Cigdem Aslan Explores the Rough Rebitiko World with Grace

Asphalt Tango Records 4313
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Culture is a funny thing–if something sticks around long enough, a musical style for instance, it acquires an air of respectability that’s far removed from its original stench. Who today remembers that tango, merengue, the blues, and fado were once sung in brothels, gin joints, and dive bars. Add to that list the Greek style known as rebetiko, which older non-Greeks first encountered partially scrubbed in the movie Never On a Sunday (1960). There were some good rebetiko recordings in the 1980s, and then passed from popularity. Guess it’s time for them to cycle again and who better to sing it than Turkish-born, London-based Çiğdem Aslan?

If you’re wondering how a Turkish woman ends up doing Greek music sung by women in rough fishermen bars (and supplementing their vocalist’s income with causal participation in the world’s oldest trade), history provides an answer. Until independence in 1830, Greece was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Moreover, as a land tied to the sea, it has since antiquity been an economic and cultural crossroads. When you hear Aslan sing rebetiko it will sound like a mash-up of Greek, Turkish, Balkan, North African, and klezmer music.  That’s because it is! Trading outposts are generally cosmopolitan places and Greece was once a land in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims came together (often in the same brothels).

Mortissa translates “strong woman,” and Aslan may be a tad romantic in her view of rebetiko singers, though one certainly had to have chutzpah to survive in some of the places it was originally sung. Then again, she’s not aiming for folklore or fieldwork–she’s trying to show the fire, the sorrow, the laughter, and the pluck within the tradition and enfold it into well-crafted modern arrangements. To that end, she has accumulated superb London-based Greek and Turkish musicians. The songs are also culled from both the public domain and from composers such as Vangelis Papazoglu. There’s also a song famed it Turkey about the outlaw Çakici. Aslan sings each in an easy voice that’s full of ornamentation and emotion, but has hints of pop modernity. Call it the past meets the present.

Rob Weir


Hula Honeys Take Hawaii to the Mainland

A Hui Hou
Community Music
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If the Andrews Sisters had gone to Hawaii and added a few island tunes to their repertoire, they would have sounded a bit like the Hula Honeys. This frothy collection of jazz standards and Hapa Haole tunes (island tunes sung in English) sports tight harmonies, swingy beats, a sunny disposition, and some songs that are not in English. The Hula Honeys are Robyn Kneubuhl and Ginger Johnson who are that most rare of things–women singing songs from the South Pacific who are actually from Hawaii. Johnson's case is even rarer; she's a Haole (white) who is musically conversant in native languages. These ukulele and guitar-rooted songs sound easy and natural. They also sound vintage and it’s not because the Hula Honeys supplement their island set list with pieces such as Johnny Mercer’s “Too Marvelous for Words” or the Bill Loughborough/David Wheat classic “Better Than Anything.” Take “Girl in the Coconut Hat,” which sounds like it may have come from a 1940s movie soundtrack but is actually a Johnson original. The Hula Honeys do a lot of that. Their cover of Mel Peterson’s “You’re at a Lu’au Now” makes you feel like you’re contemplating Hawaii as it appears on a sepia-tinted pre-World War II postcard. In 2010, Kneubuhl and Johnson won an award for the best Hawaiian jazz album (Girl Talk). A Hui Hou (Until We Meet Again) is slightly folkier, though guest steel guitar, saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet assure that the music always sways and that it remains true to the template of classic Hawaiian female ensembles. Those of us who live thousands of miles to the east, which is most of us, may find the idea of “hula” music a bit odd. I say, give it a try–you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

You can hear two tracks on the Hula Honeys website.
Rob Weir 


Beautiful Ruins a Lovely Novel

Beautiful Ruins (2013)
Jess Walter
Harper Perennial ISBN: 9780061928178
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No one who has visited Cinque Terre can forget it. Five towns separated by rocky mountain ridges hug the Ligurian coast and spill their bright pastels down the rock cleft toward the sea. One of them, Vernazza, features a peninsula jutting into the ocean that is crowned with the remains of a 15th century castle. When viewed from the hiking trail high above, it is a beautiful ruin. It is child’s play to imagine romance in such a setting.

For all of that, Italy’s west coast is also a hard place. Opulent, fat-walleted jet setters frolic on beaches and self-lubricate in pricy bars in one village, while just miles away fishermen mend their nets, their sails, and their clothing–destitution just one bad haul away. It’s also child’s play to imagine broken dreams in such places.

Jess Walter’s brilliant new novel uses these physical and metaphorical settings to probe what we do with the ruins we encounter and make in our lives. Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame) is a ruin of sorts–a town blessed with beautiful coast line and cursed by inaccessibility and poverty, unlike nearby Portovenere, which is dotted with nightclubs, glitzy hotels, and cash-rich tourists. The former is home to Paquale Tursi, a child of poverty with a spattering of English, regret for a love gone wrong, dreams of converting his down-market Hotel Adequate View into a luxury destination, and one semi-regular American visitor, Alvis Bender, a writer who drinks more than he types. Pasquale’s world is about to be transformed in ways he can’t imagine when an American starlet, Dee Moray, inexplicably checks into his hotel, not one in Portovenere. It is 1962, and Dee is fresh from the set of Cleopatra, a big-budget bomb starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor that is better known for scandal than fine acting.

I hesitate to say more because this is a book of external and interior discoveries. Suffice it to say that it goes back and forth between 1962 and now, and that Burton is indeed a character, though a relatively minor one. Actually, it’s hard to say who the main character is, though the book’s central mystery centers on Dee, and some heavy-duty soul-searching befalls Pasquale. The book is really about the aforementioned ruins, including a literal one visited by Dee and Pasquale. Just to tantalize, among the other ruins is the botched plastic surgery of Hollywood director Michael Deane; a ruinous relationship maintained for no good reason by his assistant, Claire Silver; the doomed script of Shane Wheeler, whose Italian is little better than Pasquale’s English; and Bender, the writer who doesn’t write. The central question is how we confront ruins–our disappointments, sins, inappropriate desires, personal limitations, and the ensnaring lies we tell. Can anyone find love among those ruins? Or redemption?

This is a beautifully written book that contains passages you feel compelled to read aloud. Walter’s skill is also displayed in the ease with which he moves us between numerous characters without confusing the reader, or breaking the pace appropriate for each scene. I marveled over the transitions, as some of the pacing is as languid as a daydream above Vernazza, and others as frenetic as a speedboat coursing the Ligurian Sea. My second metaphor will likely describe the pace at which you will rip through this novel. For lovers of irony, it’s almost inevitable that this book will be optioned for a movie. But you’ll have to read it to understand why that’s ironic.

Rob Weir