Turkish songs, classical music, and poppy jazz: the world of Karsu Dönmez

Karsu Dönmez @Seabottom Jazz Festival

‘Karsu’ (snow water) was once just the name of a tiny village in the far south of Turkey. Dutch film fans know its name due to an acclaimed music documentary which is currently playing in a select number of Dutch film theatres. First and foremost, however, it’s the name of the lady singer prominently featuring in it. It was named after her, as she was named after the birth place of her grandparents.

Karsu Dönmez (19-04-1990) is a Dutch singer-songwriter, composer, and classical piano player with Turkish roots. She grew up in Osdorp, a multicultural district in Holland’s capital Amsterdam. Already early in life her goal was clear: performing on stage. The classical music education which she received from seven years onwards taught Karsu to play the piano eloquently, and made her familiar with both music reading and composition. When Karsu discovered her singing voice by chance halfway through puberty she started to write poppy jazz, which she performed alongside popular Turkish songs in her father’s restaurant where she worked as a waitress.

From waitress to stardom

Everyone who has seen the rather sympathetic filmed portrait of Karsu and her family can only draw one conclusion: Karsu already made her way to stardom. At almost 23, Karsu enjoyed the exclusive privilege of performing three times at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. She appeared in prominent TV shows in the Netherlands and beyond, appeared on stage in renowned venues worldwide, and played at a variety of critical jazz festivals. Her first album ‘Karsu Dönmez – Live aan ’t IJ’ was presented in 2010, followed late 2012 by ‘Confession’, Karsu’s first studio album. The latter reached the number 1-position on i-Tunes in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey.

 Karsu Dönmez @Seabottom Jazz Festival

Seabottom Jazz Festival

In order to conduct an interview with Karsu for al.arte.magazine I made my way to the Dutch Seabottom Jazz Festival, where Karsu performed on the 23rd of March 2013. Considered the ‘junior edition’ of the discerning Dutch North Sea Jazz Festival, Karsu was to perform at the main stage of Seabottom Jazz as early as 2009, even when she did not yet enjoy the same popularity as at present. Ed Goudriaan, who organises Seabottom Jazz, confided to me in the hallway of a still empty theatre that he already made up his mind about her musical value upon his first encounter with Karsu’s music, some years ago.

 Conservative traditions versus modern-day individuality

Paying heed to Karsu’s Turkish roots and the generally conservative traditions of older generations, I asked Karsu whether her grandparents initially supported her public musical quest.

“My paternal grandfather was a mayor. He actually saw music as a kind of gypsy pastime. Not surprisingly, at first he did not have much appreciation for my public performances in restaurants and music venues. However, when some renowned Turkish newspapers published elaborate articles positively addressing my music, he couldn’t help but feel proud. In 2010, after he had already passed away, my grandmother came over from Turkey to stay with me and my family for a while. The first performance she attended was at a prestigious, sold-out Dutch theatre during the Turkey Now! Festival. It was an experience we both cherish.” A special, related moment is captured in the music documentary, which shows Karsu’s visibly moved, headscarf-wearing grandmother publicly offering flowers to a similarly moved Karsu right after the concert.

Karsu’s most recent music video ‘Crime’ presents a different Karsu. As she seems to be addressing sensitive topics like adultery, murder, and schizophrenia rather indifferently, I wonder if Karsu experiences any cultural restriction in her choice of dress and song subjects. Karsu: “Until recently, I did not write songs about myself; I merely wrote about things that caught my attention in the world around me. My family and friends have always been aware of that. Personally, I consider my lyrics and music to be more important than drawing the audience’s attention to sexy clothing. At the same time, I’m aware that I can still wear what I want, like those high heels.”

 Karsu Dönmez @Seabottom Jazz Festival

Public property

The ease with which Karsu performs on stage is based upon experience. “When I started to perform publicly, I used to be a girl who shied away from people’s attention. It changed slowly when I noticed that my songs and funny remarks in between were being appreciated more and more. But there have also been moments when I was bluntly told to shut up. My confidence grew with each performance. Then again, I only perform when I’m well-prepared. It’s all about rehearsing, proper scoring, and re-writing scores, if necessary. Yet certain songs are best performed spontaneously, by improvising on the spot. That’s jazz, after all.”

What strikes me is the difference between Karsu’s charming professional appearance on stage and her modest, almost girlish behaviour when we speak. How does she deal with her increasing popularity? “Well, initially, I had a hard time getting used to it. Because of my young age some people apparently felt obliged to shower me with all kinds of heartfelt but often contradictory advice. It taught me quickly to only value the opinions of those near and dear to me next to those of professionals. My 19-year old sister proves an excellent source of feedback as well. Meanwhile I learned to do and dress what I feel like myself.”

Female strength as a source of inspiration

Nina Simone (1933-2003) is one of Karsu’s musical heroes. Two other famous female singers who inspire Karsu are the Spanish-African Buika and the Turkish Sezen Aksu. “What inspires me most is the strength they display on stage, alongside their fantastic characteristic styles.” A few years ago, Karsu covered ‘Adio Kerida’, a song by another favorite of hers, the Israeli Yasmin Levy. Karsu smiles when I tell her that I was reminded of Shakira when I first heard Karsu’s cover. “That must be due to the particular vocal technique which I used in the song. Last week someone compared me to Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) for the same reason. Above all I want to stay true to myself, and I simply like to employ different vocal styles. Music academies teach the opposite, namely to sing naturally and in an open, singular fashion.”

 Karsu Dönmez @Seabottom Jazz Festival

A few years ago Karsu was rejected by a Dutch music academy where she had hoped to enroll for courses in jazz, vocals, and piano. Karsu: “It made sense, actually. Back then I was just a young albeit enthusiastic piano player who liked to sing poppy jazz. I tried to study jazz theory in less than half a year in order to pass my audition. When the moment arrived I happened to be quite ill; I did not master the theory well enough yet, and my performance was flawed. Later I successfully opted for the preparatory training. Looking back, I’m glad I was rejected the first time around. I wouldn’t have fit in there.” Karsu speaks with appraisal of the British lady singers Joss Stone and Duffy, particularly because of their unique sound. “Like Amy Winehouse, they did not stick to the mainstream styles promoted by many music academies either. That’s exactly why they are so popular, if you ask me. Even so, I only collaborate with academically trained musicians who are familiar with reading music; if they can’t read the score, we can’t communicate.”

Eclectic repertoire

Karsu’s repertoire is a playful mixture of jazz, pop music, Turkish traditionals, and songs of a more classical nature. Delving into her music, I found out that I was already well familiar with a popular Turkish song Karsu often performs, ‘Çok uzaklarda’, although I happen to know it in two different versions. With lyrics being written by the popular Turkish poet Kayahan, ‘Çok uzaklarda’ was initially made famous by the Turkish singer Nilüfer Yumlu. Originally recorded in 1991 instrumentally, the song was actually composed by the famous Canadian all-round musician and singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt as ‘Tango to Evora’. It was further promoted in the Mediterranean by a singer whom I consider the ‘Greek Fayrouz’, Haris Alexiou. She added Greek lyrics to it and recorded it as ‘To tango tis Nefelis’ in 1996. Subsequently, the Greek rendition would give birth to the Turkish version Karsu embraced.

Karsu does not favour the Turkish audience over the Western music scene. “For the time being I focus on poppy jazz music, and I love to sing in Turkish as well. In that regard it was a fantastic experience to perform at the Ankara Jazz Festival with the band. There’s a long way to go, though; I have yet to build my reputation in the jazz scene.” According to Karsu, Turkish youngsters are much more into jazz than their Dutch counterparts. “For some reason Dutch people tend to appreciate jazz music at a slightly older age. I thrive on classical music and on composing poppy jazz. That’s it; that’s me.”


Opportunities and memories

Reaching stardom allows for all kinds of opportunities, like performing at one of the important yearly Dutch ‘Bevrijdingsfestivals’ (Liberation Festivals) next month on May 5 for an expected audience of some 100.000 people. Celebrated throughout the Netherlands, these festivals joyfully commemorate the liberation of the country from German occupation by allied forces in 1945. “Right now it’s still a bit early, but I would like to use my fame socially as well. I’m increasingly being heard and paid attention to; in such a position I might as well raise my voice, raise funds, and motivate people to support a relevant cause.” Smiling: “I just might turn to politics in time, too. After all, it runs in the family.”

Karsu’s future seems bright. What kind of legacy would she like to leave behind? “Recently I read that people die twice; first, when the soul leaves the body, and a second time when people don’t remember your name anymore. I do hope to leave something beautiful, some inspiring memories for others.”

Photos: Khadija Ed-Dahbi

The Seabottom Jazz Festival and Cinema Delicatessen kindly supported the creation of this article. Click here to see which Dutch film theatres screen the music documentary ‘Karsu – I hide a secret’ and here to see where Karsu will perform next.


This post is also available in: Dutch