With her soft voice and a contemporary interpretation, Asena Akan is considered one of the important representators of jazz music. Since her early childhood, Asena Akan has always been a music enthusiast as she started her musical education at the age of 5 in violin section of Istanbul Municipal Conservatoire. She was also trained part-time in Opera Section of State Conservatoire of Istanbul University. Apart from her passion for music, Akan was also interested in human behaviour so she did her undergraduate and graduate studies in this area in Psychological Counselling Department at Istanbul University. Asena Akan who has been integrating the healing/transforming power of music with her life has been continuing her musical journey with the music band “İstanbul’dan (from Istanbul)” by doing jazz vocals, composing music and executing stage performances after releasing two albums named “İstanbul’un İzleri” (Traces of Istanbul) and “Golden Heart”
Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers? Who is Asena Akan?
I have been describing myself as a person who is trying to make a sound since I was five. And I still miss who I was at that age and I feel the need of those natural sounds in my music workshops. My passion for music started when I started to repeat all the sounds at the age of five and my family was confused to whether to send me to a doctor or to a conservatory. I got training at the Violin Department of Istanbul Municipality Conservatory. The instructors there deemed the violin was fit for me but I could not get used to the violin no matter what I did. For five years, I have tried to get into the violin but it never happened. At heart, I liked the piano. I left the conservatory after having difficulties but I have not given up on music. Since I was a child, I have been on the watch for the bass and the drums when listening to music. I even love instrumental music. I bought a bass guitar fifteen years ago. Five years ago, I accelerated my communication with my instrument by saying, ‘I will play it now”. In short, I’m an Istanbul lover who was born and raised in Istanbul and who cannot part with music. Music, Istanbul and I complete each other.
BEING A SOUND
You decided to focus on your passion for music rather than your academic career. Yet, you organized a workshop named “Being a sound” which combines both of your experiences.
Yes, all my works support each other. Because going to the different corners of Istanbul or visiting different places in Turkey are things that foster each other. Touching people, learning from their lives, exchanging ideas and emotions are very inspiring. Doing this through music is very nice, on the other hand, like I mentioned before, I organize workshops making use of what I have learned during my studies in psychological counselling. In the past, I organized some seminars and did one-on-one psychological counselling. I said to myself “Why am I not doing all these through music?” and now I organize music workshops, which are called “Being a Sound” where we focus on expressing ourselves, transforming emotions and on concepts such as creativity and inspiration with different groups. The development of the philosophy of “Being a Sound” is a whole another story. I think everyone is born into the world as a different instrument, and how you use these potentials makes you unique. That is why I put great importance on communication. The same thing goes for performing at a concert or a workshop. I have noticed this in every aspect of life. Are you angry? How does your mood reflect on your spouse, child, significant other, friends or other people? Making these contacts between the music and those processes in life strengthens the works. Since every individual is a different instrument, there are different workshops, no workshop is alike.
So, what kind of impact did Istanbul which you can’t stop talking about have in your music life?
All my works are influenced by Istanbul. There are parts of the city I can identify myself with. I believe everyone is born with a golden heart. There may be some corruptions afterwards due to the experiences which I call “being out of tune”. We resist, change, learn and go on in one way or the other. We witness that Istanbul is also beaten and broken. Then suddenly you see Galata Tower from a corner, you hear the sound of the sea. This gives me joy in life. So actually, there is such a thing as “my Istanbul” because I am no stranger to the other side of Istanbul. I am a person who also has a history of being a psychological counsellor apart from being a musician. I majored in psychological counselling at the university and being an academician was my first profession. That is why my social works side is strong. So, Istanbul is not just limited to where I live. I visit many other places. With music and workshops I do, I can reach other places and people not only in Istanbul but throughout Turkey.
What can be done for the children to love and know Istanbul that we can barely protect? Have you thought about it?
Children are very instructive. For those who want to learn, anything can be some kind of an Instruction tool. I have a daughter too, her name is Sofya. I have learned so much from Sofya. We have discovered many things together. We walked together to the places I enjoy in Istanbul and went exploring together. First, she adapted to me, my life, my walking. Then, she started picking the places we would go and I followed. At some point, we even thought: “Why are we not going to a mall?” because I wanted to introduce my daughter to the real Istanbul. Even if I had been born in a different city, I could have fallen in love with that city. The city phenomenon is a very different concept. There is an energy in which people come together and do things or miss each other in a cosmopolitan city like Istanbul. I am very much in love with Istanbul but it is not that hard for me to adapt myself to wherever I go. It is about exploration and the sense of wonder. We must teach our children the pleasure of discovering hidden values and preserving them, but of course, they should want it too.
“JAZZ IS A DEMOCRATIC MUSIC”
Back to your music career, what would you like to say about jazz?
What impresses me the most about jazz is that it is a democratic music. It involves different sounds and colours. That every instrument expresses itself through role changes such as being a leader or being an accompanist accordingly. These impress me. I find it very similar to my philosophy in life. Since my childhood, I have been very sensitive about discrimination. Jazz is helping me find my way during this soul searching. There are lives I try to touch and I have shown this to them as a role model. Jazz is an incredible instructor for me. Singing is inspiring and keeps one young and dynamic. Being involved with music, in general, makes me experience those feelings. With music, we are at places both of learning and teaching. I am very happy that music is accompanying my life and I think it should accompany everyone in their lives in some way. My album Istanbul’un İzleri (Traces of Istanbul) is the apple of my eye. It was born after three years of work. Very valuable musicians contributed to this album. Golden Heart came together after English compositions were made. Afterwards, an EP called “Parçalar” where I interpreted some of the songs in this album in Turkish and a single called “Suya Yazdım” which I composed with mixed emotions were published. Nowadays we have a band called “Istanbul’dan” to which I enjoy belonging.
How was the band “İstanbul’dan” born?
The mastermind behind the “İstanbul’dan” in which we interpreted the folk songs of Anatolian culture in our language to understand and touch the lands we live on is Ayca Daştan. We had a musical collaboration with Ayca for many years. When she explained this beautiful project three or four years ago to me, I got involved. Folk song arrangements in the project are done by her. In the band, Ayca Daştan plays the piano and the lovely Nihal Saruhanlı who joined the band later plays the drums and the percussions. I do the vocals and play the bass. As in all other fields, it is necessary to spend a lot of time and effort to produce something good in music. We have worked on “Istanbul’dan” very seriously and in a very disciplined way. At first, we did not plan it to be a “women’s project” but it happened that way.
It’s a project where I enjoy being a musician. The sincerity of “Istanbul’dan” is what impresses me the most. We did not start off with the aim “We grew up here, we learned about Western music, let’s create something by mixing these two up.” It would not have affected me so much if we had. An organic process developed where emotions were heavily involved. At first, the stories of the folk songs affected us, then they got integrated with our own stories. We re-internalize folk songs with Ayça’s arrangements then we re-interpret them on the stage improvising, depending on our mood. That is what deems this project original for me. The album has been released recently. It is also on digital platforms. Our purpose is to bring music, its stories and the people of this period together and to present it with our energy and emotions. I have never felt the need to constantly “shine through” in music. Rather, I need to be a part of the democratic music where instruments rise and fall in harmony, where sometimes some instruments express themselves by becoming more prominent, where everyone’s voice and tone colour are respected and where everyone creates a dialog. There is a brave, curious and noteworthy audience in our country who wants to hear new things and is open to different voices. My first album “İstanbul’un İzleri” brought me together with these beautiful hearts although I didn’t do any promotional work.
We talked about the healing power of music, but music has also a uniting power. What would you like to say about the effect of music in this sense considering that people in the world are separated and cannot express their feelings clearly and uncensored?
The concept of “IKIGAI”, which is the subject of a book I have read recently and is calledthe secret of Japanese long and happy life, questions “What is the purpose of your life that makes you get out of bed in the morning?” What motivates me to wake up is to make as many and different people, including me, benefit from the uniting and healing power of music. That is why I organize the workshops named “Being a Voice” I am also a part of the “We Care Association”, which develops products and services for children to achieve their fundamental rights. We developed a “Mother-Child Development Guidance Program” for mothers with children in penal institutions. Besides, we organize trainer training for employees. And we all benefit from the healing power of music together. It is important for somebody or some people that you make him/them understood and that you connect with him/them. Even the smallest things you do mean something for them and benefit them. But of all methods, I think music is the fastest, most direct and most effective. In fact, it provides a positive environment that also removes people with its non-judgmental and embracing nature. Music is a tool that has been used as a therapy method for the treatment of diseases for centuries with scientific and evidence-based principles. This is not something newly discovered, we just have to open ourselves up to it. As Sufi Inayat Khan expressed in a statement I like; “Music is the most effective means and the shortest way to integrate man with himself, then with other people, and then with the universe.”
About Asena Akan
Born in Istanbul, Asena Akan started her musical education at the age of five with classical violin at Istanbul Municipal Conservatory, then received part time training in the Opera Department at the Istanbul State Conservatory and graduated in 1998. Akan also plays bass guitar and continues her musical journey by doing jazz vocals, making musical compositions and stage performances.
The concert took place at sunset in the Istanbul Bookstore at Kadıköy Pier. I sang songs from my album İstanbu’un İzleri. It was a very enjoyable performance with the interactive participation of the audience. I was more than happy to have a public concert.
‘İstanbul’un İzleri’ (2013) written and composed by her, released by Z/Kalan; ‘Golden Heart’(2016); ‘Parçalar’ (EP-2017); ‘Suya Yazdım’ (Single-2019)
Songs Performed By Them:
Kerpiç Kerpiç Üstüne, Yağmur Yağar Taş Üstüne, Gelevera Deresi, Yemen Türküsü
Asena Akan: Vocal&bass
Ayca Daştan: Piano
Nihal Saruhanlı: Drum&percussions
It consists of three female musicians from Istanbul who interpret folk songs of Anatolian culture in their language to understand and touch the lands they live on. Improvisations, another important element that the band is nurtured of, create the artists’own stories. The concert, which is shaped by improvisations that transfer the loop between past, present, and future and is changing every time, turns into a new experience for those who love and know folk songs as well as first-time listeners.
The Progressive and Innovative Nature Of Jazz
I do not believe in the viewpoint that jazz belongsto a certain culture and must be performed within a certain framework. On the contrary, I think that its nature operates in the cycle and balance of breaking the existing rules, building new ones, and then breaking them. More generally, I associate the progressive and innovative nature of jazz with the values of being a self-improving person. That is why I am confident that in Anatolia, which has been home to so many innovative and valuable musicians, there is an audience who will listen to new kinds of music and open their hearts to it.
By: Hatice Çetinlerden & Dilara Gülşah Azaplar
Photos: Yağızkan Karahan
*This article was published in the November-December issue of Marmara Life.