Sanem Kalfa is ready to make an artistic statement as Artist in Focus 2023

Read interview in Dutch


For the fourth time, North Sea Round Town (NSRT) is presenting an Artist in Focus. From 22 June to 9 July 2023, the vocalist, cellist and improviser Sanem Kalfa is given the opportunity to present a dream project and various other performances. NSRT will support her in developing the projects and her artistic vision. Together with the festival, the musician will show her many sides, inspired and surrounded by Rotterdam’s cultural arena. 

Text: Angelique van Os 

With a satisfied smile Sanem Kalfa (1982) takes sips from her coffee at Delftse Poort, right in the heart of Rotterdam. She is beaming from head to toe and her shining eyes speak volumes. The Turkish-born singer and instrumentalist is ready to show herself to the public at large. “My mind is bubbling with new ideas I would like to realise”, she says enthusiastically and nestles on the sofa.   

Power project
Sanem is no stranger to North Sea Round Town. In the past year she appeared in a variety of settings, such as the impressive ‘Midnight Mess concert by Teis Semey, NSRT’s Artist in Focus in 2022, and under her own name with the all-female ‘Miraculous Layers’ power project. The audience was impressed by her powerful voice, enormous range and the theatrical performance. From being introvert and vulnerable she appeared just as easily as a dramatic and touching improviser where the emphasis lies on storytelling.  

Many sides
In hindsight this turned out to be her warming-up to being Artist in Focus, although she did not know that at the time. There are many different sides to Sanem Kalfa as a maker, and she does not shy away from confrontation, exploration and artistic experiments. In this case she rises to the challenge by collaborating with Rotterdam makers and presenting projects in locations in the city that do not immediately spring to mind. NSRT recognises and joins Sanem in exploring her curious and open view of the world, and welcomes her as the new Artist in Focus.    

Thriving artist 
The Netherlands-based artist seems to be making considerable headway in a short time. But she has been around for quite a while. And she is totally ready for it, she says, as last autumn brought a turning point. Sanem could be seen regularly in a variety of different groups from the contemporary jazz scene, which helped both her self-confidence and her development. And she felt up to creating a solo project, using her voice, supported by cello/ukulele and electronics. “For years, something held me back. I felt I wasn’t ready to put myself on display, and last year I wondered whether I was doing this the right way”, Sanem reveals. When in autumn 2022 she was offered the opportunity to appear at the Space is the Place festival at the BIMHUIS, a solo concert came to mind straightaway. “I suddenly realised that I was ready for it. I felt stronger as a person, and I’m perfectly capable of making an artistic statement now”, she says with a laugh.  

City texture 
Sanem really wants to explore Rotterdam’s cultural playground. “I don’t know Rotterdam all that well yet, although I thoroughly enjoyed the city this past year (during NSRT, red.). The texture of the city is very different from that of Amsterdam or other European cities . There are far more different cultures fusing together, and I think that shows in art and music, too. I would like to work with Rotterdam musicians, designers, dancers and visual artists I don’t know yet. Create something with my hands, because I also like to make clothes, for example. Maybe I can combine this type of creativity with a Rotterdam maker.” 

What to expect 
Next year Sanem will be able to realise her own dream project during North Sea Round Town, and she will, among others, collaborate with Rotterdam musicians and makers for that. As yet, she can only hint at the details. “I’m still in the orientation phase at the moment and I have lots of ideas which I would like to examine more closely first.” She stops briefly to take a bite from the cake she brought. “I still need to design my main dream project in the coming months, but one thing I can already say is that I will definitely do a concert with violinist George Dumitriu. I have a special bond with George, because we have known each other for 15 years and have been playing together as a duo for just as long. We will celebrate that anniversary during NSRT with new material.“ Sanem says that she has a strong bond both with George and with various other musicians with whom she collaborates. “We share a lot more than a life in music. We have strong bonds with each other, just like a family, partly because we all have different origins but have been living in the Netherlands for a long time. It is incredibly valuable to be able to share that.”   

Growing up
That Sanem kept a low profile for a long time has to do with her upbringing, where love and warm-heartedness could not always be taken for granted. She was the latecomer in a family with six children and came under the care of one of her older sisters when she was fourteen. “I grew up in a small town, Trabzon, close to the Black Sea. Although my parents have always supported me financially and encouraged my musical talent, I felt a lot of social pressure. Even when I moved to Ankara and two years later, as a 16-year-old, I had to fend for myself.” These years shaped her as a person and as a musician, but it did not make her bitter. It gave her the strength to become the human being she is now, because Sanem was not born into a rich, music-minded family, where everything came naturally. She had to fight hard and find her way independently.  

A new world
When she was about 21 years old, classical cello player Sanem discovered that singing also gave her great satisfaction. She was encouraged in pursuing this by another musician who fostered her talent. When a friend went to study cello at Groningen Conservatory, she got so excited that she decided to take the leap as well. In 2007, Sanem moved to The Netherlands to study jazz vocals. In many ways, a new world opened up for her there. She encountered jazz and a more liberated way of life. She blossomed, although the cultural difference was significant and she spent a long time looking for something to hold on to.

In 2010, she won the prestigious Shure Montreux Jazz Vocal Competition presided by Quincy Jones. But she got hardly anything out of it. “It was an honour, but I had no idea what to do with it. I wasn’t ready for it yet, which made me feel insecure and stressed because of the high expectations the people around me had. Eventually I decided to follow my own path and work on my own identity.” After completing her studies in Groningen, Sanem followed her own course, which brought her to Amsterdam. In recent years, she has surrounded herself with many big names from the contemporary jazz scene and developed herself as an artist

Perfect timing
Now seems to be the perfect time to be Artist in Focus, as Sanem is developing quickly in various areas and is creating her own sound. NSRT wants to support her in this meaningful moment in her career. In addition, several albums will appear this year and the next, and after the festival Sanem wants to tour with ‘Miraculous Layers’, featuring Tineke Postma as special guest. So this is a good moment to extend and refine her musical vision and wishes. “I have many different sides and I like a variety of musical layers. These elements will definitely become visible next year”, Sanem says, with determination. “I’m now being given room to show those diverse sides of me. I’m a dreamer and a visual thinker. I want to take people with me, into my world, to my deeper layers which might be recognisable to audiences, or refreshing. Within those layers, the Rotterdam scene is of essential importance. That is something that I’m going to explore during the coming months, and develop custom-made projects for characteristic locations together with specific musicians.”

Sanem is really looking forward to the festival ahead. “I already get great satisfaction from being allowed to fulfil this role. The first thing the festival team told me was that I can dream, present and do what I like. They will support me. That’s great. I’m their jewel, and I’m allowed to shine. So I am definitely going to do that, in all sorts of ways!”  

Photo by Mehmet Salih Mulayim

Watch Sanem’s stunning performance with violinist George Dumitriu for a taste of one of Sanem’s many sides. This concert was part of online concert series made by North Sea Round Town i.c.w. de Doelen in 2020.