Inside Hackney: Cigdem Aslan

Cigdem Aslan is a singer from Turkey who lives – and often performs – in Stoke Newington. She was brought up in Istanbul and is of a mixed Anatolian and Kurdish background. Cigdem’s voice is rich and reverberant; she sings in several languages with local klezmer band She’Koyokh, and solo as a rebetiko performer. Here she talks about bringing the Mediterranean blues to Hackney.

‘My family are Anatolian, of the Alevi culture, which is the biggest religious minority in Turkey. The culture has always been passed on in music, poetry and storytelling – there is no holy book, and it’s a liberal tradition. Everybody sang at home, and my brother played the baglama, a long-necked lute.

We lived on the outskirts of Istanbul and we sang Anatolian folk music; when I studied English literature at Istanbul University I encountered a more urban musical tradition. I joined the university band and it was the beginning of a proper training, singing in Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian and Sephardic.

When I moved to London I sang with Balkan band Dunav, which was founded fifty years ago: I began to sing in Bulgarian, Macedonian and Bosnian. I’ve been with She’Koyokh since 2008 – the klezmer tradition is instrumental, so it was a breakthrough to add a voice. When I joined She’Koyokh we were busking at Broadway Market and Chatsworth Road, but since then we’ve performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Southbank Centre in London.

We love to perform locally too, doing gigs for the Hackney Proms at Stoke Newington Town Hall, and benefit concerts for North London Action for the Homeless.

I also sing rebetiko, which is outcast music, born out of the experience of the Greeks expelled from Turkey in the 1920s population exchange. They landed back in Greece and they weren’t welcome – they were an underground culture, living differently. The subjects of rebetiko songs are prison, drugs and prostitution, with stock shady characters and strong women – it has been called the Mediterranean blues, because of its themes and subcultural feel.

I launched my solo rebetiko album, Mortissa, in 2013, with three sell-out nights at the Vortex in Hackney – my songs were interspersed with readings by the actor Philip Arditti. I also collaborated with the writer Louis de Bernières in 2014: he read from his novel Birds without Wings, and I sang. We were exploring the relationship between the Greeks, the Turks and Armenians that existed before the 1920s deportations.

I love to perform here, and I love Stoke Newington – it is so alive. It reminds me of Istanbul – partly because I have relatives all around. My sister, my uncle, and cousins live here, running a café and an alteration service. But it’s also the spirit of the place: it’s free.’