A Conversation With Rotinda

Rotinda posing in front of the mythical creature “Shahmaran”. (Rotinda)

By Azad F. Kurd


A: How would you describe Rotinda to those who don’t know you?

R: It’s both an easy and a difficult question because I have to describe myself. I was born in a beautiful county of Kurdistan, Gimgim, in 1962. I lived there until I was 10 years old, not knowing Turkish, I only spoke Kurdish and knew only of the county I lived in. After, due to various reasons, my family was exiled. Our first stop was Ankara, after Manisa, and then Izmir. 

Rotinda derived out of the encounter with the Kurdish freedom movement in 1989. In the 90s, Rotinda came together with the exact desire he had been searching for; the Kurdish identity.

Rotinda began to make his appearance in the years of 1991 and 1992, as he became one of the founding members of Mesopotamia Cultural Center (Navenda Çanda Mezopotamya), and he began to build his reputation through the work he conducted at the cultural center.

A: When was your first encounter with music? Did you always want to become a musician?

R: Maybe it’s a classic answer but I’ve wanted to become a musician ever since I was 5 years old. I had an uncle whose name was Yasar, he passed away. Uncle Yasar was a great man. To encourage me to sing he would tell me to get on top of the table and if I did sing, he would give me some liras. 

It’s a bit of an odd story, but my first performance was singing in Turkish without speaking the language itself. They made me memorize three Turkish songs, and I still can’t remember how it happened, I was around the age of 7. In the West of Varto, at one of the assimilation centers of the [Turkish] government, which was a boarding school, I sang those three songs during the New Year celebrations along with my cousin who was playing the tembur. 

This year marks the 30th year of my singing career. I sang my first Kurdish song in the year of 1990, it was during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations with my friend Merdan, Mesopotamia Cultural Center hadn’t been opened yet, so we had to perform with a different Kurdish organization. The Newroz performance took place in Istanbul, at a movie theatre. It was the first time I sang in my native Kurdish tongue.

A: Where does the inspiration of your songs derive from?

R: I experienced great suffering for many years. Why? Because I was constantly in search of my identity, which was being denied, we couldn’t sing in Kurdish even though we were Kurdish. There was always a yearning for these things. 

Coming in contact with the [Kurdish] freedom movement was the turning point of my life. I’m not sure how to describe it, it was like being stuck in the middle of the ocean and while I was drowning, they came to save me. The resistance in the prisons of Amed, during the years of 1991-1992, sparked the transformation of my thoughts into songs. To be honest, I don’t write songs coincidentally. There is always a story behind a song. I plan it out, sometimes it takes a year or longer.

A: What are the weak and strong points of Kurdish music in present day? 

R: Kurdish music obtained its freedom and began to spread in North Kurdistan under the guidance of the [Kurdish] freedom movement. It came a long way and defeated many obstacles. But after 1999, when the leadership [Abullah Ocalan] was illegally arrested, Kurdish music started heading backwards. 

Populism also played one of the biggest roles in harming our music, the initial Kurdish music culture that was created by the [Kurdish] freedom movement which was filled with quality and meaning melted away. The Kurds in the North began to emulate the Turks and the Kurds in the South, without even understanding Turkish, they began to listen to Turkish music. All of these behaviors were a great blow to Kurdish music. But, despite all of this, there are great projects taking place. The younger generation now is giving me, and everyone hope.

A: Who are your favorite artists? 

R: There are a lot of artists whom I respect significantly. For example, I listen to Aram Tigran, Naser Rizazi, and Adnan Kerim all the time, I really like these artists. From the younger generation, I would say Cihan Celik is a great talent. There are so many names that I can’t remember now of course. I always find time to listen to Dengbej style songs, Sakiro is my go-to. 

A: It’s well known you were together with Hozan Serhad for some time. Could you tell us about him?

R: The Kurdish music in existence, especially through the years of 1990s with the uprising, didn’t have many people with a background in music. Generally, people became singers because they have a nice voice, not because they had an education in music. There is a difference between a singer and an artist. Serhad was one of those artists we had. 

They always ask me about Serhad. We were together for a short while in Kurdistan, during that time we produced a video clip together. Me and Serhad were not in the same guerilla fields, he was usually in Hewler and Sulaymaniyah conducting cultural work. The reality is that Serhad was a great quality artist and he had a background in music education. Serhad was a huge loss.

A: Assimilation is accelerated throughout Kurdistan, how do you view this issue?

R: The enemy will try to assimilate because it is their sole mission. But there is also the voluntary assimilation concept. If you are performing any kind of art in Kurdish, your daily life should involve Kurdishness. If you are speaking the language of the enemy all the time and then go on stage and say, “I will be singing revolutionary songs in Kurdish”, in my opinion, you have no business in art and on the contrary you are doing a disservice to art. 

Unfortunately, the majority of the artists act this way. My expectation from our people is to show reaction against these types of artists. If the artists are using any language but Kurdish, the people should criticize them. Right now, I feel guilty of speaking Turkish with you, and I’m only doing it because you don’t speak Kurdish, otherwise I always conduct interviews in Kurdish. An artist is an example, a role model, if an artist isn’t being a role model then the art of that person is questionable. On this matter, many of our singers are participating in voluntary assimilation, which is a terrible mistake.

A: What is one of your most unforgettable memory?

R: In 1992, after the establishment of the first Mesopotamia Cultural Centre in Istanbul, we wanted to set up two more locations, one in Ankara and Izmir. During that year, death was everywhere. People were afraid to go out in the streets.

In our case, we were doing something for the Kurdish culture, of course people were hesitating to help us. We were referred to someone, a young woman from Dersim but she wasn’t Kurdish, she was from the Turkish left. She was extremely modern and trendy. When I saw her, I told myself that she would never help us. She agreed to help us to only find a place and said that she will not come to the Cultural Centre. 

After many years in 1997, during the massive operation of Zap, with the KDP and PUK’s betrayal, there was a brutal war. I was there filming a documentary. During the very dark hours of one morning, I heard a loud scream. They had brought a wounded woman comrade; a bomb had exploded on her and she was screaming. I thought she was screaming because she was hurting but that wasn’t the case. She was screaming because she was furious. She said that she had set up a trap for the enemy and because she didn’t see it through, she was mad at herself. I understood once again that the will power of the [Kurdish] guerilla is unbelievable. 

There were three guerillas who brought the wounded comrade, and as soon as one of them heard my voice she said, “Rotinda, is that you?!” Because it was dark, I didn’t recognize who she was. She said, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m the person from Ankara who helped you with the Mesopotamia Cultural Centre”. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe it. It turns out that she fell in love, got engaged, and her fiancé joined the guerillas. She joined the guerillas as well, to find him. She joined from Dersim, and from there she went everywhere until she ended up in Zap, looking for her partner. She told me that, “I looked everywhere for him, no one has heard or seen him. I can’t find him. I believe that he is alive. I will not fall a martyr until I get some news from him”. I wrote my song “Avî”, inspired by this woman’s story. 

A: Which one of your works are you most affected by?

R: All my songs are like my kids, I love them so much. By looking at what people listen to, the songs Gerilla, Avasin, Baweri, and Agit etc. are popular. For me, the most meaningful ones are Zilan, Agit, and Baweri. 

I say the song about Agit is one of the most meaningful ones because he holds a special place for the Kurds. For me, he didn’t fire the first bullet against the enemy, he fired it against the Kurds, to wake them up. For many years, I thought about writing a song for Agit, but it was difficult because I had to come up with something that would honor his memory. In 1992, when our people loved the song of Agit, I was relaxed because then I knew that I lived up to his memory. The song Baweri also means a lot to me because it is for the mothers of the guerillas. The mothers don’t want to believe that their sons or daughters fell martyrs even if they saw it with their own eyes. The song is meant to describe their feelings. 

A: Thank you for this interview.

R: Thank you, good luck.