Istanbul-born performer Çiğdem Aslan stands at the centre of a whirl of cultures, languages and musical traditions. Her solo work focuses on the rebetiko tradition that grew out of cities in modern day Greece and Turkey during the Ottoman period, and as such featurues songs in both languages. These are songs of love and vice, full of drama and, if the exegeses to the songs are to go by, a certain amount of rebellious humour.
Tonight Çiğdem Aslan is accompanied by double bass, percussion and the kanun (or kanonaki for Greek fans)—a harp-like instrument played horizontally across the lap—a reduced set of instruments compared to her recorded material, but more than enough to summon the passion and melodrama of rebetiko. The double bass adds a touch of jazz to the sound, and the kanun moves from dreamy glissandos to tempestuous trills. Çiğdem summons the character of the mortissa, after which her first album is named—the rebellious barfly and chanteuse of the Aegean.
As dramatic and controlled as she is a performer, Çiğdem is also an enthusiastic storyteller, providing the audience with brief translated summaries of the songs. There’s something for everyone, from tales of a jilted wife hooking up with a young butcher in Smyrne, to reveries of hashish-induced bouzouki jams. A particular favourite of mine seems to sum up the quintessentially Mediterranean experience: a woman asks her lover to let her sleep over, promising him his mother won’t find out.
Slowly over the evening the audience is coaxed out of its nordic reticence, with girls from a local dance class twirling wildly in front of the stage, and people singing along in both Greek and Turkish. The atmosphere is contagious and before long you would be forgiven for thinking you could hear the sea lapping against the shore of some Cycladic island just outside.