Nostalgia – The Sea of Memories [Accent]

Early Baroque Music Meets Mediterranian Traditional Songs
5 of 5 stars

Early Baroque Music meets Mediterranean Traditional Songs

Nihan Devecioğlu (voice), Friederike Heumann (viola da gamba, lirone), Xavier Díaz-Latorre (theorbo, five-course baroque guitar)

Recorded 19-22 December 2019 in Église de Franc-Warêt, Namur, Belgium

Reviewed by: Ates Orga

Reviewed: January 2021
Duration: 68 minutes



“It all starts with one glimpse, you were here and there … I remember everything” – the opening of This is My Home Now by the Turkish singer, experimentalist, performer and songwriter Nihan Devecioğlu, from her 2019 album, Ozean. Flashback autumn 2001. My studio in one of the Maçka towers of Istanbul Technical University. A cream-walled neo-classical room overlooking the Bosphorus, black piano in the corner. Just the one postgraduate that afternoon, a slight girl of intellect and curiosity, determinedly free-wheeling. Nihan. Seminar set aside, we spend a couple of hours talking – about ourselves, about the arts, sunlight streaming through tall windows, the big tankers and rusting ships from places north steering their way from the Black Sea through the Marmara down the Dardanelles to the Aegean, then the Mediterranean. At dusk we part, she descending shadowed marble stairs, just the one look back, a half-smile. The last of my Istanbul students, our time too brief.

Many years later, behind her half-a-decade at the Salzburg Mozarteum, we met up again in Istanbul, and once for dinner in London. Still the same imaginative wanderer, prospecting the old, the new, the fantastically exotic. Ever listening to ‘other-world’ vocals, to throat singing, to ancestral voices from central Asia to the great melting pot of the White Sea of the Ottomans – the Mediterranean. In tireless search of invigorating mediums. Curating the unexpected, performing, recording, disappearing down hot, narrow Istanbul hill streets to meet an adventurous luthier …

A while back her appearances with the Barcelona Gypsy Klezmer Orchestra (as it then was), revealed the kind of diverse luminary she is, a supremely gifted artist “grounded in a search for understanding across cultural boundaries”. Her hunting grounds embrace all roads, from opera and early European repertory to world music, Sufism and dynasties of Balkan song. Nationalist, ethnic and religious obstructions, political and social constructions, gender distinctions, play no part in her work. Tracks in the first of her multi-racial Barcelona studio albums, Nihan & The Singing Camels (2019), demonstrate upfront rhythmic vitality and facility. But if you want her at her most beautiful, spiritually and physically, trance-like in body language and gaze yet as choreographically tensioned as a “spice-laden” mountain gazelle, then it’s to the slower material we must turn. Such numbers communicate freely through descants, improvisation and emotional inflection, through the delicacy and spot-lit colours of pared-down instrumental commentary: the finesse of story-telling through crystalline diction and ultra-moderated vibrato. It takes high art to sing a slow song, to deliver the soul through ever subtler veins of Sprechgesang. In a stran like Malan Barkir – a Kurdish Alevi lyric lamenting the pre-war Dersim Massacre (1937-38) which she transforms into a long ballade where earth meets sky and the dying and displaced find solace in a lapis lazuli infinity beyond the ewran – I am reminded of the musician-magicians of North African tribal tradition casting tales and spells across sand and sea.

Correspondingly the snowbound yoikers of the Sámi “sun people” of Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland astride the Arctic Circle. More than twenty years ago Ursula Länsman, a reindeer herder these days, identified this music as attempting “to capture its subject in its entirety: it’s like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words – its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song … through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures … There is no way to experience the power of the yoik except to listen to it. Its natural character and the voices of the natural elements do not become apparent until the listener has thrown himself upon the winds” (Folk World, May 1999). Berit Margrethe Oskal’s “ancient forces, ancient dreams, living thoughts, living hopes”.

Nostalgia is a connoisseur release, familiar in its Nihan-esquery and minimalist compound but less to do with studio-generated clinicism or microphone techniques than the acoustic surroundings and feedback of a seventeenth-century Catholic church in Wallonia, a region of Belgium steeped in Roman, Celtic, Germanic and Spanish echo. Jordi Savall, mentor in absentia, is rarely far away. The gamba player Friederike Heumann, credited as joint executive producer, responsible for the concept and coordination of the project, studied with him (guesting subsequently with René Jacobs, Emmanuelle Haïm, William Christie and Ton Koopman). And Barcelona-born Xavier Díaz-Latorre, is a stalwart of his Hesperion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert de Nations ensembles. Between them a formidable Basel pedigree. A fourth member of the team needs lauding. The American ethnomusicologist Katherine Meizel (Bowling Green State University, Ohio). She contributes a booklet essay of elegantly readable erudition (English, French, German, with song texts), at once scholarly yet atmospheric, her scene setting encouraging, inspiring, and guiding.

Addressing the album’s title, she notes that “nostalgia” (from the Greek) comes from once being a medical term to encompassing “an extensive range of human emotional experience centered on loss, longing, and the past … [we remember] the survival of those who came before us, and the endurance of their music. The sounds offered here represent in text and context the far-reaching scope of nostalgia: sorrow for the loss of home, the loss of loved ones, a loss of certainty in life, or of romantic love; and, most of all, the longing for their return”. Of the subtitle, “The Sea of Memories”, she says nothing. It’s a powerful association of ideas nevertheless, to my mind drawing less on Charles Moran’s The Sea of Memories: The story of Mediterranean strife, past and present (1942), Bush’s The Sea of Memories come-back album (2012), or Fiona Valpy’s recent Sea of Memories novel (2018), than on that genre of Mediterranean-ised imagery, imagining and recall of which Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2008) manages to be both literary spawning and (housed in the Çukurcuma neighbourhood of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district) concrete manifestation: “the humanity of individuals”.

The eighteen tracks add up to an exotic mosaic of ceramics, poems and sounds, their juxtaposition without chronology or continuity of place yet organic and seamless. Here there is no West or East nor South, just time passing, historical events, a babel of tongues and creeds, lost and found people voyaging lands from Columnae Herculis to Ararat. “In a way,” observes Meizel, “all of these songs and compositions are at once farewells and welcome-homes to the world of the past … Early-music performance in the twenty-first century underlines an often-forgotten reality of nostalgia: nostalgia is an act – not only of remembering, or even of recreating; rather, it is about composing our present with the sounds the past has left for us.” Facets of the Mediterranean are missing: the islands, swathes of eastern North Africa, the Jews of Djerba. Notwithstanding, the interactive spread is challenging, a vibrant communis musica drawing on Armenian, French, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Portugese, Sephardic, Sufi and Turkish sources.

Preluding the journey, hovering like a shaft of light through mist, an unaccompanied Greek folksong from Eastern Thrace, Giati, pouli m’ den kelaidis – lamenting the fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, with the conversion of its greatest place of worship, Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), from cathedral to mosque. Beholding its ruin is a bird “so devastated … that its voice is gone, and it cannot sing”. Nihan’s heartbreak handling says everything, her “Ah” early on shuddering from deep within, without melodrama or contrivance, throated and womanly. How she shapes her notes and ornaments, preparing her phrase endings with such clarity and culture, suggests something (less the vibrato) of Lousine Zakarian – whose uniquely distinctive a capella London recordings of Armenian sacred song I had the good fortune to produce in the late 1970s. (At the time Zakarian [1937-92]) was solo soprano at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church.)

A fragile, consuming account of the romance Nani nani, a Sephardic lullaby from old Smyrna (Izmir) with Iberian and Ottoman elements via Morocco, relating a father’s betrayal in the arms of his new love, errs towards the intimacy of Montserrat Figueras (watching over the cradle) more than the projection of Hadass Pal-Yarden (toiling the fields) with a dolcissimo quality exceeding both. A rapt, anguished yearning. Similarly Heumann’s earthily-droned gamba commentary. Expelled from Spain in 1492 (from Portugal four years later), the Jews of the region were dispersed throughout the Maghreb and western Ottoman Empire, the sultan of the day, Bayezid II, extending them refuge in Istanbul, Thessaloniki (Salonika), Smyrna and variously around the Balkans. Savall explored facets of their heritage of in his 1999 Diáspora Sefardí recordings, a discographic landmark. Not found in his set is Nihan’s Ya salió de la mar, a wedding song from Salonika (“The graceful one came out of the sea/Wearing a dress of red and white”) sung by women attending as the bride emerges from ritual immersion – opened and closed by (improvised) gamba and guitar ‘symphonies’.

Other tracks display opulent, fluid flexibility, an idiomatic grasp of style. The timing and space, the microtonal slides, the matched guitar improvisation, of Kızılcıklar oldu mu, a Turkish folksong from Keşan north of Gallipoli. The touch of stridency in the rhythmically hypnotic Sufi devotional hymn Ah, nice bir uyursun (with gamba), to words by the mystic thirteenth/fourteenth-century poet Yunus Emre. Prefaced by a contemplative gamba improvisation, Wa Habibi, a familiar transmigratory Syriac/Maronite Passion lament from the perspective of Mary – of unclear authorship, whatever early sources there might have been presumed “lost to fires, wars, and conquests” (Nadine Mazloum) – is wondrous and probing, with a sign-off of the tenderest shaping. “Oh my love, my love what a sad state are you in? … No loyalty is left in the world”. Transcendent musicality.

Three examples of Baroque aria (Cavalli – preceded by a “pull of the grave” Rossi passacaglia – Monteverdi, Grandi) witness unforced mellowed purity, a paradisaical boy’s voice somewhere in the ether. In an anonymous mid-seventeenth-century Italian setting – Passacalli della vita, life flying away in circles (“We have to die”) – the melody is floated and punctuated in the lightest of dialogue with an energised, elaborated gamba and guitar, Heumann extemporising glowingly. Melding Nihan’s vocals with the mezzo range and operatic production of someone like Léa Desandre, equally vernal, would be an interesting venture.

Amor de mel, amor de fel/A love, sweet and bitter, is the one twentieth-century song of the anthology, a fado by the late Portugese musician and guitarist Carlos Gonçalves (1938-2020) celebrated by Amália Rodrigues who wrote the lyrics and whom he accompanied often. Contrasting fadistas favouring emotionally ‘fatalistic’ lower register emphases, Nihan’s version, a seductive lirone/guitar arrangement, focusses on the higher harmonics but without the harder, strident ‘reediness’ of singers like Rodrigues herself (Lágrima, 1983), Katia Guerreiro (Fado Maior, 2001) or Mísia (Mediterraneo, Christina Pluhar’s 2013 concept album). In some ways what she does evokes  Mariza’s more recent vocal modulation. Occasionally, from another tradition, the nuancing, mid-range colouring and paced word dramatisation of the Romanian Maria Tănase either side of the Second World War. Refracted through a glass of Turkish tea alla Pera Palas, Ibrahim Özgür’s light tenor tango nostalgia, 1940s vintage, like that of the diction-perfect Şecaattin Tanyerli (Birsen Hanım also to a degree), distantly ghosts the portamenti and dipped longer notes.

Several tracks are instrumental, predominantly gamba and theorbo duets. Kapsberger’s lithe Capona (Libro Quarto d’Intavolatura di Chitarrone, 1640). Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde’s virtuosic Susanna Passeggiata (Diminutions after Lasso, 1638), “encapsulating Venice’s melting-pot character” (Meizel). An improvised Tarantella for guitar (after Sanz, 1674 and de Murcia, 1732). Komitas’s Sareri Hovin Mernem for gamba, a folksong of love and separation symbolising Armenian identity and exile (collected in the early 1900s): “I’ll Die for the Wind of the Mountains”. Diego Ortiz’s Passamezzo Moderno (1553). A grave French-style gamba Chaconne by Sieur de Sainte-Colombe, Marais’s teacher (manuscript c.1690).

Such albums, judiciously produced and engineered (the long-experienced Hugues Deschaux), don’t come by everyday. A breath of fresh air, it provokes, engrosses and stimulates. With Heumann joining in, an unaccompanied due discanti folksong from Apulia in the heel of Italy – Mycenaean ground with subsequent Islamic and Ottoman ties where obscure Greek, Franco-Provençal and Albanian dialects are still to be found – draws the curtain. “My dearest, I beg you … leave me not. Beautiful eyes, I beg you … leave me not.”

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