Martin Scorsese, Keith Richards, Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro are impressed by her voice.Aynur Doğan — or Aynur, as she is popularly known –  is probably one of the most famous Kurdish singers today. 

Many will remember Aynur’s appearance in Fatih Akin’s 2005 Istanbul music documentary, Crossing the Bridge, in which she sings a haunting Kurdish lament in an old Istanbul hamam. Later on, she tells the camera about the sorry state of Kurdish rights in Turkey today, and how she was hassled by nationalists, who interrupted her concerts. 

It is only fairly recently that the law against use of the Kurdish language in public life, on TV and in music was rescinded. While Aynur can perform in Turkey relatively unmolested (on an official level), she doesn’t get public or private sponsorships. She cannot take place on the season program in public theaters /concert halls, or even private theaters avoid because of peer  pressure. 

In 2012, a year before the Gezi Park protests flared up, Aynur sensed a changing mood, fled Turkey and settled in Amsterdam. Since then she has increasingly collaborated with Western musicians, while at the same time keeping her famous plaintive vocal style rooted in the mountains of “Kurdistan”, where she lived until the age of 18. She has just come out with a new album, Hedur, infusing her ancient vocal art with Western instruments.

So now you are in Istanbul at the moment.

I came here from Amsterdam for the tour. The first misfortune  originated  from the soldiery of Turkey who lost their lives in the Syria war, so we had to reschedule to April. The April tour got cancelled due to the pandemic alarm. Now we’re waiting for the upcoming days or months… 

Can you tell me something about the new album? How does it depart from the previous ones.

I always try to bring something new and different in my albums, I strive for finding similarities and feelings between the musicians and their cultures. But at the same time, I aim to lay a bridge of traditional Kurdish music for the new generation to keep it alive. It’s hard to make music in a forbidden language that is not taught, to transmit this music to a younger generation. This is also the motivation that led me to try new forms, to bring traditional Kurdish music with a taste of jazz and classic elements.  I’ve recorded with the band that I already play with on stage, instead of just producing an album; that is one of the differences from my other albums.

Now that you live in Amsterdam, do you make it back occasionally to Istanbul?

I moved to the Netherlands at the end of 2012 when the situation was getting worse in Istanbul. At that time I was going back and forth between Istanbul and Amsterdam, but after 2015 it got difficult to go back and to do anything. Especially as a Kurdish musician it was hard.  Then I started focusing on the musicians in Europe. I work with German and Dutch musicians, using Western instruments. But at the same time I was trying to find a balance, to keep my source and my tradition and my feeling, so as not to disappear in this new music.

Is this a new direction, do you think? Might you be playing more with Western modes in the future? 

 I don’t  have such sharp decisions. Everything develops in its naturalness, apart from all my technical concerns. 

Music is the feeling for me first of all and my feelings determine the sound or style of the songs. I never had a concern that I would make music with western sound/mode. I believe in my heart and soul especially if it’s the music in question. 

You play saz, or bağlama, however in this new album you didn’t play it.

I actually played a Tembur in the song Hedur.  It’s got three strings, different from bağlama. The older generation used to play this instrument in the trance-engendering ceremonies.

What does the title of the album mean?

Hedûr” is a word in my mother tongue Kurdish. It means finding consolation and solace from the passing time. The way of finding inner peace and balancing it; the result of dearth, isolation or even of existence itself.” To find sense of consolation. Solace of time.

The song that I liked the best was Govend e. I take it, it just means halay(a circle dance) in Turkish.

That’s right.

Can you tell me something about the song text of Govend e?

It’s a halay, so many people get together and dance together. It’s kind of a serenade for a beautiful girl. 

“The girl has a scarf and belt

What she wears has a fitting beauty

Her two braids look like black snakes

The youths fight for her attention “

Who are some of your favorite Kurdish artists?

I mostly like the old traditional singers, we call them Dengbejs. But not many of them are alive anymore.

Vocalists or bağlama players?

No–they’re vocalists. For example, I like to listen to: Dengbêj Şakiro, Şeroyê Biro, Karapetê Xaço. They are really nice interpreters and singers. Without any instruments, just singing. Like, constantly singing and telling stories and history that we learn about Kurdish culture. It comes through their songs.  But I don’t only listen to Kurdish music. I like a lot of music from around the world.

Music from the Anglo-American world. Anything that interests you there?

I don’t know much about it.  I listen to traditional music more. I listen by chance, then I like it and continue.

What about Western classical music?

Yeah, I like it. I listen to it, but generally traditional music from around the globe is more interesting to me. And of course jazz. 

Who is your audience? In the time being I guess it has become a bit more international.

It’s a kind of mix of international and Kurdish audience.  The main international audience of course in Europe, especially Germany, France, Austria, Netherlands, Scandinavian, Belgium Switzerland etc. There is Turkish audience as well, but in Turkey. 

Apparently among your fans there are some pretty famous people. Like Martin Scorsese, Keith Richards and Johnny Depp.

Well, I wouldn’t say fan 🙂  

Johnny Depp listened to my concert in Küstendorf  – Emir Kusturica’s village in Serbia – and was very impressed by the performance. After the concert we had a very nice conversation about music and the way of using instruments and the singing technic of my voice etc.  

Fatih Akin was also invited to the same festival in 2010. In his speech he mentioned that he met Martin Scorsese and Keith Richards at the Cannes film festival, they were talking for almost half an hour about Aynur, saying that she is an amazing Kurdish singer and shouldn’t be missed. 

If you look at the music scene in Turkey, you could say that it is disproportionately Kurdish. A lot of the big stars are Kurdish. Why is this?

You mean the Kurdish stars who are singing in Turkish?

More, like, why is Kurdish music so strong in Turkey?

I think, one of the important reasons is that the Kurdish music and culture has a strong oral tradition.  We learn all stories, tales, history, and everything about Kurdish culture through Kurdish music and songs. Therefore, music has a very important and dominant role in the culture.  There are countless Dengbej’s that we have never heard of their names, but they are very well known in their villages and districts. Most of them can’t read or write but they have more than hundred songs in their memory that they’ve been learning since their childhood. Kurds are the second largest population in Turkey as a community, that might be also a fact I assume.

Would you consider yourself to be somewhat of a political person?

Like daily politics, as a politician, do you mean?

No, but in your music and activities are you involved in political issues?

In my opinion, actively doing politics is different from what politicians are doing.  That is one thing. But also being political can be something else: to support culture; to support music; or support women; to support minorities around the world; or to support music – the way to do it is to keep it alive. Keeping Kurdish music alive is also a political act. To bring the history or the culture from past to the future for the next generation through music.

What do you think about the refugee crisis and Syria? Have you ever done a refugee benefit, or thought of doing one?

It’s really a hard situation that they have been dehumanized. In 2010, 11, 12 I did a couple of charity concerts, but they were organized by local organizers in order to collected money and donate it.  It’s something that I would do gladly again if the terms of conditions properly develop.