Turkey’s Great Musical Gamble
by Geoffrey Clarfield (February 2010)
The religious right maintains a steady criticism of the lascivious hedonism and violent sentiments that so much modern music expresses, but the law and the courts uphold freedom of expression, the market supports it and public funding for the arts is rarely withheld on moral grounds. It would be fair to say that in the Western democracies musicians are free to express themselves in any way possible.
Not so in the contemporary Islamic world. During the 1950s Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice banned singing and music. In those days, if you were caught at a musical gathering the religious police had the right to beat you up. It was a time when musical instruments as well as records and record players could be seized and destroyed by the authorities.
During the last fifty years the Saudis have liberalized their approach to music and it is now broadcast on their TV and radio stations. But the state still monitors and screens recordings and live performances. Licenses for recording go mainly to male singers. Yet in contemporary Saudi Arabia there are still a significant number of hard line religious teachers who encourage young people to burn musical instruments in public places. Such a situation creates a climate of fear and no doubt, Saudi or visiting musicians and song writers self edit to an extraordinary degree.
Despite the relatively tolerant nature of Egyptian society and their interpretation of Islam, music and musicians there also live in fear. Every piece of music needs a recording license issued by the government in order to be published. Often the censors ask the artists to change the lyrics. The government gives much authority to the Islamic Research Council of the religiously based Al Azhar University which is active in the censorship of music. They often contact publishers and ask them to change, or hold back a piece of music from the public for religious reasons. Members of the Egyptian Assembly representing the radical Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood regularly criticize pop music and musicians during parliamentary sessions.
In relatively tolerant and multi cultural Lebanon the musician and singer Marcel Khalife barely escaped the wrath of Islamic authorities there who managed to have him tried in a high court for blasphemy, for the content of a song which used a line from the Quran. After numerous hearings he was acquitted, not because the court agreed that in that barely secular republic, as a songwriter he had the right to freedom of expression, but because in their eyes, “the defendant has chanted the poem in gravity and composure that reveal a deep perception of the humanism expressed in the poem ornamented with the holy phrase.” Imagine what his prison sentence might have been if he had been using the phrase ironically.
Similarly, a recent hip hop concert in Gaza was violently broken up by Hamas supporters. Even though the contents of the lyrics were stridently anti Israel, the followers of Hamas took exception to the fact that the rappers were using a form of music that came from the West. The content was the least important issue. And, that did not stop radical Islamic clerics around the world from threatening former Beatle Paul McCarthy with death for performing in Israel.
The situation varies across the Islamic world but the theme remains the same, music is tightly controlled by the state, more and more restricted by the activism of radical Islamic activists and, musicians self censor. Only in the Turkish Republic does music appear to flourish freely, so with that in mind I flew to Istanbul to explore Turkey’s great musical gamble, and where at first glance, it looks as if all forms of indigenous and foreign music are performed freely.
Flying into the international airport outside of Istanbul I felt that I could have been anywhere in Europe. The building is an up to date, super modern and super efficient complex of steel and glass. As I stood in line to get my visa, I looked up at a wall length, commanding portrait of the father of modern republican Turkey, Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk (father of the Turks) as he is known in Turkey. From the nineteen twenties and within a few short decades, he transformed the collapsed Ottoman state of Turkey, formerly ruled by a Sultan who claimed to be the Caliph of Islam, into a modern state that defended its territorial integrity from Western European and Russian interventionists and begrudgingly won the respect of the world’s great powers.
Ataturk was a twentieth century nationalist. He idealized the Turkish nature of the state, adopted the Latin alphabet, got rid of much of the Ottoman vocabulary and simplified modern Turkish. He did not have much time for Turkey’s ethnic minorities, the numerous Kurds, the Assyrian Christians, the Jews or the remnants of the Greeks. At the same time he had no personal animosity towards them. In the light of what was soon to happen in Italy and Germany, or what was going on in Soviet Russia during his rise to power in Turkey, Ataturk was relatively tolerant of minorities. And it is not widely known that in the nineteen thirties he approved the emigration of persecuted German Jewish academics who contributed substantially to Istanbul University. In short, Ataturk thought in nationalistic, not in religious terms.
For him, the twentieth century was the time when the Turks must regain control of their homeland in Asia Minor and their destiny. And so during the 1920s, when Greece almost reconquered Constantinople but lost, Turkey gave up a couple of million Greeks and received an almost equal number of Turkish refugees from the former Balkan territories of the Ottoman Empire, which had become the independent states of Greece, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.
Ataturk forced men to wear hats and banned the fez, encouraged women to go to school and take off their veils and was a great enthusiast of ball room dancing and opera. He and his bureaucratic elites were a force for secularism that was peculiarly and ethnically Turkish, reinterpreting Turkish religion and culture through the lens of a 19th century Germanic inspired nationalism which invoked the “spirit” or the “volk” of the people, and forcing radical social change through a secular one party state and Turko centric educational system which he led and monitored until his death in 1939.
It was and remains a contradictory cultural project, for on the one hand Ataturk believed that polyphonic Western European music and opera were the ultimate sign of civilization, Yet, at the same time, he idealized the monophonic folk music of the rural Turk and often used it as a means of social change. He invited the Hungarian composer and folklorist Bela Bartok to collect songs in Anatolia. The German composer Paul Hindemith, spent time in the new Anatolian capital, Ankara, modernizing the elite musical curriculum and teaching Western polyphonic music to a new generation of enlightened, but nationalist composers.
Yet Ataturk’s favorite tunes were the slightly urbanized melodies of the towns of Macedonia and Thrace, especially Salonika, which is now in north eastern Greece, the multi ethnic city where Kemal was born and raised. Ataturk’s charisma was so powerful that even one of the greatest “Asiks” or troubadours of modern Turkey, Asik Veysel, changed the contents of his traditional lyrics in support of Ataturk’s message of nationalistic progress.
To this day Ataturk is quoted by Turks who say, “it is good to be born a Turk.” I have read two biographies of Ataturk, the first by Lord Kinross and the second by Andrew Mango. They well describe the singular vision of Ataturk to create a modern Turkey in the image of a European state, and these books make us think twice when we dismiss the theory that great men make history. There is however another, darker biography of Ataturk. I have seen it in a library in Toronto, but it is still banned in Turkey.
I slept through the early morning call to prayer which in the following mornings of my stay I could hear from a myriad of mosques producing a cascade of overlapping sound worthy of a Philip Glass composition. I ate my breakfast in the hotel lobby facing the street-tea served in a small glass that turns outward with a tiny spoon used to stir the sugar (the Turks drink hundreds of different kinds of tea which are consumed in private establishments around the city called meyhane and which, not surprisingly, do not serve alchohol), fresh bread, cheese, olives and honey. For the umpteenth time I asked myself why food tastes better in the Mediterranean. Once again, I concluded that the time of transport from farm to plate must be much much shorter than in the West. In Turkey a tomato tastes like a tomato.
My guide during my one week sojourn in Istanbul was a young Turkish ethnomusicologist, Merrih Errol. I had contacted her through common musicological friends and she agreed to spend her afternoons and evenings taking me to a variety of musical venues in and around Istanbul, if I would foot the bill, which I gladly did.
Merrih is just shy of thirty. She is a fine looking woman with an innocent smile, dark curly hair and a fine olive complexion. She could fit in anywhere from Portugal to Western Turkey. She has a peculiar fascination for Jewish music and is doing her PhD on the music of Greece. She had previously spent a year living in Crete and speaks fluent Turkish, Greek and English. In her younger years she studied the kanun, the Arabo Turkish zither that is played with picks across your lap and so she brings a musician’s ear to her musicological researches.
She comes from a family of what the Turks call “Kemalists.” They support the secular nature of the republic, and although Muslim, believe that religion is the private affair of each man or woman. They wear western clothes, the men wear western suits and the women do not wear a head scarf or veil and, they fear the growing influence of the ruling party which is consciously Islamic, and whose female adherents wear head scarves. Merrih herself was guarded when talking politics and we tried to concentrate on music alone, but as I slowly was to discover, politics is never far away from music in Turkey.
I would spend most of the day seeing the sites of Istanbul, then in the late afternoon I would meet Merrih at the ferry station of Emin?n? and from there we would either hop in a cab or, take a ferry across the Bosphorus, to one of our musical destinations. Our first stop was to be the Mevlevi Monastery in the suburb of Beyoglu.
Beyoglu used to be called Pera. It is a suburb of Istanbul which was built up during the nineteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire was in decline, the Europeans had declared Turkey to be “the sick man of Europe” and most powerful western countries established their lavish embassy buildings there. Since Ataturk changed the capital of Turkey to Ankara in Anatolia during the 1920s, the former embassies are now consulates and the main street has been turned into a pedestrian walk way where cars are banned.
Agatha Christie used to live in the Pera Hotel which was under construction when I was there. Through a friend of a friend I managed to get a private tour one evening. The electricity was off and by torchlight we walked through the yet to be refurbished hotel, into Dame Agatha’s room, across the room of the novelist Pierre Loti and finally into the private suite used by Ataturk himself, which looked completely European except for an unusual tapestry that I was told that he kept in the room and that was supposed to foretell his future destiny. As there was no electric light on, the suite looked as if the fearless leader was gone for a few days and would be back in a few days time, drinking his raki and planning yet another modernization scheme for his beloved state.
We descended down the esplanade past Catholic churches that were once frequented by a large European community, passed restaurants of all kinds, a chocoleteria which sold chocolates in the shape of old Ottoman coins, clothing shops, and posh offices and private residences. Just as the road began to turn we came off the street through a small door and entered a garden and graveyard. Visually we had just stepped back a few hundred years. The noise of the street disappeared into the background. You could hear the birds chirping in the garden and the upright, turbaned stone pillars that marked the graves of deceased whirling dervishes, stood there in silence. We walked towards the main lodge of this 18th century Ottoman Sufi monastery and were about to witness the ritual dance of the followers of the great Sufi Mystic, Mevlana Jalaledin Rumi who died and was buried in the city of Konya in eastern Anatolia in 1273.
For centuries Islam has had two streams, a strict version based on the Wahabi reformers of 18th century Arabia and which is now in a world wide resurgence of radical Islam, and a longer, more complex tradition of mysticism characterized by a myriad of different sects called Sufis, from the Arabic word suf or wool, and which was the simple robed habit of these seekers after mystical union with God. In Ottoman Turkey the Sultans themselves were often members of Sufi sects and many Sufis also maintained the musical forms and performance practice of Ottoman classical music, which had been handed down orally from master to student since the 1500s.
Recent research shows that Ottoman court music was largely secular and gave remarkable leeway and respect to Rumanian, Jewish, Armenian and Greek performers and composers of this music and that was largely the domain of the urban upper classes and court circles.
The followers of Rumi are known in the West as the whirling dervishes. When Ataturk came to power he made them illegal and they went into hiding, maintaining their traditions despite the opposition of the state. During the last ten to fifteen years they are no longer illegal, they are free to carry out their rituals and at the same time it has become a great tourist draw. We had to pay money to get tickets to see the ceremony.
The lodge is an octagonal room of two floors. On the top floor is an open alcove where the musicians are seated. There is a singer, a player of the fretless lute or oud, a Tanbur or classical long necked lute, a side blown cane flute called the ney, a laptop zither called the kanun and a player of small kettle drums called naggara. None of the music was amplified.
We sat on chairs behind a waist high wall with supporting pillars. There was a musical interlude and then we watched the acolytes enter the main hall in their large conical hats and white robes. Each one greeted the master and positioned themselves in a circle on the outside wall just across from the seated guests. The session follows a set pattern and there was music throughout. As my mind wandered in and out of the performance, distracted by a ray of light that came through the window or by the sound of a bird outside, or of my own strangeness and realization that this was simultaneously a paid performance and a sacred act, the oud player was allowed a free melodic rhythmic improvisation on a mode, what the Turks call a taksim.
In Turkish music, each mode or series of modes allows for different kinds of melodic/rhythmic improvisations. They do not follow fixed numerical, rhythmical patterns as we are familiar with in the West, and therefore Western musicologists often say that these improvs are in “free rhythm.” But if you have ever tried to learn how to play these (as I have tried over the years) you will find that your teachers expect certain phrases and rhythmic melodicles to be followed, imitated and then morphed into your own style. After 30 years of playing the oud I confess to still being somewhat of an amateur at this, but I have managed to satisfy some fellow Arab and Turkish players, suggesting to them that I appear to know what I am doing, although I confess that at the end of the day, I am not quite sure.
There is a growing musicological literature on the complexity of these improvs and their modal structure. Theories abound and few experts agree on how the system actually works. One of the first modern Turkish musicologists to try and figure out the system as it was practiced at the beginning of the 20th century, was the great Rauf Yekta Bey whose writings are still worth reading, almost a hundred years later. Coincidentally enough as a young man growing up in Istanbul, his grandson the classical Turkish lute or Tanbur, and is still fascinated by Turkish modal theory. He is a close personal friend and encouraged me to come to Istanbul.
These improvs are not easily executed, and like the art of Flamenco they take years to master. As I heard the taksim coming from the upper gallery, for a minute or two I was unaware of where I was and what I was doing. I was completely lost in the beauty of the oud taksim. For a minute I had repose, my mind totally focused by the sputter of notes mixed with silence until there was a pause after the last note which signaled a move to the next musical and ritual section.
For a moment I had entered the world of the Sufi. I had lost consciousness of myself and I had gone somewhere else. It was a good place to be, but it did not last long. I then immediately returned to the viewpoint of the analytical western musicologist and this is what I saw and heard, a danced ritual in seven parts that the Sufis call Sema.
But I must use the word dance with caution. The music, the rhythms and the movement of the participants are slow and circular. Yes, when the Dervishes whirl they do so at some speed, but it is a steady speed. Throughout the whole ceremony tempo and rhythm are controlled. There are no sharp breaks. There are no quick speed ups and slow downs. Everything moves at a languid and glacial pace. Some Sufis themselves say that they are imitating the planets as they revolve around the sun and that gives you some sense of the slowness of the event. There is nothing strident about any of the rhythms, movements, melodies or timbres. All is slow to medium, the ideal moving meditation of men and women who have their sights set on eternity and the music of the spheres.
The first part starts with a sung praise of the Prophet Muhammad, followed by the drums and that third part or instrumental taksim which had so literally captured my imagination. It is followed by a form of music called the Peshrev where the Dervishes greet each other. Finally in the fifth part they begin to whirl, twisting on one foot, round and round with their heads on an angle, one hand facing heaven and one facing earth.
The dervishes whirled for a much longer time than I imagine I could have done without collapsing from dizziness. The sixth part ends the whirling with a verse from the Koran, “Unto God belongs the East and West, and whither over ye turn, you are faced with Him. He is All Embracing, All Knowing.” The seventh part ends the session with another prayer for the souls of the Prophet Muhammad and all believers.
As calmly and quietly as they had entered the dervishes left, each one of them exiting the octagonal area from the entrance they had come from. Within a few minutes the lodge was as quiet as it was when we had come in. We had paid for our tickets but there was seriousness to the spectacle which suggests that at least some of the participants were there for more than musical reasons. Nevertheless, as we walked out of the lodge back into the garden a young woman about Merrih’s age approached her and started chatting. She was the kanun player and I had been listening to her for the last hour. Merrih introduced us and I told her how impressed I was with her playing. She thanked me and Merrih added that they had studied music together at the Conservatory. Was this just another paid gig for the young lady?
It is well known that the Whirling Dervishes tolerate and encourage the participation of women which clearly puts them at odds with the contemporary purveyors of radical Islam and there are many westerners, including women, who have come to Konya in Anatolia as well as Istanbul and who have become self professed Sufis. If Ataturk were alive today he would probably castigate the Sufis as followers of the outdated irrationality of the Ottomans. No doubt he would have said that the founder of the sect was not a Turk but a Persian who had moved to Turkey from Afghanistan.
But perhaps in this new century young Turks and foreigners are looking for a more inclusive definition of what it means to be Turkish or a citizen of the Republic of Turkey, accepting all that has happened within the borders of the modern state as worthy of contemplation. Perhaps this form of Islam links them to the traditions of toleration that go with traditions of inward seeking, and that seem to be typical of mystics who seek to dissolve the distinction between insider and outsider, us and them.
As I got up from my chair I recalled a fragment of a poem that I had once read and that Rumi had written centuries ago;
Hear the song of the reed and hear its tale…
It says, since I was cut from my meadow of reeds
Men and women have sighed through my songs…
Anyone separated from his origins
Wants to return…
As a musicologist and a skeptic I had come to the lodge to watch a ritual performance. I had come to the Sufi lodge with the hustle and bustle of the streets of Istanbul all around me. Yet, I left with a calmness of spirit that was perhaps not all of my own, but of other peoples making.
A thousand years ago Muslim Turkish speaking nomads began penetrating the eastern Anatolian frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, seeking out fresh pastures and fresh conquests. The Byzantines did not have the human resources to keep them at bay and so began the final fall of Rome, which ended on May 28 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror broke through the walls of Constantinople and whose last emperor died defending them.
Parallel to this well documented and massive invasion and settlement of newcomers to Asia Minor was a quieter, almost unchronicled immigration of a distinct people from northern India, the Roma and who Europeans later called the Gypsies, as they mistakenly thought that they had originated in the land of the Pharaohs.
Like so many of the Turks, the Gypsies were nomads and moved towards Constantinople in their primitive wagon trains. Each time the Roma enter the cultural territory of their hosts they have taken on much of their culture. Turkish gypsies are Muslim whereas French and Irish gypsies are Catholic. They learn to speak the language of their hosts but at the same time keep up their own language and folk customs, which descend directly from the dialects of medieval northern India, and whose dialects are peppered with words that show the history of their wanderings and the peculiarities. Yet they are similar enough so that a Welsh gypsy can make himself understood among the Gypsies of the Balkans and Anatolia.
Gypsies have survived because they have become mobile specialists providing their host societies with needs that the hosts are unable, or unwilling to provide for themselves. In preindustrial Europe and the Balkans they were great horsemen and horse traders as their wandering nature made them masters of the horse, smithy and of horse breeding. As they have rarely if ever embraced the orthodox versions of the Islam and Christianity of their hosts, they have often mastered the arts of divination and conjuring, providing anxious clients with a glimpse of the future through tea leave readings or the reading of tarot cards. Many of them remain keen metal workers and blacksmiths and throughout the world they are renowned musicians. It was a Greek speaking Kalderash gypsy who in the nineteen seventies gave me my first lessons on the oud. Despite his familiarity with Greek music he was an admirer of Turkish classical music and taught me to play the oud using quarter tones.
Gypsies are adept at taking the music of their hosts and turning it into something both familiar and unfamiliar, usually through a combination of rhythmic and melodic virtuosity that is exhibited in art forms where the influence of the Roma has been strong, the Flamenco of southern Spain, the ensembles of the Hungarians and the fiddlers of the Irish. The Jazz that came to France before and after WWI was taken up by French Gypsies who gave the world one of its great Jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt.
It is evening once again. I had spent the most part of the day at an international conference on oriental carpets. I had heard lecturers from all over the world describing the production and history of the carpets of the Islamic world. The most remarkable lecture suggested that the structure of the oldest carpet in the world, the Pazyrk which had been excavated in central Asia and dated around 500 BC, exhibited the abstract formulas and geometry that can be found in Euclid’s writings, the suggestion being that the ancient world was better connected and interconnected than we think, and that the Greeks and their influence were wider than we think.
Likewise, patterns of woven rugs called Kilim and whose designs generally correspond to the ethnic mosaic of Turkish, Kurdish and other ethnic groups of Anatolia and the nearby Caucasus are beginning to turn up in fragments of the ancient archaeological record. This suggests that these visual folk patterns may have been around for centuries before the rise of Islam and the coming of the Turks to Anatolia. This implies that there may be a fixed vocabulary of visual motives that stay in a region and that are then adopted and redistributed by incoming ethnic groups, who rarely kill off all of their enemies. Oddly enough it would appear that certain artistic cultural patterns stay in an area even when the populations, the languages and the people change and are changed. The same could be said for music so how could this be?
When the Turks penetrated Anatolia, as conquerors, they often spared the women and children of their former adversaries, so we can imagine a domestic economy and folklore with thousands of years of continuity kept up from generations of mother to daughter cultural transfer. The Turkish conquest of what is now modern Turkey followed just such a pattern. Also, consider that ethnic groups who converted to Islam, such as the Kurds and tribes of the Caucasus, often brought much of their pre Islamic culture with them.
Bearing that in mind once can better understand the history of Sufism with its remarkable parallels to Byzantine neo Platonic philosophy. Although we only have recordings of traditional music from around the world from the last 120 years, it appears that there has been an enormous amount of musical borrowing and regional continuity among different peoples. Despite the nationalism that now characterizes the peoples of the Balkans, until eighty years ago, there was more musical concord than conflict. A number of Turkish musicians have told me to listen to the music of the Greek Orthodox Church in order to really find the roots of much of what is distinctively Ottoman musical practice.
Believe it or not, the ancient Greek writer historian Herodotus (who was born in what is now modern Turkey) was surprised to discover that even 2,500 years ago similar melodies showed up in radically different cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. In his book The Histories, he writes:
The Egyptians adhere to their own national customs, and adopt no foreign usages. Many of these customs are worthy of note; among others their song, the Linus, which is sung under various names not only in Egypt but in Phonecia, in Cyprus and in other places: and which seems to be exactly the same as that in use among the Greeks and by them called Linus…Whence could the Egyptians have got the Linus? It appears the rites called Orphic and Bachic… are in reality Egyptian and Pythagorean.
No doubt the Roma, who were once thought of as Egyptians, have played a disproportionate role in the diffusion of melodies during their wanderings across Turkey and up into the Balkans and Western Europe. And so with Herodotus and Django Reinhardt competing for my attention, we went back to Beyoglu, but this time we went to taste the night life.
As we walked down the street, a number of people greeted Merrih. Each time she graciously introduced me as an English speaking colleague who was writing about Turkish music. This always caused them to smile. Many of them were friends of hers from Istanbul Tango circles. Merrih explained that Tango had been danced in the city since it was brought from Argentina after WWI and that they dance to both Argentine and Turkish tango singers. She recommended I come one evening to watch the event and I suspect Ataturk would have approved.
We had made reservations at the restaurant where the famous Gypsy clarinetist Selim Sesler plays with his ensemble of musicians. As we walked up the stairs we were ushered into the restaurant and were given a table facing the seat where Sesler was to play. We were front and centre and ready for the evening’s entertainment.
Sesler and his musicians are gypsies who come from Thrace. Thrace is on the border of Turkey and Greece and before the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey just after WWI, it was a multi cultural mosaic of Turkish and Greek speaking peasants, a fair amount of south Slav, Bulgarian and Macedonian dialect speakers, Sephardic Jews and Gypsies. After the partition the musicians in Turkish Thrace saw Istanbul as their musical capital whereas on the Greek side, Athens drew away the good musicians. Nevertheless the Thracian Turks are known for their liberal ways and the Thracian gypsies similarly so, including an active bar life, with music, drinking and dancing. As is often the case Gypsies are at the bottom of society’s social scale, whereas Gypsy musicians, despite formidable anti Gypsy prejudice, manage to rise to the top.
Luckily we had ordered our food minutes before the music began, fresh Turkish bread, a Meze made up of different kinds of chick pea, fish and eggplant delicacies, followed by kebab, rice and salad and washed down with bottled water and my large glass of raki (Turkish ouzo) which is the love of Thracian musicians. Sesler’s band consisted of him playing clarinet, a stand up bass player, an oud player, a kanunist, a cumbus player (a fretless double stringed banjo like instrument), a violinist and darbuka player (goblet drum). All of them were decked out in dark suits with open white shirts and black leather shoes.
No one sang although they do have singers on their discs, one of them being a Canadian, Brenna Macrimmon, a red haired woman of Celtic descent who fell in love with the old 78s that kept alive the memory of gypsy cabaret music from decades past and who has performed regularly with Sesler over the years. My Turkish friends cannot pick up her Canadian accent when she sings. In a German documentary film on her work with Sesler she says that the songs and melodies attract her though their direct expression of profound sorrow and joy. I have heard her recordings and find her voice and interpretations quite beautiful.
Classical, folk and urban Turkish music share a similar system of what westerners would call scales, except that musicologicaly speaking they have more distinct scales than we do. Musicologists call them modes, while the Turks call them makam. They are more numerous than our minor and major scales because the system includes different kinds of quarter tones which actually act like two thirds of a tone when played. It is also a system without harmony and it makes up for the difference with the variety in the sophistication of its melodies and improvisatory sequences. The tenser and ornamented styles of singing that characterize this system take a while for the western ear to get used to, but once you do, an incredible diverse and melodic universe opens up for your listening pleasure.
The Turks and other Balkan nations use rhythms that are uncommon to North and South America. Many of their simplest folk songs and most driving cabaret songs use uneven rhythmic cycles. Five is often used as 123, 1, 2 or 1,2, 123 and if that is not confusing enough the melody can be draped across a series of fives. Likewise the same can be said for series in nine, which are organized as 1,2, 1,2, 1,2, 123 or 123,1,2, 1,2, 1,2. Some of them are done fast and others like the Zeybek in 9, go very, very slowly as they relate to a specific men’s dance by that name. When Dave Brubeck, the American Jazz pianist visited Istanbul in the sixties, he brought back these rhythms to America and created a hit album from them with his most famous piece called Take Five.
Melodies are draped on these various symmetrical and asymmetrical rhythmic structures. Turks can usually place the place and time period which characterize the song, just as we can distinguish a Frank Sinatra piece from a Beatle tune or an Irish jig from a related Country and Western ballad. At the end of the day the joy of seeing these people perform is in the melodic virtuosity and pure creativity of their improvs. If a song is in one mode, at some point in the song the musicians play a repetitive ostinato over which one of the instruments improvises freely. The genre provides musicians with a nightly rendez vous with improvs. They know if they do not play well and so does the audience. You just can’t fake it. Sesler is a virtuosic clarinet player and his melodies and improvs drive the other musicians in relentless friendly competition. Benny Goodman would have felt right at home here.
Sesler and his men played non stop for hours taking a short break at around ten thirty in the evening. Then they came back for more. Almost all the music was fast and the improvs were virtuosic, gypsy music as one expects it. Their music was as fast, frenetic and sensual as the Sufi music had been slow, gradual and spiritual. It was also loud and amplified.
It is clear that he and his colleagues (how many were relatives?) have been playing together for decades. They were tight as tight could be and I did not hear one mistake during the entire evening. They played pieces that included a song from the neighbouring country of Azerbaijan called Daglar Kizi Reyahan, an anonymous piece from Edirne in Thrace called Yuksek Yuksek Tepeler in a raucous 9/8 rhythm, a Greek piece called Koloz Havazi and so many others that I could not recognize. Each time one of the instruments took off on an improv, I doubted that the musician could do it faster, but with each passing song they exceeded my expectations.
The restaurant occupied a large open space on the second floor of a building off the esplanade, filled with tables of couples and groups of couples who were obviously having a good time. Half way through the evening some of the female partners of their male escorts began to spontaneously get up from their chairs and belly dance beside their tables to one of the melodies that were being played. The women were slim and in good shape, most with long dark hair and dressed like Italian and French women. None wore headscarves. Some of them managed to get their male partners to join them and this would go on for some minutes.
Clearly there was no censorship going on here, self inflicted or official. As the Cockney entertainers of old would have said, “A good time was had by one and all.” We left towards midnight knowing full well that there would be yet another set and then perhaps another one after that. The last song of the second set was a fabulous rendition of the Israeli dance and wedding tune, Hava Nagila. Sesler and his musicians did a better and livelier version of it than I have ever heard at any Jewish wedding. We parted ways. Merrih took a cab back to her parents and I went back to my hotel. I fell asleep to the memory of gypsy clarinet tunes played at warp speed.
Many years ago I ran into the staff of the Turkish Embassy at a luxury resort in a developing country. We had met socially before. After the musicians stopped playing we took over the stage and did impromptu versions of old Turkish pop songs from the fifties. It was a hilarious exchange as I threw in a bit of Elvis Presley for good measure. Before we retired from our rooms one of them said to me, “You know, the way things are going in Turkey these days, one day you may visit me in my office and I will be wearing a turban and robe and my wife will be forced to wear a Burka like the Afghan women do.” This prediction may come true one day, but in the mean time, stranger things seem to be happening in the secular sphere.
A small minority of Turkish and Kurdish speaking citizens of the Republic of Turkey belong to a small sect of Shia Muslims called the Alevi. Shiism is the other major form of institutional Islam. Its latest radical incarnation is the state religion of Iran and its theocratic leaders persecute music and musicians there with an enthusiasm a tad less than do the Saudis. But the Alevi religion in Turkey has and has had a different social history than in Iran where it was and is the state religion. Alevi Islam in Turkey has often acted as an egalitarian opposition to the reigning Sultans as well as both the military, secular and religiously inspired governments of modern Turkey.
Many of the Alevi are also members of the Bektashi order of dervishes. Hadji Bektash was a wandering Turkish mystic from Khorasan which is now part of modern Iran. According to tradition he was told by his spiritual master to go to Rum, which is Turkish Anatolia. On his journey he turned into a dove and arrived at the village which is now named after him. Bektashi ceremonies are led by a “dede” or spiritual guide. Many dede were and are gifted singers and players of the long necked lute or saz. These men are called Asik. Saz is the word used for this lute by Pir Sultan an Asik who lived in the 16th century.
Compared to the Sunni, the Alevi and especially the Bektashi are unorthodox and egalitarian in their religious observances. They rarely if ever go to the mosque, they hardly pray, they hardly fast, they respect their women and treat them as near equals, and in their religious observances they listen to the sung poetry of their Asiks played on the baglama or saz and which would be anathema among the Sunni or in any of the state supported mosques. They are clearly a minority of unorthodox believers. But as music seems to be their central ritual practice there are many Asiks in Turkey and they have made many recordings, largely without the help of the state. One of the most famous modern Asik, Feyzullah Çinar made his recordings in France during the eighties as the gate keepers of Turkish National Radio felt that the music of the Alevi was religious and had a leftist anti state bias. There is some truth to this.
Merrih had told me that across the Bosphorus in Üsküdar there was a place where the Alevi Bektashi meet and that we could go and sit through a ceremony. It was difficult to arrange and did not often happen. Instead she told me that at some clubs there were musicians who played Alevi style music, a combination of the Alevi repertoire, mixed with other ballads and laments sung to the saz and occasionally with electric bass accompaniment. I thought the whole thing to be odd and exceptional and I was not surprised.
Before we began our “club crawl” (as only some of the clubs serve alcohol) we went to a kebab house frequented by the under forty generation. We sat on the old stools and were served kabab in round bread washed down with tea and coca cola and that was placed on low lying tables, in a bustling and simple old style Turkish eating establishment that did not lack for customers. On the way there we had passed by a part of town where again, a substantial number of young Turks and their girlfriends played backgammon and smoke their elaborate glass narghilehs or hubble bubble. They were, wearing their Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger outfits, with Italian shoes, beardless and without mustaches, the women in short dresses and no head dresses, puffing, laughing, smoking and flirting. Ataturk once wrote in his memoirs that he had watched Italians in a café doing just that and that he hoped that one day this would be the privilege of the Turks. Well his wish has come true.
We sampled the music of about three clubs until we settled on one. Each one had at least one saz or baglama player who could also sing, seated on a stool on the stage, with an electric pick up on the saz and a microphone to sing in. The style of the music sounded Alevi to me, and although I have a very superficial knowledge of the repertoire one song came up again and again. While the music goes on people come and go, they order their drinks and snacks, they talk to their friends and you may as well be in a folk club in Boston or New York. The music is monophonic and the voice and saz follow each other closely. Sometimes there is a second instrument, sometimes there is a bass guitar and the vocalists are clearly singers who are above average in quality.
Here is a translation of one of the most popular songs. It is an Alevi hymn written by the Alevi Asik Pir Sultan Abdul, protesting the injustice of life and using clear Shia symbolism:
Sing not nightingale, do not sing, my heart is not glad,
Oh Friend, I am burning with the suffering you cause me
The wick of my lamp is consumed and there is no more oil
Oh Friend, I am burning with the suffering you cause me
Oh Friend, I am burning with the suffering you cause me
Ali, Ali, Ali, how I burn
I am Pir Sultan Abdal, my end is nigh
I neither eat nor drink, the water of my life has run dry
I was hanged because I loved God too well
Oh Friend I am burning with the suffering you cause me
Oh Friend, I am burning with the suffering you cause me
Ali, Ali, Ali how I burn
First off there are a couple of symbols that need explication. The lamp is the heart of the singer, and more significantly Pir Sultan Abdul was hanged at the age of forty for fomenting a social and religious rebellion. That seems to be the key to the attraction of this music.
The attraction that this music has on the youth of Turkey lies at two levels, the first is musical and the second and related one is political although expressed in a religious idiom. From the early days of the Kemalist revolution the national radio station developed traditional Turkish folklore ensembles. These were supposed to represent the real music of the Turkish peasants of Anatolia. But that was not what the music turned out to be. Yes the melodies were from the areas that the radio people said they were but they were interpreted largely by urban musicians assembled for this purpose. The vocal timbre was softened up and more importantly, the various kinds of saz were put together in ensembles, with a big bass saz, followed by a tenor looking saz and soprano saz all working together in relative monophonic unison.
Merrih explained to me that this kind of music did not occur naturally in village contexts and the repertoire included consciously nationalist lyrics such as, “The train is coming is it not good?-tiren tiren hos gelir). This was the kind of nationalist folk music that was often broadcast on the radio and which became the content of Turkish folk music ensembles that later toured Europe and North America. In the language of post modernity it was clearly a Kemalist project. In common terms it is what we in the West would call fakelore and we got a dose of it in the sixties with the folk song revival when middle class children tried to sing the music of rural Appalachia or of black sharecroppers in Louisiana. When today we listen to the Kingston Trio and compare it with the archival music now made available by organizations such as the Allan Lomax Archive, we hear a world of difference.
So, it would appear that not everyone playing saz and singing about Pir Sultan Abdul is an Alevi Asik (although some are) and it would appear that most of the audience are not Alevis having a night out with their friends and sipping tea anonymously at a music club where they have to pay to get in so, what is going on?
Apparently Alevi music has been adopted by Turkish baby boomers and even younger people as the music of disenchantment, disenchantment with the music dished out on the national radio pretending to be the authentic voice of the Turkish people, disenchantment with the corruption of former military regimes and at the same time, flirtation with the symbolism of a minority religious faith which has been at odds with the Ottoman and Kemalist state for over four hundred years. The symbolism is complex so it is hard to get arrested singing about fifteenth century rebels but it would appear that we have a home made Turkish version of protest music, although I could not see much other than a good time being had by all when we went for our club hop.
No doubt someone somewhere in or outside of Turkey has written a thesis describing and analyzing these phenomena, so my theory remains to be tested with a proper series of samples, interviews and focus groups. I will leave that for the next batch of ethnomusicologists but I will end on a note suggesting that these songs have been adopted as the unconscious anthems of the Turkish left. For my part, as a foreigner, not understanding the lyrics allowed me to concentrate on the melody, the delivery and the emotion which was aesthetically most satisfying.
Before we parted ways I asked Merrih if there were any concerts of Ottoman classical music open to the public. She said she would find one but warned me that classical meant many things to many people.
Istanbul is built around the Bosphorus, that marvelous channel of water that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the reason that Istanbul and its former incarnation as Constantinople, was and is, at the crossroads of East and West. One side of Istanbul is in Europe and one side is in Asia. So, we decided to go to Asia for an evening and took the ferry to Üsküdar.
While Merrih was explaining to me the history of public musical institutions during the last sixty years, and which can be simply summarized as a kind of institutional see sawing between accepting the validity of classical and folk Turkish music and then denying its validity by suggesting that it needs to be Westernized to some degree, I was lost in contemplation of the cityscapes that emerge from the shores of the Bosphorus.
On one side I could clearly see the outline of the hybrid 19th century Ottoman Palace, the Dolma Bahce, twinned with a mosque that was designed in European Baroque style. At another angle Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and multiple minarets dominated their respective hillsides as the setting sun reflected off their domes and minarets. Although the traffic jams of Istanbul and its suburbs get worse by the day, the ferries are cheap and you can move quickly from one part of the city to another, enjoying the water and the sense of openness that pervades the city, despite any evidence of urban planning and runaway population growth due to exponential immigration from the countryside during the last twenty years.
We bought some tea from the tea salesmen who can be found on every ferry and by the time we had finished we had arrived. We walked up the road, past an extensive old Greek cemetery and walked up the stairs to the Üsküdar municipal community center.
As the municipality has fallen under the power of the ruling religious party we were not surprised to see that the art exhibit in the foyer of the recital hall was filled with contemporary Islamic art, calligraphy of various sorts, on paper, in textiles and book ornamentations. There wasn’t a graven image in sight, no sculpture, photos or paintings that showed any semblance of the human body.
Before we sat down we went back stage and greeted the musicians, all acquaintances of Merrih. They are well known performers and teachers. When we sat down I noticed for the first time that most of the women were wearing head scarves, and many of them sat separately in groups from the men but there were many couples as well, and there seemed to be a fair amount of flirting going on but I could not be sure.
The concert had three sections. First were performances by children of the musicians, playing cello, guitar and violin. There were a few pieces of European classical music and one boy played a rousing version of the American hit pop song Hotel California. The next section were old Istanbul and Ottoman songs which were sad and nostalgic and sent shivers up my spine especially when the entire audience would join in on the choruses in perfect monophony which gives a feeling of surround sound. As they moved away from the traditional songs two Turkish gypsy violinists and an Israeli percussionist who lives in Istanbul, entertained us with a night of fusion-Turkish melodies mixed with Jazz and extreme improvisations which bordered on the chromatic. It certainly was dazzling and entertaining, but it was a far cry from what I had hoped would be an evening of old Ottoman classical music.
As we left the recital hall I explained to Merrih that by now I understood that music in Turkey has always had a political dimension more explosive than seems to be the case in the West. I had confirmed that the archives and the Universities and Conservatories were very selective in what they recorded and taught and that the national radio had a remnant version of the Kemalist musical project which was neither here nor there. This is because the old Ottoman classical music was becoming more popular among the Turkish musical cognoscenti and the varieties of folk and pop music that were being sold on the Internet and through CDs, was exploding exponentially. I wondered if there was any one person or institution that had a clear understanding of the music scene in Turkey, both musically and socially.
I asked her this question quite pointedly for the day before I had a short meeting with one of her professors. He sat ram rod straight in his office, sipping his coffee and smoking a cigarette. He looked at me disparagingly as a journalist at loss among true academics. He told me that there is no underlying program for Turkish musicology. Bluntly he told me “There is no epistemology Mr. Clarfield, and I doubt you will find any underlying pattern on your short trip here.”
As we took the ferry back to the European side of Istanbul I marveled at the lights of the city that went up and down the undulating hillsides of Istanbul and its suburbs. It was as if a low lying mosque had been lit up as far as the eye can see and we had only to find the entrance to gain repose. Üsküdar is also the title of a famous Turkish song that is sung in most Turkish cabarets. Like the Linus of Herodotus’s time it is known in Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Roumania as well as Turkey. A film maker has done a documentary on it and in each country the musician’s insist that the melody is the peculiar genius of their nation. Tomorrow, Merrih had promised to introduce me to someone who could go a long way to explaining to me just what the musical situation of the Turkish Republic was.
Kalan music is an independent record label founded in 1991 by Hasan Saltik a Turkish citizen of mixed Turkish and Kurdish descent. Since he started business he has published more than 400 CDs and intends to release more. The business is valued at just under four million dollars. He has been profiled by time magazine as an “anthropologist of folk music” whose life work is to bring to the Turkish public the full range of music that exists and has existed within the borders of the Turkish Republic.
This includes the music of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Assyrian Christians as well as the Laz ethnic groups of eastern Turkey. Given the fact that the history of Armenians in Turkey is one of the most explosive political topics in modern Turkey (and caused the state to bring charges against Turkey’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk) as well as the role of the Greeks in the history of modern Turkish music, Saltik’s career has always included a fair a mount of risk, excitement and drama.
I am sitting in Hasan Saltik’s office. It is a modest place with a piano behind his desk. There are books and files on the office walls and he offers me a cup of Turkish coffee which I accept graciously. Using Merrih as our translator he lights a cigarette takes a large puff and tells me the story of how he came to found Kalan Music.
He laughs and says, “You know the whole thing was a giant coincidence. It wasn’t planned. In 1988 I was hoping to immigrate to the United States. I was working for a record company here in Turkey and playing the oboe in my spare time. Neither was very satisfying. I had grown up among the Alevi communities of Turkey where the saz and its sung repertoire were highly respected. Practically every Alevi household has a singer or saz player. In 1980 I heard that there were a group of men in prison and that they wrote political music in the popular idiom. I thought it would be a good idea to try and record them. They called themselves Group Yorum and to this day we still sell their discs, but in those early days there was a lot of opposition from the State. It was not an easy struggle. There were fasts to the death and other kinds of protest that finally persuaded the State to allow us to distribute their music. By the 1990s the cultural climate began to relax a little. We brought out our first recordings in Kurdish. At first it was banned but then the government reversed its policy and let us go ahead.”
Although he did not say it outright I knew that in 1980 the military junta that then governed Turkey banned any recordings in a minority, non Turkish language. The goal of this ban was to prevent the Kurdish speaking citizens of eastern Turkey from encouraging separatist tendencies and the breaking away from Turkey to establish an independent Kurdistan that would take great chunks of Turkey, Iran and Iraq with it.
Saltik continued, “I was not born in Istanbul. My family came to Istanbul from Erzincan the mid 1970s. I had always loved music and heard a lot of music that did not get broadcast. I knew about the existence of even more. So in the 1980s my mother gave me 13 bracelets of hers to sell to raise the capital to start this company and it has been growing ever since.”
“I believe that our company must give voice to the musical diversity of Turkey including all of its groups, whether they be in the majority or minority. For example we publish recordings of Armenian music that were recorded decades ago. There is not much of market for it now in Turkey, but we assume that the profits from what we do which is more popular will support the less popular.”
I asked him has it been smooth sailing and he said, “No, it has been up and down. In 2002 the Department of Industry revoked our license and had to give it back 15 days later. This did not happen automatically. Music professors faxed the government and foreign newspapers took up the story. Perhaps they gave in because I had also done a recording of the former President B?lent Ecevit’s poetry. You see music has always been a strong source of political opposition, from before the Ottomans and during the Republic, especially when we have had military governments. The Asiks or troubadours have always represented the voice of the people. Luckily Kalan music has been getting support from both the political left and right in Turkey so, there is good chance that we will survive and flourish.”
I then asked why other companies have not done what he is doing. He knocked some ash of his cigarette and said, “The modern music business is mostly about money. People here try and get as much as they can from any one musical project and then they move on. It depends on the whim of the market. What I am trying to do is reinvest. We work with a broad variety of musicians in Turkey from all backgrounds and we search for the old 78s and reengineer them. We have beautiful renditions of the old Asiks like Veysel, Greek musicians from before WWII and varieties of the old Ottoman Music done by Jewish, Greek, Armenian as well as women composers from Ottoman times. We span the full range of music here. Those items that sell well support those that do not. I suppose the inspiration comes from the Islamic notion of the waqf, where someone gives their inheritance to a local mosque and its needy worshippers. We are a secular version of that for the music of Turkey. The government does publish folkloric materials and they have released about 70 discs, but the minorities are usually absent from these collections. We stand for quality and diversity.”
I then asked him what his future plans are, “To do more of the same, better. People now come to us with recordings, old 78s and the like. If they are good we use them. And, some communities are making their own recordings of their musical traditions and we publish them. We will continue to do what we do and hope that the public supports us. There is a lot of competition for people’s leisure time as you can see from the growth of satellite TV, but I am confident that we are fulfilling a social need.”
As we got up to leave, Hasan thanked me for coming. I thanked him for his time and then as an afterthought he said, “Mr. Clarfield, in the shop downstairs we have more than four hundred recordings that we have produced. Introduce yourself to the manager and take what you like.” We shook hands and went directly to the shop.
Merrih and I spent a good hour examining a vast range of music. I felt like a kid let loose in a candy shop. In the end I chose ten CDs and paid for five as a gesture of support for Kalan Music’s work. Merrih and I thanked the store workers and then took a cab over to Pan Publishing House, an independent Turkish company that produces books in Turkish and other languages about all aspects of music in and outside of Turkey.
One of the CDs that I had purchased at Kalan was the classical Ottoman music of a nineteenth century female composer named Leyla Hanimeffendi and whose book is a candid description of the music and daily life of the harem when the Sultan lived in the Çirigan Palace. Some of the others that I got describe the life and times of the greatest performer and theorist of 17th century Ottoman music, the rebel Rumanian Christian prince Dimitri Cantemir.
At our final dinner together in Istanbul Merrih simplified the essence of her MA thesis on the rise of Kalan music in modern Turkey. She told me, “The social history of music is modern Turkey is complex. In the private sphere each community has kept up its own musical traditions. But since the Kemalist revolution, the old Ottoman music was downplayed, Turkish folk music was idealized and turned into what you call fakelore, and the radio and TV were the state organs which gave out this musical monopoly. Now that so many people are unsure about the Turkish cultural side of the Kemalist revolution, and while at the same time there is the revival of political Islam, there is a growing desire for newly urbanized Turkish citizens to understand and appreciate the musical diversity of this country.”
I have read Merrih’s MA thesis carefully and behind much of the sociological jargon she is trying to make one point. It is, simply put, that a modern liberal democracy needs that virtual public space where issues of culture can be discussed without them being politicized. It is her hope that the rise of Kalan music is the first step towards Turkey’s painful realization that if it is to avoid the option of radical Islam, it needs to make way for the authentic voices of all of its constituent ethnic groups, whether they be Turkish, Kurdish, Ladino, Greek, Armenian or Laz speakers.”
As the sun began to set, its rays reflected brightly off the minarets of the mosques across the Bosphorus. This time we sat on the open deck of the ferry at a table and were served our tea as the boat moved across the water to the other side. I had come to Istanbul to explore Turkey’s great musical gamble, which I now understood to be the acceptance of the real musical mosaic that exists in this marvelous country. I had also come to sympathize with people like Hassan and Merrih who hope that a more democratic tolerance of musical diversity in this country will one day perhaps translate into political pluralism, an option that is midway between the vision Mustapha Kemal and the Islamic state of the Ottomans that so many fear the religious right would now like to bring back. It may the essence of a liberal democracy and I hope the Turks give it a try. This is what is at stake in Turkey’s great musical gamble.
As I contemplated the musical richness of this city and country, I stared at the watery foam that the ferry was stirring up beside me. I remembered a fragment of a poem by the Turkish poet Orhan Veli:
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed…
Oaths, songs, ballads, impudent taunts,
Something falls from her hand to the ground
It must be a rose
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed
That evening I flew home.