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Çiğdem Aslan and a thousand cranes

By Alison Hird

Singer Çiğdem Aslan is one of the most accomplished and emotional performers of "Balkan blues" known as rembetiko: songs of exile from Greece and Turkey that grew out of the population exchanges in the aftermath of WW1. We caught up with her at the recent Au Fil des Voix festival in Paris where she showcased her new album A Thousand Cranes.

Aslan was raised in Istanbul in a Kurdish family and now lives in London.

"In my Alevi culture, a crane has the role of being a messenger between people. It represents the unity of family," she explains. "And in Japanese culture, referrring to a thousand cranes mythology it represents peace."

The song Tourna (crane in Turkish) exists in both Greek and Turkish says Aslan. "The lyrics are about the effect of being away from your homeland, how destructive it can be to be away from your beloved ones."

As a migratory bird the crane also had special resonance with Aslan's rembetiko repertoire - songs that show the interaction between Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Jewish, Slavic, Arabic, Persian and Kurdish ethnicities.

"The idea was to reflect the journey of rembetiko or smyrneiko school of rembetiko. We're talking about migration, population exchange. And rembetiko also migrated from Anatolia to Greece and it has evolved."

Cigdem Aslan Alex Harvey Brown

For this second album Aslan chose to explore songs from the 1940s and 50s "because that's when you could hear the changes in the genre very clearly". 

"So we've got more bouzouki and more piano. There are more western sounds because they wanted to eliminate the eastern, Anatolian sounds."

The album was recorded in the renowned AntArt Studio Athens, co-produced and arranged by Nicolaos Baimpas, and an impressive line-up of set and guest musicians. 

And while there are sad songs, we also find tributes to the free-spirited, cheeky mortissas - good-time girls who knew how to enjoy themselves in the 20s and 30s. ("I enjoy myself every night with all the lads and like that I have fun in this vain world" she sings in Mortissa from Kokkinia).

"These characters existed and it's a pleasure for me to tell their stories... to be their voice," says Aslan. "Nowadays you feel like women are under attack even more, so I guess reiterating these songs becomes more meaningful."

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