A dialogue about Sanem Kalfa

16 June 2023
Sanem Kalfa dialogue

Sindbad Sidi/Henning Bolte

I experienced and learned a lot about the gifted musical spirit, human being and almost endlessly surprising personality of Sanem Kalfa, who comes from Trabzon on the southern Black Sea coast, from attending concerts, from extended conversations and from performing with her. Kalfa has lived and worked in Amsterdam for 12 years, after studying music in Ankara and Groningen. After having opened the (post-Covid) series of REFLEX commissions at Amsterdam’s BIMHUIS in March 2022, this June, Sanem Kalfa will be the Artist in Focus at North Sea Round Town (NSRT) Festival in Rotterdam. On this occasion, I have published two articles, one in French and one in English.

This is a conversation between my Alter Ego (AE) and me (HB) reflecting on the activities mentioned above. 


What are the crucial characteristics of the artistry of Sanem Kalfa?


The musician Sanem Kalfa is a phenomenon in a lot of respects. She escapes most of the usual categorisations and transgresses a lot of our patterned perceptions and expectations of music (making). To catch her artistry in viable currencies is a hopeless enterprise. Her performance qualities normally surpass those. 

So we have to restart from that and nonetheless tell something tangible about this truly unique artist and musician. 


Yes, let’s give it a bit of a tangible perspective! I think we all know the experience of futile attempts to catch something touching, moving and beautiful: it’s moving with each attempt to catch it or is gone at the same moment that we caught it. It’s a bit like catching your own shadow. This phenomenon plays a crucial role in art and music. To deal with it is a central challenge for the artist/musician AND the beholder, the audience too. It’s just the way of dealing with this tension, which is constitutive of great creation and intense experience of it. 

Looking at da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you will notice that the figure is looking at you too (in a quite real way). And when you move in a half circle around this artwork, you will realize that the eyes of the figure are following you, mildly smiling. It is as if da Vince himself is communicating with you as the beholder. 

And it is not an animated cartoon causing that effect. This movable smile gives the beholder a lot of possibilities to internally and externally interact – in different degrees of consciousness –  with this work of art. You can even get the feeling that it is da Vince himself who’s looking at you and thus ‘inscribed’ himself in this vivid way into the artwork. 


You mean that Kalfa is also working with this permanent creative tension of fixed form and fluidum? And that the audience should commit to it and follow it? 


Yes definitely! She has developed some magical ways to make it work, which is manifested in her work with a couple of constellations for instance the Acropolis quintet of Kaja Draksler, the constellation Black Sea Songs with violinist/guitarist George Dumitriu and Joachim Badenhorst, and presently her duo with young guitarist Teis Semey, her fabulous (all female) group Miraculous Layers with saxophonist Tineke Postma, pianist Marta Warelis and drummer Sun-Mi Hong as well as her vivacious, jocund-sparky, zappaesque new group Televisyon, comprising keyboardist Marta Warelis, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Sun-Mi Hong (she is alternating with percussionist Nasim López-Palacios Navarro). 

For the annual special North Sea Round Town performance at an extraordinary Rotterdam place, Kalfa teamed up with Punkt electronics wizard Jan Bang from Norway, with British keyboardist/organist Kit Downs and astounding as well as sensitive US-trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. It will now be the fourth project of this kind and will take place in the old Van Nelle Factory (see picture below), an extraordinary case of industrial architecture and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Preceding projects took place on the 37th floor of Rotterdam’s largest office building designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, at a defunct Tropical Swimming Pool and at the huge St. Lawrence Church.

A dialogue about Sanem Kalfa - Van Nelle fabriek injazz


These are apparently collaborations with free improvisers on a high international level.


Indeed, Tineke Postma was a.o. part of two Grammy-awarded albums, one of drummer Terri Lynn Carrington (Mosaic Project) and one of Dianne Reeves (Beautiful Life). Same as Amsterdam drummer of Korean origin Sun-Mi Hong, Postma is on the British Edition label. Drummer Sun-Mi Hong is an anchor element in the vibrant new young international Amsterdam/Rotterdam scene that is participating at high degree in the line-up of Kalfa’s numerous concerts as Artist-in Focus of NSRT-Festival. 

Pianist Marta Warelis, of Polish origin, is a key figure of Amsterdam as well of the international Free Improviser’s scene. She is a member of the group of US trumpeter Dave Douglas and released her recent solo album on the New York Relative Pitch Record label. The Norwegian Ingebrigt Håker Flaten is one of the wildest, most prominent and most-in-demand bassists around internationally. Another Norwegian is Jan Bang who is a widely (in jazz, free improvisation and contemporary music) acknowledged live sampling artist and inventor of live-remix.

He collaborated with countless musicians as Jon Hassell, David Syrian, Laurie Anderson to name a few. Kalfa works regularly with Kit Downs in different constellation also in NSRT in recent years. Kit Downs is also a highly-in-demand musician having several records on the ECM label. 

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire from the US is a stand-out musician by avoiding any stand-out attitude. He is especially remarkable in weaving deep round tonalities on his instrument. Early in his career he was a member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements  He received two Grammy nominations, Doris Duke Awards and the Paul Acket Award a.o. He is featured on Kendrick Lamar’s How To Pimp a Butterfly


It’s a heavy-weight troupe of kindred spirits, so to see, coming from a variety of directions and cultures. This introductory background information will hopefully give readers, who are not so familiar with all names of contributors, an idea of the calibre and direction of the upcoming performances and enough basis and good reasons to decide to see what these wonderful musicians together will bring to the table.

After providing this background information, it is time to shortly return to some crucial characteristics of Sanem Kalfa’s art and music. Let’s choose and take three essential characteristics!


Here is, to start with, something very short and complete Sanem Kalfa told about her way of working and her art: 

“I’m quite fascinated by the ‘discovery’ part of sound-making. Because there are countless possibilities for making sound using our bodies.”. She follows this up by emphatically adding: “I try to be as effortless as possible and to enjoy the ensuing creation as it comes.”


It seems she operates within a triangle of music, theatre and performance art…

A dialogue about Sanem Kalfa - triangle


I think that is right, there are deeply absorbed elements at work of all three disciplines in Sanem Kalfa’s live music making and it can really materialise and manifest due to her amazing vocal possibilities and skills. 

It will be the vibe emerging from the space, the vibrations of the audience, its attentiveness and open honesty and the mental and emotional permeability of the musicians, which together will lead into the music happening in this bond of forces. 


Now the 3 characteristics, please. 


Oh yes, please! Here they are, it’s 

1 – the Whole-Body-and-Skin Way

2 – Existential Voicification 


3 – Love and Purity 


I’m curious, sounds intriguing …


Kalfa works in manifold ways with her whole body radiating to bind completely both internal and external aspects of expressing oneself, including facial expressions and gestures. She slips into the skin of a song or makes her own skin part of the song’s vibrations and movements.

She is strong and colourful, yet as vulnerable as a free bird. Performing in a continuous, unstoppable flow, at once close by and far away, she juggles different internal and external forces and sources: what’s in the now, what she is inclined to bargain with, how she intends and is able to impinge on the air and on the vibration of surrounding souls, how she realises herself by giving colour, motion and sensation to lasting moments.


I see, this is the Whole-Body-and-Skin Way.


She cruises on emotion lines that open up when digging into deeper and higher levels of the human voice, tapping into and evoking primal existential vibrations. It is a matter of making use of extended techniques with a reason, for existential expression.

In everyday life, we use our voice in a lot of modes and moods in the flow of speech and its turn-takings. Sometimes it’s transcending into mournful cries, painful lamentos, aggressive roars etc. In those events, control of our voice expression is (partly) suspended and wanders into outer, magical realms.  

As a musician and artist, she plays with these layers and realms. She weaves it in when singing a handed down folk song, a popular evergreen etc. or she floats out onto Cherubim passages. It is ‘Voicemotion’ – something within the triangle of performance art, theatre and music. You could also call it ‘Existential Voicification’. 


Aha, I see. And what about these Cherubim passages? 


Sanem Kalfa might be magic or mystical and sometimes even for a while might be enigmatic in her performances for a while. However, she is not hiding after virtuosity, the strangeness of sounds, pleasing licks etc. Purity is important, is key, and she is able to work from and into very simple sounds, so simple that it would be hard to dare for other musicians, She has the courage to do it and let intimacy and magic happen. Purity is associated with love, and the Cherubim Angel in its many appearances is associated with love. 

Sanem Kalfa @ NSRT (Artist In Focus 2023)

  • Invisible Columns
  • Friday 23 June 2023, 21-23hrs (doors open 20.30hrs)
  • Van Nelle Fabriek, Van Nelleweg 1, Rotterdam

Sanem Kalfa @ inJazz

  • Miraculous Layers
  • Wednesday 21 June 2023, 22:30-23:10 hrs
  • Bimhuis, Piet Heinkade 3, Amsterdam