Interview: Çiğdem Aslan & Nikos Baimpas (October 2016)

Çiğdem Aslan’s second album, A Thousand Cranes, was published just a few weeks ago by Asphalt Tango and will be launched at Kings Place in London the 23rd of November. We thought that no one could introduce us to the work better than its main interpreter and “engineer”. So we had the pleasure to interview Çiğdem and her musical director santouri and kanoun player, and civil engineer Nikos (Nikolaos) Baimpas. Together they talked about their new release, rebetiko traditions and what the future holds.

We met together in a Stoke Newington café, an area which represents a second-home for Çiğdem and she started by explaining to us, the dynamics behind the album recording.

The recording took place in November last year, in Athens at AntArt Studio. We did a three day long live recording session, during which we recorded 15 songs: twelve tracks and three medleys. Then, mixing, preproduction and post-production took some time, especially the pre-production, because we made a lot of rehearsals”.

Nikos continued: “It wasn’t just the rehearsals; it was also because people were coming from all over the place and we were working with top-notch musicians and I’m not talking about myself…”

He was interrupted by Çiğdem, who stated “He’s very humble…he’s actually a top-notch musician too!

Nikos continued after a while, “Then, it was also about the studio. We need to say that because it’s an important and historical studio (it’s the place where Mikis Theodorakis composed and recorded ‘Zorbas’ for the first time after the coup in Greece), it is also about the quality of the venue. It’s a wonderful studio, the best I’ve ever been in, a beautiful space and it was perhaps the only place in the world where we could have done so much work in such a small amount of time.

Despite the obvious allure of working in surroundings with such a rich history, we asked Nikos why else they choose to move the production from London and the UK (where the majority of the musicians involved in the project live) to Athens. “We choose to go there because working in London, people are always busy and they wouldn’t sacrifice, day after day, the whole day to do just one thing. So, in one sense, it was much more efficient and a much better idea to get people outside the UK for three or four days and just do that. In this way, you also build the potential, because it takes time to set up the studio. If you record one day and then the next recording will happen one week after that, you have to go through the set up process again and again. While the way we did it, we could leave our instruments and settings in the evening and we just went in there the next day with everything ready”.

Çiğdem specified another reason: “If you also add the fact that we had guest musicians from Athens and Volos. You can easily understand that it was more practical and made more sense to do everything there”.

The singer continued explaining us that her new album has a strict bond to her debut one: “A Thousand Cranes is not that different from Mortissa, my first album. It can be considered as the second step: it’s built on the same concept. If you think about the first album as the first stage of Smyrneyko rebetiko and relate that to the population exchange, the first carries the Anatolian sound from the 1920s and 30s…”

Nikos carried the conversation forward: “While in this one, we focused on the period from the late 1930s going all the way to the ‘70s with a couple of songs from Tsitsanis. A Thousand Cranes is more balanced between the Anatolian and Greek traditions. We have always tried to get some common songs and explore different directions either time wise or meaning wise. In this album, a major difference is the transition between the Orchestras. In fact, you’ll find vastly different sounds in A Thousand Cranes: from a mandolinata ensemble for singing Mortissa to a pure Smyrneyko sound with kanoun, violin and Anatolian instruments like bouzouki. So we can say that this album was a natural evolution of the first one: we expanded that idea and we got more people involved in the project.

Another intriguing feature of A Thousand Cranes is its title. Firstly because of its relationship to the migratory bird, and secondly because of a Japanese book with the same title. Çiğdem was keen to clarify this topic too. “There is a song we have been performing since we started touring that is called ‘Turna’. Turna means crane in Turkish, the bird. I personally love performing that song because it’s quite deep on many levels. It’s a common song which exists in Greece and Turkey as well, but I think the original is a Greek melody to which somebody adapted the lyrics from a Turkish poem from the 17th century. It’s perfect! The lyrics are about being separated from your loved ones and having to go away from where you live. It has this connotation of migration and the bird itself is very significant in my own culture. I come from an Alevi background and the crane symbolises so many things. But it’s not just in Alevi culture that cranes are important. For example, in Greek mythology there’re stories about cranes and in Japanese mythology too, they represent peace”.

Çiğdem continues: “you have to add the fact that in this album we expanded the genre of rebetiko. We didn’t stick to Smyrneyko rebetiko; we also went to the Balkan, South-East Anatolia and have a Kurdish song too. So, when I was brainstorming with Melek [Erdal] she came up with that. I was telling her the story narrated in the Japanese book Thousand Cranes. It says that if you make a thousand cranes in origami your wish comes true. But then, in the book, there was this girl who got sick after the Hiroshima bombing and her friends told her to make a thousand cranes. Sadly, she died before completing the task so her friend finished it. From that moment on, the crane became a symbol of peace. Having narrated the story for Merit, she felt that it that made perfect sense”.

Nikos, revealing his Engineering thought processes, answered back: “Actually, not to engineers…”

So Çiğdem had to admit: “That’s right, a lot of people confuse the title. Nikos was even opposed to it initially. In fact, he opposed the first album title too (Mortissa). He told me that nobody would understand that. He always repeated ‘No no, it’s not a good idea. We shouldn’t use it’. But now he says, ‘maybe we’d include Mortissa in our second album title too”.