Kreuzberger Nächte sind lang, as the song goes. Kreuzberg nights are long. And nowhere was this truer than at Zigan Aldi’s “X-berger Nächte” parties every Saturday night at the Cake Club on Oranienstraße, where the Turkish DJ and part time taxi driver, spun his a mix of Balkan, Latin, Swing and Oriental beats, the party totally cooking, until six in the morning, when, right after the last song died out, as a Rausschmiesser, Zigan would treat the last straggling guests to some of his own Mongolian atonal chanting.

Depending on who poses the question, Hasan, aka Zigan Aldi, whose grandparents come from Mongolia, would give several different answers as to why he has the name he has. “Zigan” – Gypsy – klar: Hasan is a Gypsy at heart and he also plays Gypsy songs. 

As for “Aldi”? Wasn’t Aldi a cheap German supermarket?

There were two stories.

“One story I tell people when they ask me why I’m called Aldi is that I always showed up to my DJ gigs with an Aldi shopping bag full of CDs,” said Hasan. “But sometimes I tell another story, which goes like this: My mother she was a Gastarbeiter in Germany in the seventies and when she was here the one thing that impressed her the most was Aldi, the supermarket. It was paradise; they had everything – and,  it was cheap. So when my mother went back to Turkey and had me, she named me ‘Aldi’.”

Zigan lived on Kottbusserdamm, a stone’s throw from Kotti, in the same building as Turkish Green politician Cem Özdemir, who was a good friend of Zigan’s and when he heard Zigan’s crazy biography decided to use it in a compilation of immigrant stories he put out several years ago.

Zigan’s life story was one marked by peculiar misunderstandings, the first of which had to do with his own name – Hasan.

“I come from a small village in Turkey. We had no electricity, no television, no radio. We didn’t even have a school until a little later on. And when the school opened up it was decided that all the pupils would get IDs. And so my uncle went to the local police station to register all of the children: my father’s children, his, my aunt’s. All together there were 17 children. And when it came to me my uncle forgot my name. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the official. ‘My uncle is named Hasan. He’s a nice guy. Name the boy Hasan.’

“Back in school the teacher called out the names of all the pupils and gave them their ID. ‘And who is Hasan?’ the teacher wanted to know. Only I didn’t have an ID. ‘You must be Hasan,’ said the teacher.  ‘I’m not Hasan,’ I said. ‘I’m Mamodu.’ ‘No matter,’ the teacher said. ‘From today on you’re Hasan.’” 

As a youth the young boy renamed Hasan had two obsessions: he wanted to go to Brazil one day and he wanted to live with Gypsies.

Growing up in Turkey, he and his family lived  by a river. The Gypsies would come to the village and set up camp by the side of the river, where they practiced various handcrafts and sold their work in the village, making  knives and spoons, and what have you, and occasionally playing some music for the people from the village. One would have a davul – a bass drum – and another would be playing the zurna – a kind of reed-blown trumpeted clarinet with stops instead of keys. 

And then there were fortune tellers amongst the Gypsies the villagers would consult. Hasan fell in love with one of the fortune tellers. He was ten at the time, and he fell in love with a twenty-two year old girl who read his palm. That was Hasan’s first contact with Roma people. When he came to  Germany his interest in Gypsies still hadn’t flagged.

At the age of ten it was decided that Hasan would go to Germany, to Berlin, to live with his uncle. That was 1970. Hasan was looking forward to the journey. He had read a book about an English adventurer who got shipwrecked and landed in Brazil. Hasan wanted nothing more than to visit Brazil (which he would do later in his life), and he thought in his naïve, childish way, that from Germany he could just hop on a bus and after a couple hours he’d be in Brazil.

So Hasan’s parents put him on a plane and sent him to Berlin. The problem was the plane landed in Schönefeld, which was in East Berlin and his uncle lived in West Berlin. Hasan and his family had no idea that there were two Berlins and two Germanys. No one told them about this. The telephone number of his uncle didn’t work and after waiting around in the airport for 24 hours the police inspected his papers and put him on a bus to West Berlin.

“But I didn’t know anything about West Berlin and East Berlin,” says Hasan. “When I got to the border and saw the police, the barbed wire, the watch-towers, the dogs, I thought, ‘Man, they’re taking me to jail! What did I do wrong?“

A German man on the bus befriended Hasan, paid his bus fare and ultimately took him in to live with his family, where Hasan stayed for four and a half years. Never mind about the uncle. Somehow that wasn’t important. Then one fine day the German man brought Hasan to Kottbusser Tor. 

“Everywhere I saw döner kebap, lahmacun, börek…  I said to myself, ‘Hey, there’s Turks in Berlin as well!’” 

From that day on every weekend Hasan hung around Kotti, eating döner kebab and just checking out the scene, until one day some Greeks celebrating a birthday, threw a firecracker at Hasan’s head. By mistake. The Greeks excused themselves, invited Hasan in to celebrate with them and ultimately took him into their family, where he lived for several years, working in the family’s Greek restaurant. Never mind about the German.

Hasan – Zigan Aldi – has since  been to Romania and partied with Gypsies and he even went to Brazil and met famous Brazilian musicians. 

But mostly it was Romania that totally blew Hasan’s mind. 

It was in Romania that something funny happened to him. Hasan had been to Romania on several occasions, and whenever he went down to Romania from Berlin he would bring with things he didn’t need, which he could give away to the poor Roma. One night  he found himself in a truck-stop in Romania. Hasan was totally beat; he  had been traveling the whole night and was looking for some place to crash when  along came some Gypsy guy, an itinerant beggar, half drunk who was going around collecting things from people which they didn’t need. 

And Hassan gave him some things he had brought with from Berlin. The man was very happy with the stuff Hasan gave him, that he  said he would sing for him. And what a voice he had! He sang for Hasan the whole night long. They ate  together, and  when they were tired they went to a lake nearby. It was very nice, and the Gypsy sang from his heart, from his soul. And then after that, Hasan decided that he would make it a point to pick up hitchhikers wherever he came upon them. Romania, he found, was a country of hitchhikers. In Romania everyone took someone with and the hitchhikers pitched in a bit of money. But because he was now a rich German, Hasan gave people rides for free. And the people he picked up talked along the way, and the only thing Hasan wanted was that the people would sing a song for him. And htis they did. Some sang beautifully, some less so. At any rate, Hasan decided he’d make recordings of the people he met on the road. And this he did.

“I  made such beautiful recordings in Romania,” said Hasan. “I mean, I’m not a musicologist or anything. But for me, just to experience these things was a gift. For me Romania is a country that is in Europe, but has a kind of Latino way about it. Like Latin America. You think you are in Brazil. Some kind of drunken horse wagon can drive by, or what have you. Anything is possible. And it’s nice to be able to experience these things in Europe.” 

Back in Berlin Hasan ran into a village band from Romania named Fanfare Preda and immediately latched on to them, walking around the streets of Schöneberg with them for a couple days recording their music as they went from street to street and house to house. People would open up their windows and throw money at them like people did in the old days in Berlin when the hurdy-gurdy men made their rounds. Music brings people together, thought Hasan. It diffused danger, disarmed people. And it gave him the idea for a project in which he would take Roma musicians and people from Bosnia and people from the Cake Club and make some kind of Gypsy “happening” where you have the feeling that you were suddenly “at a Gypsy wedding”.

Because Balkan music was a bridge. A bridge between East and West and between people. And also his own music of Turkey. How multifaceted it was. 

You had the music of western Turkey, of Thrace – Trakya – bordering Greece and Bulgaria, which was really the music of the Gypsies who lived there. And then in the direction of the Mediterranean you had another music. And the Black Sea had it’s own music. And the Kurds of the southeast had their music, with their halays. And how the music traveled and mutated from region to region. With music everything was in flux.

The music in Turkey at the moment, Hasan felt, was developing a lot along the lines of Balkan music. Because Turkish music was to a large extent the music of the Balkans. 

Now, although he DJed frequently at parties around Berlin and Germany, Hasan still drives a cab, maybe around four times a month. And taxi driving was interesting, felt Hasan. You got great stories. If he could only write! He had an idea in his head for a collection of stories that would be called “Kurzstrecke Berlin”.

Kurzstrecke was when you could go for three kilometers for three euro fifty. Instead of six euro fifty.

Hasan wanted to have six short stories from Berlin in the collection. He had the stories all worked out in his head, and he knew someone who worked together with the German-Turkish film director Fatih Akin.

“But perhaps you know someone who can write a book about me. My name is Armis Hasan Mamodu.”

Now Armis Hasan Mamodu, alias Zigan Aldi, was a Balkan DJ, man about town, raconteur and one of Kreuzberg’s most original characters.

Unfortunately,  it was at one of his parties that I had a bit of trouble at the door. I’m not exactly sure who the owner of the Cake Club was. A Turks, I think, with whom I may have chatted withonce. But the bouncers were a couple of Turks. I knew that. They sat casually at the door making small talk.

One time I showed up with a bottle of Club Mate in my hand. The doormen were not letting me in an account of my drink. An argument ensued. I  gave in and proceeded to smash the bottle on the pavement. That raised immediate alarm signals for the doormen who decided that they had a dangerous psycho on their hands who they were decidedly not allowing into the club. Not only did they not let me into the club but they hung a hausverbot – a  house ban – over me. “But I’m friends with Hasan!” I said the next time I showed up at the club. “Armis Hasan Mamodu, alias Zigan Aldi. We drink together. I’m writing that story of his life.You have to let me in.” There was a big to-do and  I think I might have called Hasan the next day to ask him if he could straighten things out with the bouncers. He said he would have a word with them, but the next time I tried to get in, there was the same issue. Finally I decided to forget all about Hasan and Cake Club. They were good times while they lasted. And in the end Cake Club shut down and I lost track of Hasan. I don’t know whether he is still DJing or living in Kreuzberg or driving his cab or whether he ever managed to write his taxi stories. At any rate, Hasan, this one’s for you.