Istanbul-born singer Cigdem Aslan’s album Mortissa is a shout-out to the strong women and freedom fighters in Turkey and Greece in the 1920s and 30s, when the music of the underground, rembetiko, was banned on both sides for being too Arabic. If that doesn’t grab you, nothing will. It’s haunting, plaintive, rivetingly emotional stuff, with echoes of both klezmer and Egyptian melodies along with its obvious Greek and Turkish roots. This so-called “Anatolian blues,” with its bitter ironies and double meanings, was the stoner soundtrack to the revolutionary underworld that rose up in Smyrna, and Istanbul, and port cities on the Aegean almost a century ago. Aslan is an aptly cosmopolitan choice to revisit these songs, a woman of Kurdish descent who’s made a name for herself in the UK singing klezmer music from across the Jewish diaspora. To paraphrase Edward Said: orientalism, the ultimate source of all good musical things.
Aslan sings in both Greek and Turkish, although you don’t have to speak either to enjoy this music, and Aslan’s delivery often transcends any linguistic limitations: it’s not hard to figure out where the songs are coming from. Is the haunting, dirgelike Ferece (Veil) about a funeral, or a wedding? Actually, neither. It’s sung from the point of view of a Muslim woman who wants to tear off her oppressive burqa, Nikos Angousis-Doitsidis‘ searing clarinet lines mirroring the vocals‘ simmering rage. Likewise, Bir Allah (One God), Aslan’s imploring melismatics mingling with Pavlos Carvalho’s biting bouzouki. Aslan shifts in a split second from jaunty to pensive, especially on the shapeshifting To Dervisaki (Little Dervish), with its fiery succession of solos from the bouzouki to Makis Baklatzis’s violin to the clarinet. Aslan does the same on the album’s towering, angst-ridden final cut, S’agapo (I Love You), Nikolaos Baimpas’ kanun rippling over the gusty swells of the orchestra.
Aslan sings with a nonchalantly crystalline tone over a bouncy minor-key pulse on Aman Katerina Mou (Oh My Katerina), then she veers between coy and inquisitive on the rhythmically tricky, chromatically edgy Vale Me Stin Agalia Sou (Take Me In Your Arms). Pane Gia To Praso (Going Out For Leeks – 1920s Greek slang for hashish) spirals downward on the wings of some of the album’s most gorgeous bouzouki riffage beneath Aslan’s eerily glimmering microtones. The catchy Trava Vre Manga Kai Alani (Go Away, Manga) has echoes of klezmer,while the stark bouzouki and vocal lines added a surreal, crepuscular creepinesss to Nenni (Lullaby). There’s also a slinky levantine ensemble piece, a lush pastorale, a bitterly anthemic barroom scenario where Aslan tells her suitors to take a hike, and the enigmatic Girl from Usak, sort of a Turkish circus rock shuffle with a kanun solo that might be the album’s most exhilarating moment. Where can you hear this masterpiece online? It’s not at Grooveshark or Bandcamp but it is on Spotify, and there are a couple of tracks up at Asphalt Tango Records’ Soundcloud page.