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

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