Heritage Trail: Nene H on her debut album Ali

Istanbul-born, Berlin-based producer Nene H pays tribute to her late father while exploring her Middle Eastern heritage on her debut album, Ali. She tells us about the cathartic process of making Ali and incorporating Middle Eastern and Western influences

Feature by Nadia Younes | 12 Jul 2021
  • Nene H

Cast your mind back to 2019: before COVID, before endless lockdowns, and before the entire shutting down of the live events industry. It was at that year’s edition of sonic and visual art festival Berlin Atonal where Beste Aydin, aka Nene H, first performed some of the tracks that feature on her debut album, Ali, due for release this month on New York-based label Incienso – the label run by Anthony Naples and Jenny Slattery.

When we call Aydin in Berlin, where she currently resides, to discuss the album, it’s on the same day that the city begins its reopening of the nightlife sector. As of 18 June, clubbing restrictions in the city were loosened, with outdoor events of up to 250 people now allowed, as long as guests are able to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test and wear FFP2 face masks – proven to have enhanced effectiveness against spreading and contracting COVID-19 – when not seated.

But, like many of us, Aydin is slightly apprehensive about returning to these kinds of events, particularly with the added uncertainty around social interactions that COVID has created. “When you meet people, you don't even know [how to act] anymore, like should you hug or fist bump?” she laughs. “The social awkwardness of all of this is extreme.”

The album and Aydin’s performance, Rau//Reue, at Berlin Atonal act as extensions of each other. Both were developed around the same time, following the passing of Aydin’s father three years ago, and were intended as a tribute to him, as well as acting as a means of exploring her grief. “The process of making it was like nothing else for me,” she says. “In the end, it came to a point where any time that I listen to it, it gives me the same kind of feeling, which never happens.

“Always, at some point, I am tired of the things that I do… but I feel like this became some kind of working mechanism,” she continues. “It's there now, it's an object. It's out of me now; that's how I want to see it... For me, it helps to see it like this. It's like making the whole process hearable, and [making] that lifetime or a phase of my life hearable and visible.”

Born in Istanbul, Aydin moved to Stuttgart at the age of 20 to study piano and was exposed to an entirely different culture at an age where she “didn't know shit,” she says. “I don't count myself as a human being when I was like 19/20,” she laughs. “So when I came here to Germany I wasn't a human yet, I became human after.”

Following her studies, Aydin relocated to Berlin, where she has now lived for nearly ten years and where her interest in music production, especially within the realm of electronic music, was truly formed. During this time, Aydin would return to Turkey a few times a year, but her father’s passing saw her returning to Turkey more frequently to spend time with her family. This brought her closer to her Middle Eastern heritage and, in turn, had a huge impact on the making of Ali. “Musically, the genres are very different,” she says.

“In between tracks, the genres somehow change or exchange material with each other, because I wanted to [show] this kind of fucked up-ness of my situation being a Turkish girl [in Germany]... your brain gets very confused,” she continues. “Because I had spent a lot more time in Turkey I became my younger self a little bit. I wanted to [show this duality] in the genres, the music, and the whole thing.”

Ali incorporates influences from Aydin’s Middle Eastern heritage and her formative adult years spent in Germany, with tracks sung in both German and Turkish and combining traditional elements of Turkish music with more modern electronic sounds. Lead single Lament, for example, combines a pulsing techno beat with the looping sounds of a ney – an end-blown reed flute that features prominently in Middle Eastern music.

“When I used the modality in the tracks – [the] bass motifs or the synthesizer motifs that I compose – these small motifs are very much made on certain scales that could be both a little bit Middle Eastern and a little bit Western,” says Aydin. “I try to keep the balance so that it doesn't become some cliché... I want to keep the dosage right, and keep it sophisticated.”

As the album closes with the slow build of How We Say Goodbye, its sparse nature feels like a sense of calm washing over after a period of turmoil, as Aydin is able not to move on from her grieving period, but at least to move forward.

Ali is released on 16 Jul via Incienso