DIK - Deutsche Islam Konferenz - A Portrait of the musicians Defne Sahin and Sahira Awad

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"Living, solitary and free..."

Saturday evening, in a small concert hall somewhere in the middle of Germany. Defne Şahin and her fellow musicians prepare for the sound check and tune their instruments. The young singer with the long dark curls stands at the microphone in the centre of the group. The piano begins with a light tune. Drums and double bass join in and weave a swaying carpet. Then Defne’s voice – bright and smooth – fills the room. She sings "Yaşamak", the title song from her first album. The words are melancholic and at the same time filled with hope. The song is her setting of a poem by the major Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet. Later she translates it as "Living, solitary and free as a tree, amongst the fellowship of the forest, that is where we long to be."

Sahira Awad – Berlin bluntness with a Palestinian heart  

Sahira Awad smiles openly. She wears a plain, elegant headscarf.Sahira Awad Source: Philipp Lemmerich

Sahira Awad also longed for freedom and peace when she brought out her debut album "Frei, Schnauze!" (roughly translated: “Free to speak out, so zip it!”). For her, music was a way of creating space and being heard. The media liked to describe the young hip-hop singer as a combination of Berlin bluntness and a Palestinian heart. In her songs, she sang of love, faith and life as a Muslim in Germany. "I am free to speak! There’s no doubt, Berlin is my home! So is Palestine! Walls hem in, stone by stone, know what I mean." With her blunt speech and critical words, she refused to be pigeon-holed. She rapped in German wearing the headscarf – sometimes referring to it, "why she likes the scarf on her head". When she talks about it now, her whole face lights up. The headscarf has become a hijab.

Her first venture on to the music scene began when Sahira, age twelve, recorded her own lyrics on to cassette. Her older brother distributed the tapes amongst his friends and got her started. "I was always a loner and music was my outlet, my family, everything. When I was 16, I stood in a recording studio for the first time as the singer with a hip-hop band. And I’ve been addicted ever since," says Sahira. Self-taught, she created tunes by ear and the beat from the computer. As well as many guest appearances with well-known rappers, Sahira also put together her own album. She turned down offers from record companies. Instead she searched long and hard to find her own style, in 2005 founded her own label "Imanimusic" and financed her first album entirely by herself.


Defne Şahin – Via the USA and Barcelona to Nâzim Hikmet

Like Sahira, Defne Şahin also grew up in a solid middle-class district of Berlin. Her parents came to Germany from Turkey after completing their studies. They attached great importance to their daughter’s musical education. At the age of five, she began to play the piano and at age twelve she started singing lessons. But it was only on an exchange year in the USA that, as singer in the school big band, she discovered her passion for jazz. After that, it was clear that she would study jazz song. She attended the University of the Arts in Berlin, but wanted to see more of the world.

Defne began to compose seriously during a semester abroad in Barcelona. She was able to identify immediately with Hikmet’s poetry. On reading the texts, she soon realised that she could create something from them. "That was my criterion: whether it unleashed something in me."She already knew Hikmet’s poem "Let us give the Earth over to the children" from her childhood and had never forgotten it. "It embodies on the one hand the urge for freedom and on the other hand also peace and hope," she explained, her eyes shining. 

Hikmet wrote love poetry, letters from prison, but also lyrics with the accent on nature. In Barcelona, Defne was able to empathise with his simple language, images of the sea and feeling of freedom. So she decided to dedicate a whole album to settings of Hikmet’s work. For her, the decision to sing in Turkish was self-evident: "So much of the magic is lost at a stroke if you sing the words in German or English. It completely changes the mood. Where I can, I try to stick as close to the original as possible."

Defne Şahin makes music for music’s sake. She does not have a specific political message to impart: "There were some critics who thought that they were doing the group a favour when they stuck a multicultural label on us. And then said it would be good if we were to sing in German and Turkish. That reminds me of my primary school. There we also used to sing songs in different languages," she laughs. "That can be nice. But I don’t see my music as an integration project."


Sahira Awad – Away from the music business towards faith

Sahira, too, appeared many times at cultural centres, in platform discussions and at integration festivals, though she did not want to be treated as a token immigrant. At the time, there was no such thing as a hip-hop singer with a headscarf, says Sahira in a considered tone. "Women in rap were always half naked. But I want to be a role model for young people. I was moved when girls came up to me and said: you are cool, even though you pray. I was pleased because the youngsters saw that things could be different."

Sahira AwadPrecise prayer times, direction of prayer, all holy days, the Koran - apps are a useful aid for many Muslims. Source: Philipp Lemmerich

She also captured attention outside Germany. She gave concerts in Egypt and interviews on Al-Jazeera. However, just as her second album "With pure intent" was due to be issued, Sahira decided to abandon music. She grew up in a Palestinian family where Islam was always present, but she was never a practising Muslim in her youth. In a search for her roots, she began to read the Koran. She wanted to form her own opinion and liked the spirituality and focus on peace in the global religion.

She came to the conclusion that the music did not sit comfortably with her faith: "It’s an egotistical business. Even if you are modest and spiritual, it gets you at some point. You are something special, your voice is something special. And you stand on stage and everyone claps. I never wanted to be a star. I am not into celebrity," says Sahira with visible agitation over her past. Meanwhile she has even stopped listening to music: "Previously I stood up and put on loud music. And I thought I would go mad without music. But to be honest, I don’t miss it at all."

Today, peace has entered Sahira‘s life. She has just finished her midday prayers. In the afternoon she intends to visit her parents in Wilmersdorf. Her mother previously sang classical Arab music. She is still Sahira’s main role model, even though the 33-year-old no longer sings. Instead, she has gone back to school and is training to be an intercultural adviser and counsellor. She sees a significant need here, as there is still far too much prejudice. Through her example, she wants to show young people that a practising Muslim can be just as emancipated and independent as other women.


Defne Şahin - between New York and Istanbul

Stemeseder, Quinn, Defne Sahin and Krümmling on stage after the concert.The Defne Şahin Group comprises Elias Stemeseder (piano), Simon Quinn (double bass), Defne Şahin and Martin Krümmling (drums). Source: Philipp Lemmerich

The mood at the Defne Şahin Group sound check is relaxed. Between two songs, everyone is strumming something else on his instrument. All four are clearly committed musicians. They met at university and now regularly tour Germany’s jazz clubs. At 28, Defne is the oldest. After her initial studies she first went to Istanbul. She toured throughout Turkey with the Hikmet album. She currently lives in New York, where she is again studying. But she comes back to Berlin regularly to play with her group. She smiles at joke by the drummer. Then immediately becomes serious again, briefly counts the beat and starts on the next song.


Samples of Defne Şahin’s music can be found here.

Some of Sahira Awad’s songs can be heard here.


Stefanie Otto, 18.01.2013

Stefanie Otto is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. She works mainly for the public radio network and writes for various online media.

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