Some Kurdish bards

dengbej old young 2

Storytelling is always an oral repository of a people’s history and culture—as, for instance, in the Balkans (here, under “Bards”), Ukraine, Central Asia, and China. Now I’ve been trying to learn a bit about the dengbêj bards of Kurdistan.

There are majority Kurdish populations in regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, * all of whom have vexed relations with the relevant state authorities. Repressed in varying degrees of severity under different regimes, many have gone into exile. **

Kurdish mapMap, CIA 1992. Source: wiki.

Among the variety of genres, here I’ll focus on Kurdish dengbêj storytellers within the borders of modern Turkey. In English, I look forward to reading

  • Ulaş Özdemir, Wendelmoet Hamelink, and Martin Greve (eds), Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia (2018; contents here), with its evocative cover image:

bards 1931Musicians during the Festival of Folk Poets in Sivas, 1931.


  • Wendelmoet Hamelink, The sung home: narrative, morality, and the Kurdish nation (2014) (revised excerpt here, on politics and song texts).

Traditional settings included şevbihêrk evening gatherings, urban cafés, and weddings. For later generations the dengbêj came to be associated with poverty and dependency, working for a beğ or an ağa. Their broad repertoire comprises epic tales of love and war, recited solo, fast and loud; some distinct mournful songs (kilam, stran) may be heard with instrumental accompaniment. Waves of conflict and repression have impacted the dengbêj; and it soon becomes apparent that change over the past century has resulted in reification.

I was drawn to the bards by the enthusiasm of popular singer Aynur for the great dengbêj of yesteryear, such as Dengbêj Şakiro (1936–96):

Biro 1936

Şeroyê Biro (right), 1936. Source.

Şeroyê Biro (c1881–1970) (this song punctuated by a variant of the ubiquitous drum-and-shawm combo):

Karapetê Xaço (d.2005; estimates of his birthdate range from 1900 to 1908), an ethnic Armenian (for his story, see here):

And more recently, here’s the celebrated Seyîtxanê Boyaxçî (1933–2020), from Diyarbakir—with a young singer:

Women dengbêj
While this is formally a male tradition, Marlene Schäfers thickens the plot by finding female dengbêj (“From shameful to public voice: women dengbêjs, the work of pain, and Kurdish history”) (for some readings on women’s music, see here).

dengbej Gazin

As in many traditional societies, women’s voices are heard

mainly in domestic, private and all-female spheres to which outsider and/or male ears are rarely admitted. The impression that Kurdish women lack voice is hence a result less of the actual absence of voice than of the way in which public and private spaces are differently valued. The general devaluation of the private (and female) sphere means that voices whose range is limited to the private become considered as insignificant. What counts, in our modern age, is public voice—precisely that which women have frequently been denied.

The women dengbêj are known especially for their kilam laments, expressions of pain and suffering, “closely related to epic songs (destan), funeral lamentations (şîn), and lullabies (lorî)”. While the kilam may be sung solo, they also match the mournful quality of the qernête (duduk, balaban) double-reed pipe, as we have already heard.

Renowned female singers included Meryem Xan (1904–49) (wiki, and here):

and Ayşe Şan (1938–96)—over two hours of singing here:

Schäfers also cites a kilam by Dengbêj Gazîn (1959–2018) from Van, with a play of words on gazîn, which is both the singer’s stage name and means “cry” or “shout”:

I am Gazîn, I am a dengbej,
I am neither deaf, nor am I mad
My eyes are shedding tears
I tell the sorrows of my heart

Nobody hears my voice
I tell the sorrows of my heart
Nobody hears my voice.

I am the heart-broken Gazîn
My insides are full of blood
I am like Xeçê, like Zîn
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
There remains no place for me to go
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I turn towards the struggle.

I am Gazîn amidst the villagers
I am a milkmaid on the pastures
I cry out like a crane
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I have become a captive in the mountains
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I turn toward the desert and the mountains.

She appears on YouTube, both on film (others e.g. here, here, and via this post):

and in many hauntingly plangent audio recordings, such as:

Dengbêj Gazîn was sentenced to one year in prison for singing Kurdish songs in 2010, deemed by the state prosecution to constitute “propaganda for an illegal organisation”, though she was acquitted in 2013.

in her chapter in Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia, Schäfers cites Gazîn’s kilam on the subject of the Van earthquake in 2011, making further acute observations on the topic of the “ownership” of orally-transmitted songs.

Here‘s an extensive playlist for the dengbêj.

Clémence Scalbert-Yücel (“The invention of a tradition: Diyarbakır’s dengbêj project”, 2009), finds that since the rise of the “nostalgia industry” in the 1990s, dengbêj have been rediscovered, institutionalised, and “protected”. Moreover,

The dengbêj “tradition” as it exists today is the result of a several-decades-long process of negotiation between different Kurdish individual and collective actors, between different parts of Kurdish society, and between these Kurdish actors and representatives of the state. It shows that both the state and the Kurdist movement(s) have demonstrated contradictory attitudes toward dengbêj, ranging from protection to disinterest and repression, and that the practice of the dengbêj as well as the definition of the “tradition” have been profoundly shaped by this process. […]

Even though there is no longer a ban, auto-censorship is still in force and the dengbêjs are represented as “innocent relics” who portray the Kurdish part of the “Anatolian mosaic” promoted by official narratives in the 2000s.

The first part of the paper examines the survival of a certain way of dengbêjîin in spite of repression by state institutions, wider social changes, and a rather disinterested Kurdish movement. The second section looks at the revival of the dengbêj practice and at a renewed interest among some Kurdish activists, looking specifically at the municipality-led project.

Following the partitioning of Kurdish territory with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, under the Turkish Republic the dengbêj have been subject to sporadic repression since the 1930s, most severely in the 1980s.

But dengbêjî was not only repressed by the state. It was also impeded by a Kurdish population that was both worried about persecution and had to some degree lost interest due to wider social changes (urbanisation, the arrival of television, and the development of new, “modern”, musical forms), and because of the attitudes of some within the Kurdish movement.

Scalbert-Yücel notes the change of context to performance at the official Houses of Dengbêj, for festivals, and on TV.

First, the songs performed today are shorter. […] Firstly, lack of practice, sometimes for a couple of decades, led to a loss of memory and shortening of the songs. The second reason is directly linked to the issue of the performance and the audience. The contemporary audience does not necessarily appreciate long epic stories, nor do they always understand them. This is reflected in the way in which people visit the House: they come for a little while, sit in the room with the dengbêj, and listen for them for a few minutes. They also often record the songs with their mobile phones, like they would shoot a photo souvenir. For the festivals and the television, the long epic songs are also largely shortened and cut.

Abbreviation had a longer history dating back to the early recording industry, to which the shorter kilams were better suited.

Economic and symbolic stakes also pushed people toward the use of instrumentation: adding instruments makes the dengbêj easier to listen to, more attractive, and potentially more famous. This changed the form of the music. […]

Political and guerrilla songs are also censored by the associations or TV channels. This means that an important part of the repertoire remains “in the chest” of the dengbêj and may eventually be forgotten. This can also halt the creative process and lead to a fixation of the dengbêj in the past, or give new directions to the creative process. Also, “old” songs seem to be given more value than the new ones as representing the “tradition”, the real “culture”.

As learning from tapes became common, the chain of transmission has been transformed.

Dengbêjs have become symbolic; they have become a heritage [mîras], as said one of the music professionals interviewed, who compared them to swords in a museum: before they were used daily by everyone; now they stand on a shelf.

All this supplements our list of flawed Intangible Cultural Heritage projects around the world; the Diyarbakır project reminds me in many ways of the ICH programme in China, with the remoulding of the “feudal” and “backward” past, and all the ambivalence of “registration” (both “looking after” and “controlling”: see Bards of Shaanbei, under “The reform era”).

In another fine article, Marlene Schäfers (“Being sick of politics: the production of dengbej as Kurdish cultural heritage in contemporary Turkey”, 2015) interrogates the recent construction of dengbê as Kurdish “cultural heritage”.

Given a longstanding and engrained history of systematic and violent persecution, repression, denial, and assimilation of all matters Kurdish by the Turkish state, Kurdishness has effectively been rendered an inherently and inescapably political subject position in Turkey today.

She seeks an understanding that

allows for a continual slippage between cultural heritage understood as, on the one hand, marking the essence of the Kurdish nation and being therefore of an inherently political nature and, on the other hand, constituting a non- or pre-political realm of folkloric engagement with ethnic traditions.

And she notes Nathalie Heinich’s felicitous term “the administration of authenticity”.

As critics of liberal multiculturalism have repeatedly noticed, tolerance is extended only on the condition that the object to be tolerated remains within boundaries determined by the tolerant majority itself.

dengbej old young 1

The dengbêj of Van are briefly introduced here, with this film:

Even those pushing for cultural preservation concede that the dengbêj is now a somewhat nostalgic embodiment of Kurdish identity. Movies and pop music are more influential than their laments, and the form’s rural strongholds are declining as young people move to cities. Whereas performers were once honoured guests at private houses and weddings, they now sing mainly for television, tourists, and folkloristic recordings. Their stories are shorter these days, in accommodation to both modern audiences and their own dwindling abilities.

For some very different expressive forms, see Dervishes of Kurdistan and Zaza and Hawrami. See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis, and Bektashi–Alevi rituals (1: Istanbul, 2: Anatolia).

* For background, note the bibliography by Chris Houston, Anthropology of Kurdistan (2017), and Robert Riegle, A brief history of Kurdish music recordings in Turkey (2013); see also Christine Allison, “The shifting borders of conflict, difference, and oppression: Kurdish folklore revisited” (2016). For introductions to Kurdish music, see sections in The Rough Guide to world music, the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and the Garland encyclopedia of world music. As elsewhere, the popular songs promoted in the media inevitably receive more media coverage than musicking in rural life. But note some fine CDs from Kalan Mûzik, such as Traditional music of Hakkari (2004).

** I think of the Tibetans, also stateless—their homes (within the People’s Republic of China) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Amdo, and Kham, as well as Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, India, and the diaspora; for some Tibetan bards, click here and here.

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