs.”

Ten years ago, she moved to the multicultural melting pot that is London, where she was able to dive even further into the wealth of different traditions on offer in the capital. She has played with London’s Dunav Balkan Music Group as well as the party-loving klezmer band, She’koyokh, for which she is best known. As the first Balkan group she ever joined, the Dunav ensemble played an important part in her musical education: “They’ve met almost every Wednesday for 50 years and they’ve got a huge repertoire. So it’s like a school; I learn new things.” Her work with both groups has added even more languages to her ever-growing list.

So just how many languages can she sing? “I sing Kurdish, Turkish, Greek, Ladino, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Bosnian, Romani, Arabic… Albanian? I don’t think I’ve sang in Albanian,” she pauses a moment to think. “No, not yet.” Though she sheepishly admits, “I don’t speak them at all I’m afraid, though I understand Greek a little bit. I learn them phonetically for the songs.” It’s an impressive list for sure, but it’s not the language that first attracts her to any particular song. It’s the melody, the feel of a song. “If I like the song, it doesn’t matter what language it is in. I try my best to learn the language properly.” But that’s not to say that she doesn’t take the lyrical content seriously. “If a song underestimates women or indicates some sort of sexism, then I won’t sing it.”

It may come as no surprise then that Mortissa is full of women who “love singing, enjoy their independence, love being around men but are not dependent on them.” There is the woman of ‘Trava Vre Manga Kai Alani’ who tells her cheating lover to get lost. “She says ‘OK, you go to your lover and I’m going to spend every night with a different butcher.’ Why a butcher? I don’t know.” With a hint of seriousness from the otherwise bubbly singer, she goes on to say “a mortissa is not a normal or an ordinary woman. She’s a bit of an underground woman.” Much like the genre of rebetika in early 20th-century Greece and Anatolia.

It’s the classic rebetika of the 30s that Aslan revisits on Mortissa. “You can say that this is a kind of a revival. I sing these songs because I love them. I love the genre and it’s just a coincidence that all these songs are mostly from the 30s.”

Rebetika, much like the blues or flamenco, was born in a harsh urban setting and sung by the downtrodden. It reached its height after the population exchange between Turkey and  Greece in the early 20s, which saw approximately two million people forced out of their homelands – Greek Orthodox  citizens out of Turkey and Muslims out of Greece. Cities became overrun with refugees and out of the grim slums and shanty-towns came a genre of music for the lower classes.

The Greeks who were expelled from the old city of Smyrna, now known as Izmir in Turkey, brought with them their own version of Smyrneic rebetika, also known as smyrneika. Aslan explains that in the Smyrneic tradition it was the women who did most of the singing, whereas in Athens men mainly led the scene. Mortissa mainly draws from the Smyrneic tradition, though “some of the songs were composed in Greece after the population exchange. Yes, the composers are mainly male… but the songs were sung by women.”

Far away from their homeland across the Aegean Sea and with few possessions, smyrneika was one thing the refugees could cling to. Their lyrics often reflect a longing for home, as in the melancholic ‘To Dervisaki’: ‘…thrown out of Smyrna, I can’t stop crying. All I do is get drunk and smoke hash at the Café Aman.’ At other times, the songs were a means to forget one’s cares, something to laugh and dance to. As the mortissa sings in ‘Sto Kafe Aman’, ‘I sing in the Café Aman and have fun… everyone watches me, they drink, they get drunk and let their pain out.

Managing a delicate balance between tradition and innovation, Aslan has resurrected these songs from their smoky café graves with a modern twist. “I do imitate the old type of singing, but I give it my own personal touch as well.” In addition to the traditional instruments, such as santur and bouzouki, she is joined on the album by double bass, guitar and clarinet. This has resulted in an album with an ageless charm, something with the weight of history but a fresh timeliness. Timeliness because while she sings of independent women of the early 20th century, she watches the Turkish people, and women in particular, face absurd restrictions to their freedoms.

In May the peaceful demonstration against the urban development of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park turned into a larger protest, which lasted throughout the summer, crying foul at the government’s general encroachment of personal liberties. The protests brought together and united communities from a variety of backgrounds, much like the Occupy movement. “This resistance brought up a very creative kind of protest, like people changed the lyrics of the well-known songs… It’s a new kind of protest for Turkish people; it’s more peaceful and more creative.” She goes on to speculate, “I think that’s why people from different backgrounds joined in, because they know it’s neutral. It doesn’t belong to one party or group, but it’s everyone who is annoyed with the fact that your daily freedoms are being affected for stupid reasons.”

And women have faced more than their fair share of freedoms lost to ‘stupid reasons.’ “It’s always women and children affected by these things,” Aslan tells me. “It’s women being oppressed the most, like someone who made a comment that pregnant women shouldn’t go out in public.” She is referring to the Sufi thinker Ömer Tugrul Inançer, who appeared on national television in July and said pregnant women “should not stroll in the streets with such bellies… It’s disgraceful. It is not realism, it is immorality.”

As a mortissa herself, singing classic rebetika songs full of women who ‘want to play, to sing… and have fun,’ does Aslan see herself as giving a voice to the women of today who are faced with these prejudices and setbacks? “I hope so. I’m not claiming to achieve big things for women or for the liberation of women. But I guess if everybody does their small part, then it would eventually change things.”

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