Interview: Çiğdem Aslan & Nikos Baimpas (October 2016)

As a matter of fact, the album cover also adds a sense of ambiguity to the frame and Çiğdem highlighted the fact that it was exactly what they were looking for. “The cover of the album is a picture taken in Smyrna, before a concert and even that makes sense. That’s also alright. Because it’s related to urban music and cities and we wanted to give that impression too”.

As the musicians told us, both A Thousand Cranes and Mortissa are inspired by a decades old repertoire. In fact, the artists
worked with songs written between a century and fifty years ago. We wondered how was the task of transposing those historical tunes into the present day, and how their London life has helped the process. cigdemThe Istanbul-born singer reflected on her personal experience, while reinterpreting those tunes: “I’ve been listening to many versions of those songs. They’re all traditional, but have been rearranged many times. So, I’ve been listening to the first recordings of those songs like the ones of Panagiotis Toundas, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Marika Ninou and Roza Eskenazi. However, I tried not to listen to too many versions, because I wanted to concentrate on my own versions. I wanted to listen to the originals and get the feeling of the singers, and then use that to form my own interpretation of the lyrics”.

While Nikos revealed us, “Besides the long history of the music we play, it’s a music that to us doesn’t just evokes memories. We are trying to revive it every time we perform it. So, it’s not just about the technical means, because if you listen to the original 1920s recordings of those songs, they’re not going to be perfect, but they still carry their meanings, a hundred years later. So we are bringing this music and tradition into our century. We are trying to reconcile the differences between the two countries at a political level. We’re also trying to express, through instrumentation, and the techniques we are using, to craft those songs, a modern sound with a strong identity that can be carried over from one generation to another”.

Nikos adds: “What we’re trying to do, I don’t know if we have succeeded or not, is to present this music in a way in which it can reach a wider audience. So, when local people come to see our performances both in the UK and across Europe, I hope that they don’t come because it’s a festival and it’s time to drink, but because we moved them and served that music to them in a way they could understand it”.

When talking with Çiğdem and Nikos about their album, they usually referred to it as a team effort: the result of a collective process. So we asked them who are the other musicians involved in the project. Çiğdem told us “We have Nikos who’s on kanoun and santouri, Michalis Kouloumis on violin. Then Colin Somervel on double bass, Vasilis Sarikis on percussion. They represent the core band. Then, we have guest musicians like Philipos Retsios on piano, on cello Vasilis Lemonias and Matoula Zamani on vocals. We sang ‘Turna’ together and we’re really happy about the fact that she was involved in the project

Nikos added about the last three artists mentioned, “We have to say that in Greece at the moment, Matoula is one of the best there is. She’s of the same status that Haris Alexiou was. In a world where pop music is dominant, she’s obviously of a different quality voice… But still, she’s recognised also because she has a wonderful, strong, metal voice”.

“The other two musicians Vasilis and Philipos were my colleagues in an Orchestra I played in, which was called the Estudiantina. Estudiantinas were bands formed in the late 19th century in Smyrna and Constantinople. Due to the coexistence of Anatolian culture and Western Culture, what these orchestras were doing was blending those sounds together. So they had mandolin and viola all the way to oud and kanoun. They were really big bands”.

Çiğdem closed her dream team presentation by saying “The last but not least musician is Vassalis Korakakis , who plays bouzouki. He’s also an important musician in Greece and is the son of an important composer, Vangelis Korakakis. He has just released his album, which was produced by Giorgos Dalaras. Actually, I’d also like to mention Sevtap Işık, who’s a friend of mine and did some vocal parts too”.

Another remarkable aspect of Çiğdem’s project is the fact that all the musicians who took part in the recordings will also support her throughout her upcoming tour, starting from the album launch on the 23rd of November at King’s Place. “All the musicians involved in the making of the album are going to play with us. All nine of us! So yes, I’m really lucky to work with all these wonderful musicians”.

Some of those wonderful musicians were also involved in the recording of Mortissa and the subsequent tour. So we asked Çiğdem what are her feelings about her debut album and everything that has happened since its release in 2013, “I can say that Mortissa was quite good. We did about 60 concerts in two years from Morocco to Norway. And actually, I don’t remember getting any negative feedback. The audience was quite receptive: they appreciated what we were doing. If you add the fact that most of the audience were not Greeks, Turkish or Kurdish, they came to listen to us. They were very attentive and knew about the album”.

Nikos considered Mortissa as a starting point, strong foundations on which to further improve the setting, “Hopefully we can grow this thing even more, building on what we have already done. It was overwhelming for us, what happened with the first album. Nobody was expecting to tour so much and it took a lot of effort to get ourselves in the position of doing something better for the second album. We had to stretch our capacities in different dimensions: from the place we chose to record the album, to the pieces we prepared, different orchestras, and quality of sound. I would say that we are ages away from the previous work. So it’s a substantial amount of work, it took us a lot of effort and there was also a lot of development on Çiğdem’s part to get these results. I really hope that it will be appreciated live. That it’ll help us not just to tour everywhere across Europe, but doing more important things and collaborations”.

Collaboration is a key word in Çiğdem Aslam’s career. Ever since taking her first steps upon the music scene, she has cooperated, worked together and joined forces with other musicians to develop her art.

It all started in Istanbul. I was involved in a project presenting different languages, so London was an opportunity to expand that. But then, I found myself focussing on this project more and more and then I met this guy… [Addressing Nikos]”

A few months ago, Çiğdem also participated in a symbolic and meaningful project in the former Jungle of Calais. She helped Vanessa Lucas-Smith and her volunteer project partners to record an album with some Jungle resident musicians. The Calais Sessions was released last August on Bandcamp and its revenues donated to the refugees and UK charity Citizens UK. Çiğdem told us a bit more about that touching experience, “I was invited by Vanessa to go to Calais and help, just to be there and see what I could do. It was a very different experience, which stayed with me for a while. On one hand, I was expecting a lot worse than what I saw and experienced there. While on the other, when you think what those people went through to get there, to reach that place and live in those standards… it’s quite dark obviously. I felt helpless, but then it was moving to see how much people are resilient.

There were so many volunteers doing whatever they could to cheer those people up and keep them busy. There was this charity group bringing musical instruments to people and they made a tent, which functioned as a school and where it was also possible to socialise, play music and record it. So everyone could pick up and play an instrument there. There were people jamming and there were remarkable musicians too. One of the guys I did a duet with, finally made it to the UK! It was kind of frustrating because not much was done for those people and kids, particularly for the kids. Even if you don’t realise, this is something which is or should be in everybody’s mind: we can’t ignore it!”

After more than half an hour of images, words and experiences, we had to bring our chat to a close. We decided to try to sum up in a few words the A Thousand Cranes project… Çiğdem illustrated it in an imaginative way: “Cranes’ journey I would say, migrating birds, picking up sounds and stories from different places and dropping all of it in London”.

While Nikos set free his technical aspect, “Whoever comes to see what we have on the plate for them, will experience a series of different images projected with an underlined continuation through centuries and through civilisations, across Anatolia and the Mediterranean.

Then, they can also experience a nice atmosphere, even if there are people at the top level of professionalism, at the same time they are also very good company. I was very moved by how people were involved in this project. The first album was a bit of a struggle to get people together, so it’s overwhelming to understand how much people are willing to work for a better cause and it wasn’t just about money. It was remarkable how they committed themselves: besides we all have day jobs, we moved all over the country and Europe and gave our 100% for this project”.

Follow Çiğdem, Nikos and music partners on their upcoming Tour

18.11.2016 – Gent (B) – Istanbul Ekspres Festival
23.11.2016 – London (UK) – Kings Place
26.11.2016 – St. Junien (FR) – La Mègisserie – Vive la fin du Monde
01.02.2017 – Paris (FR) – Au Fil de Voix
28.04.2017 – Waiblingen (D) – Kulturhaus Schwanen
29.04.2017 – Fornach (A) – Musik beim Wirt


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