Gülcan Altan reveals the songs of the Caucasian Mountains

An album with a striking cover depicting a goddess-like figure in the middle and, within her flowing hair, dozens of different motifs -- ships, waterfalls, horses, sheep, butterflies, birds and an apple. If you ever come across such an album, go ahead, take it. Listen to it and plunge into the world of the Circassian spirit.

This album, “Gunef” (The Light of the Heart), is a first in Turkey. Circassian musician Gülcan Altan has undertaken this great initiative and finally released one of the first examples of its genre: an album in the languages of Adyghe and Abkhaz. The album, released by Ada Music, includes 10 songs from the realm of the Narts, the mythological heroes of Caucasian culture. Even the design of the album -- by Ceren Aksungur -- tells a lot about Caucasian culture: the red-white apple in Nart mythology and the family emblem are among the most significant elements of a culture that has been subject to exile and genocide.

“I was born in Samatya, İstanbul,” says Altan in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “I grew up in a multicultural, multilingual ambiance that influenced me a lot. Before this album, I had a Turkish album and took part in other projects concerning ethnic music. In time, as I got interested in ethnic music and cultures, my own culture gained prominence, so I wanted to do something with that.”

The album is a product of many years of hard work. “It’s been seven or eight years since we started working on this album and forming the repertoire,” says Altan. “Musical production is taking place at a significant level both in the homeland and in the diaspora. But I wanted to include the songs produced in the homeland and also loved by the diaspora and there’s only one song [Sipse si Adiğe] that I wrote.”

During these eight years, the hardest part was finding the original versions of the songs. “Unfortunately, since we are an exiled community, we have no cultural documentation. The records are very old and they’re not of very high quality. One song has been sung in several versions in different places. Which dialect should we choose? What lyrics should we pick? … So we worked out a common language map and evaluated the songs according to this map.”

Filling a gap

One of the most important reasons for why I made this album was that there’s a huge gap in this field. When you look at world music, there’s Greek music, Balkan music, African music, Italian music, Georgian music, Russian music, but no Circassian music. But those lands are the homeland of the Circassians. So, what I wanted to do was to make an album that could be listened to all around the world.”

Actually, even though the album was only recently released, it has already entered the best sellers list in the world music category in many music shops. Of course, the album is mainly -- and firmly -- supported by the Circassian diaspora in Turkey. “It would have been very difficult to complete this album without their support,” says Altan. “They honor me and I’m overwhelmed by this.”

“It attracts non-Circassians as well,” says Altan, indicating that the album was made by a largely non-Circassian team. “Because there are real Caucasian patterns in the album, the melodies are Caucasian. The Caucasian rhythms are so enthusiastic that they take you -- no matter what nationality you belong to -- away to the Caucasian Mountains. And the sorrow in the Caucasian songs is so deep that it hurts deep inside without any agitation.”

Mother tongues at risk

For Altan, most of the cultural elements of the Circassian communities have managed to survive throughout the centuries thanks to the lifestyles of these communities. “The new generation embraces its culture more than ever because it needs to hold on to something and the process of assimilation is moving so fast. Yet, they have to engage in research and learn the essence of what they should embrace.”

In this respect, one of the most important elements of this process of awakening is one’s mother language. “Indeed, this is another reason I made this album,” notes Altan. “The languages of Adyghe and Abkhaz are at the top of the UNESCO list of languages at risk. If these languages are not spoken by children and if they cannot learn them, they will become extinct. This is the easiest way to destroy a language. Art is one of the most important factors in conveying a language to future generations, but education in one’s mother tongue is very important and language courses are not enough. They should be optional courses at schools,” she says.

It seems that this summer will host plenty of Circassian activities throughout the country. “In July, August and September, there will be festivals in Turkey organized by Caucasian associations,” says Altan. “On July 10, I will give the opening concert of the Caucasian festival in Düzce and we’re expecting about 4,000 or 5,000 Circassians. There will be another festival in Afşin, Kahramanmaraş, and about 10,000 Circassians are expected to come there. On July 23 there will be a festival in the village of İlkkurşun in İzmir and I will give a concert there with a group from Caucasia. So, there are many programs for this summer but what is more important is to represent this music at international music festivals around the world and to show the world that there’s this Circassian culture. We have some plans for next year and we will sing these songs to the world.”