Finding solace in the sounds of home

For years, singer Aynur Dogan has preserved and expanded the possibilities of traditional Kurdish music, lending a voice to her people. She has just released her seventh studio album. By Marian Brehmer

By Marian Brehmer

It all begins with a tune played on the piano, all at once overlaid with the sounds of a woman’s voice, filled with yearning. Her dreamy sighs seem to bring together all the world’s pain and troubles. Listening to "Rabe hîv e", an old Kurdish folk song, a panorama of vast, bare plains and rugged, Anatolian mountains suddenly seems to open out before you.

In your mind’s eye, you see the region in Eastern Turkey where the Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan grew up.

The song tells of the melancholy magic of a moonlit night and the memory of a beloved. The shallow sounds of the piano, interspersed with elements of jazz, blend wonderfully with the rich timbre of Dogan’s voice.

Ancient sounds and melodies, seemingly from a time long past, soon melt together effortlessly, with modern touches provided by piano, violins, and percussion. This is what gives the music its energy and upbeat feel on the second track, Hedur, followed as it is by tremolos from an electric saz and syncopated voice leading typical of Kurdish folk music.

“I wasn’t born with sorrow/ I was ready for my dowry/ Was I it or was I not?/ Let me be, let me not be”, Dogan sings in the first line of Hedur.

Her new album, her seventh, bears the same title. "Hedur" means 'to comfort' or 'to find solace in time', and is a retelling, of sorts, of some of the disappointments and hardships of the Kurdish people. ‘Hedur’ can also be understood as a lament for the state of humanity as a whole.


"Hedur is a search for inner peace using the sounds of my mother tongue and the music of humanity. (…) 'Hedur' is a Kurdish word for finding solace in the passing of time. It also refers to a process of self-discovery, finding inner peace and keeping your balance," says Dogan.

Ambassador for the Kurdish people

Over the course of her career, spanning nearly twenty years, Aynur Dogan has undoubtedly become a vital ambassador for the Kurdish people on stages around the world. Time and again, she has introduced Kurdish folk music to international bestseller lists and has contributed to a hesitant revival of Kurdish music in recent years, even in Turkey – despite rampant oppression and traumatic memories of the times when Kurdish cultural heritage was systematically suppressed in Turkey.

In March, Hedur made it to the top of the Transglobal World Music charts. And deservedly so; the album shows how much Dogan has matured musically: in this album, she features not only on vocals, but also as producer and composer.

Alongside the traditional repertoire, there are some songs written by Dogan herself. Just as her previous performances at world music festivals have demonstrated, Dogan is bold enough to be innovative, creating a fusion of different elements. Working with the German jazz pianist Franz von Chossy, she makes a conscious effort to bring her own musical tradition into the 21st century. On one track, Dogan surprises the listener by playing the tanbur, a Kurdish lute.

The album also includes songs with lyrics by Huseyin Erdem, a Kurdish writer in exile in Germany and founder of the Kurdish PEN centre. A comment underneath a video from 2018 of a concert Dogan gave in Vienna reads: "We became children incapable of speaking Kurdish, raised by parents who knew no Turkish." This message – or words to the same effect – appears under her videos time and again.

It’s a remark which reflects the feelings of an entire generation of young Kurds, who feel torn away from their roots and – if they live in Europe – are even keener to seek out a connection with the country of their heritage. Dogan is their voice. Her music promises to take her audience back to their roots for a few moments. The whole room trembles when she plays and her young audiences dance between the seats, performing the traditional Anatolian folk dance, the halay.

Aynur Dogan was born in the small town of Cemisgezek in Eastern Turkey in 1975, a town once characterised by its Armenian cultural heritage and where the traditions of the Alevis live on today. Cemisgezek is located in Tunceli province, also known as Dersim, a place still bound up with memories of the civil war between the Kurds and the Turkish state.

In the 90s, Tunceli was a stronghold of the Kurdish resistance. In 1992, Dogan and her family fled the bloody war for Istanbul, where she learnt to play the saz and spent the nineties studying singing, immersed in the metropolitan music scene. She released her first album in 2002.


A hint of rebellion

Some of Dogan’s songs carry this same hint of rebellion, a taste of resistance in the face of those who have deprived her community of fundamental rights. Dogan often sings of the lives and suffering of the Kurds, particularly the fate of Kurdish women, exemplified in her first major hit, "Kece Kurdan" (2004).

"Girls, rise up," she sings, "Let the world hear your voices. (…) We are the Kurdish roses. We have rebelled because of those who are ignorant." The song caused controversy in Turkey on numerous occasions, such as in 2004 when a charge was brought against a radio station which had played the song in the city of Adana in Southern Turkey. The justification for the charge claimed that the station had played the song to incite unrest among its listeners.

Dogan has sometimes met with resistance when performing in Turkey; audiences have booed her for singing in Kurdish. Today, the Turkish government considers Dogan to be a somewhat uncomfortable artist – as a result, she performs more frequently in Europe than in her home country.

For years, Dogan has worked with notable international artists in the West, such as the Silk Road Ensemble, the Kurdish-Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, and the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The latter once said, "To listen to Aynur’s voice is to experience the transformation of all levels of human joy and human suffering into a single sound. Her voice reaches so deeply into our souls, it settles in our hearts and, for a moment, we are one."

Services to the preservation of Kurdish culture

Dogan features prominently in Fatih Akın’s documentary film Crossing the Bridge / The Sound of Istanbul. For many years, she has been a regular guest at the renowned Osnabruck Morgenland Festival.


In 2017, she was awarded the Master of Mediterranean Music prize by the Mediterranean Music Institute at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, for her cross-cultural work and pioneering efforts towards promoting Kurdish culture.

In February 2020, Dogan had planned to perform in Turkey again for the first time in five years. She was to play Istanbul and nine other major cities, as well as the Kurdish cities of Mardin and Diyarbakir.

In a way, it would have been a return to the early days of her career. Every concert soon sold out. However, the entire tour had to be pushed back to April of this year due to the attack on Turkish soldiers by the Syrian army in Idlib.

Subsequently, coronavirus reached Turkey and the tour was cancelled again. It remains unclear when the tour will be able to take place. In the meantime, the title of her latest album, ‘Finding solace in time’, seems perfectly tailored to these extraordinary times.

Marian Brehmer

© 2020

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu