“This is the highest level of contemporary music. The ferment of the already intoxicating music that finds a common ground between the melancholy of folk and the exciting harmonies of jazz is lead masterfully by Sanem Kalfa’s striking vocals.” wrote the famous English magazine Jazzwise. It didn’t say enough. Sanem Kalfa, a singer living in Amsterdam, and Romanian guitarist George Dumitriu’s music can be described and referenced by the music itself instead of everyday words. There is something about that that would always be missing unless experienced live.
Sanem Kalfa won the first prize in the famous Montreux Jazz Festival’s competition in front of Quincy Jones, the head of the jury, in 2010 and is the first Turkish musician to participate in this competition by one of the most important jazz organizations in the world.
Sanem Kalfa masterfully interprets her own and George Dumitriu’s compositions as well as Turkish, Portuguese, Italian and English songs and performs in many prestigious organizations and venues in Europe. She also receives acclaim with her interpretation of beloved folk songs. She compiled her compositions in her album “Nehir” and recorded “Türkü” with Kaja Draksler Acropolis Quartet. She recently released “Dance” with George Dumitriu with much effort. You can listen to the album on iTunes, CDbaby and Amazon digitally as well as buy the physical CDs and download links during her concerts. That “Dance” will be available here shortly, but first let’s focus on the interview we conducted with Sanem Kalfa.
One day a Turkish and a Romanian musician living in Amsterdam form a duo and create music together since then. As two people who have been working together for a long time, how do you and George (Dumitriu) complete each other the most?
George and I have as many cultural similarities as we have differences. For example, we cook peas exactly the same way.
I cannot say George and I clash much. We know each other very well and thus complete each other well. We had differences of opinion until we got to this point, of course, but I think we found a balanced common ground. We accept each other as we are on stage and in our social lives, I think this is important for continuity.
You released “Dance” album with your own efforts after much blood, sweat and tears. Would there be a positive or negative difference if you were living in Turkey?
Actually I should mention that we had to record this album twice. We decided not to release our first recording due to having differences of opinion and concerns of trust with the production firm we were working with. We turned a new page and moved on. As you said, we shed blood, sweat and tears even though that wasn’t really necessary. But we had to go through that. I had a moment a couple of days ago, more like a feeling, and I thought we didn’t go through such troubles for nothing. These blood, sweat and tears brought us luck. I would never ask for more, I am so thankful for everything. Would I live in Turkey? I don’t know… Oral agreements have legal consequences in Holland, therefore honesty and mutual trust are very important. If such an experience happened even there, I think nobody can know what will happen to them and where.
What I can say about the current state of the music market is: We did not released “Dance” through a production firm. It is a good choice to do everything on your own if your name is known in the market you are in. Because ultimately it is the musician who puts in the most effort. It is very possible to make wrong choices due to financial concerns these days. I would also like to note that good agreements that honor both sides’ rights are good. As long as both sides are honest and do not hesitate to trust each other.
The lyrics of titular piece “Dance” belong to Rumi but it has a Western-modern sound. The same applies to “Rumi’s Groove”. How familiar are you with Islamic mysticism?
“Dance” is a new starting point in my life. The title of the album was different when we first recorded it. We used Rumi’s words. It had to be simple and meaningful for us when we read it. We were interested in Islamic mysticism but how involved were we? I don’t think that was enough for Rumi. I might be sounding crazy but Rumi didn’t want to be a part of us when we didn’t understand him well. He took us on a journey, a journey inward. Even though I am still at the beginning, everything is different for me now. So is “Dance”…
How easy, hard or possible is it to synthesize Eastern and Western cultural elements?
This isn’t something I can evaluate as simple or hard. It is a synthesis that is born without questioning or working towards it. We nourish ourselves with our differences and our similarities and the ultimate result ends up being whatever we essentially are.
There are two Brazilian musicians in the album as well. Jobim and Tom Ze. However, you interpreted their pieces with a minimalist approach. How accustomed are you with Braziliam music and Portuguese? Why did you pick these two pieces?
Portuguese is a different music and a rhythm on its own. It is a language that pulls me in without making me feel like an outsider even if I cannot speak it. Jobim is a genius who first brought music and Portuguese in my life. Tom Ze is an incredible experience of Portuguese, music and mad dynamicism. The reason why I chose these pieces was because they let me freely be myself. They seem to say “Lead us to wherever you like”. I have this kind of relationship with every single song I sing, not only these two songs.
Your brother-in-law Feyyaz Akdemir wrote the lyrics for the cute piece “Yelken”. The lyrics of Yelken could have easily sounded kitsch and simple, and yet you brought your own sophisticated arrangement and vocal interpretation. There seems to be a metamorphosis taking place in between its start and end.
“Yelken” is a very innocent and sincere song. Feyyaz told me its story just the other day. It is whatever it is, there aren’t any names I could deduct or add, it is unnecessary, one is already known. The way lyrics fuse with the music is similarly simple and plain. Everything is simple in our music now, there is no room for chaos or redundant information. Our lives are already busy enough, sometimes even hectic. Less words, more feelings. “Yelken” is exactly like that; less words more feelings.
“408” and “Away” are your own compositions. How do you balance missions and distribution of emotions while creating a piece?
We have been making music together for more than 10 years. George and I are good friends in addition to being musical partners. We developed a common language, there is no division of labor, the songs naturally form on their own.
You perform in some of the most important European cities, with Amsterdam being the most frequent. Are there times when you think you aren’t understood to the full extent only in Turkey?
I don’t think I am or will be misunderstood in Turkey or anywhere else. I only hope to reach more listeners if a time comes when organizations and organizators are less worried about financial issues.
How did your cello education reflect on your productivity until now?
I studied cello for 12 years, I am actually a graduate of the education faculty, not the conservatoire. Cello was my life back then, but when I started to sing that became my priority. I became freer while singing. But I owe my freedom to my cello education. I am getting ready to perform with the cello on the stage again.
You have an unparalleled vocal technique in Turkey. Who are some other references to it worldwide?
Maria João expanded my horizon as a vocalist. Like a horse freed of its ropes, like a tree whose roots reach the magma. My journey to get to know myself started when Maria João entered my life.