This week our online class takes us to one of the world’s “roughest neighborhoods” – the Caucasus Mountains, where we sing songs from three countries in the Southern Caucausus — Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. These three countries enjoy life in an oft-disputed mountain area that’s not only located between the Black and Caspian Seas, but also between three of the world’s great conquering empires — the Persians, the Ottomans and the Russians. Each of the three nations of the Southern Caucasus has its own language, its own culture and its own history. Each also has its own long list of historic struggles, and each has had to face them and press ahead in its own unique way. The three have often had the inclination to unite, first in an unsuccessful attempt after World War I to form the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, then, within the USSR, as part of the Transcaucasian Federation, which disbanded in 1936–but unfortunately, as of late, each of these little countries has had a hard time living beside its neighbors in peace. This we’re going to enjoy some music from the mountains, and not worry so much about our nosy neighbors.
We end our week of music from Turkey, this nation that historically has held public secaularism so dear, with a religious twist. The Melevia Order of Muslims was founded in Turkey by folloers of 13th century Perisan poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, also known as “Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi.” The Mevlevi are “Sufis” — those who practice a “mystical” Islam. They are more publicly known for their spinning dances, as we see in this video, which they do while engaged in the devotional “dhikr.” The term “dervish” can be used to refer to a member of the Sufi movement, or, more broadly, those who have chosen to devote themselves to spiritual service. In this video we meet the “whirling dervishes” of the Galata Mevlevi House in Istanbul.
We hope you had a great, mostly secular, Turkish week. Next week we go further east.
Yesterday we met the Turkish song “Șiki Șiki Baba,” about a strict Turkish dad who stands in the way of a budding romance. In this video, two kids, and heckuva band behind them, perform a delightful version. I don’t quite buy the idea that these two have lived through the emotional pain of a romance forbidden by a harsh parent, but they sing their hearts out nonetheless.
“Șiki Șiki Baba” is a song about a young romance forbidden by a strict, strict father that appears in many iterations in many parts of West Asia and Eastern Europe. There seem to be iterations of the song in many languages, including Arabic and Greek, but our “Șiki Șiki Baba” finds inspiration in the classic version from Turkey. We sing: “If you love me I’ll love you, I will love you all my days, Darling will you love me too?, Our love will find a way….”
Aynur Doğan is a controversial Kurdish singer from Turkey whose “offense,” in the eyes of some Turks, is that she is Turkish but sings songs in the Kurdish language. Born in 1975 in Cemisgezek, a small town in the southeastern Turkish mountains, Aynur and her family moved to Istanbul to avoid the struggles in their town between the Turkish Army and the Kurdish resistance. The Turkish government’s loosening restrictions on public use of the Kurdish language in 2004 gave Aynur the opportunity to not only perform but to rise to stardom. She has since been an outspoken advocate for the Kurdish people and their right to make art their own language. In this video Aynur performs “Keçe Kurdan” (“Kurdish Girl”),” from her album of the same name, which a court in southeastern Turkey banned briefly in 2005, fearing that its lyrics would incite Turkish women to abandon their partners and go to the mountains to join the Kurdish resistance.
Yesterday we met iconic Turkish music star Orhan Gecenbay and saw him sing so sweetly. But Gencebay is not just a pretty face. He is also an accomplished instrumentalist, a specialist in the Turkish baglama. The instrument — sometimes referred to as a “saz,” especially in Iran — is a Turkish long-necked lute, a descendant of the fretless. leather-dovered, wolf-gut-stringed Turkic komuz…but you already knew that. Players use a pick or pluck the baglama with their fingers, using a style called şelpe. In this video Gencebay plays the baglama with a pick, but one could be forgiven for missing that detail, distracted by his snazzy suit, his marvelous mustache, and the mastery of invisible oud player performing in the seat beside him.
Orhan Gecenbay is one of the giants of the Turkish entertainment industry. In his monumental career Gencebay has been the lead actor in almost 40 movies, composed an estimated thousand songs and sold over 65 million records. Musically, Genecbay pioneered a multifaceted mix of Turkish and international sounds. Wikipedia describes the genre like this: “During the 1970s [Gencebay] released many singles in a new genre that is a fusion of traditional Turkish Folk music, Turkish classical music, Western classical music, jazz, rock, country, progressive, psychedelic, Indian, Arabic, Spanish, and Greek music styles.” Rather than call this new genre “Turko-folko-clasico-jazzy-
rocky-country-prog-psych-Indi-Arab-Spania-Greek” music, musicologists termed it “Arabesque.” Gencebay didn’t like this categorization because it initially implied that he stole his songs from Arabic music he heard on the radio, but the term “Arabesque” has since grown to become synonymous with Turkish music about heartache, longing and even deep suffering. In that way, Arabesque is the Turkish equivalent of the blues.
This week in our online class we travel to Turkey, where we try to avoid the most simple analysis of the utterly complex nation — that Turkey is a place where “East meets West.” Turkey does claim geography in two continents, but only 3% of the land is in Europe while the rest is in Asia. Most everywhere in Turkey, other than in its main cities, the culture and customs borrow much from Eastern, especially Islamic, influences. Turkey is one of the most consciously secularist states in the world, and while Turkey’s public institutions such its modern constitution functionally separate Church from State, 99% of Turks are Muslim (mostly Sunni). Also, while Turkey has long sought to become a formal part of the European Union, progress toward what is called “accession” is complicated not only by prevailing European powers’ public and private attitudes toward Islam, but also by increasing Turkish skepticism about the motives of the E.U. Turkey is an extraordinary mix of many strains of history, ethnicity, religion and culture, and that makes it an utterly worthwhile place to visit…but simple it is not.
We’re going to have a great time this week meeting Turkish music. Let’s go!
For the last week we’ve been learning about instruments that form the foundation of traditional Arabic music ensembles. If you’ve paid attention you may have noticed that all the musicians we featured this week are women. While men still domiante the Arabic music world, female Arabic music masters generate less scandal than in the past. So let’s step into controversy. Mona Haydar is a Syrian-American rapper and activist. (The bio page on her website says, she is, “a rapper, poet, activist, practitioner of Permaculture, meditator, composting devotee, mountain girl, solar power lover and a tireless God-enthusiast.”) Her song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” is also one of the most controverial “feminist anthems” of recent times. Watch this video and you may see why.
I hope you had a fantastically musical week, meeting West Asia and the Middle East through instruments. Tomorrow, the first stop on our regional tour…Turkey.
The darbuka is a “goblet drum,” a hand drum with a head shaped like a circle that’s wider than the middle of its long, thin body. Arabic musicians have been playing darbuka for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. While the powerful West African djembe is its close cousin, the player of a darbuka uses more fingers, feeling and finesse. Let’s watch this video of darbuka master Raquy Danziger making it so.