Music Runs Through it

A musical trail in Turkey leads a traveller from the traditional to the spiritual.

Written by Krishna Raj | New Delhi | Published: September 14, 2012 5:09 am

A musical trail in Turkey leads a traveller from the traditional to the spiritual.

My first tryst with Turkish music happened on a boat between two continents. Cruising on the pristine Bosphorus strait that divides Turkey between Asia and Europe,I played the drums with the country’s iconic darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum) player Serdar Bagtir. As we delved into the intricacies of traditional Turkish and Arabic drumming,I realised that I was ambidextrous as a darbuka player. “Dum rradum dadum rradadum dum — this is an original Turkish rhythm,” says Bagtir.

Music and dance come naturally to the Turks,as their history is endowed with diverse traditions and genres of music. For a musician,visiting Turkey is like being a part of a never-ending concert,where the old sloping streets of Istanbul and the quaint seaside cafes of Izmir are filled with music. A kaleidoscope of Persian,Arabic,Balkan,Central Asian and American influences along with pure Ottoman sounds makes Turkish music unique.

Istanbul dazzles with music through the year. Classical music with intricate ornamentation,reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire,resounds in concert halls and at grand outdoor soirees. Traditional instruments like the kemence (stringed bowed instrument),ney (reed flute),tambur (plucked instrument),oud (short-necked lute),kanun (variation of a harp) and daf (large frame drum) create magic with classical Makam scales and steady rhythms. Crowds gather spellbound when works of legendary composers like Dede Efendi,Haji Arif Bey and Cemal Resit Rey are performed.

A conversation with Mehmet Unal,a leading exponent of the rapidly declining yayli tambur with its basal,melancholic strains reveals the origins of the instrument. As we cross the Bosphorus to the Anatolian (Asian) side,the maestro explains how the instrument is made with its horsehair strings,a coconut shell base covered with goatskin and a long ornate wooden neck with strings that run down the length of the instrument. “Its deep sound and its rich quality touch the soul,” he says.

Among Turkey’s diverse folk traditions there is that of the Ashiks or the travelling bards hailing from Alevi community,where music plays a vital role in daily life. To the accompaniment of their saz (lute),Ashiks sing self-composed songs that convey either a mystical or romantic message. Ashik Mahzuni Sherif and Ashik Veysel are two revered Ashiks of the country. Ashik Mahzuni Sherif’s all-time classic Here I go,oh my black-eyed beloved still resounds through the country’s sheesha and wine bars.

Turkish music also has a spiritual side. One can often hear groups of singers outside a mosque singing devotional hymns. The azan or call to prayer from old-style Ottoman mosques is also a balm for the soul.

Turkey is also synonymous with ancient Sufi musical traditions. The music of the legendary mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi is a marriage of music and the dance of whirling dervishes,which has captured hearts across the world. It is believed that through soulful music,the seeker transcends all egoistic trappings and unites with god,the supreme beloved. Konya,where Rumi (or Mevlana,as he is known to the Turks) is laid to rest,is home to exquisite Sufi music,even during Ramzan,when music is generally avoided .

The musical ceremony called sema (from Arabic samaa meaning to listen) comprises intricate musical renditions set to classical scales and begins with a verse in praise of god and Prophet Mohammad. The dervishes draped in white gowns whirl in ecstasy,a symbol of man’s liberation from the ego and union with god. “Sema is about divine love,” says Safir,a young dervish,“we never feel dizzy,the beloved’s name is constantly on our lips while we whirl.”

Rumi’s words echo in my mind,“As the tambur plays its tune,my heart runs like a hapless prisoner,and from deep within it,I hear a voice that says,‘Oh weary heart,come! For this is your way’.”

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