Alevi ritual in Istanbul, 2: Karacaahmet

Kahmet cem for blog

Following my initial explorations of Alevi ritual in Turkey (Istanbul; Anatolia), it was good last week to visit another Alevi place of worship, this one near my home base of Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

I tend to feel more comfortable with the atmosphere of smaller “places of gathering”; some are inconspicuous, resembling house churches. But even the larger centres, like that of Şahkulu, have a modestly-sized cemevi where rituals are held.

In Üsküdar the Karacaahmet Sultan dervish lodge (Karacaahmet Sultan dergahi) occupies a prominent position on the main road. It’s the site of a major türbesi mausoleum, with a large Janissary and Bektashi cemetery. Despite the enigmatic heading

Karacaahmet is a great saint an insane came to him starts behaving sensibly,

the English-language brochure is rather useful.

The 13th-14th century dervish * Karaca Ahmed, a contemporary of Hacı Bektâş Velî, came to Anatolia from Khorasan. He is linked to healing, in particular for issues of mental health.

The centre was busy with followers gathered to pay homage to the tomb and to receive the midday distribution of lokma food in a large canteen. The hospitable dede gave us a blessing over the lokma offering that we had ourselves brought; and he reminded us of the spiritual symbolism of the components of the bağlama plucked lute (cf. the Chinese qin zither, as described e.g. by Robert van Gulik).

Kahmet sheep for blog

We observed the ritual blessings for the sheep about to be slaughtered—it’s also a considerable commercial enterprise serving clients elsewhere in the city. The centre also organises study courses, and has an impressive bookshop.

When we visited the upstairs cemevi, though, the simple ritual was sparsely attended; rather few of the hizmet duties were filled, and the final sema dance was slow and somewhat perfunctory. Later the dede confirmed to us the triple dilution of Alevi ritual, from rural Anatolia to migrant communities in Istanbul and thence to the diaspora.

I pondered the use of amplification, which has become standard around the world despite the poor quality of most sound systems (cf. Chinese shawm bands, who need it like bankers need lower rates of tax).

Several videos from Karacaahmet appear on YouTube, such as this far more impressive cem ritual in honour of the saint Abdal Musa in 2018:

The state still hinders Alevi culture rather than supporting it. Like other cemevis, Karacaahmet is funded by private donations; we were reminded of the Alevis’ frustration at being caught in a Catch-22 whereby their buildings can’t be registered as sites of religious worship and are thus liable to exorbitant utility bills. Moreover, recent assaults on Alevis in the provinces (e.g. here, here) and in Istanbul are disturbing. For all that, the atmosphere at such centres is most welcoming and supportive.

See also Querying the notion of gender equality in Alevism. For much more on the cultures of west and central Asia, click here.


* On the plane out to Istanbul I absent-mindedly watched a kitsch Turkish movie about a young dervish, with the usual picturesque timeless landscapes, gorgeous protagonists, blah blah. We needn’t worry about the plot—apart from gnomic utterances about dough and fire (the kinda thing that sounds just great coming from Rumi), it was full of Pythonesque remarks like this, when the dervish’s wife, abandoned while he goes on a lengthy Quest for Truth, is consoled by her mother (surely a part for Terry Jones):

“That’s how dervishes are—they lose themselves when it comes to Divine Love…”

cf. “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very Naughty Boy”:

This might (but only might) lead us to the different Quests of Gurdjeff and Dalrymple.

Lhasa: streets with memories

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Lhasa cover

Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:

  • Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).

Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.

The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflicting memories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.

He opens the Preface with some broad context:

Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…

Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.

Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that

some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.

In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.

Lhasa 1904Plan of Lhasa, 1904, by L.A. Waddell. Source.

Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent

not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.

Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.

A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).

Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.

Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.

Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:

Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.

Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.

Lhasa 1950s
Lhasa, late 1950s.

Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date

to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.

Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.

Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.

As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,

the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—

until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.

It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.

Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.

À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,

the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.

In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.

I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.

Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,

building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.

From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:

Comrade Editor,
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…

By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.

Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.

Lhasa 96

Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.

Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.

Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.

Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.

Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:

As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.

As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others

is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.

Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students

mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.

In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:

“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”

And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.

The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.

In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.

Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.

While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.

Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.

Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.

It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.

Echoes of Dharamsala

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Diehl cover

  • Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala: music in the life of a Tibetan refugee community (2002)

is the fruit of ten months that the author spent from 1994 to 1995 in the hillside capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northwest India, “perched in the middle of one of the world’s political hotspots”. Despite the presence of the revered Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is no mystical paradise.

Diehl 37

As Diehl explains in the Introduction, Dharamsala felt somewhat over-subscribed as a topic, and she had hoped to study Tibetan refugee communities elsewhere in India; but she was drawn back there by circumstance, and soon became a participant observer playing keyboards with The Yak Band. This informs her thesis on the performance and reception of popular music and song by Tibetan refugees—including traditional folk genres, Tibetan songs perceived as “Chinese”, Hindi film songs, Western rock, reggae, and blues, new Tibetan music, and Nepali folk and pop.

In the Introduction she notes a contradiction between scholarship on displacement and the people whose experiences generated it. Whereas anthropological theory tends to celebrate “transgression, displacement, innovation, resistance, and hybridity”,

it became clear that many of the displaced people I had chosen to live among and work with were, in fact, striving heartily for emplacement, cultural preservation, and ethnic purity, even though keeping these dreams alive also meant consciously keeping alive the pain and loss inherent in the exile experience rather than letting or helping these wounds heal.

Further, much of the scholarship that does include ethnographic case studies tends to emphasise

the richness, multivocality, dialogism, and creativity of their subjects rather than their deep conservatism, xenophobia, and dreams of emplacement.

Diehl gives cogent answers, in turn, to “Why study refugees?”, “Why refugee music?”, “Why refugee youth?”, and “Why Tibetans?”. Exploring “zones of invisibility” (and inaudibility), she seeks to

fill in some of the gaps left by the many idealised accounts of Tibetans. Through its generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity and cultural preservation in exile, much of the available information on Tibetan refugees exhibits a troubling collusion with the community’s own idealised self-image. […]

After four decades in exile, many Tibetans realise not only that the utopian dream is still an important source of hope but also that it can be a source of disappointment and frustration that has very real effects on individuals and communities who are raised to feel responsible for its actual, though unlikely, realisation.

She introduces the “Shangri-La trope”, analysed by Bishop, Lopez, and Schell, and notes the “disciplinary bias within Tibetan Studies towards the monastic culture of pre-1950 Tibet”—a bias that applied also to Tibetan music, largely interpreted as “Buddhist ritual music” until the mid-1970s (cf. Labrang 1). Since Diehl wrote the book, the whole field has been transformed by new generations of scholars at last able to document Tibetan culture within the PRC.

She notes Dharamsala’s position at the “literal yet liminal intersection” of a “geographical and conceptual mandala”:

Diehl 27.1

Diehl 27.2

What complicates this apparently cut-and-dry native point of view is the fact that […] sounds and musical boundaries are, ultimately, immaterial and are therefore felt and experienced in personal and varied ways.

Chapter 1, “Dharamsala: a resting place to pass through”, depicts the town as both a centre and a limen, a destination for pilgrimage which refugees hope eventually to leave. Besides them, the ever-shifting population also includes civil servants, nomads, traders, aid workers, dharma students, and tourists.

Members of the oldest generation in exile came to India from Nepal, Bhutan, or India’s North East Frontier Area (now Arunachal Pradesh) after escaping from Tibet in 1959 on foot over the Himalayas, travelling in family groups under the cover of darkness, following their leader into exile. Since then, for forty years, Tibetans have continued to escape from their homeland in a procession whose flow varies with the seasonal weather, the attentiveness of Nepali border patrols, the effects of specific Chinese policies in Tibet, and the varying intensity with which these policies are implemented in different regions of the country and different times.

Diehl identifies three general waves of migration:

The first escapees (between 1959 and the mid-1960s) came from Lhasa, Tingri, or other southern border areas of the country. Few Tibetans escaped during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but in the 1980s a second wave of refugees, a number of whom had been imprisoned during the first decades of Tibet’s occupation, fled Tibet. Since the early 1990s, a third wave of refugees from Amdo in the northeast, known as sar jorpa (“new arrivals”), have arrived in exile, putting the greatest demands on the government-in-exile’s resources and institutions since the first months spent establishing tent camps, clinics, and schools in 1959.

Besides regional aspects, I note that there are political and class considerations here too, as the old generation that included aristocrats and former monks from the Lhasa region was replaced by commoners (and former monks) from a wider area, brought up under the routine degradations of de facto Chinese occupation. At first the shared plight of exile tended to homogenise interactions:

It was irrelevant, even laughable, to insist on special privileges or respect because one’s father had been a regional chieftain in Tibet, when you had no more power to set foot in Tibet than your neighbour, the son of a petty trader from Lhasa.

But social, regional, and sectarian divisions later re-emerged.

Some refugees in the diaspora avoid Dharamsala altogether, specifically because of the ambition, materialism, self-consciousness, and conservatism engendered by its status as an international hub of activism, tourism, and bureaucracy and because of its overcrowdedness and uncleanliness.

Refugees (and the Indian population) depend to a large extent on the influx of tourists, including the transient “dharma bums” and those on more committed spiritual or welfare missions. The new refugees find themselves

outside the rigid structures of Tibetan society, perched at the margins of Indian society, and inferior to all around them owing to their utter dependence.

Chapter 2 explores the notions of “tradition” and the “rich cultural heritage of Tibet”, which “authenticate the past and largely discredit the present”. The chapter opens at a Tibetan wedding, with a group of older chang-ma women singing songs of blessing and offering barley beer in toasts to the couple and the guests.

Diehl 58

Groups like this had been common in Tibet before 1959, but only became popular in Dharamsala in the 1980s. The women performing for the wedding had all fled from the Tingri region of Tibet, working in Nepal as day labourers, petty traders, or wool spinners before reaching Dharamsala. They had recently pooled their memories of weddings in old Tibet to create a suitable repertoire.

At some remove from such non-institutional groups, Diehl examines the role of government-sponsored community and school events in “cultural preservation”, headed by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).

In exile the official drive was inspired both by the dilution of Tibetan culture after exposure to Indian society and by fears over the destruction of traditional culture inside Tibet after 1959 (this mantra, still repeated by rote, probably needs refining in view of research on the state of performing traditions in Tibet since the 1980s). The reified cause of “preservation” required perpetuating a sense of “loss and victimisation” among the second and third generations, who had no experience of the homeland.

But the nostalgic canonisation of certain genres

does little to account for (or respect) the complex mosaic of cultural practices that are continually being constructed in exile through the choices and circumstances of even the most “traditional” Tibetan refugees and that constitute their day-to-day realities.

Nor does it reflect the diversity of culture inside Tibet before the 1950s, and since the 1980s.

Diehl scrutinises the annual ache-lhamo festival of the TIPA Tibetan opera troupe (see here, a post enriched by wonderful videos), as well as TIPA’s international touring activities. But locals note that the school appears demoralised, its performances lacking vitality—the emphasis on preservation apparently leading to “cultural death”, just as in China.

Diehl notes the uncomfortable position of the sar-jorpa “new arrivals” from Tibet:

Rather than being valued as fresh connections to the increasingly remote homeland, as might be expected, these Tibetans more frequently cause disappointment by failing to validate the hopeful dreams of those living in exile. Instead, their apparent foreignness only confirms dire thirdhand news of cultural change (namely, sinicization) in Tibet.

Still, educated Tibetans in Dharamsala told Diehl that

the children escaping nowadays from Tibet (rather than those carefully schooled in exile) are the most likely to maintain a strong commitment to the “Tibetan Cause”, since they have personally experienced the consequences of living under Chinese occupation.

She illustrates the conflict with a telling scene at the Losar New Year’s gatherings. Besides the chang ma singing songs of praise and dancing, a group of new arrivals from Tibet were also taking turns to sing namthar arias from ache-lhamo opera, with loud amplification—a performance shunned by the locals.

It seemed a perfect illustration of the separate worlds refugee Tibetans and Tibetans raised in the homeland inhabit, even when living and dreaming in the same close physical proximity. No Tibetan in the temple that morning wanted to be celebrating another new year where they were, and all knew exactly where they preferred to be, but the differences between their relationships to those reviled and desired places [were] being expressed in ways that exaggerated the temporal, spatial, and cultural experiences that had been their karmic destiny, seemingly muting their commonality.

Diehl goes on to ponder the competing claims to cultural authority in Tibet and in exile. The singers visiting from Tibet were not making explicit claims to “tradition”, but, rather,

employing the range of their musical knowledge […] to express conservative and religious sentiments. Because they had recently come from the physical homeland, their potential space-based authenticity was actually a liability in the context of Dharamsala rather than a resource for claims to cultural propriety. […]

Young Tibetans in Tibet and in exile are not faced with a simple either-or choice between traditional or modern “styles”. […] It is difficult to assess most traditions as simply “preserved” or “lost”. *

Still, cultural pundits in Dharamsala see the risk of Chinese influence as more pernicious than that of other kinds of foreign music such as rock-and-roll. Exiles have criticised the vocal timbre of Dadon, a Tibetan pop singer who escaped Tibet in 1992, as sounding “too Chinese”; even more strident was the controversy over Sister drum.

Chapter 3, “Taking refuge in (and from) India: film songs, angry mobs, and other exilic pleasures and fears”, discusses refugee life in the here and now of contemporary India, when

few voices in the conversation grapple with, or even acknowledge, the Indian context in which the exile experience is actually taking place for the great majority of Tibetan refugees.

The shared disdain of many Westerners and Tibetan refugees for the day-to-day realities of India—hardship, corruption, poverty, and filth—is an important ingredient in the often-romantic collusion between these groups.

The Indians’ resentment of the refugees is “restrained by considerations of economic self-interest”, but ethnic conflicts sometimes arise, as in April 1994, when a fight between a Tibetan and a local gaddi led to a rampage against the refugees. The Dalai Lama’s offer to move out from Dharamsala was clearly in no-one’s interest, and so peace-making gestures were made.

Living in India, Tibetan refugees are no more immune than the rest of the subcontinent to the ubiquitous Hindi film music, with all its “fantastic dreams of sin and modernity”, in Das Gupta’s words. Commenting on the wider consumption and production of such songs among Tibetan refugees, Diehl reflects in a well-theorised section on the similarities and differences between the original and the mime.

Although Hindi film songs had long been adopted by Tibetan refugees as “spice” (or “salt-and-pepper”) at weddings and other events, they were to make a more conflicted choice for Tibetan rock groups. Diehl takes part in the Yak Band as they perform concerts that include some such songs, featuring the demure young schoolteacher Tenzin Dolma, who imitates the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, “the Nightingale of India”. Tibetans’ enjoyment of this repertoire is a guilty pleasure. The Yak band were aware of the risk that the “salt-and-pepper” might become “bread and butter”.

Having added India into the mix, Diehl reflects further on her time with the Yak Band in Chapter 4, “The West as surrogate Shangri-La: rock and roll and rangzen as style and ideology”, exploring the often-idealised romance with the West, and the quest for independence.

Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have been part of the lives of Tibetans born in exile since childhood. Western rock brings as much cultural baggage as the soundscapes of traditional Tibet, modern India, and socialist China. Diehl notes the scholarly tendency to interpret youth culture in terms of “resistance” or “deviance”, downplaying cases where it may be conservative or centripetal. Referring to Bishop and Lopez, she surveys the Western fascination with first the “spirituality” of Tibet and then the high profile of the Tibetan political cause.

Social divisions in Dharamsala are further amplified when Tibetans who have gained residency in the USA return for a visit; those still left behind in India, not realising the hardships their fellow Tibetans have had to endure in the States to gain a foothold there, envy their apparently affluent lifestyle. But as refugees continue to arrive from Chinese-occupied Tibet, opportunities for those still in India remain limited; the lure of the West is strong.

Still, plenty of Tibetans of all ages in Dharamsala (including “new arrivals”) felt that Western pop and rock “have no place in a community engaged in an intense battle for cultural survival”.

On the one hand, there are very strong, politically informed reactions against any Tibetan music that sounds too Chinese, too Hindi, or too Western. On the other, many Tibetan youth respect traditional Tibetan music but find it boring.

In Chapter 5, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down: making modern Tibetan music”, Diehl ponders the challenges of creating a modern Tibetan music. She provides a history of the genre from its origins around 1970, introducing the TIPA-affiliated Ah-Ka-Ma Band before focusing on the Yak Band.

Paljor was brought up in Darjeeling, trained by Irish Christian missionaries. His late father was a Khampa chieftain who had been trained by the CIA in the late 1950s to fight Chinese incursion. Thubten, grandson of a ngagpa shaman, had escaped as a small child from Shigatse to Kalimpong in 1957, going on to spend seventeen years in the Tibetan regiment of the Indian army. Phuntsok was born in Dharamsala; Ngodup was an orphan schooled in Darjeeling.

In a community wary of innovation, even traditional musicians have a lowly status. Whatever people’s private tastes within the family, public musicking is subject to scrutiny.

Chapter 6 turns from sound to the crafting of song lyrics, with their narrowly solemn themes such as solidarity for independence, and nostalgia for the loss of a beautiful homeland—themes which demand expression in a language that is largely beyond the literary skills of the younger generation. Diehl talks with the official astrologer for the government–in-exile, who provided poetic lyrics for the local bands, and introduces the early work of Ngawang Jinpa, Paljor’s teacher in Darjeeling. Diehl cites a rather successful lyric by Jamyang Norbu (former director of TIPA, editor of the 1986 Zlos-gar, an important resource at the time; see e.g. The Lhasa ripper, Women in TIbet, 2, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes), “poetic yet accessible, evocative rather than boring”.

She gives a theoretically nuanced account of what song lyrics communicate, and how; and she explains the refugees’ rather low level of literacy, official efforts to create a standard language among a variety of regional dialects, and the link with sacred sound. Love songs are also composed, but hardly performed in public. It is considered more acceptable to write lyrics in bad English than in bad Tibetan, but such songs are rarely aired in public.

Chapter 7 unpacks public concerts that “rupture and bond”. In January 1995, the Yak Band made a major trek to the Mundgod refugee settlement in south India to coincide with the Kalachakra initiation ceremony there, with the Dalai Lama presiding. Their choice of repertoire over fifteen nightly performances revealed “a comfort with cultural ambiguity and a passion for foreign culture that is disturbing to some in the community”.

Diehl 243

Over the course of the concerts the band agonised over their set list. While their inspiration was to share their songs of praise for the Dalai Lama, their longing for a homeland they had never seen, and compassion for their compatriots left behind in Tibet (exemplified in their opening song Rangzen), they varied the proportion of modern Tibetan songs, “English” rock songs, and Hindi and Nepali songs in response (and sometimes resistance) to the reactions of the multi-generational audiences—which included, at first, young monks, before their abbot imposed a strict curfew on them. While hurt that the audiences preferred “silly Indian love songs” to their core Tibetan offerings, the Yaks reluctantly succumbed to popular demand.

One of the Yaks’ reasons for their visit to Mundgod was to get their tenuous finances on their feet by selling their cassettes, but they returned to Dharamsala having made a loss. Moreover, they now suffered from hostile public opinion about their repertoire.

Diehl 259Disillusioned by the lack of support in Dharamsala, the band drifted apart, but they were able to put on a reunion gig for the Dalai Lama’s 60th birthday—when their preferred Tibetan set list was eminently suitable.

In the Conclusion, Diehl reminds us of the importance of musicking

as a crucial site where official and personal, old and new, representations of Tibetan culture meet and where different notions of “Tibetan-ness” are being confronted and imagined.

In a brief coda she updates the stories of the Yak Band.

* * *

For all the book’s excellent ethnographic vignettes, some sections bear the hallmarks of a PhD, with little adaptation to a more reader-friendly style—which is a shame, since the topic is so fascinating. I’ve already confessed my low tolerance threshold for heavily theorised writing (see e.g. my attempts to grapple with Catherine Bell’s outstanding work on ritual).

From within the goldfish bowl of Dharamsala, Diehl only touches in passing on the changing picture inside Chinese-occupied Tibet. While repression there has been ever more severe since 2008, research on regional cultures there had already become a major theme, with a particular focus on Amdo (see e.g. here, including the work of Charlene Makley, Gerald Roche, and others, as well as chapters in Conflicting memories). For the pop scene, useful sources are §10 of the important bibliography by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (including work by Anna Morcom), and the High Peaks Pure Earth website (see also Sister drum, and Women in TIbetan expressive culture). Within occupied Tibet, performers of popular protest songs have been imprisoned, such as Tashi Dhondup; in another thoughtful article, Woeser explores the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions.

Diehl refers to a variety of publications such as those of Marcia Calkowski and Frank Korom, and I cite some more recent sources in n.1 here—among which perhaps the most useful introduction to the topic is

  • Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile? Comparative observations on doing research among Tibetans in Lhasa and Dharamsala”, in Sarah Turner (ed.), Red stars and gold stamps: fieldwork dilemmas in upland socialist Asia (2013).

For contrasting lessons from occupation and exile, see also Eat the Buddha. Despite the presence of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has begun to occupy a less iconic position in our images of Tibetan culture. For all the growing disillusion with the political promises of Western countries, refugees continue to move on, while “new arrivals” have come to make up a significant component of the town’s Tibetan population—see e.g. Pauline MacDonald, Dharamsala days, Dharamsala nights: the unexpected world of the refugees from Tibet (2013), critically reviewed here. The growing popularity of satellite TV from the PRC, and the issue of Tibetan culture in the growing Western diaspora, further complicate the story.

Ethnographies, however definitive they may seem at the time, are always overtaken by more recent change. While soundscape is always an instructive lens on society, more general studies of Dharamsala lead us to a wealth of research on Tibetan refugees in south Asia by scholars such as Jessica Falcone, Trine Brox, Rebecca Frilund, and Shelly Boihl.

See also Lhasa: streets with memories. For the perils of “heritage”, see this roundup, and for a broad discussion of “authenticity”, note Playing with history.


* One of my own more disconcerting moments came while hanging out with young performers from TIPA on their tour of England in May 2004. Several of them were refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, but they were quite happy to speak Chinese with me. Much as I am attracted to Tibetan culture, apart from lacking the language skills, my whole background in Chinese culture has always made me wary of doing fieldwork in Tibetan areas. Whenever I meet Tibetans I am at pains to point out that my Chinese peasant mentors have also suffered grievously at the hands of the state, but I’m still anxious that they might consider me tarred with the brush of the invaders. Still, incongruously, several of the TIPA performers who had fled the PRC were now keen that I should sing them some Chinese pop songs to remind them of their old home, and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t oblige.

An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

A roundup of roundups!

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially

China:

and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Some other themes:

Western Art Music:

—a theme that also makes appearances under World musicking and ethnography:

Popular culture:

Drôlerie:

Yangzhou 1958: a glimpse of Daoist ritual

Yangzhou cover

I’m always concerned to trace the story of research on ritual in China under the first fifteen years of Maoism from the 1949 “Liberation” until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. I’ve introduced the impressive 1956 project on Daoist ritual in Suzhou, and Yang Yinliu’s remarkable fieldwork in Hunan that same year (following his 1952–53 study of the music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing); the “Buddhist music” of Wutaishan was an early topic; and my post on a 1960 report on “old customs” of Wenzhou includes further links, as does Images from the Maoist era. I’ve commented on how the very concept of “Daoist/Buddhist/religious music” misleadingly ringfences the topic, when soundscape should anyway be a major element of ritual studies.

1966 was the major cut-off point, but research (and ritual practice) was highly constrained after the Socialist Education campaigns began in 1963; and already by 1957–58 the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward had disastrous consequences (see Cultural Revolutions). We can find several more signs of life on the eve of the Leap, such as the Xi’an scholar Li Shigen’s 1959 report on his 1957 visit to the White Cloud Mountain in Shaanbei. And I just recalled another one,

  • Yangzhou daojiao yinyue jieshao 揚州道教音乐介绍 [Introduction to the Daoist music of Yangzhou], edited by the Yangzhou Cultural Association (Wenlian). [1]

This slim mimeograph of 37 pages, compiled in 1957 and published in 1958, consists mainly of cipher-notation transcriptions of the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu 清吹笛譜十番鼓 gongche solfeggio score for dizi flute of (paraliturgical) melodies for Shifan ensemble, a score which is said to have been handed down in the Chenghuang miao temple since the Ming dynasty.

By contrast with the outstanding work of Yang Yinliu, the pamphlet is entirely reified, with no social context at all on the severely-reduced conditions of ritual activity in the urban temples or the surrounding countryside—but at least it suggests a concern for ritual music at the time, that was only able to get into full swing as traditions and scholarship revived after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

After a nugatory, formulaic introduction, the transcriptions are in three sections: qingchui dipu 清吹笛譜 solo flute scores, daoqing 道情 popular vocal melodies, with texts, and—most interestingly—twelve zanjing 讚經 hymns, again with texts:

  • Baihe ci 白鶴詞
  • Jiuku zan 救苦讚
  • Putuo qu 普陀曲
  • Sanguan zan 三官讚
  • Kaijing zan 開經讚 (Songjing gongde 誦經功德)
  • Zhaoqing 召請 1
  • Zhaoqing 召請 2 (cf. the Invitation ritual in north Shanxi)
  • Huanghua dangxing tianzun 黃花荡形天尊
  • Zhuangzi tan kulou 莊子嘆骷髏 (again, cf. north Shanxi)
  • Qiyan Sanhua 七言散花
  • Zhuanlian ji 捲簾偈
  • Jishou guiyi 稽首皈依
  • Tan fusheng 嘆浮生

Yangzhou Sanguan zan
Hymn to the Three Officers (Sanguan zan).

Since the 1980s, the Anthology (see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3, 2003) sometimes affords valuable prospects of local ritual traditions—such as the household Daoists of Changwu, subject of a substantial section in the narrative-singing volumes for Shaanxi. Otherwise, “religious music” mostly appears under the “instrumental music” volumes—supplementing recent fieldwork with studies from the 1950s. For Jiangsu province the coverage of “Daoist music” gives pride of place to Suzhou, Wuxi, and Maoshan; Yangzhou is absent.

Yangzhou 2007 coverPerhaps there has been further study, but Zhu Ruiyun 朱瑞云 (b.1929), the main author of the 1958 mimeograph, finally published a much expanded revision in 2007, Yangzhou daojiao yinyue kao 揚州道教音乐考. Despite all the advances in China in the ethnography of religion since the 1980s, its 366 pages are still largely limited to hackneyed musicological concerns. Zhu had no training in Daoism, but since the 1980s many other cultural workers around China managed to educate themselves about their local Daoist ritual traditions—some (as in Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hunan) becoming considerable authorities, producing a wealth of fine ethnographic work.

The introductory material, including a brief account of ritual practice, consists largely of generic citations from early history; Zhu spectacularly avoids even the briefest reference to any modern ritual activity in Yangzhou. In the transcriptions (now in Western stave notation), the brief section of hymns, after the opening Kaijing zan, even dispenses with the ritual texts that he provided in the 1958 mimeograph.

At least we now learn that the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu score was provided by Sun Guiyuan 孙归源, fourth-generation abbot of the Chenghuang miao temple, to whom Zhu was introduced while he was working the Bureau of Culture in 1957. And the brief account by Sun Guiyuan’s son, written in 1991, tells us that the temple was demolished in 1950 and the score destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Alas, this is one book we can well do without. So Daoist ritual around Yangzhou still cries out for detailed research—not only on imperial history, but fieldwork on current activity (both temple and folk), [2] and studies of change from the Republican to Maoist eras. We may find the 1958 mimeograph meretricious (and a Happy New Year), but I still admire the work of scholars through all the travails of Maoism. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder to return to the splendid work on Daoist ritual around Suzhou and Wuxi.


[1] In Yangzhou, a more popular topic has been the lively (secular) folk traditions of qingqu 清曲 narrative-singing, which are the subject of many dedicated studies since the Yangzhou qingqu caifang baogao 揚州清曲采访报告 of 1962 (yet another impressive monograph from the Chinese Music Research Institute, in the lull between the famine and the Socialist Education campaigns), and the genre features prominently in the narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology.

[2] As usual, the most promising approach will be simply to spend time there “among the people”, chatting with locals and perhaps hanging out at funeral shops. Almost wherever one goes, household Daoist (and Buddhist) groups are in demand to provide services for mortuary rituals—as shown even by a popular article like this from 2016, in which the author, on a visit home to Yangzhou, is surprised to find that his father has taken up the Daoist trade late in life. For temple Buddhism, see e.g. this announcement for the Water-and-Land ritual as performed at the Daming si temple.

Everyday life in a Syrian village

 

Syrian village 1

I’ve been watching

  • Everyday life in a Syrian village (Omar Amiralay, 1974, with Saadallah Wannus),

“the first documentary to present an unabashed critique of the impact of the Syrian government’s agricultural and land reforms” (source), in the wake of the Ba’ath party coup of 8th March 1963.

Omar Amiralay (1944–2011) studied in Paris from 1966 before returning to Syria in 1970 (see also this interview). Following his short and uncritical Film essay on the Euphrates dam (1970), Everyday life in a Syrian village is set in al-Muwaylih, a “stronghold of tribal power” near the city of Deir ez-Zor in east Syria.

Syrian village 3The film revolves around the harsh life of peasants working the land. Interviews with villagers, teachers, health workers, officials, and policemen, lamenting the peasants’ “lack of awareness”, reveal the problems of introducing modern education and healthcare to the poor countryside—issues that remind me of rural China (see e.g. Guo Yuhua). Indeed, the brief IMDb summary proclaims that Muwaylih is “a place plagued with tribalism, ignorance, and evil”.

The filming is brilliant, with haunting images. On the soundtrack, besides the howling wind, traditional flute music is used to accompany scenes of manual labour, contrasting with the noises of basic mechanisation.

From 47.18, the villagers gather for ritual chanting with frame-drums—in his 1973 film about Kurdish dervishes on the Iran–Iraq border, André Singer suggests that one role of such rituals is to inculcate subservience to the sheikh’s feudal power. From 51.40, in a startling juxtaposition favoured by film-makers (again underlined by the soundtrack), the bemused villagers are assembled by the visiting town Cultural Unit to gawp at an utterly alien documentary on the blessings of progress.

By contrast, Everyday life in a Syrian village remains banned in Syria—here it is:

Amiralay’s third film The chickens (1978), also beautifully filmed (watch here), is a critique of the declining livelihoods of farmers and artisans in the Orthodox village of Sadad to the west—and is also banned in Syria. Having played a leading role in the Damascus Spring of 2000, he revisited the Euphrates region in 2003 to make A flood in Ba’ath country (working title Fifteen reasons why I hate the Ba’ath Party).

Besides R. Shaleah Taleghani’s chapter “Docu-ironies and visions of dissent in the films of Omar Amiralay” in a collection that she edited with Alexa Firat, Generations of dissent: intellectuals, cultural production, and the state in the Middle East and North Africa (2020), all this makes me keen to read studies such as Sulyman Khalaf, Social change in Syria: family, village, and political party (PhD, 1981, published 2021; foreword), and the work of scholars who pay tribute to the book here.

Further up the Euphrates to the northwest lies Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017; for tribal manoeuvring in Deir ez-Zor since 2011 under Assad and IS regimes, see this report. The recent devastation of Aleppo is shown in the outstanding documentary For Sama. See also the early Turkish feature films Law of the border and Dry summer.

With thanks as always to Kadir.

Buses—red, green, yellow

red and green
The bus on the left isn’t ripe yet.
Images here courtesy of Augusta, now a diligent chronicler of the 94 route…

The 94 bus has already made several cameo appearances on this blog (e.g. here, and here).

Stein
“Typical! You wait for days and then two come along at once!”
Sir Aurel Stein’s travels on the Silk Road, 1914. Source.

As the fleet plies its trade between East and West, like a medieval caravan along the Silk Road weaving its way through the bustling markets of oases like the fabled Bush of Shepherds [That’s enough now—Ed.], I now notice the appearance of several green buses.

While red buses have long represented a stereotypical image of London, green only penetrated central London quite recently. At first it was intended to blend in with the leafy prospects of the suburbs (see splendidly nerdy sites such as Friends of classic London buses of the Fifties, and this; for the changing shades of “Lincoln green”, and even “Chiswick green”, see notes 2–4 here).

green bus
Note: this blog cannot take responsibility for the fidelity of colour rendition in these images.
Or for anything, ever. Source.

And now yellow too! Admittedly, such a radical innovation is spurred by the mundane rules of commerce, rather than the pure aesthetic inspirations of yesteryear. But surely this is just the kind of diversity that Brexit was supposed to eliminate… At least they’re bendy bananas. Of course, among the innumerable political deceptions of recent times, the red bus has also been used, infamously, to parade a fairytale promised land for the NHS. Going well, is it, then?

See also Thankyou Driver!.

Early Turkish verismo

Some depictions of rural life in Turkish cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

Law of the border poster

In my post on the Zaza Kurds I mentioned Yilmaz Güney. One of his first movies in a substantial ouevre was

which he wrote, also taking the leading role of Hidir. It’s set around a village near Urfa in the Kurdish region on the border of Turkey and Syria, “where lack of education, joblessness and general hopelessness have left the population little choice but to become outlaws in order to survive”.

The forces that push Hidir and his fellow villagers to smuggle and a telling of the plight of the poor and alienated group of people struggling to survive the only way they ever knew, from father to son.

Law of the border

It’s a constant contention between risk and reward —for the smugglers, the herders and the landowners—and the conjoined result is a provincial portrait of constricted desperation on all sides.

Amidst a violent patriarchal society, the film hints at the importance of education, as the teacher Ayşe (the film’s only female character) attempts to persuade Hidir to allow his son Yusuf to attend school.

Yet in the end reality crashes in while duty, survival, and emotions take over nobility, and people revert to what they know, be it teacher, commander, smuggler, or profiteer.

The only copy that survived the 1980 Turkish coup was rescued and restored in 2011 by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. It’s been described as “a Turkish Western”. Here it is:

* * *

  • Susuz yaz (Dry summer) (Metin Erksan, 1964; reviewed e.g. here) had already enjoyed huge international success, although it was banned in Turkey for fear of broadcasting negative images of society.

Dry summer poster

Showing power struggles over access to water in a poor village, as peasants resist the brutish agha Osman’s determination to deprive them of the “blood of the earth”. Jealous of his brother Hasan’s relationship with his young bride Bahar, Osman contrives to have him sent to prison for a crime that he himself committed, leaving him free to molest Bahar. In scenes of rare sexual voyeurism, the story exposes the subordination of women (for Erksan’s feminism, see here). It was filmed in Urla district of Izmir on the Aegean coast—and at a time when Turkish film used the standard language, most of the actors speak in Aegean accents. * The soundtrack effectively uses both traditional bağlama and remarkably avant-garde styles.

Watch here.

Dry summer

For a review of these two films, click here

* * *

Over a decade earlier, in 1952 Metin Erksan had made the biopic

about the renowned blind Alevi bard Aşik Veysel (see here; cf. Kurdish bards, and blind bards of Ukraine and China; see also here).

Asik film poster

Shot in Aşik Veysel’s native village in Sivas, again the film was censored for depicting the harshness of rural life.

Asik Veysel still

Sorry, no subtitles, and with some breaks in sound:

With the Turkish film scene already dominated by urbane commercialism, such films controversially depicted rural deprivation and conflict. Cf. Omar Amiralay’s 1974 documentary Everyday life in a Syrian village.


Hulya* Dry Summer was the debut role of Hülya Koçyiğit (b.1947)—click here for her experience of making the film. I note with typical superfluity that she was brought up in Kuzguncuk—as she recalls in this interview for the Turkish Agricultural and Forestry Magazine, that indispensable cultural organ (cf. The Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide).

The Pontic lyra

Pontos 1950sMatzouka, Trebzon, 1950s (source).

After the Cretan lyra (and its cousin on Karpathos!), as well as various types of kemence bowed lute (some of which feature in my post on Indian and world fiddles), the music of the Pontic lyra is also most beguiling.

Pontus mapSource.

Along with the Greek populations along the Aegean coast, centred on the port of Smyrna, the Greeks of the Black Sea also had thriving traditions, which suffered just as grievously from the devastating conflicts that led to the population expulsions of 1923. [1]

Trebizond 2
From Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger.

Instruments make a partial entry-point into regional cultures. For the wider musical setting, as ever, the Pontic lyra accompanies the singing and dancing of social musicking (parakathi or muhabeti), [1] with additive metres prominent. So far I’ve had more luck finding audio recordings than video footage in folk context (although the tributes below from the Union of Pontic Youth of Attica have some fine images, both still and moving). From east to west, the sub-regions of the Pontos also show distinct musical cultures.

Domna Samiou has many sound examples from the region. And this compilation of Pontic music (courtesy of Özhan Öztürk) claims to predate the population expulsions (more information welcome):

This recording of the music of emigrants from the Bafra district of Samsun was made soon after the expulsions:

And this playlist of traditional songs and dances of Bafra was issued in 2001 by Radio Trapezounta Boston, whose YouTube channel has a wealth of material:

Most of the musicians featured below were relocated to Greece and the diaspora, or were born there.

The Union of Pontic Youth of Attica has uploaded tributes to some of the great masters of yesteryear—including Giorgos Petrides (1917–1984) and Chrysanthos Theodoridis (1905–2001):

Giorgos Kougioumtzidis (1935–2007) and Christoforos Christoforidis (1905–2001):

Yiannis Tsortanidis (1900–1983) and Sevastidis Pantelis (1922–89):

Stathis Beniamidis (1920–95) and Apostolos Athanasiadis (1907–76):

Nikos Papavramidis (1907–95) and Christos Bairaktaris (1905–81):

Domna Samiou’s page on Papavramidis leads to the album Chants des Akrites. He features on a couple of tracks on Epic songs of warriors and heroes, including

and

He is also heard here:

Ilias Kementzides (1926-2006) was born in Kazakhstan after his parents were expelled from Samsun; in 1940 he moved to Greece, and in 1974 to the USA. Here’s a short film, with clips of him playing for the Pontic Society in Queens, New York:

Ilias Yfantidis (b.1976) was born in Athens. There are further links on Samiou’s page for him, including

Tsakalidis Kostikas (1933–82) was born in Drama, northeast Greece (see e.g. Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.75–82), where his parents had been relocated from Trebizond. Among tracks from this playlist is:

Activity doubtless continues in the Black Sea homeland (where the lyra became known—to Turks—as kemence), even if it has been much attenuated. The image from the 1950s at the head of this post is attractive, but would need further documentation before we could assess its relevance: does it show performers of the Pontic Greek style?

I’d like to find audio-video material (perhaps it requires a more informed search), but in the majority Turkish culture, Pontic Greek traditions there were doubtless under a cloud until the belated thawing of Greek–Turkish relations. Even then, in 2002 the Trabzon folklorist Ömer Asan was charged with “propagating separatism” for his book Pontos Kültürü (cf. the Armenian trials soon after). More recently, the work of anthropologist Nikos Mahailidis (Soundscapes of Trabzon: music, memory, and power in Turkey, 2016) will offer clues:

In Turkey, the enterprising Kalan Müzik has issued two archive CDs of Pontic refugees Pontus Şarkilari, featuring Yannis Haralambidis and Athina Korsavidou (here as playlists):

Lastly, an evocative clip of the Pontic bagpipe angeion (touloumi) at a parakathi gathering at the Association for Pontic Greeks in Cologne, 2012:

For a range of musicking from around Anatolia and beyond, see my roundup of posts on West/Central Asia—including Turkish köcek dancing from the Black Sea, and the Turkish TV series The Club.


[1] See e.g. here, here, and here. Note also the endangered language of Romeyka:

[2] For a recent thesis, see Ioannis Tsekouras, “Nostalgia, emotionality, and ethno-regionalism in Pontic parakathi singing” (2017), citing much further reading. Earlier, Matthaios Tsahouridis— himself an experimental virtuoso on the Pontic lyra (YouTube topic)—wrote his thesis The Pontic lyra in contemporary Greece (2007).

In search of the sacred in modern India

Nine lives

Moving on from the early travels of William Dalrymple, I’ve been re-reading his splendid seventh book,

  • Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India (2009)
    (reviewed e.g. by Colin Thubron, and here).

By now Dalrymple had long been based in India. In the Introduction (click here for a variant) he traces the book’s origins back to the summer of 1993, when on a trek in the Himalayas he met an ash-smeared, naked itinerant sadhu of about his own age—who turned out to be a dropout from the world of commerce.

Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s.

So extraordinary was the pace of development that

It was easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. […]

Within twenty minutes of leaving the headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts, suits, denim, and baseball hats to dusty cotton dhotis and turbans. This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the spaces suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. […]

While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

So

I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the holy mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator; his [sic] adventures were the subject, the people he [sic] met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. With Nine lives I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.

Indeed, this has been a growing tendency in anthropology and ethnomusicology; see e.g. Helen Rees’s introduction to Lives in Chinese music (2009). This trend is reflected in my own work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists.

Besides all the scholarly research on living Indian religious traditions in change, a popular book like this is most valuable. Many of these topics have been covered by other authors, and Dalrymple provides a succinct reading list by chapter. This might have taken the form of a rather more detailed annotated section (as Barbara Demick does in Eat the Buddha, for instance); he might even have included some audio-visual documentation, as I attempt selectively below.

So Nine lives focuses on ascetics and ritual specialists (the latter chiming with my own work on China). And as in China, women play a major role. Dalrymple’s work is no simple paean to the Wisdom of the Mystic East; despite all the evocative descriptions, he is concerned to reflect the ravages of modern change.

A great many of the lives of the searchers and renouncers I talked to were marked by suffering, exile, and frequently, great pain; a large number turned out to be escaping personal, familial, or political tragedies. […]

Nor (I note) does religion always provide an escape; often it compounds exploitation. Dalrymple again:

I have made a conscious effort to try [and] avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters, and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about “Mystic India” that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.

Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight

the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic, and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

As he notes,

The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and there are many traditions which I have completely left out: there are, for example, no Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, or Jews in this book, though all have long histories in the soil of South Asia.

Nine lives map

The chapters follow a trusty formulaic sequence: some evocative scene-setting (often worthy of Stella Gibbons’ *** purple passages in Cold comfort farm); a vignette on his first meeting with the guru in question; some early history; “I will tell you my story”; and worries about the future.

* * *

The first chapter is The nun’s tale, in which Dalrymple meets the young Jain devotee Mataji on the pilgrimage to Sravanabegabola in Karnataka. Jainism, little known outside India (where it now has “only” four million followers), is rather more ancient than Buddhism, and more extreme in its asceticism.

Mataji had chosen the discipline gladly in her mid-teens. Despite the principle of non-attachment, she was still devastated by the loss of her constant companion, who completed the sallekhana fast to the death after contracting TB; and she herself has already embarked on the same path.

The dancer of Kannur introduces a theyyam troupe of ritual dancers and drummers in Kerala, with a typical opening Stella-esque*** paragraph:

In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.

Dalrymple’s subject is Hari Das, a dance medium possessed by Lord Vishnu. For nine months of the year he works as a manual labourer building wells, and at weekends as a jail warder—other members of the troupe work as waiters, bus conductors, and so on. The theyyam season lasts from December to February; it now provides a much better living than labouring, and than it did in previous generations. While work in the prison is dangerous, performing theyyam is physically exhausting—dancers have a very low life expectancy—and mentally demanding.

Dalrymple notes that while Kerala appears idyllic, it has always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical societies in India. The theyyam, performed by Dalit outcastes, and free from Brahmin control, is “a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life”.

After another typical transition (“We sat drinking chai on the veranda as the sun set, and he began to tell his story”), Hari Das describes how his father taught him the complex arts of thottam story-songs, mudra hand gestures, nadana steps, facial expressions, make-up, and headgear. He notes a certain recent increase in prestige for theyyam.

Here’s a YouTube playlist with 61 short clips:

Note also the research of Rolf Killius, also featured in my post on Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia.

The daughters of Yellamma tells the distressing story of the devadasi (for a version of this chapter in The New Yorker, click here). Dalrymple travels to Saundatti in north Karnataka to meet Rani, sketching the long history of the devadasi. Dedicated as children (by their family) to the goddess Yellama, they originally came from cultured families, serving as courtesans, dancers, and temple attendants; only in later centuries were they explicitly sexualized. From the 19th century, well-meaning Hindu reformers broke their links with the temples; in Karnataka further prohibitions were decreed in 1982, but only further demeaned and criminalised the practice, driving the devadasis underground; “several thousand girls, usually aged between six and nine years old, continue to be dedicated to the goddess annually.” As a government sign warns:

DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.

Today the women are low-caste Dalits directly involved in sex work. Their life expectancy is even lower than that of the theyyam dancers. Rani’s two daughters had died of AIDS, and she too is HIV-positive. Yet they still pride themselves on having a more exalted status than ordinary sex workers, being blessed by the goddess.

For Guardian coverage, see here and here. Here’s the BBC documentary Sex, death, and the gods (Beeban Kidron, 2010):

And two more films within a controversial representational field:

In The singer of epics Dalrymple returns north to Rajasthan with Mohan Bhopa, a hereditary bard and shaman. He had first encountered the genre twenty years earlier on a visit to Laxmi Chundawat in Jaipur, who had documented the epic in the 1970s; she even arranged for Mohan to perform for him. Introducing the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian epics, Dalrymple marvels at the “Rajasthani Homers” who still perform in another epic tradition.

He had already written about Mohan for The New Yorker in 2006, inviting him to perform at several urban festivals; but now he travels with him and his wife to their home environment.

The bhopa are performers of epics, of which the most popular is The Epic of Pabuji. It is not merely entertainment, but a religious ritual. As with “precious scrolls” in China, the epic is rarely performed complete today, which would five nights from dusk to dawn. Punctuated by bhajan hymns and Hindi film songs, it is performed before a phad, a long religious painting on cloth (see e.g. here, here, and here), which also serves as a portable temple. Victor Mair’s 1989 book Painting and performance introduced such traditions around China and south Asia, including the Tibetan lami mani with their thangka.

bhopa 1989

Parbū Bhopo of Mārwāṛ Junction and his wife Rukmā Devī performing the epic of Pābūjī for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbū is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the paṛ while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
Caption and photo: John D. Smith.

Again like the precious scrolls, the phad is treated with reverence; the bhopa themselves earn respect through their knowledge despite their low caste. Dalrymple learns that the motives of the rural audience “were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service”; the bhopa also protects children from djinns. Again, these are among the functions of rural Chinese bards.

The bhopa are illiterate—which stimulates their prodigious memory. They accompany their songs on dholak drum and ravanhatta (not a zither but a bowed lute)—a reminder of the rich instrumentarium of Indian folk cultures, another striking instance of which I showed in Gujurat.

The epic is performed by husband and wife in duet; Mohan was fortunate that his wife Batasi had become a fine singer too. But when Mohan died—all too soon after the visit to the rural home—their son (who had been unable to continue the vocation since his own wife turned out to be tone deaf) began performing the epic with his mother.

John D. Smith, working with the eminent Rajasthani folklorist Komal Kothari (for whose own work see e.g. here), wrote his PhD on the bhopa in the 1970s—you can find an updated edition of The epic of Pābūjī here, along with instructive images and audio/video examples.

When Smith returned to Rajasthan some twenty years later he found the art much impoverished by the drift to the cities and the popularity of cable TV and DVDs. FWIW, Dalrymple is not quite so gloomy about the future of the tradition.

The bhopa have been the subject of a succession of documentaries. Here’s Pabuji ki phad (Shammi Nanda, 2005):

See also e.g. here. The lost music of Rajasthan (BBC, 2011), a tour of various traditions., includes a brief scene with a bhopa from 25.45. Note also Daniel Neuman, Shubha Chaudhuri, with Komal Kothari, Bards, ballads and boundaries: an ethnographic atlas of music traditions in west Rajasthan (2007).

The red fairy takes us into Pakistan, to the Sufi shrines of rural Sindh, a centre of Hindu–Muslim syncretism. There Dalrymple visits Lal Peri, devotee of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif. He witnesses the ecstatic dhammal devotional dance, with its massed kettle drums.

Lal Peri was the sort of deeply eccentric ascetic that both the Eastern Christians and Sufis have traditionally celebrated as Holy Fools. She was an illiterate, simple, and trusting woman, who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere. It was also clear that she had lived an unusually traumatic life, which had left her emotionally raw. She was in fact a triple refugee: first as a Muslim driven out of India into East Pakistan after Hindu–Muslim riots in the late 1960s; then as a Bihari driven out of East Pakistan at the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in the shrines of Sindh while struggling to live the life of a Sufi in the male-dominated and increasingly Talibanized society of Pakistan. […]

The longer I explored Sehwan Sharif, the more it became clear that, more even than most other Sufi shrines, this was a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds. The shrine provided its often damaged and vulnerable devotees shelter and a refuge from the divisions and horrors of the world outside.

The Qalander dervishes

have chosen a life of wandering and calculated impropriety, seeking God on the road and in Sufi shrines through a regime of self-punishment and celibacy, while trying to generate a sense of religious ecstasy with the aid of music and dance and hallucinogens.

Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.

As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans were on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Reformation Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recuirted the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Several shrines had already been attacked. Dalrymple goes to meet the director of a new madrasa, who while cordial is severe in his views (“Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers. With education we hope they will change their ways.”). He regards it as his duty to destroy all the mazars and dargahs.

Lal Peri takes Dalrymple to meet her pir at his desert retreat, who believes in the resilience of the Sufi tradition against the jihad of the mullahs. But in 2017 a suicide bombing inside the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar killed 90 and wounded over 300.

This clip gives a flavour of the festival:

In The monk’s tale Dalrymple visits Dharamsala to consult an elderly Tibetan monk from Kham who had reluctantly taken up arms in resistance to the Chinese invasion. He recalls his early monastic training, and the arrival of the Chinese forces in 1950. As repression escalated, Kham was the heartland of the Tibetan struggle. He joined the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” resistance force (for links, see the work of Jamyang Norbu).

Though we acquired some old guns, we were outnumbered and knew nothing of fighting. All we knew was how to pray, not how to kill. As soon as we came across Chinese troops they put us to flight. It was a total fiasco.

After making his way to Lhasa to warn people of the imminent catastrophe, he describes the tension there that led to the escape to India of the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as escort and then as decoy while the Chinese went in pursuit.

After fleeing Tibet, from 1962 he spent many years in a secret CIA-trained Tibetan unit in the Indian army—but he finds himself fighting in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Always vexed at having abandoned the monastic precepts, not until 1986 could he retire to Dharamsala. In atonement for the violence he had committed as a soldier, he began to make printed prayer-flags, and in 1995 he renewed his monastic vows. In his old people’s home there, thirty of the 150 occupants had been engaged in a similar struggle against the Chinese.

Again, the exodus from Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and the resistance to Chinese occupation, are much-studied topics (see my roundup of posts on Tibet), with many biographical accounts. As a suitable illustration on film, do click here to watch the footage of the Dalai Lama’s “graduation” rituals in 1958–59!

In The maker of idols we return to the south, to Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu. Dalrymple meets Srikanda, a ritual artisan who comes from a long line of hereditary casters of bronze images for temple worship, dating back to the Chola empire.

There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors, but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the same manner as laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.

Dalrymple reflects:

It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: by the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open [cf. “opening to the light” in China]; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.

He attends a temple festival when the god statue is paraded on a chariot. He waxes lyrical about the sensual bronze statues of the Chola dynasty, and admires the complex discipline of Srikanda with his team in his workshop, where ritual also plays a role. He meets a singer of thevaram devotional songs before the gods. Typically, after the lineage’s 700 years of transmission, Srikanda’s son wants to become a computer engineer.

For ritual artisans in China, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing, Ritual paintings of Li Peisen, and the makers of masks for Nuo ritual drama.

The Lady Twilight takes us to a cremation ground in Bengal—dwelling place of Tantric sadhus, devotees of the goddess Tara, who celebrate the power of skulls and fresh blood.

Again, Dalrymple’s guide Manisha hints at a painful past: she was beaten by her husband, rejected by her mother-in-law, and had lost her home and her three daughters. For her Tara was a saviour, not a fearsome ogre. Although the ruling Communist Party in Bengal sometimes sent out Anti-Superstition Committees to persuade people to embrace more mainstream forms of Hinduism, for the inhabitants of the cremation ground is a place of illumination, despite its ghoulish reputation. And Dalrymple finds an

oddly villagey and almost cosy feel. There is a palpable sense of community. Among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom.

Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—

an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantra cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houllebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism”.

But as with the Sufis, behind modern Tantrism lies “the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos”.

Manisha confides,

I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them […].

But now my attention is more directed on Ma Tara herself, and increasingly I believe that the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love.

Meanwhile Manisha’s partner Tapan Sadhu, himself deeply committed to the life of renunciation, punctuates their conversation with updates from the radio on the latest Test score:

“England are 270 for four!”, he shouted excitedly.

Still in Bengal, The song of the blind minstrel introduces the bauls, itinerant minstrels who practice their own form of renunciation.

Dalrymple attends a major festival at Kenduli where several thousand bauls gather each year. He talks with the blindman Kanai, who finds the lifestyle one of great freedom. His companion Debdas explains:

“He taught me everything, how to reject the outer garb of religion and to dive deep into the ocean of the heart.”

The ecstatic singing of the bauls is another popular topic, appearing early on the world music scene (see e.g. the introduction in The Rough Guide to world music, under “Bangladesh”). Here’s a short film:

Deben Bhattacharya was very much on the case of the bauls. His CD Bauls of Bengal: mystic songs from India was issued in 2001—here it is as a playlist:

Charles Capwell’s 1973 LP Indian street music: the Bauls of Bengal (again, playlist):

A track from the more reflective CD Shahjahan Miah: chants mystiques bâuls du Bangladesh (Inedit, 1992):

And Radha Bhava, from the female singer Parvathy Baul (as playlist):

* * *

The fluency with which Dalrymple’s characters appear to tell their life stories is presumably an authorial device, a concession to the demands of the genre. No-one has ever given me such a fluent account—many peasants just shrug and say “I ain’t never done nothing much… um, I’ve just tilled the fields and gone out to do ritual, like”, and my many biographical sketches have been pieced together over several years, as my mentors open up and I gradually think of more promising angles. And Dalrymple’s subjects seem to have a remarkable ability to explain things in a fashion that neatly resembles our own conceptualisations.

In some chapters he notes how his visits punctuate invitations at his behest to appear at urban festivals; yet despite his worthy cause of highlighting their own lives, more scholarly (and perhaps less readable) accounts flag the gulf between the status of fieldworkers and that of their subjects, and the complications that such relations involve. In this short clip Dalrymple introduces some of the ritual performers on stage:

Such urban performances are a compromise in a worthy cause, part of the continuum of festivals. I too have found it most instructive to take the Li family Daoists on tour in Europe (see e.g. here; cf. the Hua family shawm band at the 2002 Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road).

Anyway, Dalrymple does well to remind us of the riches of folk cultures by following the performers back to their local environments. Full of vividly-told stories, Nine lives makes an admirable book, extending the audience for Indian religious traditions way beyond the arcane realms of ethnography.

Cf. my extensive series on the very different spiritual milieu of north Indian raga, and under the Indian tag in the sidebar.

From the holy mountain


The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.

Travel writing takes many forms, from Evliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.

William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southern Peloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including

Xanadu

His first book

soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.

In his own words,

In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.

His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.

He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.

At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.

The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem

the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.

But as he notes,

This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.

Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes

the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.

In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.

They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:

“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.

“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”

Gok medresse

In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.

Laura chador

As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:

The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.

They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.

Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.

They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.

Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.

There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.

Uyghur kids KeriyaUyghur children, Keriya.

In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.

Sabine KashgarWedding band, Kashgar 1988,
from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.

Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.

By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.

I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.

After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.

Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.

WD and Lou
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.

* * *

While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.

Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,

It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.

Holy mountain map

Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.

In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.

Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow

could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Moreover,

In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.

Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:

It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.

And the following chapter opens:

Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.

He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:

My cell is bare and austere. **

Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.

But his quest is only just beginning.

As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.

He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that

visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]

It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]

They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.

Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where

Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.

In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.

Holy mountain 2
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.

Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.

Holy mountain 1

In search of clues to living Nestorianism, he is told:

“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”

Ealing?”

“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”

Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.

After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:

The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.

Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.

Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.

Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.

En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:

Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]

It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.

In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.

Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.

As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them

the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.

Holy mountain 3
The monastery of Mar Saba.

Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).

Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:

What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.

And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.

His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.

He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.

In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.

In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.

Indeed, Plato had already lamented the discovery of writing!

Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:

Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]

There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…

I’d love to find videos of such rituals.

After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:

In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.

* * *

Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive. 

FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.

* * *

Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.

His pacifist credo is clear from the documentary Sufi soul: the mystic music of Islam that he presented for Channel 4 in 2005, directed by Simon Broughton (cf. the 2-CD set The Rough Guide to Sufi music). Filmed in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco, the programme offers a broad survey of Sufi musical traditions:

The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…


* Later, Frances Wood‘s doubts that Marco Polo even reached China have not been well received.

** Perhaps someone can give me a more accurate version of the spoof on the classic opening for a crime novel that goes something like this:

Dead.

That’s what the portly middle-aged man lying in a crumpled heap with blood seeping over the bare warehouse floor from a gaping wound in his skull was.

Querying the notion of gender equality in Alevism

17+

Among the women commenting astutely in the recent online discussion on Freedom of Belief and Gender in Turkey was Ceren Ataş, who is part of a group called 17♀ Alevi women (Twitter: @17AleviKadinlar; Facebook, etc.).

Ceren Atas

At a considerable remove from the patriarchy of mainstream Islam, gender equality is a beacon of Alevism (cf. here and here)—so it’s worth listening to Alevi women challenging the truth of the notion, as Ceren Ataş did in her presentation (from 37.15), and succinctly here (following an interview with Gülfer Akkaya) on a useful forum (see also e.g. here).

Gendered identitiesA more detailed discussion is

  • Fazilet Ahu Öhmen, “Alevi women and patriarchy”, in
    Rasim Özgur Dönmez and Fazilet Ahu Öhmen (eds),
    Gendered identities: criticizing patriarchy in Turkey (2013).

As to theology, Alevis don’t subscribe to the genesis myth: all (both women and men) share one ungendered can “life, soul”. Still, the debate hinges on social experience. Alevi women may indeed enjoy rather greater latitude in lifestyle than their mainstream Sunni counterparts; and in cem ritual practice, both women and men take part actively—sitting, praying, and dancing together.

Alevi cem 17

Sema dance at cem ritual, Istanbul 2021.

However, even if flanked by a respected “Mother/Sister” wife, the (male) dede elder remains dominant. He is the mentor of the community, presiding over the cem and taking responsibility for social and economic decisions. The portraits of the Twelve (male) Imams gaze down sternly over the proceedings. Many Alevi women, discouraged from working outside the home (even in the big cities, where their earning power is important for the family), are still disadvantaged—partly as a consequence of seeking not to alienate the Sunni majority by appearing too different. Of course it’s hard to generalise, either about urban and rural Alevi women, or about women’s roles in Turkey more broadly. But the theory of equality deserves to be checked against social reality.

Kaliarda, Lubunca, Polari

Fleeting flirtFrom the journal Πεταχτό Κόρτε (Fleeting Flirt), “one of the risqué magazines of the time, with half-naked women drawn on the front cover, cartoons with innuendo-laced captions showing ladies in negligées, poems and witticisms full of double entendres”. Source.

Further to the French Verlan, and the secret language of blind musicians in China, the work of Elias Petropoulos (see under Rebetika) led me to Kaliarda, the cant of underworld homosexuals in Athens. Nick Nicholas has written a whole series of twenty-four erudite articles online, starting here.

The speakers of Kaliarda were a cohesive social group, who associated with each other, had their own tavernas and beats, were persecuted by the police, and were socially marginalised. They were gay, they were bottoms (and spoke in derogatory terms about tops), and they referred to themselves with feminine terms. Some of them were prostitutes, and some of them we would now refer to as trans women. 

Kocek miniature
Köçek troupe at a fair” at Sultan Ahmed’s 1720 celebration of his son’s circumcision.
Source: wiki.

Here’s a short documentary:

In Turkey a similar cant called Lubunca [1] was also used by sex workers and the gay “community” (as one says These Days); indeed, in the late Ottoman era it was spoken by the cross-dressing male köcek dancers. Based on Romani, it contains elements of Greek, Arabic, Armenian, and French.

* * *

This leads us closer to (my) home with Polari, a British cant that has declined since the 1960s. Paul Baker has written two books on the topic. [2] Mixing Romance, Romani, and London slang, It was used by “some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and the gay subculture”; it’s said to have been used by Punch and Judy street puppet performers. Later Polari incorporated some Yiddish and 1960s’ drug slang.

Some vocabulary:

  • bona good (in Shakespeare! Unlike Philomena Cunk’s putative neologisms)
  • ajax nearby
  • eek face
  • cod tacky
  • lattie room (to let)
  • nanti not, no
  • omi man
  • palone woman (from Italian paglione, “straw mattress”)
  • riah hair
  • rozzer cop (natural adversaries of the subculture, aka “Betty bracelets”, “lily law”, “hilda handcuffs”, “orderly daughters”). 
  • TBH “to be had”, sexually accessible
  • zhoosht smarten up
  • vada see.

I like arva, “to screw”, from Italian chiavare (cf. Burlesque-only’s immortal characterisation of Angela Merkel).

As in other secret languages such as that of blind musicians in China, numbers are interesting:

PolariSource: wiki.

Among words that have entered the mainstream lexicon are

  • acdc
  • barney
  • bevvy
  • bijou
  • blag
  • butch
  • camp
  • cottaging
  • hoofer
  • khazi
  • mince
  • ogle
  • scarper
  • slap [makeup]
  • strides
  • tod
  • [rough] trade.

Julian and Sandy

Polari minced into the wider public consciousness in the 1960s with Julian and Sandy on BBC Radio 4’s comedy series Round the Horne. I had little idea what it all meant, but that was kinda the point. There’s a clip on this page from Polari magazine.

As Paul Baker observes, after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, and as the gay liberation movement gained ground, the need for a secret language passed. While it was now associated with stereotypes often considered, well, naff, the camp image has maintained a certain frisson.

Here’s another bijou documentary:


[1] On Lubunca, the brief wiki article is augmented here; see also e.g.
https://hellenisteukontos.opoudjis.net/kaliarda-xiii-the-turkish-gay-cant/
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lubunca-lgbtq-language-slang-turkey
https://attitude.co.uk/article/the-secret-language-used-by-lgbtq-people-in-turkey-1/23524/
https://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/119989-sanatcilardan-ayrimciliga-nakka
https://web.archive.org/web/20210722160725/http://glm.uni-graz.at/etc/publications/GRP-Kyuchukov-Bakker-1999.pdf
https://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2013/12/istanbul-slang.html
https://theworld.org/stories/2015-01-14/world-full-secret-languages-one-used-turkeys-lgbt-community
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/17/turkish-languagesexworkers.html

[2] On Polari, some other sites include
https://web.archive.org/web/20190907173251/http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/polari.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2000/dec/10/life1.lifemagazine3
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jan/17/gayrights.comment
https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-polari-the-curious-after-life-of-the-dead-language-for-gay-men-72599
and The Polari Bible.

Folk traditions of Greece: Domna Samiou

 

Samiou sings

Zooming out from rebetika, Greek traditional music is a varied repository of regional cultures. [1]

Foremost among collectors was Domna Samiou (1928–2012) (website; wiki). On her fine site, note the biography and her own memoirs

Her parents were part of the vast wave of Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the population exchanges of 1922–23. Living in a shanty town on the edge of Athens, without water or electricity, she grew up in poverty. But at the age of 13, while attending night school, her life was transformed when she was trained by the musicologist and song collector Simon Karas (1905–99) (website, with some projects; wiki)—whose largely prescriptive work set forth from the study of Byzantine modes.

Samiou 1960s

Having endured German occupation and civil war, Samiou began working for the state-run radio station in 1954. Mass migration made Athens a convenient base to collect songs from all over mainland Greece and its islands. By 1963 she was travelling widely on recording trips. In 1971, with Greece still under the junta, she left the radio and started singing in public, opening the ears of younger generations to folk music. Inevitably, covering such a wide area, her forays sometimes remind me of the “gazing at flowers from horseback” style of lesser Chinese fieldworkers, with specially staged performances—but given her own background as a folk singer, the comparison would be quite unfair. Her surveys suggest the rich regional cultures of song, dance, and instrumental music—Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Asia Minor and Pontos, as well as the islands (Crete, Karpathos, Skyros, Skiathos, Lesbos, and so on).

From her 1966–67 TV series A musical travelogue with Domna Samiou (twenty episodes, usefully introduced here), here’s the programme on musicking in Evros, Thrace:

and on the music of refugees from Cappadoccia relocated to Plati (Macedonia) (1977):

This playlist includes some later videos:

Recording the mandilatos dance tune (2+2+3 beats—Taco taco burrito!):

Pontic Karsilimas from Marmara (Halkidiki), 1982:

Lazarines in west Macedonia, 1996:

We can explore a wealth of audio playlists here. Among Samiou’s albums of field recordings are

  • and, particularly dear to her heart, Songs of Asia Minor (playlist):

(don’t miss #18, a wonderful free-tempo violin solo by Stathis Koukoularis!)

In her documentary on the music of Asia Minor, Samiou herself sings a song she learned from her mother, a refugee from rural Smyrna; she is accompanied by violin, kanun zither, and goblet drum:

As society continued to change, Domna Samiou’s work laid an important basis for later, more detailed ethnographies of regional traditions.

See also Musics of Crete, The Pontic lyra, and cf. Italy: folk musicking.


[1] Apart from the material in this post, see e.g. this site; other starting points include wiki; The Rough Guide to world music and SonglinesThe New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, The Garland encyclopedia of world music, and so on.

Note also the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum, full of wonderful early 78s of rebetika, amanes, folk and ecclesiastical music, and more.

Kounadis

 

Road to rebetika

Rebetes 1933

Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus, 1933. Source: wiki.

Having been beguiled by the popular songs of old Istanbul, I thought I’d explore rebetika in Greece—which is again a focus for nostalgia.

The dispersal of the genre around the Aegean seaboard was further prompted by the displacement of the Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor (notably Smyrna) to Athens, Thessaloniki, and the USA. *

I’ve been re-reading the evocative introduction

  • Gail Holst, The road to rembetika: music from a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish (1975, many reprints).

When Holst first came to Athens in 1966, she was struck by the demeanour of the men dancing, often alone, to juke-box recordings in tavernas:

Not exuberant, not being done for the joy of movement, not even sensual […] the dancer would rise, as if compelled to make his statement. Eyes half-closed, in trance-like absorption, cigarette hanging from his lips, arms outstretched as if to keep his balance, he would begin to slowly circle. As the dance progressed, the movements would become more complex; there would be sudden feats of agility, swoops to the ground, leaps and twists, but the dancer always seemed to be feeling his way, searching for something, unsteady on his feet. The dance took place in public, people were watching it, and yet it appeared to a be a private, introspective experience for the dancer. […] It was as if the dance served as a sort of catharsis for the dancer.

Holst was inspired by reading Elias Petropoulos’s book Rembetika tragoudia (cf. Songs of the Greek underworld; note the documentary An underground world (see also Landscapes of music in Istanbul, and Kaliarda).

While Istanbul was a teeming metropolis, the population of Athens only began to swell with the influx of migrants after the expulsion of Greeks from the Anatolian seaboard from 1922. This added the Smyrna style to the mix, but it would soon be diluted.

The rebetika scene thrived in the port of Piraeus. Its subaltern image was dominated by manges “spivs”, fuelled by hash and cocaine—part of a common theme in the urban underworlds of flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and tango. There was a nexus between the songs of the hashish dens and the prisons, the connection “being very effectively kept alive by the fact of the habitués of the former frequently becoming inmates of the latter”, as Rod Conway Morris observes.

As always, we find rapid social and musical change. Holst gives vignettes of 1920s’ Piraeus, with characters like Crazy Nick, Marino the Moustache, and Papazaglou the Cucumber. Women singers were common in Istanbul, and they became popular in Athens too, such as Marika Politissa, Rita Abadzi, Rosa Eskenazi, and Marika Papagika (listen under Songs of Asia Minor!). An influential male group was the “Pyraeus Four” (Syros, Márkos, Artemis, Batis, Stratos).

While rebetika was both censored by the Metaxas dictatorship and deplored by the Communists, a more general change was under way as it was eclipsed by new genres of popular commercial music. The change in style was expressed in going “to the bouzoukis”—which Holst found kitsch even in the 1960s. But as the nostalgia industry (cf. Kuzguncuk) became popular, old-style rebetika suited the anti-authoritarian mood of the 70s, and even if it was hard to hear live, recordings began to be reissued. As Holst observed,

What seemed to me like a faddish revival of early rembetika in the late 1970s has become an established phenomenon of the 80s.

She compares its trajectory to that of the blues, “similarly modified to suit the tastes of a broader audience and later revived in an artificially puristic style”; both “have been allowed to degenerate and die, and have subsequently been dug up by the youth of the next generation and lovingly enshrined”.

Music
As rebetika evolved in Greece, the system of dromos “roads” or paths, related to the Middle Eastern maqam, went into decline, as did the premium on improvisation. The exquisite free-tempo preludes taxim/taksim (cf. Indian alap) of the oriental style were abbreviated or omitted in recordings. Among many wonderful amanedhes (listen under Songs of Asia Minor; see also Gail Holst-Warhaft, “Amanes: The legacy of the Oriental Mother”), here’s Roza Eskenazi:

As to dance, the popular 9/8 zeibekiko (a solo male dance, like the one that so impressed Holst) was another import from Asia Minor.

Holst is keen on the singing of Sotiria Bellou (1921–97)—see e.g. her chapter (as Gail Holst-Warhaft) in Music and gender, “The female dervish and other shady ladies of the rebetika”. Here’s a 1959 recording of Bellou singing San pethano sto karavi (“If I die on the boat”), with an all-too brief opening taxim:

Ah, if I die, what will they say? Some fellow died,
A fellow who loved life and enjoyed himself. Aman! Aman!

Ah, if I die on the boat, throw me into the sea,
So that the black fish and the salt water can eat me. Aman! Aman!

Cloudy Sunday was composed in 1943 by Vassilis Tsitsanis during the occupation, and recorded in 1948:

Here’s the reissue Rebetika 1918 to 1954 (playlist):

Call Me Old-Fashioned (yet again), but I’m still drawn to the more introspective songs, such as Gazeli neva sabah (“The hour of death”, #5), with Rita Abadzi:

and Tıs ksenityas o ponos (“The pain of being abroad”, #8), sung by Antonis Dalgas, is reminiscent of the oriental, free-tempo style of early amanedhes:

By way of contrast, here’s Bouzouki favourites: smyrneika and rebetika (86 tracks):

I still can’t overcome the image of the bouzouki in the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch.

Supplementing my little list of reissues in Songs of Asia Minor, there’s a wealth of CDs, such as

  • Rembetica: historic urban folk songs from Greece (Rounder, 1992)
  • Lost homelands: the Smyrniac song in Greece, 1928–1935 (Heritage, 1995)
  • Mourmoúrika: songs of the Greek underworld 1930-1955 (Rounder, 1999)
  • Women of rembetica (Rounder, 2000)
  • Rembetika songs of the Greek underground 1925–1947 (Trikont, 2001)
  • Mortika: rare vintage recordings from a Greek underworld (Arko, 2005).

Note also the early 78s on the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum site.

There are many documentaries, such as this seven-part series:

And the feature film Rembetiko (Kostas Ferris, 1983) is a classic:

Of course, while rebetika waxed and waned, there’s far more to Greek traditional music—ciick here!


* A 1981 essay by Rod Conway Morris is useful, with leads to performers and recordings. Note the site greeksongstories.com. The wiki entry is extensive too; see also The Rough Guide to world music. The wider context is described in chapters 5 and 6 of Peter Manuel, Popular musics of the non-Western world (1988), and by Paul Vernon (e.g. here); see also The Rough Guide to world music (under both Greece and Turkey), and Songlines.

Kurdish culture: Zaza and Hawrami

Pir Saliyar 1

To follow Some Kurdish bards, and complementing Dervishes of Kurdistan, the Zaza constitute a substantial minority among the diverse regional groups of the Kurdish people.

Such material as I have seen [1] refers to groups in east Anatolia (within the borders of modern Turkey), home to a substantial population of Zazas who trace their origins to what is now north Iran. While most are Sunni Muslims, many are Alevi. Their modern history, like that of the Kurds generally, has been turbulent, with several bloody rebellions against the Turkish Republic, notably in Dersim (1937–38).

Zaza Alevi

The Zazaki language is considered in danger of extinction. This short film includes footage of an Alevi cem ritual (from 7.18):

Hawrami ritual: the Pir Şaliyar festival
To the southeast, way beyond Anatolia, the Hawraman (Avroman) region is also distinctive.

The large village of Hawraman Takht, in the foothills of the Zagros mountains near the western border of Iran (whose economy is boosted by smuggling), has attracted considerable attention for its grand annual festival commemorating the wedding of the ancient hermit saint-healer Pir Şaliyar, with the singing and dancing of dervishes accompanied by daf frame-drums. [2] Here’s a short film: [3]

It’s such a scenic village that I can’t help wondering how representative the festival is of ritual practice in the region, how it has changed in recent years under the influence of tourism (itself a valid subject of research, though I suspect this is the kind of event that many an anthropologist might avoid), and the routine practices of the dervishes once the visitors are gone.

Pir Saliyar 2

In the same region, I’m keen to learn more about siyaw chemane singing.


[1] See e.g. Mehmed S. Kaya, The Zaza Kurds of Turkey (2011); Paul White, here; abstracts from a conference on the Zaza in Anatolia—with many papers devoted to Alevism, and one on the actor and film director Yılmaz Güney (1937–84), among several Zaza Kurds with a high public profile; and even wiki (here and here). I note en passant that Zaza means “stammerer”.

[2] While I have yet to see more in-depth studies, brief media articles include
https://surfiran.com/pir-shalyar-kurdistan-iran/

https://caspianpost.com/en/post/culture/pir-shalyar-a-remarkable-festival-in-the-glorious-village-of-howraman-takht

https://www.tasteiran.net/stories/10068/pir-shalyar-ceremony

[3] This introduction is longer but far from ethnographic:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XB7T_FYuwqU&t=1842s

Some other brief clips:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9geEorXli6g

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3F6ZSjGx18

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otmilDUdxug

 

Dancing on the grave

Barley grave cover

  • Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave: encounters with death (1995).

The innocent anthropologist is cited so often in my posts on fieldwork that I’ve awarded Barley his own tag in the sidebar.

Since much of my work in China consists in documenting funerals, it makes sense for me to seek perspectives from around the world. While bearing in mind the more abstruse ritual theories so lucidly introduced by Catherine Bell, Nigel Barley is always immensely readable. With typical humour, he surveys the variety of ways of viewing death and dealing with it, which are such an idée fixe of anthropology. Citing the major players such as Malinowski, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Bloch, he refers to a range of field reports.

Like detective fiction, it is not surprising “that Western anthropologists have sought, in funerary practice, the sense of an ending that would solve and interpret all the vicissitudes of life”.

Yet interest in “belief” may simply be a largely Western obsession. In China great concern with a common ritual response has gone quite happily with an overwhelming disregard for similarity of belief: it does not matter very much what you think you are doing as long as you do it like everyone else. It is left to a small number of foreign and local experts to worry about ideas.

On this most unpromising basis, different peoples have raised up complex and tortuous rites that are elaborated into true works of art.

(Cf. Geertz, and A flawed funeral.)

Indeed, Barley countenances the view that the fieldworker’s presence at funerals may be

a marker of the predatory nature of all research or the role of the anthropologist as undertaker and embalmer of moribund cultures.

(cf. my note on “re-hearsal”!).

He considers the public expression of grief. The performance of wailing (not only in cultures like China but in early modern rural Europe) seems to be largely a matter of etiquette. Other behaviours are diverse too: the firing of guns and beating of drums, or the widow “showing her appreciation of the mourner’s sympathy by brave but tight-lipped hand-grasping through a soggy hankie”. And “around the world, grief is as likely to find expression in verbal artifice and poetic fireworks as mere noise or stillness of sound or motion”.

By contrast with our own funerals, where “a blanket of straight-laced formality covers all”, in many cultures merriment and jokers are common. As the Nyakyusa of Malawi told Monica Wilson:

We talk and dance to comfort the relatives. If we others sat sad and glum then the grief of the relatives would exceed ours. If we just sorrowed what depths of griefs would they not reach? And so we sit and talk and laugh and dance until the relatives laugh too.

But Barley also unpacks the double-edged nature of joking at funerals, “walking a line between aggression and solace”.

In the writings of anthropologists on the sociality of African death, the triumph of the group over the individual is an endlessly reiterated theme that amounts to little more than an urging of the sick to “lie back and think of Africa”.

He considers the Mexican Day of the Dead, at odds with the Catholic church’s urging of “respect” and sobriety—not unlike the English wakes that were finally driven underground by the Puritan dictatorship. And he notes the “joke slot” in modern British rituals, which for our mortuary practices may occur in the disposal of the ashes. Perhaps Always look on the bright side of life hadn’t quite caught on; now it seems to have replaced Abide with me in popularity.

Barley intersperses his forays into diverse cultures both with reflections on his own English upbringing and with notes from his fieldwork in Cameroon—such as the classic story in The innocent anthropologist:

“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”

In another bold attempt to elicit origin myths among the Dowayo, Barley talks with the local schoolteacher. The conversation turns to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel:

“And Europeans?” I asked. “White men like myself. Where did they come from?”

He appraised me coolly. “I have studied the Bible in great depth, monsieur. As far as I recall, there are no white men in it.”

In English it’s common to avoid the word “died” by euphemism and a proliferation of terms; not just “passed away” (to which I’m allergic) or “gone to meet his maker”, but “take an early bath” and “hear the final whistle”, not to mention the rich lexicon of the Parrot sketch. The Layli of Bolivia say that a dead person “has gone to cultivate chilli pepper”.

Barley pics

Barley notes change, including the way that Chinese paper artefacts for burning keep pace with the latest consumer luxuries. Discussing the goods buried with the dead, he finds that such practices

do not necessarily translate easily into beliefs about the material needs of the dead or any surviving spirit. In a move that would drive anthropologists to distraction, pilgrims to the grave of Andy Warhol have taken to stacking it with unopened cans of Campbell’s soup.

He mentions the zombies of Haiti (cf. Zora Neale Hurston), “ghost marriages” (for China, see here, under “Excesses”), and the smashing of pots (cf. “smashing the bowl” at Chinese funerals: my film, 1.16.49). He introduces notions of kinship, gender issues, the siting of the grave, “bad deaths”, and political funerals—including those of state socialism:

While the incorruptible body might be seen by the peasants as a continuation of the traditional veneration of saints’ relics, the Soviet leadership seems to have urged its interpretation as an anti-mystical act, an engaging and debunking of the church’s claims of saintly preservation, neatly showing ritual’s ability to transmit two totally opposed messages at the same time.

The book ends with a useful bibliography and index.

* * *

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

To return to Chinese village funerals, held over two or three days, I remain impressed by their ritual exuberance and complexity; the differentiated attire of the kin, the shawm bands, firecrackers, communal meals, female wailers, the ritual sequences of the Daoists, the skits of itinerant beggars, the pop band on a stage outside the gate (for the latter, see my film, from 30.32). Young urban educated Chinese returning for the funeral of their grandparent will find all this remarkable too.

At the grave
My Daoist friends are bemused by my accounts of the perfunctory nature of our observances in England. Having observed as an outsider, Barley gives a personal account of his own father’s funeral. He remarks on the motley outfits, the architecture of the crematorium, the “witness” who spoke instead of a parson (“his model was a press conference”);

I felt angry at the hypocrisy of it all. We were colluding in a dishonourable pretence and we knew it. […]

The dull emptiness in your stomach is called grief. But grief isn’t the right word. It’s a sort of cocktail of acrid emotional pollutants of which the strongest element is surely guilt. Guilt for sins of omission and commission or perhaps simply when there is an emotional vacuum, nameless guilt just floods in to fill it up. Part of what we feel for our loved ones is a sort of addict’s dependence. Presence may not bring ecstasy but absence is unbearable. […]

I think there were hymns, but not the comforting meaningless hymns from school that carried feelings of nostalgia. In these, although the tunes were familiar, the words were wrong, all too spiritually correct and involving no allusion to a transcendental higher God. I had an intensely irritated feeling of being interfered with. […]

A trapdoor opened as in pantomime and the coffin disappeared. […]

At the house was an embarrassingly small group of largely unfamiliar relatives, a parody of kinship, testament to the failure of the Western family. The symbolism of the cold meats was horribly obvious.

“Dreadful,” one said with clicking false teeth. “When I were a lad there’d be horses with black plumes. What did we get this time? A bloody van. Not a hearse. A van like we were going to a building site. It’s not right.”

He also notes that Western funerals,

stressing as they do the uniqueness of the dead, deal heavily in separation and liminality but have very little to say about reintegration, leaving the mourners high and dry in their grief and the dead with nowhere to go.

In rather similar style, Kate Fox also interrogates funerals in Watching the English.

There are few rites of passage on earth that are as stilted, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.

The rituals “are just formal enough to make us feel stiff and resentful, but also informal enough to expose our social dis-ease”.

We are expected to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt things to the bereaved relatives, or respond to these things in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt way if we are the bereaved.

But not too heartfelt. […] Even those family and friends who are genuinely sad are not allowed to indulge in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is acceptable, but the sort of anguished howling that is considered normal, and indeed expected, at funerals in many other cultures, would here be regarded as undignified and inappropriate.

And for once, our default mode of humour seems inappropriate; we “put on a brave face”. Fox gives a quaint list of the “optimum tear-quota”, classified by gender, affinity to the deceased, and age. She also observes class differences—with working class, lower-, middle-, and upper-middle classes, and upper class all having their own preferred ways of performing funerals.

Even the “outpouring of grief” (considered “un-English”) that followed the death of Princess Diana was marked largely by the typical English behaviour of “quiet, orderly, disciplined, dignified” queuing, and flowers; tears, but no wailing.

Fox may have exaggerated some of this for effect, but such critiques seem legitimate coming from cultural insiders. As she herself observes, self-deprecation is a major trait of the English; a Dowayo or Chinese ethnographer might be disturbed by aspects of our ritual behaviour, but I doubt if they would analyse it in quite the same way. Of course, these are not level playing-fields.

Anyway, while the laments of Barley and Fox strike a chord, I find myself surprisingly reluctant to indict the stoic stiff-upper-lip funerals of Middle England, or at least the mourners. Yes, our “blanket of straight-laced formality” covers drabness, repression, embarrassment—but a certain kindness is also notable. We too build on the cultural norms of our heritage. This may not be a grandiose anthropological insight, but people do their best in the circumstances.

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.

Dengbêj
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.

and

  • 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.

“Heritage”
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, see e.g. Walter Posch and Jaffer Sheyholislami (eds), The Kurds: history, religion, language, politics (2015). 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). See also e.g. Gönenç Hongur, Politics, struggle, violence, and the transformation of expressive culture: an ethnography of Kurds’ musical practices in Turkey (2014).

 

** 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.

Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul

Ersu 11
Performance in the presence of Sultan Ahmed III:
Burnaz Hasan Çelebi, the lead singer (left row at top, with hook nose and fur robe,
directing with his frame-drum), with tanbur, kemançe, ney, and santur.
Miniature by Nakkaş İbrahim, early 18th century. Source.

For the broad range of musical activity in late imperial China, I struggle to think of accounts that go beyond the generalised clichés of Confucian theory to depict the diverse soundscapes of local communities of the day.

For musicking in late Ottoman Istanbul/Constantinople, my dabblings (severely limited by my inability to read Turkish) aim merely to gain a very basic perspective. [1]

A major resource is the renowned travelogue of Evliyâ Çelebi (1611–82) (see e.g. under The tanners of Zeytinburnu). Among a wealth of material on all kinds of life, his accounts of the expressive cultures that he encountered on his journeys through the empire are exceptionally detailed. Evliya’s comments on musicking, as a participant observer, are the subject of considerable research in Turkey. [2]

While (as in China) much discussion is based on sources for art music, I learn from a useful online article in English,

He reminds us of the wider soundscape, encompassing venues such as the dergah dervish lodges, the Enderün palace, and the taverns; and occasions such as weddings, circumcision feasts, and parades (note also Ahmet Önal, “Public ceremonies in Ottoman Istanbul”). Music also accompanied dancing (such as kõcek) and ortaoyunu popular theatre, as well as wrestling, acrobatics, and juggling. 

Ersu 10

Bahçıvaoğlu Kolu’s ortaoyunu show in the presence of the sultan and his sons on a raft in front of the Aynalıkavak Palace. Miniature by Levni. Surname-i Vehbi.

Ersu Pekin notes the wide range of performers in a multilingual and multi-faith society,

from the sultan and şeyhülislam to the müderris (professor), qadi (judge), poet, dede, and dervish. Musicians served as religious functionaries in mosques, churches, and synagogues. They performed as street musicians and bards. They lived as concubines in the harem and as housewives.

Meclis gatherings were held by both elite and commoners, when people came together for conversation, poetry reading, drinking, and making music. From the 16th century, coffee houses became popular venues for musical interaction, attracting everyone “from the unemployed to candidate officers, qadismüderrises, high-ranking officials, imams, muezzins, and even ersatz Sufis”.  Among the article’s fine illustrations is this painting of possibly the first coffee house opened in Tahtakale, as described by Peçuyi:

coffee house

Taverns, according to Evliya Çelebi, were mostly located in Samadyakapusu, Kumkapu, Yeni Balıkpazarı, Unkapanı, Cibalikapusu, Ayakapusu, Fenerkapusu, Balatkapusu, Hasköy, and Galata. On the European side of the Bosphorus, there were taverns in Ortaköy, Kuruçeşme, Arnavutköy, Yeniköy, Tarabya, and Büyükdere, and on the Anatolian side in Kuzguncuk, Çengelköy, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy.

Ersu Pekin cites passages showing Evliya’s deep familiarity with a range of genres:

Horos Imâm, with whom I memorised the Qur’an in the has oda [privy chamber], and Tâyezâde Handân, Ferruhoğlu Assâf Beg, Ma‘ânoğlu, Keçeci Süleymân, and Amber Mustafâ, who were my friends reciting the adhan [call to prayer], all gathered in the place for music (meşkhane), near the bath in the palace, day and night, and performed music and fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara. […]

Hânende [vocalist] Kara Oğlan Âmidî was one of the students of Yahyâ, and he was a unique master in usûl-bend and sihr-i helâl. Together with the ruler of Bitlîs, Abdâl Hân, I have performed the fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara for three years in Persia, then in Erzurum with Defterdârzâde Mehemmed Pasha in ’56.

In Constantinople, combining with the makam system, the fasil suite form developed from its Persian origin, with masters such as Buhurizade Mustafa Efendi (Itrî, 1640–1712). Though known as a chamber genre, it also appears in Evliya’s accounts of the mehter Janissary bands (cited by Ersu Pekin):

About the parade of the performers of pipes and reeds: there were eleven instrumentalists who were craftsmen and they all were soldiers. They all tuned their instruments and performed Segah makam, then Emîr-i Hac peşrev and Hasan Cân peşrev, gül‘izâr peşrev;… and the fasıls of Tatar Hân semâ‘î, and paraded in front of the sultan with a great and loud performance. (n.38)

Forty soldiers performed three fasıls in the evening and in the morning; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror. In the four places [jurisdictions] in Istanbul [Evliya uses the name İslâmbol], in Eyyub, Kasımpaşa, Galata, Tophane, Beşiktaş, Rumeli Hisarı, Yeniköy, Rumeli Yenihisarı, Kavak Yenihisarı, Beykoz, Anadolu Hisarı, Üsküdar, Kızkulesi, every evening and morning [dawn], the military band performs; the subaşıs, qadis, and dizdars [castle wardens] stand at attention; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror, because these places were serhads[frontiers] at that time. In fact, they still are serhads. (n.74)

Besides native authors, Ersu Pekin cites the Polish Wojciech Bobowski (Ali Ufki, 1610–75) and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723; see under Musics lost and found). As tastes changed, innovation is a constant theme, continuing with musicians such as the Mevlevi “composer” Dede Efendi (1778–1846).

Despite the broad social base, most paintings depicted events for the upper layers of society:

Ersu 14

Ensemble directed by lead singer Burnaz Hasan Çelebi (Enfi Hasan Ağa)
at the festivities of 1720.
Nakkaş İbrahim, Surname-i Vehbi.

Later, popular forms like şarkı began to replace the long fasil suites. Taking us into the early 20th century, Ersu Pekin sings the praises of Tanburi Cemil (1873–1916), who can be heard on many recordings on YouTube, including this album; here he plays a taksim on kemançe:

Has the memory of the city forgotten the music that reflected the refined taste of the Ottoman elite? Does the rich heritage contained in the records, now transformed into şarkı and peşrevs, semais and ghazels, reflect that old style? Alas, we will never know!

Jordi Savall’s recreations with Hesperion XX are always stimulating—here’s their 2009 album Istanbul, as playlist:

And their 2013 album Bal–kan: honey and blood:

* * *

Another useful introduction in English is

  • Cem Behar, “Music and musicians in the city”, in Shirine Hamedeh and Çiğdem Kafescioğlu (eds), A companion to early modern Istanbul (2021).

He too notes the broad social basis of musicking:

Traditional Ottoman/Turkish music could and did survive independently from the impetus or patronage provided by the ruling group, and the court was not the main centre of music making. […]

The musical tradition was sufficiently diffused and ingrained in the urban social tissue and resilient enough to survive the effects of random changes in the musical tastes, whims and preferences of rulers or their immediate entourage.

Cem Behar goes on to cite the biographical compendium of Şeyhülislâm Es’ad Efendi (1685–1753), which besides a few dignitaries and members of various Sufi orders, lists many musicians of humble origin. Many distinguished musicians were Greek, Jewish, or Armenian (cf. Zithers of Iran and Turkey). Behar stresses the blurred lines between “folk” and “art” musics, and between religious and secular styles (just as we need to do for China); as Constantinople became home to migrants from all over the empire, their regional styles were incorporated into music of the capital. Despite the common phenomenon of named “composers”, oral teaching and transmission were primary.

He describes changes in the building-blocks of usûl metre and makam scale, and the emergence of the fasil from the early 17th century.

The 1638 procession
Most celebrated are Evliya Çelebi’s vivid descriptions of the huge 1638 procession of the “guilds and professions, merchants and artisans” for Sultan Murat IV, “a kind of perambulatory census” with 1,001 guilds parading in 57 sections. [3] As the Sultan declared,

I desire that all the guilds of the city of Constantinople, both great and small, shall repair to my imperial camp. They shall exhibit the number of their men, shops, and professions, according to their old constitutions. They shall all pass before the Alay Köskü with their sheikhs and chiefs, on foot and on horseback, playing their eightfold music, so that I may see how many thousand men and how many guilds there are. It will be a procession the likes of which has never been seen before.

1638 procession

1638 procession 2
Source.

Among the groups parading were carpenters, fur-makers, toy-makers, bakers, butchers, mariners, cooks, confectioners, tavern keepers; civil servants, entertainers, madmen; corporations of beggars, of thieves and footpads, and of pimps and bankrupts; fools and mimics. Evliya even records disputes over precedence between rival groups.

This instance of Evliya’s attention to music (translated, impressionistically, by Joseph von Hammer, 1834) introduces some singers:

Evliya 42

And the 43rd section (pp.233–40) is a fine inventory:

If I, poor Evliya, should be asked where I found such a complete catalogue of musical instruments, I would answer that in my travels in Arabia and Persia, in Sweden and Denmark, in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia, I, myself, saw all of these instruments and many more, and, if it please God, I shall give a more complete description of them in my travels; but these are the instruments used at Constantinople, which I am much more conversant with, as I at all times delighted in the company of singers and musicians…

In the 39th section (pp.225–8) Evliya further describes the mehter Janissary bands, as well as instrument makers.

See also Landscapes of music in Istanbul, and Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

* * *

Returning to late imperial China: there too the literati elite experienced a range of musicking in their quotidian social activities, even if they rarely described it. Apart from qin zither and pipa lute, or attending performances of opera and narrative-singing, they frequented temples, mingling with clerics, as well as taking part in chamber music with  lowly blind retainers. A useful alternative source is fiction, such as the detailed accounts of ritual life in The story of the stone, or Jin ping mei.

But material on Ottoman musicking, with the insider detail of Evliyâ Çelebi, seems particularly rich.


[1] I have yet to read other major sources in English such as

  • Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman court: makam, composition and the early Ottoman instrumental repertoire (1996), including chapters on the kanun, and taksim
  • Martin Greve (ed.), Writing the history of “Ottoman music” (2015), whose four parts discuss historiography, periodisation, folk music, and reconstruction.

Along with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians and The Garland encyclopedia of world music, for the “classical” forms, see also Robert Labaree’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. Dare I say it, the wiki article makes a useful introduction…

[2] An Evliya Çelebi bibliography by Robert Dankoff and Semih Tezcan (2015) lists Turkish studies on his discussions of music, as does Ulaş Özdemir (n.34 here). See also Aida Islam and Stefanija Zelenkovska Leshkova, “Ottoman music culture in the Balkans through the prism of the travel writer Evliya Celebi” (2016), and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books” (2017).

[3] Some sections are translated in An Ottoman traveller: selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim (2011, pp.24–31). Along with his book Istanbul: the imperial city, John Freely uses Evliya’s account the 1638 procession as the basis for his own explorations in Stamboul sketches (1974, reprinted by Eland in 2014).

Li Shiyu on folk religion in Philadelphia

來而不往非禮也

LSY cover

We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.

Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.

Grootaers heying

Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong. [1] Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).

After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.

And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 [2011], pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.

LSY opening

In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.

LSY and deputy mayorWith the Mayor of Philadelphia.

My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.

Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”. [2] Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).

In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”

Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.

To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):

Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).

I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into [3] when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:

After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.

Mother DivineMother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.

In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.

Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.

While Li Shiyu was in the States, Robert Orsi’s study of the Madonna cult in New York’s Italian Harlem was published, a book that would have impressed him.

* * *

Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.

Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.

Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.

Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor

Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.


[1] See the detailed critique on the site of Hannibal Taubes, in four parts starting here; for bibliography, see n.1 in my article on The cult of Elder Hu.

[2] The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.

[3] Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.

Istanbul: multisensorial experiences

Further to Landscapes of Istanbul:

Complementing the Music in the Ottoman empire and in Turkey project of the Orient-Institut, and as part of the institute’s online workshop series, Esther Voswinckel Filiz and Salih Demirtaş recently convened “Experience of a city: multisensorial approaches to past and present” (booklet here).

1

The series aims to bring together approaches from musicology, historical ethnography, anthropology of religion, and cultural studies in exploring experiences of the city. Its theme moves away from ocularcentrism (a useful word!), and the assumption of silence—exploring how sound, smell, taste, touch, and other senses are vital in cultural practices of dwelling, movement, and social life (cf. China: film, and attempts to correct the discursive bias of approaches to religion).

After a keynote by Cambridge anthropologist and musicologist Peter McMurray on dreamscapes, Martin Greve discusses the changing atmosphere of Alevi rituals in Dersim and Istanbul (cf. his 2018 article). Older people remember the greater spirituality of cems in ordinary village houses, including both trance and the performance of keramet supernatural power:

Music was not perceived as something isolated, but rather was a part of the all-encompassing atmosphere, where musical elements such as intonation, melody, or the control of voices had no separate importance.

2

Burcu Yaşin explores the sonic atmospheres of Romani wedding ceremonies in the Sarıgöl neighbourhood of Istanbul, where meticulously chosen songs stress the wealth of the spouses’ families, and recals (improvised poems performed mostly by women) praise the beauty of the bride. The festive atmosphere relies on the dynamic communication between participants and performers, all coming together as the members of the same community. She analyses how the Romani community employs music and sound to reproduce social hierarchies, to strengthen intercultural relations, and to subvert gender roles within the uniformed kinaesthesia imposed by the lead singer.

3

On late Ottoman Istanbul, Onur Engin explains how “talking machines” generated new modes of listening. Jacob Olley discusses the multisensorial clamour of the gazino, the screeching of the tram, and the seemingly unintelligible songs of migrant street musicians. Nazan Maksudyan explores sound and temporality, with houses of worship orienting their believers to the tempo of daily routine and religious life—citing the ezan call to prayer and the Orthodox semantron, as well as the secular innovation of clock towers. And Tülay Artan evokes soundscapes of the Ottoman Bosphorus:

Rain, nightingales, oars splashing and creaking, busy landing places, the hymns of dervishes, gulls and other sea birds, fishermen’s songs, calls to prayer, the wind in the trees, waves swirling around the wooden piles of piers and waterfront mansions. Reflected in the hues of the opposite shore, whether in sunlight or by the moon, and occasionally dotted by flickering candles, lanterns, torches, or fireflies.

4

It’s good to see (hear, taste, smell, touch…) Istanbul still serving as a hub for such creativity.

The Tulsa race massacre

panoramaPanorama of the damage soon after the massacre.

The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is Black advancement.

Carol Anderson

The Tulsa race massacre remains one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the modern history of the USA, one of its deadliest terrorist attacks. [1]

It took place on 31st May and 1st June 1921 in the Greenwood District (“Black Wall Street”) of Tulsa, Oklahoma—then one of the wealthiest Black communities in the USA. Following the arrest of a young Black shoeshiner, Black citizens gathered to prevent him being lynched. As martial law was declared, mobs of white residents—some of whom had been deputised and given weapons by city officials—attacked Black residents and destroyed homes, businesses, churches, and schools, including aerial bombardments by incendiary devices.

Tulsa 1

More than 800 people were admitted to hospital, and as many as 6,000 Black residents of Tulsa were interned, many of them for several days. At least 39 people were killed, with some estimates as high as 300. Around 10,000 Black people were left homeless; over a thousand homes were destroyed.

Tulsa 2

In the years to come, as Black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, segregation in the city only increased, and Oklahoma’s newly established branch of the KKK grew in strength.

Black and white residents kept silent about the massacre for decades; it was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories. There were no public ceremonies or commemorations; instead, the events were deliberately covered up.

The silence began to be broken from the 1970s. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, founded in 1996, delivered its report in 2001 (the name was changed to the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission in 2018). Only since 2002 have schools in Oklahoma been required to teach students about the massacre, and in 2020 it officially became a part of the school curriculum there.

Here’s a documentary (for others, see e.g. here and here):


[1] Some sources:
https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/
https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_massacre
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/31/tulsa-race-massacre-at-100-act-of-terrorism
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jun/01/tulsa-race-massacre-a-century-later
https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/may/28/tulsa-race-massacre-documentary-the-fire-and-the-forgotten
See also Scott Ellsworth’s book The ground breaking (LRB review);
and for the context of racial terrorism in the States from 1917 to 1921, click here.

Kuzguncuk: nostalgia for cosmopolitanism

In an earlier post I began to introduce the delights of the mahalle neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just along the coast from the teeming hub of Üsküdar.

Kuzguncuk is the subject of many works in Turkish, including several books by Nedret Ebcim; and Suzan Nana Tarablus has written on its Jewish history. In English, a most thoughtful study on Kuzguncuk is

  • Amy Mills, Streets of memory: landscape, tolerance, and national identity in Istanbul (2010).

Mills cover

Cutting through the cosy nostalgic image, she finds that the neighbourhood’s landscape not only connotes feelings of “belonging and familiarity” connected to a “narrative of historic multiethnic harmony” but also makes these ideas appear to be uncontestably real, or true. The resulting nostalgia bolsters a version of Turkish nationalism that seems cosmopolitan and benign.

Whereas Kuzguncuk was long dominated by Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, their numbers dwindled through the 20th century, with Turkish Muslim immigrants coming to form the great majority there. But by around 2000, Turkish historians, journalists, memoirs, and novelists displayed a growing interest in minority issues, their nostalgic images articulating hopes for a tolerant, multicultural society. Kuzguncuk has become popular as a film set, and has been rapidly gentrifying, attracting a mixture of dwellers from relatively comfortable but diverse backgrounds.

Mills interrogates what it is that such images, and the landscape, conceal. Memory, amnesia, and violence are major themes (cf. China).

In the early 20th century, non-Muslim minorities and foreigners comprised 56% of Istanbul’s population, and were even more prominent as property owners, tradespeople, and skilled workers; by the end of the century, following massive emigration and the influx of Turks and Kurds, they were less than 1%.

However powerful the state may be in producing nationalist ideology, the ways in which people negotiate with it are inconsistent and unpredictable; individual identities are multiple and fragmented, and cohere, sometimes only briefly, in specific places.

The shared memory of the past is selective, fragmented, with tensions; as people remember or forget the Christian and Jewish past, they engage in self-censorship of dissonant information. In the face of the “contemporary malaise” of alienating social change, nostalgia “may appear to be escapist, romantic, or even regressive”. The 1942–43 Wealth Tax, the riots of 1955, and the 1964 expulsions have belatedly been acknowledged for Istanbul, but are still denied for Kuzguncuk, where they also had dire consequences.

Chapter 1 concerns the Ottoman background of the Istanbul mahalle neighbourhoods—which were neither monochromatic nor static. Migration to Istanbul increased through the 19th century; between 1840 and 1880 the population doubled to 800,000 (!).

map 2

Since at least the 19th century Kuzguncuk had mainly been populated by Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. In 1865, fire burned five hundred shops along the main street. In the process of reconstruction, a steamboat station was built, whereafter some elite Muslim families also began to move in. A 1914 census showed 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 250 Greeks, 79 Muslims, and four foreigners, although the Armenian population had already started to decline after an 1896 decree expelling Armenian workers from Istanbul. By 1933, sources suggest that the population was still 90% non-Muslim.

Turkification under the new Republic from 1923 eroded religious and ethnic plurality. As economic power was transferred into the hands of Muslims, the “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaign ran from 1928 through to the 1950s.

Kuzguncuk’s Armenian church, built in 1835, was rebuilt in 1861 and repaired in 1967. Of the two Greek Orthodox churches, the smaller one near the coast road was built in 1823, rebuilt in 1871, and restored in 1951; the larger church further up the main street was built in 1836, and restored in 1911.

church and mosque

Armenian church and mosque.

By the 1940s, migrants from the Black Sea region were settling in significant numbers in Kuzguncuk. The mosque next to the Armenian church was built in 1952, “the first moment in the neighbourhood’s long history when there were enough Muslim Kuzguncuklus to necessitate a local, regular, community gathering space.” By that time, as Mills notes, the Armenian community had virtually disappeared.

Still, even then, Kuzguncuklus who remember this period describe a culture in which it was common for residents to speak “a little Ladino, Greek, Armenian, or French”, and sharing the various religious holidays with their neighbours.

The Turkification of Istanbul intensified in the period after World War Two. While the Jews had tended to favour assimilation more than the Greeks and Armenians, after the 1942–3 Wealth Tax, which penalised minorities heavily, 30,000 Turkish Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel in 1948.

The anti-Greek riot of 1955—also impacting Armenians and Jews—and the expulsion of Greeks in 1964, led to further departures. By 1967 only around three thousand Greeks remained in Istanbul. The confiscation of minority-owned properties continued; many of these became homes to new waves of rural migrants. Between 1945 and 1975 Istanbul’s population swelled from one to four million. Ironically, “it is this very period that is nostalgically narrated in the dominant collective memory as one of tolerance, siblinghood, and belonging in the mahalle”.

By 2004 Kuzguncuk was home to under a hundred non-Muslims; the churches and synagogues are now maintained and attended mainly by Christians and Jews living elsewhere in the city (see Epiphany in Istanbul).

Chapter 2 shows how from the 1980s Kuzguncuk became a major backdrop for nostalgic memory-making in Istanbul. The mahalle’s material landscape “was popular precisely because the seeming reality of the memory so successfully obscured the tensions and disharmony of everyday life in Istanbul”. Indeed, the Kuzguncuk landscape had to be restored to conform to the image, not just by TV companies but by new immigrants to the mahalle, although they were themselves continuing its socio-economic transformation.

A common feature of the loss of community was the erosion of mahalle social life by families owning TVs and the disappearance of open-air cinema.

The TV series Perihan Abla began screening in 1986, portraying the interconnectedness of the lives of mahalle people—middle class, Turkish, and Muslim.

From 1978 the architect Cengiz Bektaş was the pioneer of restoration in Kuzguncuk, inspiring artists and professionals even before the wave of gentrification from the 1990s. His goal was to foster a sense of care and responsibility among residents, based on its (earlier) history of multiethnic tolerance. His work began from the dwellings said to have been occupied by a former Armenian artisan community near the ferry, but it didn’t actually bring this history to light.

Gentrification (common to various other districts of Istanbul) is a “lifestyle preference of a particular population”; but by contrast with earlier residents, it is typically led by smaller families, from urban backgrounds, well educated, with both spouses in work, connected to the outside world.

However, community in Kuzguncuk fails not only because of gentrification but simply because the same social and political divisions that fragment Istanbul society are also present in Kuzguncuk.

Kastamonu deli

While the media mostly portrays a romanticised fairytale, a 2002 novel evoked the social changes of the 1960s, with the influx of new rural migrants.

However unintentionally, the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory mahalle works to support the nationalist historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.

As we saw above, the Armenian church near the ferry dates from 1835, but the mosque next to it was only built in 1952. The church and the mosque seem to suggest that cosmopolitanism is alive and well in Kuzguncuk; what remains unspoken is the fact that the congregation of the 19th-century church is gone, replaced by the Muslims who attend the 20th-century mosque.

In Chapter 3 Mills discusses the “contested space” of the Bostan market garden, established by the Kuzguncuk Neighbourhood Association since 2000—another major symbol for nostalgia and community.

In a common instance of illegal expropriation, the state had confiscated the garden from a Greek family in 1977. Mills becomes aware of her own emotional investment in the project through a “disturbing and exhilarating” meeting with the last descendant of the original Greek owners, who embodied the sense of loss; her claims to the land and those of the Association turned out to be incompatible.

For some time after 1977 the status of the space was in limbo. Opposition to planned development grew from 1992, part of the wider protest movement against corruption, and further stimulated by the 1999 earthquake.

Active in the Association were young adults born in Kuzguncuk to parents of Black Sea migrant families who began arriving in the late 1930s, working with the professionals and artists who had joined them in the mahalle later.

The project was not without its critics. Some residents were wary of potential political activity; among those who failed to support the project were people from peripheral, poorer settlements, as well as the leaders of the churches and synagogue.

In Chapter 4, the mahalle’s nostalgic memories of a vibrant and tolerant social life sit uncomfortably alongside the collective silence surrounding the state-instigated anti-minority riots of 6th to 7th September 1955. Two hundred Greek families were still living in Kuzguncuk. While the riots, fomented by Turks arriving by boat, seem to have been less severe than in some other neighbourhoods on the Asian side of Istanbul, windows were smashed, houses ransacked, shops vandalised, the Greek churches damaged. The events marked a watershed in the exodus of minorities from Kuzguncuk.

The moment of contradiction hinges on the neighbourly relationships—that in a neighbourly place like Kuzguncuk such a thing couldn’t happen (and yet it did), that there was no difference between religions (and yet there was).

People’s contradictory memories reveal

the pressure of being caught between maintaining loyalty to one’s collective identity as a member of Turkish society and possessing personal knowledge of events or moments that challenged the popular historical narrative.

The memories of senior residents also suggest a distaste for the new immigrants from rural Anatolia, even if those people too shared the nostalgia for the former cohesion of the mahalle, partly to authenticate their own claims to belonging.

Chapter 5 discusses belonging and exclusion mainly through the fluid proprieties of female neighbourliness, and the intersecting identities of class, ethnicity, economic position, and regional origins. Mills describes visits between women, including the therapy of “reading” fortune in the coffee grounds (fal). Apart from positive aspects, such relations can also have oppressive implications, as in the ramifications of gossip.

As Mills observes, gentrification too is a gendered process. Mahalle norms reveal tensions for female residents who assume non-traditional gender roles, making difficult their access to the social support networks of the community.

Because of the ways it is threatened by new urban lifestyles, the mahalle has become exclusive, a space for those who already belong or for those who move here through previous friendships; it is not an inclusive community for otherwise disconnected newcomers.

Despite the small number of minorities in Kuzguncuk since the 1950s, intermarriage, common for several generations, remains something of a taboo topic.

Chapter 6 focuses on the Jewish history of Kuzguncuk. Today the main synagogue at the foot of the main street, though inconspicuous, is still maintained, with regular services. Another one, tucked away on Jacob street further up the hill, is currently inactive. Further still up the hill, the Jewish cemetery is now forlorn. Jews in Istanbul have tended to assimilate, a delicate balance that they have long performed in Turkish society; still, they remain vulnerable.

Mills learned much from a visit to Tel Aviv, where Jewish people who had emigrated from Kuzguncuk were keen to share their memories (including the anti-minority events before, during, and after World War Two)—underlining the silence that reigned within Istanbul.

After an absorbing section on early Jewish migrations to Istanbul, Mills describes the early 20th century. Their economic status varied; many were quite poor. They often spoke only Ladino, not Turkish. Jewish people migrated to the mahalle from other regions, and from elsewhere in Istanbul; some also moved away, to neighbourhoods on the European side. But Turkification under the Republic prompted an exodus. Emigration (from Kuzguncuk, and from Turkey) began to become common. It was a long process, increasing markedly in the 1940s, after the 1955 riots, and through the 1970s and 90s. As Muslim migrants continued to arrive from Anatolia, the mahalle’s former ethnic diversity was lost. Again Mills finds former Kuzguncuk residents now in Tel Aviv more prepared to discuss the 1942–3 Wealth Tax than those still living in Istanbul.

* * *

Mills is always sensitive to her own role, reflecting on the narratives that people offer her (and don’t). In conclusion, she asks

Whose cultural politics does the nostalgia for Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism serve? What does this nostalgia do? The nostalgia that foregrounds tolerance in enterethnic relationships obscures the tensions and violence of the processes through which the cosmopolitan city became nationally Turkish. By appearing to be real, by the ways in which the materiality of landscapes seem to authentically represent a tolerant multicultural past, this nostalgia preserves the illusions of the state, illusions that the nation is inclusive, that it does or can exist for all.

While both Turks and minorities comply with the code, the agreement is not entirely succeeding. […]

If nationalist, secularist, and Islamist intolerance is ever to subside in Istanbul, people must openly perceive that antiminority discrimination and oppression is a problem and must also imagine a peaceful, shared diversity to be possible. […]

Memories of cosmopolitanism must be examined for how they speak of loss and betrayal, and how they articulate a stake in the future of the city.

You can find more posts on Istanbul in this roundup; note in particular Midnight at the Pera Palace.

From Kuzguncuk, delightful as ever

The Irish pub session

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Irish session 2

Debunking another myth: like craic, the fabled archetypal Irish pub session turns out to be a recent invention.

As Reg Hall observes, music wasn’t played in pubs; the first session that we would recognise as such today was at the Devonshire Arms in Kentish Town, London, in 1946 (see also Chris Haigh, under “The origin of the Irish pub session”).

In Ireland the traditional venue for musicking was the family kitchen; even for public social dancing, the “céilí band” only became common after 1918. In 1924 the Bishop of Galway declared:

The dances indulged in are not the clean, healthy national dances but importations from the vilest dens of London, Paris and New York, direct and unmistakable incitements to evil thoughts and evil desires.

Strongly recalling reactions to jazz (cited e.g. by Nicolas Slonimsky), this seems ironic, since céilí bands were themselves formed to counteract the pernicious influence of jazz.

In London, licensing laws forbade musical groups until after World War Two, when many Irish arrived from rural Ireland. Since the cramped living conditions of the workmen hardly made a conducive ambience to make music together, they began to colonise pubs. Reg Hall again:

Until around 1946 there was no Irish music in the English pubs. There was no Irish music in pubs back home in Ireland for that matter. It just wasn’t played in pubs. After the war, the new immigrants in London didn’t expect to play music in the pubs. Some Irish musicians even refused to play in English pubs—they believed it shouldn’t or couldn’t be done. You couldn’t play an Irish tune in a London pub.

Thus the gathering was no longer for family or dancers, but for the musicians themselves, and an audience.

Pub sessions only became common in Ireland from the 1960s. Today we’re used to hearing a rather large ensemble, but curiously the older tradition of one or two instruments (fiddle, flute, and so on), remains popular on stage (see e.g. More Irish fiddlers).

So there.


* Equally, the ancestry of the Irish version seisún seems something of a minefield.

The headscarf, emblem of the Chinese revolution

Images from 1968 (left) and 1980 (right); see here.

In north China the white cloth that male peasants tie around their heads became an emblem of the revolution. The custom long predated the 1949 Liberation, but was another casualty of the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

While the headgear was common throughout the north Chinese countryside, it is often associated with Shaanbei, revolutionary base from the 1930s. In this 1981 group photo from Yulin, only a couple of shawm players were wearing them (see Walking shrill), outnumbered by the peaked caps which were a more modern image of the revolution:

1981 photo

In the hill village of Yangjiagou, here’s the shawm player Chang Bingyou (1916–98), father of our friend Older Brother:

Chang Daye

Though fashion moved slowly in the countryside, by the time I visited Shaanbei in 1999 headscarves were already rare. Here’s the Yangjiagou band at a funeral in 1999:

YJG band

So it was purely in a spirit of nostalgia that we took this photo with Older Brother and Chouxiao in 1999:

YJG trio

But some older people in the region were still wearing the headscarf—here’s a band from Linxian (across the river in Shanxi) at the Baiyunshan temple fair in 2001:

BYS shawm band

Here’s Guo Yuhua with the last Yangjiagou villager still wearing it in 2005:

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

In the countryside south of Beijing, headscarves were also rare in Gaoluo by the 1990s. The wonderful He Yi was virtually the only villager who still wore one:

In the depth of winter villagers often wore protective earflaps:

GL wentan

Vocal liturgists perform for funeral, South Gaoluo 1995.

In Gaoluo even I resorted to headgear, affecting an English proletarian flat ’at.

See also Funerary headgear.

* * *

Meanwhile, a world away from the Chinese revolution:

JEG

English Baroque Soloists rehearsal: see Barbed comments.

The fine line between irony and Looking a Complete Twat is lost on the repugnant Minister for the 18th Century, “eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party” (oh, I said that):

RM

And speaking of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, here’s an instance of his characteristic gravitas:

BJ hat

Irony was also in full flow during the recent Opening of Parliament, with a crown worth billions of pounds, delivered in a gilded carriage, on display during a speech that neatly sidestepped the cost-of-living crisis (government advice: “Why not try earning more money?”):

Crown

As to clothing, one might note that men are not only free to choose for themselves, but that they are also kind enough to decide on behalf of women.

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

More Irish fiddlers

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

To follow What’s the craic?, just a tiny selection of some notable Irish fiddlers. * I’ll start with different generations in America:

Coleman

  • Michael Coleman (1891–1945) was born in County Sligo, emigrating to the USA as a young man:

Carroll

Doherty

He’s the subject of the 1972 documentary Fiddler on the road:

I still need greater immersion to appreciate the nuances of the various regional styles. The Donegal style is heard on the splendid Nimbus CD Fiddle sticks:

Among the fiddlers there are

Mhaonaigh

  • Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (b.1959), also known for her singing with Altan. Click here for two reels with Frankie Kennedy on flute (see also with Martin Hayes below);

and

Peoples

With Matt Malloy on flute:

For more Donegal fiddlers, see here.

Canny

  • Paddy Canny (1919–2008), in the East Clare style, a graduate of the Tulla Céilí Band.

With Frankie Gavin:

And with Kieran Hanrahan on banjo:

Hayes

  • Paddy’s nephew Martin Hayes (website; wiki) is blessed with a particularly enchanting style, often introspective yet capable of great energy (good appreciation here). I don’t always feel comfortable with guitar in Irish music, but I quite see why he relishes Denis Cahill’s sensitive accompaniment:

In this set they are joined by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (whose bow-hold delights me) and Dermot Byrne:

And here he is with the Brooklyn-born Sligo fiddler Tony DeMarco:

Click here for Martin’s album Under the moon as a playlist.

Burke

  • Kevin Burke (b.1950) (website; wiki), based in London until moving to the States in the late 70s, plays in the Sligo style—here are two complete albums:

* * *

What a wealth of creative wisdom under all those nimble fingers, immersed in the style, each with their own lineages and influences, full of regional and personal variation—like shawm players in north China [Thought you were going to say that—Ed.].

See also Indian and world fiddles, and Some jazz fiddling.

 


* For introductions to regional styles, see e.g.

Daithí Kearney, Towards a regional understanding of Irish Traditional Music

Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on Regional Irish Fiddle Styles.

For a caveat from Chris Haigh, curiously without audio examples, click here.

For style more generally, Niall Keegan, The parameters of style in Irish Traditional Music.

Sun dance rituals

Cheyenne 1909

Cheyenne Sun dance, c1909.  Source: wiki.

Supplementing my series on Native American cultures (notably Navajo rituals and the Ghost dance), Sun dance rituals are still performed by many groups of Plains Indians of north America such as the Cree, Salteaux, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, and Blackfoot. [1]

The Sun dance is a complex series of rituals for the healing of the community, with drumming and singing, held annually over many days and nights in late spring or early summer—and preparations are said to take up much of the year in between. Ritual practice varies between tribal groups, and over time.

A medicine lodge is constructed of pole rafters radiating from a sacred central pole. The arena is surrounded by a camp of kin and friends singing and praying in support of the performers. For young male dancers among some groups it is an ordeal, an extreme physical and spiritual sacrifice which they have vowed to endure both for their own merit and to ensure tribal well-being. Having fasted for many days in the open, as they dance around a central pole they perform self-mortification, the skin of their chests or back pierced with skewers tied to the central pole (for self-mortification rituals elsewhere, see Dervishes of Kurdistan, including Amdo Tibetans and Hokkien Chinese, and the Rufai sect in the Balkans). But this is far from standard today, and it doesn’t feature in some early accounts.

Shoshone 1925

Shoshone Indians perform Sun dance at Fort Hall, 1925. Source: wiki.

Along with the whole suppression of indigenous peoples, the ritual was prohibited from 1883, but the ban was enforced only patchily. Detailed early studies include

The ban was lifted in Canada in 1951, in the USA in 1978. In 1993 a Lakota summit issued a declaration:

Whereas sacrilegious “sundances” for non-Indians are being conducted by charlatans and cult leaders who promote abominable and obscene imitations of our sacred Lakota sundance rites; […] We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing, and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

Non-indigenous people were banned from attending the ritual in 2003.

Part of a trilogy on on the lives of Kanai Nation Blood Indians of the Blackfoot confederacy in Western Alberta, the short film Circle of the Sun (1960) shows little of the ritual, but rather the changing tastes of young people no longer bound to the reservation (oil-rigging, rodeo):

* * *

Sa 1898

Zitkala-Sa, 1898 with violin. Wiki.

The Dakota activist Zitkala-Sa (1876–1938) chronicled her struggles with cultural identity; her training in WAM led to The Sun Dance opera (1913), with William F. Hanson. Here’s a documentary:


[1] Among many online resources, see e.g.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Dance
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sun-Dance
https://www.notesfromthefrontier.com/post/the-sun-dance-sacred-ceremony
http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.rel.046
and the detailed account
https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-lakota-sun-dance/

Rom, Dom, Lom

kids

Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *

Rom map

Elmas Arus is deeply involved in the campaign for Roma equality, with her campaign Zero Discrimination. Perhaps unavoidably, some of the filming looks exotic, contrasting with the articulate comments of locals and scholars on poverty, social issues, and discrimination. It deserves to be revamped with a more comprehensible version of the subtitles.

Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.

kemence

The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).

From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:

If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.

Urban demolition, as in the Sulukele quarter of Istanbul, is ironically followed by Erdoğan expressing support for the Roma in 2010. The film goes on to sketch weddings; the transition from nomadic to settled lives; the hıdırellez festival and the annual pilgrimage to Hacıbektaş. All the themes deserve more lengthy treatment.

In her excellent book Bury me standing, Isabel Fonseca only touches on Turkey in her chapter on the Bulgarian Roma, but it makes a fine introduction to the wider context around east central Europe.

This is the latest in my series on culture in Turkey.


* See e.g. here. Relevant wiki articles include

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Turkey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdal_of_Turkey

Recent studies of the Uyghur crisis

The professorial inauguration of Rachel Harris at SOAS was a splendid multi-media event, with live music, a new short film, and Rachel’s account of her recent fieldwork on the culture of Uyghur refugees in the Zeytninburnu district of Istanbul. For her books on the Uyghur soundscape, click here and here.

It’s hard to keep up with publications on the Uyghur genocide. James Millward offers a useful selection of readings, leading to this bibliography.

Among several fine scholars is the anthropologist Darren Byler, who has recently published several works. His Terror capitalism: Uyghur dispossession and masculinity in a Chinese city (2022; interview here) is a major study. A more succinct account, but just as incisive, is

  • In the camps (2022).

In the camps cover

Detailed case studies of the nightmares endured by innocent people illustrate the web of checkpoints, digital surveillance, and facial recognition, operated by private technology companies and police contractors; and the mass internment projects that are aimed not at a small number of criminals but at the entire Muslim population.

The surveillance system itself produced assumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality. As the system manufactured these claims, many Muslims were made to hide their moral objections by wearing masks of loyalty to the state programme. Those who lacked these masks were dehumanised under the lights and cameras of the camps. They were transformed by plastic stools, electric batons, and automated cruelty. They were trained to sit still, cower when appropriate, to accept beatings silently, to sing loudly, to always smile, and to say “Yes!” to every command. They were conditioned not to register the smell of excrement, fear, and sweat that came with the open buckets used as toilets, the crush of unwashed bodies in cramped space, and their terror of the guards. They stopped noticing the glare of bright lights in the middle of the night. They stopped feeling their constant hunger. They stopped thinking about the distant future or the past.

Smartphones, which became common from 2005, seemed a blessing, allowing people to share information widely—all the more once WeChat became popular from 2010. Sharing knowledge with Islamic communities abroad was just one aspect of this. This soon turned into a “phone disaster”, as state scrutiny of the device became a major tool in its “War on Terror”.

As Byler discovers, the chain of guilt leads to tech companies in the USA, and within the PRC to the forced labour of factories both in Xinjiang and in the Chinese heartland. Meanwhile camp guards, technicians, and “teachers”—Han Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh—were also desensitised, although many were deeply traumatised. A Muslim women, conscripted from her primary school job to teach Chinese to camp inmates, soon realised that this assignment was no ordinary “training centre”. Finding her first “pupils” were handcuffed elderly men with beards, without thinking, she used the traditional greeting “Assalamu alaykum”.

When she said this, the students froze. “They looked terrified. I realised I had said something wrong. I introduced myself and started the class. I just stared at the blackboard, and didn’t turn back to look at their faces. I couldn’t turn around because some detainees were sobbing. Some of the old men’s beards were wet from crying. I tried to compose myself. I didn’t look back at all during the class. I just kept writing and erasing the characters on the blackboard.

Gradually she acclimatises to the performance demanded of her. The staff too are under constant scrutiny, their every movement recorded on camera, their own phones monitored.

The violence of functioning within the camp system wore her down. Violating the personhood of others resulted in a violation of her own sense of dignity and self-worth.

Relatives of the disappeared lived in fear too. Family separation has become endemic; “in some Uyghur-majority areas, as many as 70% of children up through age five are now held in Mandarin-medium ‘Kindness Kindergartens’ while their parents are in prisons, camps, or factories“. On the rare occasions when inmates were permitted supervised family visits, it was even more painful to have to go through the charade of pretending that everything was fine.

Those who are eventually released from the camps, cowed into subservience, often find themselves coerced into forced labour as factory workers for Han Chinese companies. The fruits of their labour are sold around the world. Propaganda praises such enterprise as “poverty alleviation” for a backward people, whereby they acquire “life skills”, workers are entirely deprived of legal protections, forming a captive underclass.

One camp survivor observed,

We often became hopeless. Sometimes we really felt hatred towards the Chinese people, to the point where I would catch myself thinking that I could kill Chinese government workers just to feel something. But then I think about all the Han Chinese people I’ve met who also criticise Xi Jinping, who curse him. So I can’t blame the Chinese people for this; they are victims too.

Finally Byler turns to the global picture. He notes that the surveillance system of Xinjiang is an extreme, “perfected” instance of those deployed around the world, and developed in the West at companies such as at his own base in Seattle, with Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google, Adobe all deeply implicated.

The management of Covid is also implicated in such systems:

The ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as rapidly as they have to the pandemic relies in part on the way systems of oppression in Northwest China have opened up a space to train biometric surveillance algorithms. The protection of others depends on […] ignoring the dehumanisation of thousands of detainees and unfree workers.

Byler notes the potential of such technology to further entrench racialization in the USA.

The algorithms make it appear normal that black men or Uyghurs are disproportionately detected by these systems. They stop the police, and those they protect, from recognising that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people that do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance.

* * *

A more wide-ranging study is

  • Darren Byler, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere (eds), Xinjiang Year Zero (2022; free download here).

XJ Year Zero cover

The volume is an outgrowth of the Made in China Journal, where several of the essays were originally published. The Preface by Andrea Pitzer, and the editors’ Introduction, spell out some of the main themes: camps, surveillance, technology, labour exploitation, and global connections. Aimed at the whole society, ethnic cleansing criminalises the everyday lives of Muslims in Xinjiang.

The book is in three broad sections. Part One, “Discursive roots”, traces historical factors.Ye Hui, “Nation building as epistemic violence”, situates the repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in the history of global imperialism, outlining how the dispossession of populations in Xinjiang today is an effect of secular nation-building. Zenab Ahmed, “Revolution and state formation as oasis storytelling in Xinjiang”, analyses assimilationist policies targeting Uyghur spirituality and mythic storytelling. Guldana Salimjan, “Blood lineage”, traces how conceptions of racial purity and authenticity have shaped national consciousness throughout the history of the PRC. David Brophy, “Good and bad Muslims in Xinjiang”, examines how Beijing taps into global discourses of counter-radicalisation emerging from the US-led War on Terror. In “Imprisoning the open air: preventive policing as community detention in northwestern China”, Darren Byler digs into how counterinsurgency strategies developed in the USA, Israel, and Europe have been adapted for “community policing” in Xinjiang.

Zero 1

Zero 2

Part Two, “Settler colonialism”, situates the case of contemporary Xinjiang in a longer-run history of Han settler colonialism. Tom Cliff’s photo essay “Oil and water” depicts the lives of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang. Guldana Salimjan, “Recruiting loyal stabilisers: on the banality of carceral colonialism in Xinjiang”, details the ongoing human transfer project in Xinjiang through the banal language of recruitment and employment. In “Triple dispossession in northwestern China”, Sam Tynen explores multiple forms of everyday dispossession and displacement of Uyghurs outside the camps. Timothy Grose, “Replace and rebuild: Chinese colonial housing in Uyghur communities”, outlines the ways in which Uyghur spaces are being reorganised, resulting in the disruption of conceptions of home; as in other colonial projects, “civilising” the indigenous population entails destroying their tradition. Rian Thum, “The spatial cleansing of Xinjiang: Mazar desecration in context”, details the meaning and implications of the destruction of three of the most revered sacred and historical sites in Xinjiang (see also Shrine festivals of the Uyghurs), as well as the desecration of graveyards. Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: settler ecotourism and Kazakh removal in contemporary Xinjiang”, explains how the discourses and practices of ecotourism are used to justify the removal of Kazakh communities. Darren Byler, “Factories of Turkic Muslim internment”, shows how the internment camps are producing cheap labour for the factories moving to Xinjiang to take advantage of the situation.

Zero 3

Tourists entering the new Kashgar Old City, 2015.

Part Three, “Global connections”, concerns the global nature of mass detention and the emergence of a high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang. Nicholas Loubere and Stefan Brehm, “The global age of the algorithm: social credit, Xinjiang, and the financialisation of governance in China”, draw connections between experiments with “social credit” and broader global processes of financialised inclusion, reflecting on what this means for social control. Darren Byler, “Surveillance, data police, and digital enclosure in Xinjiang’s ‘Safe Cities’ ” explores how Xinjiang’s “Safe Cities” are facilitating forms of surveillance and digital enclosure. Gerald Roche, “Transnational carceral capitalism and private paramilitaries in Xinjiang and beyond” examines the role of an international private security firm in Xinjiang, considering how the global security industry precipitates the circulation of methods and technologies of control in China and beyond. Séagh Kehoe, “Chinese feminism, Tibet, and Xinjiang”, looks at the plight of women and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang from the perspective of the Chinese and international feminist movements. Nitasha Kaul, “China: Xinjiang; India: Kashmir”, compares China and India in their treatment of “othered” populations in Xinjiang and Kashmir (which share a border).

In the Conclusion, the editors update the story and note important issues that the international community needs to address. An Appendix gives a detailed timeline since 2009.

Scholarship on the PRC can no longer ignore such impressive research on the repression in Xinjiang and elsewhere—which must continue to be highlighted among the many current alarms around the world.

This is the latest in my series on Uyghur culture, with posts listed here.

What’s the craic?

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Craic pub

I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).

* * *

Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.

Irish session 2

Sitting around the table, taking turns—like in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo teahouses.

So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.

The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).

The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!

Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.

While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):

Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.

Rulan Chao Pian: an exhibition

Rulan 1

The Harvard Library has a new bilingual exhibition (until the end of August) on the life and work of Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭(1922–2013; here, and wiki), with rare books, original field recordings, and other material from her research and teaching.

Rulan 1941 Cambridge

1941, Cambridge, Mass. Source.

Daughter of the linguist Yuen Ren Chao, Rulan Chao Pian was a leading scholar of the performing arts and music history of China, teaching at Harvard from 1947 until her retirement in 1992. She was one of the founders of CHINOPERL. In 1974 she became the first Chinese American woman professor at Harvard. Soon after mainland China opened up with the liberalisations of the late 1970s she was active in researching and lecturing there, while spreading word abroad of the revival in performance traditions and scholarship.

Rulan 2

In her bibliography, note the wealth of articles on Peking opera and narrative singing. On early history, her 1969 book Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation explored material that was already being interpreted by scholars like Yang Yinliu in China and Laurence Picken in England. See also the festschrift Themes and variations: essays in honor of Rulan Chao Pian, ed. Bell Yung and Joseph Lam (1994).

Rehearsal and practice

Felix Warnock’s fine memoir opens with a blow-by-blow story of Pierre Boulez subjecting his playing to a mercilessly forensic public examination in front of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This got me thinking about the conventions of orchestral rehearsal.

My remarks below refer to orchestral string players; I don’t know how much of it applies to wind players—who are more like soloists, each playing their own individual part. And all this changes over time, varying both in the UK and around the continent.

Indeed, rehearsal * has changed substantially since the 18th century; the original performers of Bach’s cantatas and Passions were confronted with challenging new music every week, yet rehearsal time was minimal; and after the service they might never play these pieces again. Modern performers are most unauthentic in knowing every corner of the Passions—as I wrote in my article on Bach and Daoist ritual,

Even Bach’s performers never got the chance to get to know them nearly as intimately as Mark Padmore when he sings the Evangelist. Even I have performed both the John and Matthew Passions more in a single week than Bach did in his whole lifetime. And of course we have recordings, which affects not just availability but our expectations of technical “perfection”. When we sight-read an unfamiliar cantata we are being more “authentic” than our own saturation in the Passions. However rigorous our training in baroque style, and however lengthy our experience, they are utterly different from those of Bach’s performers.

Aesthetics changed only gradually through the 19th century, further stimulated in the 20th century by the development of recording technology.

In the UK since at least the 1970s, for standard repertoire (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so on) there may be just one single three-hour rehearsal on the day of the concert—although conductors with some clout may be in a position to demand lengthier preparation. Of necessity, British players are renowned for their sight-reading abilities—limited budgets meaning shortage of rehearsal time. There’s safety in numbers, and with any luck tricky string passages will be camouflaged beneath loud wind and brass chords; you can usually busk it (again, unless singled out in rehearsal, as in this story!). Indeed, it can be hard to tell which passages might be tricky until you hear the piece in context. Learning the dots is what rehearsals are for.

In all but the most exceptional cases, it’s considered uncool to take the parts home to practise between rehearsals. Having played a range of music in youth orchestras and then in college, students also prepare with collections of orchestral excerpts. Although most London musicians are freelance, and in many cases don’t have to audition, these collections are useful to help prepare for auditions for a regular job in a symphony orchestra—now they’re revolutionised by online collections, complete with recordings.

Mahler 5
From Mahler 5, 1st movement. Source.

So by the time you get to sit in a professional orchestra, you will have played a lot of the repertoire; moreover, when you come across a piece you haven’t played before, you will be familiar enough with the style to be able to sight-read well.

Brahms 3

Brahms 3, opening. Source.

A young violinist goes for an audition. The leader puts an orchestral excerpt on the stand for him, and he starts hacking away at it gamely. It seems to be going rather well, until reaching the foot of the page, he whips it over, looks up and exclaims breezily, “Good God, this is Brahms 3—I’d never have known!”.

Cf. Musospeak: excuses and bravado.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly rehearsing (and often performing) in the Maida Vale studios, enjoyed a rather leisurely schedule. But for some other bands such as the RPO it was a matter of pride to cut it fine, ideally staggering in directly from the pub. Still, you could tell if people cared just a bit about a gig—and a conductor—when most of the band was already practising several minutes (!) before the conductor arrived to take the rehearsal.

Symphony musicians were most unlikely to take “the music” home to practise. Such “cheating” wouldn’t endear you to your peers—it made you a kind of teacher’s pet. Backstage before the gig itself, where you’re unlikely to have sheet music with you, practising snippets is just about OK; but wizz-kid violinists soon learn that it’s uncool to show off with their fancy concertos.

The line between the mild panic to which musicians are accustomed and the tedium of over-rehearsal with a pedantic uninspired conductor is illustrated by the diametrically opposite approaches of the great maestro Rozhdestvensky (“Noddy”) and Celibidache. For me, Noddy had an electrifying vision of spontaneous creation, whereas Celi’s espousal of Zen (he’s even cited in the wiki article on the Japanese aesthetic of transience) was surely refuted by his endless nit-picking in rehearsal. Even Carlos Kleiber achieved the magic of his concerts through lengthy rehearsal. The story of the rehearsal where the players asked Noddy if they could possibly just play the piece all the way through just once before the gig is all the more drôle precisely because musicians are always chafing about being subjected to too much rehearsal.

And anyway, the most stressful passages of all are slow, sustained pianissimo, which only become more difficult as the moment of truth approaches. Felix may have been sight-reading, but that wasn’t the problem; what was so excruciating was the exposure in front of everyone. For string players, there may be safety in numbers with the louder, more virtuosic passages, but not with hushed slow writing, where they are especially prone to attacks of the purlies. It’s often easier to play a solo than to play such slow passages in a section of fourteen violinists, when it can be agonising even to try getting the bow on the string, let alone keep it moving. That excerpt above from Mahler 5 may look fiendish, but fiddle players may be more anxious about the Adagietto.

Early music
The world of early music bands since the 1970s is rather different. A keen leader, or conductor, would sometimes ask fixers to send out the parts in advance—which players who had experience of symphony orchestras might find amateurish.

We became accustomed to sectional rehearsals in the National Youth Orchestra, but I don’t recall any in professional symphony orchestras; I sometimes encountered them again in early music. Generally, early music bands get more rehearsal time than symphony orchestras—and for programmes that seem less challenging, at least technically.

In the 1980s’ heyday of the recording industry’s infatuation with early music, the opposite might happen too: at recording sessions for at least one band, you might turn up to play through some obscure Haydn symphony that no-one had ever played before, and the red light would be switched on at once; moreover, some of these takes even ended up on the CD. At least—like our counterparts in the symphonic world—we were immersed in the style, and prepared for eventualities.

World traditions
The wiki article on rehearsal gives an inadvertently apposite list of some other types, such as “wedding guests and couples practising a wedding ceremony, paramedics practising responding to a simulated emergency, or troops practising for an attack using a mock-up of the building”.

The concept of “rehearsal” tends to be elusive in many musical traditions around the world. It adds another layer to the continuum from composition to performance, which the great Bruno Nettl pondered in his work on improvisation.

Rather than rehearsing, young students learn by imitating their masters, often within the family, soon going on to “perform” for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Household Daoists learn their trade from young, including the vocal liturgy and instrumental repertoire, but their skills are gradually consolidated on the job (see e.g. Li Manshan’s recollections in our film, from 9.50). They go through a process of “studying for three years, returning [the debt] for three years”, but from very early in their apprenticeship they are taking part in ritual performance. It’s not even easy to find musicians “practising” individually.

I absorb the fug of the “public house” in rehearsal, Gaoluo 1996.

I found a clearer case in Gaoluo village in the weeks leading up to the New Year rituals, when the large ensemble re-familiarised themselves with the shengguan instrumental repertoire by getting together to recite the gongche solfeggio of the score—partly because as an amateur group that was only in occasional demand for funerals, they might not have played for some time (see Plucking the winds, pp.247–53). 

There seems to be scope for research here; but in all, as Nettl too suggests, perhaps such traditions are not so far from the WAM scene: you learn from young, and then you start taking part in rituals/concerts. In WAM it’s complicated both by having to perform pieces that you might not know and by the chimera of perfection; but for the familiar standard repertoire, one might wonder where rehearsal might come into it. To adapt Laurel and Hardy, here’s another nice mess WAM has gotten itself into (for the Dance of the cuckoos, see here).

Still, WAM musos, for whom the artistic fulfilment of which they dreamed in their teens is often submerged under the pressure and routine of the profession (cf. Ecstasy and drudge), will find few things so satisfying as doing a series of performances on tour of a great work that they’ve been playing for a couple of decades, with an able and inspired conductor who esteems and trusts in the players’ experience—whether Mahler in a symphony orchestra or a HIP Bach Passion.


* As I noted here, in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. The German Probe is suggestively medical. In English, “re-hearse” may sound like putting back into a vehicle to transport the dead—and indeed, there is a connection. It comes from French hercier “to drag, trail along the ground; rake, harrow [land]; rip, tear, wound” [sic!]; 13th-century English borrowed hers from Old French: “a framework, like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin”, which by the 17th century became “hearse” in the modern sense.

Landscapes of music in Istanbul

Landscapes cover

The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in

  • Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).

Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.

Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.

All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:

Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.

Papadopoulos continues with “Rembetika as embodiment of Istanbul’s margins: musical landscapes in and of transition”. He cites the classic ethnography of Ilias Petropoulos in Athens (see under Road to rebetika). The ethos of the genre, indeed the whole way of life, was transgressive (cf. Songs of Asia Minor, and Deviating from behavioural norms).

Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.

rembetika 52

If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.

Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.

He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.

Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.

Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.

Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.

But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):

But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.

He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalised music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):

The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.

In conclusion Yildirim observes:

Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.

While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.

Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).

Here’s the blind Alevi bard Âşık Veysel in 1969 (YouTube topic here):

The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.

Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]

Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.

This leads suitably into Ulaş Özdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,

Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.

As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:

The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:

I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.

The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:

An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.

This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.

Papadopoulos provides an Afterword, Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Part protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.

Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.

Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s,

Social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:

You are saying this and that
We are fed up
Your one-man decisions, your commands
We are fed up We are so bored
What kind of a wrath this is
What is this anger?
Take it easy
When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests
They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares
Everywhere it is shopping mall
I don’t like to pass from your bridges
What happened to our city?
It is full of buildings with hormones.

The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.

In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:

Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.

See also Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

Perfection is NOT the word for it

Felix cover

A fine new addition to the ethnography of Western Art Music * is

The title alludes to Sir Claus Moser’s diplomatic backstage words to an ageing diva. Both wise and delightful, the book is generously laced with deviant orchestral stories, but it’s much more than that. The blurb hardly does justice to the serious wider issues that Felix covers:

Orchestral life in Britain is thriving and anarchic, in turns chaotic, hilarious, and brutal. ** Perfection Is NOT the word for it is a personal, and mostly affectionate, account of life amongst the extraordinary characters who lead their over-stressed lives in this unusual world, surrounded by music but driven by everyday anxieties, and always defying the best efforts of administrators, bureaucrats, and conductors to tame the unruly beast which is a professional orchestra.

Felix makes a most sympathetic narrator. An orchestral and chamber bassoonist of note (possibly top C, as in The Rite of Spring), he has the rare distinction of having graduated to the role of managing some of the leading early music bands that have shaken up the scene since the 1970s. So while orchestral musos tend to take a dim view of administrators, Felix has the advantage, or misfortune, to have straddled both sides of the fence; he adopts the “poacher turned gamekeeper” metaphor, and one thinks of the common transition from football player to manager.

Chapter 1 opens with a priceless, if harrowing, blow-by-blow account of his first encounter with Pierre Boulez in 1972 upon being summoned at short notice to dep for a rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (his very first professional gig, to boot)—an ordeal which becomes ineluctably more excruciating. After this it may be hard to hear the divine slow movement of the Brahms 1st piano concerto with the same ears. Unlike the viola player singled out during a Mendelssohn rehearsal, Felix didn’t even manage a pithy riposte.

Although his ordeal at the hands of Boulez was exceptional, musicians are keen to get revenge on their overlords by maestro-baiting, of which we are treated to several examples. He also has some good instances of corpsing.

There are cameos from the renowned clarinettist Jack Brymer (an incident that precisely parallels one about the conductor Eric Leinsdorf) and the then rather less renowned Tony Pay (cf. this story). As on tour, and with my fieldwork in China (e.g. here), Felix delights in chains of stories. Alcohol, soon to be a pervasive theme of the book, enters the fray with the BBC’s principal horn Alan Civil—and one might add the wealth of stories about trumpeter John Wilbraham.

The pressures of touring were alleviated by excessive drinking. Felix pays tribute to the “sublimely gifted” violinist Alan Loveday, stories about whose travails with alcohol became legendary. On tour with the Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields (in which Felix played for fifteen years), conductor Neville Marriner had to lock Alan into his hotel room every evening—ensuring that he never once made it onto the concert platform, thus achieving “a feat that many musicians would think ideal, a tour without concerts”.

Loveday

Alan was a talented bridge player, a taste that Felix shared. ••• He eventually took the road to recovery. He was keen to take up period-instrument performance, but never got round to it—as Felix observes, “if sober, he could have brought great critical credibility to this new world”. Felix’s tribute to Alan’s eccentricity and deep love of music leads him to stories about the iconic Francis Baines.

After this heady introduction to the orchestral world, Chapter 2 “An Oxford overture” returns to Felix’s upbringing with a perceptive account of the “tremendous intellectual intensity” of the post-war years there. Second of five children, he was deeply grateful for his education at the Dragon School (“a culture of kindness, politeness, and humanity”, enriched by its bizarre collection of characters on the teaching staff). Less happy at Winchester, he managed to leave school at 16, with the support of his wise mother. In the holidays he attended National Youth Orchestra courses.

Reading between the lines, it must have been through the rational enquiry of his distinguished philosopher parents that he acquired a seriousness and vision that his initial career as bassoon player was unlikely to satisfy. Sitting in on their dinner parties, he also inherited their taste for wordplay.

In Chapter 3, suitably titled “Five in a bar” (which is quite drôle enough without venturing to Tchaikovsky, Brubeck, and Balkan folk music), Felix recalls his happy, if blurred, days in the Albion Ensemble, a wind quintet seemingly modelled on the Famous Five—making a welcome occasional relief from the fraught struggles of the orchestral world. Felix opens the chapter with the convoluted story of a live broadcast for US TV.

It was soon after this lamentable episode (perhaps even because of it) that the Albion Ensemble’s capacity for resilience and self-preservation came to the attention of the British Council.

The quintet was now despatched to “countries in which self-reliance and an ability to deal with the unexpected would be at least as important as giving concerts”. Their adventures began with a five-week tour of the Far East. In China they learn the perils of official banquets (inexplicably, the quintet’s minders didn’t think to introduce them to their counterparts among household Daoists in the north Chinese countryside). In South Korea their provincial travels are given an extra edge by having very little idea of where they were supposed to be when, or how to get there. The quest for alcohol becomes ever more compelling. In the Philippines they succumb in turn to a gory bout of food poisoning, as they pass a hospital bearing the name of “The Antenatal clinic of the Immaculate Conception”.

Chapter 4, “Trials and errors”, takes us to the early music movement (note the work of Richard Taruskin and John Butt), in which Felix played a major role both as player and manager. The 1980s were a golden age for London’s freelancers, stimulated by the new CD format, film sessions, and touring; still, Felix was feeling the fragility of freelancing, “a house of cards which could collapse at the slightest unfavourable gust”.

Inspired by the innovations of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and Brüggen, he now expanded into “period instrument” performance. We find erudite notes on reviving the French bassoon that had lost out to its German counterpart; and on pitch standards adopted by the movement (a=415 being a fair compromise for the wide range used in baroque times, whereas a=430 for the classical era was a concoction imposed by Decca at an Academy of Ancient Music meeting).

Felix spent a period on the Music Advisory Panel of the Arts Council, entrusted with the task of finding a niche for WAM in a diverse market, which gave him serious reservations about box-ticking PC and committees’ fear of elitism. I’m sure he could offer a detailed critique of my own argument in What is serious music?!; indeed, my global view is All Very Well, but promoters inevitably find themselves having to fight for their particular corner of the bazaar.

Meanwhile he took a correspondence law course. Felix and his wife Julie eventually mastered the invidious competition for adoption, learning to guess the expected answers to rigorous questionnaires.

In Chapter 5 Felix recounts the invention of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from 1985 (I was glad to learn that it was Chris Hogwood who coined its alternative name Age of Embezzlement). As Felix reflected,

London’s freelance musicians had achieved a remarkably dominant international position in period instrument performance but were now in danger of becoming stuck at their current level of (relative) mediocrity.

The various orchestras were closely identified with their founders (Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner, Norrington, and so on), but the pool of performers overlapped. “Our owners/proprietors were building international reputations based on the numerous recordings which we, the humble workers, had been making for them”. Meanwhile there was no platform in London for the great continental directors like Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Brüggen, and Kujken; moreover, the scene, dominated by “semi-conductors” (in Norman Lebrecht’s fine term), was closed to “real” maestros from the modern symphonic world who might offer new insights into the repertoire, like Charles Mackerras (for whose splendid anagram, click here), S-Simon Rattle, and Mark Elder.

This led to the forming of a new orchestra that would engage its conductors, not the other way around. The financial challenge was daunting. But the success of Rattle’s concert performance of Idomeneo in 1987 led to an annual summer residency at Glyndebourne, and record contracts were soon secured. By 1988 Felix found himself managing the orchestra, negotiating projects with institutions like the South Bank Centre and the Proms while attempting to entice the busy continental maestros who had originally inspired him. 

Left, Frans Brüggen; right, Trevor Pinnock.

By 1993, amidst difficult decisions over the orchestra’s personnel, Felix had to resign. From 1995 he managed the English Concert, which he found himself having to re-invent, as described in Chapter 6. Under the benevolent Trevor Pinnock the orchestra had thrived, but their recording contract was soon to expire, and another identity crisis loomed. Whereas Felix’s challenge at the OAE had been to create a clear and sustainable identity after a frenetic set-up, here the issue was the mirror image: “how to create a new and exciting identity for an already-successful organisation in danger of being overtaken by younger competitors”. But, as he reflects, the two orchestras did have one thing in common: neither had any money.

The English Concert had a remarkable success in staging Haydn’s puppet opera Philemon und Baucis. Here Felix gives another nice aside on the history of marionette theatre in England and on the continent; and he notes the relatively recent tradition of orchestral string sections using the same bowings.

Felix wrestles with fiendish logistics for the US tour of the Brandenburg concertos. At post-concert receptions he finds himself in the role of grown-up, nervously observing the players’ antics, with which he is all too familiar. Organising a Matthew Passion tour around concerts in Spain presents further scheduling challenges. Much as we love the bars there (and I, at least, love the flamenco), travelling around is indeed gruelling, as a later “tour from hell” confirmed.

AM&RP

With Trevor Pinnock retiring, and the inspired leader Rachel Podger also leaving, Felix was delighted to find the equally prodigious Andrew Manze to direct the band from the violin. Rachel and Andrew’s Bach double at the Proms is one of my most treasured moments; and on tour, apart from his inspired playing, while we were waiting at Chicago airport Andrew told me one of my very favourite stories, which you can find here.

But while Felix envisaged a return to baroque music, in which the English Concert had made its mark, Andrew was now keen to pursue the fashion for a later repertoire, as he began to set his sights on conducting. With the 2008 recession causing further problems for festivals and promoters, Felix moved on again. Meanwhile his swansong on the bassoon came when he too achieved the ideal of appearing in an orchestra without having to play in it, miming in costume for a TV re-enactment of Handel’s Water music in a barge on the Thames.

Chapter 7, “Double bar: when the music stops”. After leaving the English Concert, Felix worked to find funding for some other projects—including an unfulfilled plan to restore the Notting Hill Coronet cinema to its original function as a music theatre. The building turned out to be owned by the Elim Church, whose largest congregation was at the Kensington Temple nearby—prompting another fine graffiti story. But by this time Felix was seeking a path away from the world of music. Having long served on the Music Advisory Panel of the Radcliffe Trust, he now joined the board of trustees, soon becoming chairman, still devising new projects. Again he offers thoughts on the bureaucratic dangers of the “Age of Regulation”. ****

It’s such a pleasure to read Felix’s memoir, by turns revealing, wise, and hilarious—sometimes all at once. Rush out and buy this book!


* Note e.g. Christopher Small’s Musicking, and Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions; see also Professional music-making in London (Stephen Cottrell); and for New York, Mozart in the jungle (Blair Tindall). Cf. Deviating from behavioural norms (links there including the kangaroo and sardine stories; more in the WAM category under “early music” and “humour”), and Alternative Bach.

** For punctuation nerds: as is my editorial wont, I supply the Oxford comma in such lists—all the more suitable given Felix’s background (albeit depriving us of the pleasures of formulations like “I would like to thank my parents, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Madonna”).

While I’m here, the absence of an index is most regrettable (see The joys of indexing). I hereby provide a sample, should my services be required for a future edition (cf. my draft index for Nicolas Robertson’s magnificent anagram tales, and even that for unlikely place-names to find in a blog dominated by Daoist ritual):index 1
index 2
*** Bridge made another pleasurable pastime for musos on tour, playing on the back of a bus, and at airports—again suitably lubricated by alcohol. As Felix has learned to his cost when I partner him across the baize, my bidding skills are far inferior to his; month after month he patiently talks me through the fiendish opening bid of the multi 2 diamonds, knowing full well that I’m never going to get the hang of it. You gather, of course, that my review of this book is informed by having played a minor role (again, allegedly, not always entirely sober) in many of the musical débacles that Felix evokes.

**** In a Coda from early 2018, Felix explains in apparently rational detail his support for Brexit—a choice that mystified most of his friends (cf. The C-word). Instead, here his readers might prefer a survey of changes since the 1960s to the hand-to-mouth existence of orchestral players (for whom Brexit is the latest disaster), and the gradual transition from the “knit your own yogurt” ethos of the early pioneers to a more polished “Chanel No.5” style—an account that he would be well placed to write.

Ukraine: liturgy

Ukraine church 2

With Ukraine under grave threat, to complement my posts on modern history there and its popular and folk soundscapes, this seems a suitable time to reacquaint myself with my local Ukrainian church, just up the road in Acton.

The original Baptist church there, founded in 1895, was reconsecrated in 1978 as an Ukrainian Orthodox Church—properly called The Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church, Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Saviour. * The services are regularly streamed on Facebook—here’s the one I attended:

The building, unassuming from the outside, is lovely. The little choir, upstairs in the west gallery, punctuates the chanting of the priest.

Ukraine church 1

For the Catholic rite, I ventured to the West End, attending Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family in Exile in Duke street (website; Facebook, with a wealth of videos).

Duke street panorama

Source: church website.

It’s a larger building, converted for use as the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral since 1967. Upstairs in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, the choir of seven women and six men played a substantial role. 

My photos.

For such congregations ritual can serve to enhance solidarity, and at times of crisis, with their relatives and friends under assault back home, to provide consolation.

Ukrainians began settling in the UK in small numbers before World War One, the community increasing after World War Two. Other Ukrainian churches are also active around the UK (for the Orthodox church, click here, and for Catholic parishes, here), and elsewhere in the diaspora—such as the USA and Australia, where many services are shown on YouTube.

* * *

Refugees worship
Source.

Ritual marks division as well as unity. The long, complex history of both Orthodox and Catholic churches in Ukraine is inextricable from politics (see here, and wiki). The Orthodox church, having attempted for many centuries to assert its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, has sought autocephaly since 1992, ratified since 2018. From St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv, here are highlights of the first Liturgy of His Beatitude Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine:

And now services have had to be held in bomb shelters, as Greek Catholic priests do here:

The many monasteries of Mount Athos, from which women are excluded,  are major sites for Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian Orthodox liturgies. Here’s part of the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy at the monastery of Xenophontos in 2019—the first celebration of the Epiphanius on Athos:

Since Athos has never added the more recent harmonic tradition of mixed-voice choirs, its monophonic male-voice choral groups sound all the more ancient.


* Wisely, they haven’t attempted to erect a signpost.

Ukraine: traditional soundscapes

trombita

Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk demonstrates the trombita.

The great strength of Maria Sonevytsky’s excellent Wild music is the way she binds urban popular genres closely with the constantly changing social and political life of Ukraine. While she shows how avtentyka and etnomuzyka performers remould “traditional” rural cultures, the latter are not her main topic; and indeed (typically?), such local musicking, submerged under glossy media representations, may seem to have become vestigial.

Still, as a rank outsider (as with my impertinent forays into many areas of world music, largely untrammelled by any knowledge of the subject) I’m prompted to explore online sites to seek some sonic soundmarks, and to suggest the kind of fieldwork practised by Sonevytsky’s mentors.

Given that most folk musicking is based in life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I’m sorry that few of the tracks below provide much social context—online clips often tend towards the fakeloric. But a home video like this, from a 2004 village wedding in Kolomyja county, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, has a good honest feeling (and talking of avtentyka, even the weather is authentic):

For singing (largely “salvage” initiatives), note the videos on the Tree website, and the Polyphony project (website; YouTube channel). Sonevytsky herself collaborated in the Chornobyl songs project (2011), based on the long-term fieldwork of Yevhen Yefremov.

Here’s a solo kolomyjky song accompanied by fiddle at the summer solstice festival, also from Ivano-Frankivsk:

Some iconic instruments of the Hutsul people of the highlands in west Ukraine:

  • the long trembita horns (played over the wider Carpathian region) that gained fleeting celebrity with Ruslana’s winning Eurovision song in 2004 (see Wild music): here’s an introduction by the great Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk:

Here three trembitas accompany a funeral in 2009:

For funerals, see e.g. here.

This audio track also has good archive photos:

I’m still on the lookout for material on the surma shawm—clues welcome.

  • the tsymbaly hammered dulcimer is shown in the wedding above—in this 1992 clip it plays with fiddle and bass:

(cf. zithers of Iran and Turkey, Korea and China, Alpine).

  • the sopilka (among several types of wooden end-blown flute) is heard in a brief clip from the battlefront recently:

  • mol’far shamans with their drymba jews harp—demonstrated by Mikhail Nechay in 1991:

and here he is in 2009, interviewed by Maria Sonevytsky:

  • the duda / volynka bagpipe, again demonstrated by Mykhailo Tafiychuk:

(I’ve given some leads to bagpipes elsewhere under Vermeer, south Italy, the Rioja, and so on.)

  • Three short scenes with the Tafiychuk family:

and at a festival performance:

Click here for a discography of the Tafiychuks.

  • For early recordings of immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey (cf. the companion disc at the end of Folk traditions of Poland), here’s Ukrainian village music: historic recordings 1928-1933 (playlist):

And here’s a 1951 Folkways LP:

  • For the Crimean Tatars, here’s the first of three compilations on the emblematic qaytarma 7/8 dance (“traditional”, followed by “modern” and “retro” lists):

* * *

While folk musical activity changes constantly along with society (cf. Society and soundscape, and Musics lost and found), all this may remind us that it survives not merely in the commodified representations of urbanites; and that in Ukraine, to paraphrase its national anthem, rural culture is not dead yet.

For more readings on the history of modern Ukraine, click here. See also Ukraine: liturgy.
Cf. Folk traditions of Poland (indeed, Stanisław Mierczyński did fieldwork among the Hutsuls from 1934 to 1938); and Musical cultures of east Europe.

Returning to the Polyphony project for Ukraine, I suspect many people of my generation love this clip because it’s just the kind of chat we have with our own friends:

The Madonna of 115th street

festa 1

Source (image undated).

Having struggled with the dense theoretical terminology of ritual studies so ably surveyed by Catherine Bell, it’s a great pleasure to read the classic 1985 ethnography

  • Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.

This study of “religion in the streets” describes the annual festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in New York, celebrated by poor immigrants from south Italy and their American-born or –raised children. [1]

Orsi cover

By the time that Orsi was visiting the neighbourhood the heyday of the festa was long past. Besides his own interviews, he consults copious written sources, notably Leonard Covello’s interviews from the late 1920s, as well as parish bulletins—in which women’s requests for graces were prominent—and novels.

This introductory sentence may seem simple, but it’s crucial:

It is the central assumption of this history that the celebration cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the people who took part in it.

Orsi constantly notes social and religious change. On procession, men and women were segregated until at least the 1940s. “As soon as economic capacity matched social aspiration, which allowed Italians to send their children to school, the entire grammar school of Our Lady of Mount Carmel marched in the procession by grade.” Before the community was powerful enough to make arrangements, the procession had to stop for passing trolley cars. But as the neighbourhood shrank, so did the procession.

He shows the disparaging stance of the official church towards “popular religion” (cf. De Martino on taranta in south Italy; and elsewhere, such as in China!), and the attempt to transform it into a vision of respectable American Catholicism, like its Irish or Polish adherents.

The immigrants made no distinction between “sacred” and “profane” elements of the festa: all had an integrated meaning. However, they did constantly distinguish religion and church. The festa was

the occasion on which the Italians of Harlem revealed to themselves and to others who they were, introduced their children to their most fundamental perceptions of reality, and attempted to deal with the many tensions and crises that arose because they were immigrants in a strange land and because of the particular nature of their deepest values.

The landscape of urban popular religion is also important, “a world of parks, stoops, alleyways, hallways, fire escapes, storefronts, traffic, police, courtyards, street crime, and street play”…

Chapter 1 gives a vivid description that will remind fieldworkers of popular festivals in many parts of the world; for me it recalls in some detail the “red and fiery” (see e.g. Chau, Religion in China, chapter 3) atmosphere of Chinese temple fairs. The convivial atmosphere of the festa lasted throughout the week surrounding the main day on 16th July. Pilgrims were hosted from out of town, apartments and streets cleaned, food prepared. Amidst a wealth of decorations American flags and the Italian tricolour were displayed. Orsi evokes processions, vows, graces, healing, people offering bundles of clothing; booths selling religious items, including wax replicas of afflicted human organs, statuettes of infants (for doll effigies, cf. The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan since the 1980s”), and charms.

Orsi 9On procession the statue of the Madonna was carried on a float, with a guard of honour, fireworks, and incense, touring the parish (China again..). A powerful metaphor for submission was the carrying of heavy candles on procession. The boundaries of the community were defined both by the procession and by the smells and tastes of the festa, with feasting at home and on the streets.

At the rear of the procession, and into the church, came penitents—some barefoot, some crawling. The faithful sang south Italian religious chants; bands played Italian and American music; concerts were held in local parks; men gambled. At first the festa was led by merchants and businessmen; from the 1920s it was directed by the local elite of lawyers, politicians, and so on. Irish police kept the peace.

Orsi soon undermines the rosy image of this beguiling preliminary sketch. Chapter 2 describes the history of Italian immigration to Harlem. The small early communities in the 1870s kept expanding as arrivals fleeing hardship in Basilicata and Calabria added to the ethnic mix in East Harlem, experiencing a new kind of hardship. By the 1920s much of the neighbourhood was dominated by Italians. Conflict with the Irish population was particularly fierce.

Emigration was a family strategy for survival. With kinship networks strong, people’s main loyalty was to the family. They would send regular remittances back to south Italy. If early arrivals (mainly men) felt conflicted attitudes towards the homeland, the second and third generations continued to learn about the bonds with their culture, not least through Leonard Covello’s educational work from the 1920s. Household shrines were standard.

There was continuity, but within the context of disruption—“men separated from their wives and children, men and women separated from their parents and grandparents”. They felt the gulf between their aspirations and the harsh reality of life in Harlem. “Guilt that they were not doing enough, pressure to work harder and faster, and fear that they would be unsuccessful haunted the early arrivals”. They were anxious that family structures and norms would be eroded, and that they would become unrecognisable to their kin back home.

Their hunger for work made them vulnerable to exploitation. Apart from their household duties, women also worked in poorly paid jobs (giobba, job!). Boarding in substandard, densely-packed housing, the community suffered from poor health; infant mortality remained high until the 1930s. Crime and juvenile delinquency were common, with racketeers and gangs. The press seized on such problems. All this was far from the earthly paradise the migrants had imagined before setting out from Italy.

Here’s Helen Levitt’s silent film on street life in East Harlem in 1948:

Tensions within the community were partly based on regional origins, with particular rivalry between Neapolitans and Sicilians. Though Covello made a partial list of sixty-four regional societies in 1934, by then extreme regional loyalties were giving way to neighbourhood consciousness, led by the club, “part social club, part political organisation, and part athletic association”. At the same time, the residents were attached to their Harlem enclave, the sense of solidarity, its sounds, smells, and tastes—a feeling that, as often, was enhanced by nostalgia. Even during the Depression, when the community was hit hard, they cared for each other. Gradually many became Americans “by attrition”.

Chapter 3 describes the origins of the devotion to Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem. The Madonna shared the poverty of her worshippers, and her changing fortunes were closely linked to theirs. The faithful sought her aid for sickness, and during the Depression; for soldiers going off to fight in World War Two, and for children to do well in school.

In 1881 immigrants from Polla in Salerno formed a mutual aid society in the name of the Madonna, amongst whose major functions was to provide support for proper funeral ritual—partly a reflection of their sense of insecurity in the new environment. The first festa the society organised was held in 1882. At first these festas were intimate assemblies held in courtyards or small dwellings; they were lay-organised, with no priestly supervision. The immigrants knelt before a small printed picture of the Madonna, said the rosary, chanted the Magnificat, and enjoyed a communal meal. A priest appeared at the festa in 1883, leading Mass and joining in the procession; but he soon disappeared from the story.

Already by 1884 the festa was described as a great popular celebration. The community now had a statue of the Madonna, sent from her home at Polla. That year too, the Pallotine fathers arrived in the community, with a priest presiding over a little chapel in 111th Street; and the community built a church on 115th Street, which now became the official sponsor of the festa. As Orsi notes,

For the entire history of the devotion, this celebration of a woman, in which women were the central participants, was presided over by a public male authority.

In the early years the devotees of the Madonna had to worship in the basement of the church. But as the festa became more visible on the streets, more well-heeled visitors from other neighbourhoods came to gawp (cf. Mahler’s 1909 visit to the Lower East Side). Irish and other American Catholics took a dim view of the “pagan” popular devotion on display, which they found devoid of any understanding of “the great truths of religion”.

Orsi 5

After a series of complex debates with the Vatican, the statue of the Madonna was crowned in 1904, her golden decoration provided by donations of gold from immigrant families—rings, brooches, family heirlooms. In 1922 the interior of the church was renovated, and the following year the Madonna statue was enthroned on the main altar. The bell tower, completed in 1927, was rich in meaning for the community, who again gave generously for its construction. By now the church and the devotion belonged to the entire community of Italian Harlem, not to any particular neighbourhood or region of Italy.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of the Madonna on 16th July 1929 was celebrated in great style, with the statue carried out onto the streets. By now the church was a major emblem of the community. If the Masses conducted by its priests were still not the focus of worship, families were now commonly holding their rites of passage there.

During World War Two women turned to the Madonna to protect their menfolk on distant battlefields, making vows that were still being kept until the 1960s. The troops also went into battle wearing scapulars bearing the image of the Madonna around their necks (again under The Houshan Daoists, cf. stories of Houtu rescuing soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam wars).

After Italy’s surrender to the allies in 1944, in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation towards former enemies of the USA, a service was held for five hundred Italian “ex-prisoners of war” who were held at an army base just outside New York. The church bell announced the end of the war; Madonna processions celebrated the peace.

By the 1950s the church took precedence over the popular cult. The community spirit of parish clubs and schools now fostered patriotism and anti-Communism. As former residents moved out to the boroughs, Italian Harlem was changing rapidly too, it was becoming Spanish Harlem. The power of the Madonna waned, and a new sense of loss emerged. By 1953,

the meaning of the festa was interior, controlled, a matter of the heart and not the street. The people have come out not to march and eat and cry in the hot streets, but to go to church.

Italian and English reports of the festa after 1947 seem to describe different events, the former stressing orderliness, the latter noting passion and fervour.

In Chapter 4 Orsi studies the domus-centred society of Italian Harlem, where the family was the “source of meaning and morals”. Even in recalling their homeland, they hardly knew an Italian nation (if they were aware of it at all, it was as an oppressor)—only the domus of their paese, with its discipline, loyalty, and mutual support. They contrasted this with American family values. Parents were anxious when their children married outside the community. The deep religiosity of the people was largely untrammelled by priests; as the priesthood seemed to compete with the domus, anticlericalism was a major theme. Individuals were seen in relation to the domus.

In the apartment building, doors were always open to neighbouring families. Christmas and baptisms were celebrations shared by the whole building. Rispetto was expected, both within and between families.

So far, this seems to play to the usual romantic clichés; but the chapter goes on to muddy the picture considerably. Rispetto was a “dark and complex” theme, implying “both love and fear, intimacy and distance”; the culture demanded obedience. The public nature of life and the policing of values could also be intimidating. When rispetto was violated, vergogna (shame) ensued.

Funerals came to acquire changing meanings. In the early period, they prompted painful reflections on whether emigration had been a wise decision; later, the community sought to reassure itself about the lasting strength of its values. As to the sacred shrines that adorned family apartments, “the home was not sacred because these figures were there, but, rather, these figures were there because the home was sacred”. But “loyalty to the domus could at times take on a real ferocity”. This was shown not only in hostility with Puerto Rican and black communities, but internally too: their rage was often turned inward.

Orsi warns against drawing a simple conclusion that the domus limited the ambitions of the Italian community: once they acquired skills in the labour market, they moved up the ladder. Later in the book he observes that dreams of “making America” were not incompatible with traditional modesty.

Chapter 5 continues to explore the way in which the family cracked under the very nature of Italian American life. Immigration was a traumatic experience; throughout its history, the domus was perceived as being in danger in American society.

Efforts to maintain the domus in all its authoritarian purity at the centre of the culture were driven by this dread of its imminent collapse. But the domus did not collapse, nor did it ever seem close to doing so in Italian Harlem; so we must consider whether the persistent sense of its fragility was not the expression of deep conflict within and ambivalence toward the domus itself. […]

The domus in Italian Harlem was the scene of bitter conflict and profound struggle.

Though not for public display, this was evident in the generational conflict between the Italian-born generations and their Italian American children, who mostly “seemed to exist in subtle and quiet alienation from each other”. Within the hierarchy of the domus, rivalries obtained, with father and oldest brother exercising particular power and competing. Other members of the family subtly undermined such authority. For younger men, taking part in sports was a significant outlet that also gave rise to conflict in the family.

The sexual life of young people was a minefield, with dating and courting closely policed by the “detective agency” of the extended family. Dates were a source of dread for both men and women; young women were expected to marry the first man they dated.

Orsi unpacks the Mafia myth. For many Italians, gangsters were romantic figures, helping to keep the community safe, protecting the virtue of its women: “willing to put their considerable cruelty at the service of the domus”, they enforced its values.

Everyone in the community knew that local mobsters spent most of their time in Italian Harlem extorting Italian merchants and running numbers games that took money away from the community. The mobsters were never presented as banditti who took from the rich and gave to Italian Harlem. […] Why did the domus need to be surrounded and the Madonna rescued by violent and cruel men? Why did the community make heroes out of these mobsters, if only in the tales they told, when they knew full well the reality of their crimes? Why did anger and violence assume such central places in the fantasies of Italian Harlem? And what was the threat to the domus that could be repelled only by such extreme measures? […] Symbols of aggression and repression, the mythical mafiosi embodied the complexity of feeling and anxiety which the people of Italian Harlem bore toward the domus.

He devotes several fine sections to the lives of women and the subtle ways in which they resisted the submission demanded of them. His unobtrusive feminism is one of the great strengths of the book.

Until the clergy at the church put a stop to it in the 1920s, it was a common occurrence at the annual festa for members of a family to drag one of the central women of their household down the aisle of the church. As they went along, the woman stuck her tongue out so that it touched the stones of the church floor, licking them as she was borne toward the Madonna. This disturbing ritual, which was deplored by visitors to the church in the early years of this century, clearly poses certain explicit questions about the role of women in the culture and in the family. Why was a woman dragged in this way by her family up to the figure of a divine and powerful woman? What was being expressed here of the inner life of the community? What were the community—and the women—learning as they observed this scene? To answer these questions, we must study the lives of women in the community, the nature of family life, relations between men and women, and attitudes toward the sacred woman on the altar on 115th Street.

Publicly the family was a theatrical display of patriarchy, but in private it was a matriarchy, albeit one exercised in subterranean ways. Married women were the guardians of traditional mores. Some older women were respected healers (cf. Chinese mediums), having brought from south Italy their skills in the rituals of protection from the evil eye. This also revealed the tension between the old world and the new. Where the mechanical techniques of American doctors could offer no hope of a cure, Italian female healers were summoned, whose stress was on the whole communal environment. Women also played a major role at funerals, bearing the public burden of mourning.

Modest behaviour was expected of young unmarried women. They were both “volcanoes ready to erupt and lambs wandering in a world of wolves”. Their upbringing was “fraught with anxiety and dread”.

Young women were summoned to a dangerous dance by their men. The latter made their advances—and then watched to see if they would be resisted as they wanted and expected to be. […] One false move would bring disaster down on them. […] Who had the real power here—the women who had to uphold the standards of the domus or the men who put them to the test?

Many men insisted that their wives should not learn English. In this stifling environment, rebellion was rare, and young women had to find more subtle ways of asserting their independence. Gradually, as women became better educated than men, one way in which they could loosen their bonds was through employment. They began finding clerical work—progress that was also resisted by the seniors of the family.

Women did appear in public, but street life was male-dominated. The religious experience of women was complex. Taking part in the devotion, besides confirming their roles in the community, they could also articulate their anxieties to the Madonna. Tensions between the women of the family was defused by the devotion.

In Chapter 6 Orsi gives sketches towards an inner history of immigration. Despite the importance of memory in shaping identity,

The distance of the immigrants from their lives in Italy, their complex feelings toward their homeland, and their hopes for a new beginning for themselves and especially for their children made them unwilling or unable to share their memories with their American-born or –raised children.

This was compounded by the generational tensions within the family.

Having sought to escape from the poverty of the homeland, immigrants found themselves ensnared in a different kind of poverty. Apart from their own sense of alienation, they also had to reckon with American xenophobia. As Covello recalled, “We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents”.

This sets the scene for a return to the festa in Chapter 7. In the early period, when immigrants were mostly single men, “participation in the cult assuaged their complicated guilt”, their devotion to the Madonna (“mamma’s house”) representing their fidelity to “a moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women”. As they were joined by women from the homeland, they sought peace, protection, and pardon in the cult. The presence of the Madonna in East Harlem gave divine and maternal sanction to the immigrants’ decision to leave south Italy.

The procession itself was a kind of enactment of their journey. The 1928 souvenir journal described “the long and fatiguing journeys [viaggi]” to the shrine, trips that involved “enormous expense” for the devout. People stressed that the faithful came from “all over” for the annual celebration, stressing long trips that involved crossing water. As Italian Harlem dispersed after World War Two, “a new emphasis was placed on the journeys back to the shrine undertaken by those who had moved out of the community”. The festa was a return not only to their paese but to their mother.

Slowly the community developed a kind of pan-Italian patriotism. Mussolini was popular in East Harlem, “not as a Fascist but as a symbol of the forceful presence they were still groping for”. While the festa remained mainly a demonstration of continuity with the community’s south Italian roots, regional distinctions were already breaking down by 1928.

Orsi stresses the centrality of eating at the festa, again recalling the domus. “Food was symbol and sanction and sacrament, integrating the home, the streets, and the sacred”. The cult celebrated the whole texture of Italian humanity, so very different from the closed world of Protestant America.

People also beseeched the Madonna to heal domestic conflicts, minor maladies, nervous breakdowns, and other crises. Some stories reflect “a concern for the manifold threats of an urban environment, and all implicitly depict mothers and fathers distracted by a multitude of worries and anxieties”. After World War Two, upwardly-mobile Italians who had recently moved out might pray for the husband’s business or a daughter’s success in school. Often such prayers were answered. Healing stories

were the sacred, cathartic theatre of Italian Harlem: the community could derive a deep redemptive satisfaction from the threatened demise of the domus while looking forward to to the satisfaction’s of the domus’ final triumph.

The street was “a theatre of extremes, […] a carnival alternately beckoning and frightening. The devotion to Mount Carmel responded to this tension: it was the annual blessing and reclamation of the streets”.

The devotion, the church, and the monthly parish bulletins also helped to define and legitimate the local power structure.

At a time when Italian doctors, lawyers, and merchants were not welcomed into the American elite, they claimed an authority for themselves by advertising in the bulletin—as did politicians. American laws were judged by the values of the domus. With popular political campaigns, Fiorello LaGuardia, and then his protégé Vito Marcantonio (a former student of Covello), enacted progressive social legislation for better housing, as well as for full employment and safer working conditions.

Orsi 76

Orsi looks in more detail at the world of work, “hard wage labour at gruelling jobs under the supervision of other ethnic groups”. Men worked as rag-pickers, junk and bottle collectors, bootblacks, newsboys, beer sellers, candy makers, sign makers, barbers, pushcart vendors, dock workers, construction workers; women worked making artificial flowers at home and dressmakers in factories. They suffered worse than other groups from periods of unemployment. Their bosses sought to control any signs of socialist leanings. The festa, with its stress on reciprocal relations, energy and enthusiasm, offered a different vision from wage alienation. It was also a time when the faithful sought cures for workplace accidents and related traumas.

Religious sacrifice allows men and women to believe that they have some control over their destinies even when they fear that they are otherwise bound by severe economic and social constraints. […] In this way, religious experience becomes a realm of relative freedom in the midst of lives ruled by necessity.

The question arises, however, whether this religious behaviour is not, or does not become, masochistic, a desperate infliction of punishment on the self in a frustrated rage against the perception of powerlessness.

Again Orsi suggests that the devotion encouraged people to repress their rage against the domus by turning it inward. The two possibilities of sacrifice, entrapment and resolution, can hardly be separated.

And again Orsi interrogates the role of women. While men were in nominal control of the devotion, women were the central figures in its life. Yet at the same time that it offered them consolation, it reaffirmed those aspects of the culture which oppressed them: the source of their comfort was also the source of their entrapment. As one women commented succinctly,

I had a hard life. I got married and it got worse.

Among a wealth of case studies in the book is that of a young woman who in 1946 prayed fervently to the Madonna that her suitor would propose to her. She was grateful when he did so, but she soon found out that he behaved in ways that she could not approve of. Since there was no socially sanctioned way of breaking off the engagement, she again sought the help of the Madonna, strengthening her resolve to end the relationship and making a promise to attend weekly novenas. This ratified her decision, which would have found approval nowhere else in the community; and her attendance at the novenas demonstrated her constancy both to the community and to other suitors.

Orsi 142

Orsi cites a 1930 obituary notice which exploited the chance to instruct women in their duties, its “suffocatingly lyrical prose” concealing an “aesthetic of entrapment”. He ends the chapter with further reflections on the immigrants’ fear of secular power (inherited, indeed, from their ancestral oppression in south Italy):

Distant and self-serving authority, in their eyes, took sons away and sent them to distant wars that would profit only the wealthy, denied or granted them assistance, built housing projects in the neighbourhood from which they were then excluded on the basis of apparently unreasonable regulations designed to defeat them.

In conclusion, Chapter 8 discusses “the theology of the streets”.

Southern Italian popular religion gave voice to the despair of men and women long oppressed—oppressed with peculiar, sadistic ingenuity—and reinforced attitudes of resignation and fear, as well as a sense of the perversity of reality.

This was present in the Harlem devotion, but it was not the whole story.

Orsi notes the problems of reading the theology of such a people within its full social context. It’s not that the immigrants were silent about these issues: they wondered about the meaning of their lives, and pondered their place in the scheme of things. Nor was their theology merely a corruption or a poor assimilation of Catholic doctrine. They resented the American Catholic church’s belittling of their “pagan” faith. In the New World the devotion represented their determination to triumph over adversity.

They had brought their Madonna with them and every year they took her out into the streets where they lived. They would not allow religious officials, in this country or in Italy, to alienate them from the sacred. […]

The Italians of East Harlem revealed a sense of the insufficiency of a male God. Women seemed to doubt that a male God could understand their needs and hopes and so they turned to another, complementary divine figure whose life was full of suffering for her child, a story that resonated deeply with the economy of Italian American family life.

Of course, Orsi’s accounts of generational strife are variations of morality tales around the world. If all this looks like an instance of the crumbling of the strict “family values” such as one can find to various degrees in many, if not all, cultures, it’s a particularly well-documented one. And it shows a painful, confused transitional period, from which communities can apparently emerge.

While the Madonna cult often reminds me of Chinese temple fairs, accounts of the latter tend to be more celebratory, steering clear of the negative aspects of the cultures they represent, or merely indicting the bête-noire of state socialist repression as an alien force repressing an apparently timeless, ideal communal cohesion. This applies to studies of religious life not only in the PRC, but also, I think, in Taiwan, where the strength of traditional observances and values is stressed in implied contrast with those on the mainland. Many such accounts are more centred on liturgical texts and ritual sequences than on the lives of ordinary people.

Another major blessing of Orsi’s deeply humane book is that it bypasses the arcane apparatus of scholarly vocabulary that was already de rigueur in anthropology and ritual studies (see Catherine Bell’s fine surveys—in Ritual: perspectives and dimensions she praises the book for its exposition of orthopraxy—useful as the term may be, Orsi doesn’t even feel a need for it. This economy of jargon makes the text all the more instructive, besides being immensely readable.

* * *

Orsi provides substantial introductions to all three editions. The first is straightforward yet instructive. The second (2002) he calls “Fieldwork between the present and the past” (a crucial issue for China and elsewhere). As he set off on his project in the late 1970s, he aspired to becoming a “real” historian:

I have heard historians proudly say that they study only dead people, and in those early days I, too, was looking for dead people.

(cf. WAM, with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interview for the LA Phil!). With his discipline of religious studies still “wedded to textuality”, at first Orsi considered that it was the badge of the serious historian to trawl through dusty archives. His epiphany came with finding the papers of Leonard Covello, and by listening to women as he sat with them in their kitchens.

While by Orsi’s time the festa was a pale shadow of its former vibrancy, he found that there was no firm barrier between the present and the past. While one might say he had been unlucky to train as a historian rather than as an ethnographer, he soon broke the chains of that training.

I came to realise that I was learning as much from how people were talking to me as from what they were telling me, as much from what was going on around the stories as from the stories themselves.

Of course, his anxieties on undertaking the project were part of a wider critical re-assessment of the discipline of religious history under the stimulus of ethnography. He interrogates the “unnecessary and confusing boundaries” that sealed off “religion” from “popular religion”. Had his training then extended to anthropology (and indeed ritual studies), he would have found his natural domus—one that many scholars of religion in China still resist, immune to epiphany. Rather than regretting that Orsi didn’t discover the discipline of anthropology sooner, I rejoice in the way he discovered its lessons for himself in the field, rather as I did in China.

Even then Orsi was acutely conscious of gender issues. In the old “body–spirit” antinomy,

Associated with the corporal end of this dichotomy were women and the various concerns of everyday life, while spirit represented the public, the political, and the masculine. […] I found myself right in the vice of the antinomy that structured not only modern historiography but modern professionalism generally.

He also stresses power—not just the power of some over others, but “the power that circulates through cultural forms”, and the power of religion to “shape, orient, and limit the imagination”.

As he becomes aware, “fieldwork proceeds through relationships”. Such study is done not only among real people, but by real people too. “My interlocutors did not let me be invisible, drawing me out with questions about my life and experience”—just as I learned in Gaoluo.

This represents the refusal of otherness by the people we study; it is their determination not to be rendered alien.

He goes on:

On one level, it is useful to remember that the inert documents stored away in archives were once the living media of real people’s engagement with the unfolding events of their times. […] My method in telling the story of the Madonna and Italian Harlem was to bring the voices from the archives and the voices from the streets into relation, allowing them to challenge, amend, deepen, and correct each other.

On his later annual visits to the festa, a woman called Antoinette would always seek him out. “So you think the festa is dying out? Looks pretty good to me.” Orsi concedes that by observing that the festa was waning, he seemed to have fallen into the old trap of early anthropologists who believe they have arrived just in time to preserve a last glimpse of a primitive and disappearing world (see e.g. Musics lost and found). Such “romantic twilight elegies” came to be seen as serving colonial interests, legitimating the work of the ethnographer as a kind of preservationist.

I did have good reason in the early 1980s to think that the festa was not going to be around much longer. The crowds were dwindling. The old Italians in the neighbourhood were dying. Their children, who had moved away to the suburbs, seemed less and less interested in coming back, always more apprehensive about the safety of the neighbourhood…

So in a coda Orsi takes the opportunity of revising his story: “I had not foreseen the arrival of the Haitians. How could I?” By 2010 more Haitians were attending the festa than Italians, transforming it yet again. Orsi notes that whereas Italians held the Puerto Rican community responsible for the demise of Italian Harlem (even though it had been their own choice to move out), the Haitians came into “a special place of cherished memory to which Italian Americans of the second and third generations were themselves “returning”. The Haitians were not seen as taking anything away.

In the third introduction (2010), History, real presence, and the refusal to be purified, Orsi reflects further on changes in religious studies since the 1985 edition—while still refraining (wisely) from detailing changes in anthropology and ritual studies.

He illustrates the continuing story with letters that he regularly received from Italian Americans after the publication of the book, telling their own stories, blurring the line between the past and the present, and transforming themselves from the objects of history into its subjects and narrators.

While Orsi’s approach was in line with studies of working-class cultures at the time, he contrasts the growth of theoretical discourse:

History was being recast as a literary and ideological enterprise with only the most attenuated relationship to anything like a past that had really happened. […] The notion that scholars who studied other cultures or other times were representing in their writing the actual lived experience of the people in these other times and places had become risible and self-delusional, if not a corrupt alignment with power.

Still, he appreciates the increasing popularity of studies of “lived religion”.

The West has been reframed from the perspective of the rest of the world, where what goes on at the Madonna’s shrine is more common and familiar than the sanctioned practices of “modern” Western religion.

He came to explore the potential for accepting folk belief in “real presences”. Part of the modern “eradication of memory” is the forgetting

that not long ago, the gods, spirits, saints, ancestors, and demons were familiar and recognisable members of the social world, in miracles, apparitions, and devotions, amid the relationships of everyday life.

This dangerous amnesia he calls “purification”.

* * *

See also Pomodoro!, a perceptive social history of the tomato on both sides of the Atlantic. Cf. the Boas circle at Columbia; and note the remarkable recordings of piffero and ciaramella played by south Italian immigrants to New York and New Jersey in the early 1960s by the Lomaxes. All this amidst the more familiar ferment of New York life, not least the jazz scene

For a fine study of street gangs in modern Chicago, click here. For female deities in China and women’s participation in ritual there, see e.g. here and here. And among a wealth of discussions of fieldwork, note Bruce Jackson.


[1] Online sites like these have more recollections and images:

https://searchmytribe.com/life-as-an-italian-immigrant-in-east-harlem-new-york-1880-1950/

https://italianharlem.com/, not least this page on the festa in 1942

https://medium.com/harlem-focus/harlems-hidden-history-the-real-little-italy-was-uptown-ac613b023c6b

There must be early film footage of the procession, but I haven’t yet found any. Meanwhile in London, this silent clip shows the 1927 procession for Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy:

Sound and sovereignty in Ukraine

Left: Ruslana, 2004. Right: Jamala, 2016.

How terribly timely to read

  • Maria Sonevytsky, Wild music: sound and sovereignty in Ukraine (2019)
    (introduction here; she has posted a basic reading list on Twitter—her tweets are generally most instructive—and do follow her text by listening to the tracks, some of which I feature below).

The book illuminates the troubled modern history of Ukraine through particular aspects of its popular soundscape. While such urban representations are Sonevytsky’s main focus, she has cogent remarks on how they borrow from regional traditions. Each chapter adds fascinating new dimensions to the story.

Wild music cover

In the Preface she situates herself as a “halfie”, a Ukrainian American unable to pass fully as Ukrainian while doing fieldwork there, and sometimes even a target of “suspicion, derision, or hostility”. Her parents had fled Ukraine during World War Two, and on her first visit there in 1991, aged 10, she discovered that her image had been a mirage:

the real place was alien, full of real people with complex and disadvantaged lives. In it, I was a strange misfit speaking an archaic dialect imprinted with privilege and distance.

After graduating in 1991, while listening to “the cool new bands that were emerging seemingly everywhere”, she first encountered the ethnomusicologists based at the L’viv Conservatoire, going on to study the urban revival of village styles known as avtentyka, guided by the authoritative Yevhen Yefremov.

The study of pop music has become an important strand of ethnomusicology, with Eurovision a major theme (see also here and here). Sonevytsky’s theme is “loosely bookended […] by the two revolutions that coincided with Ukraine’s two most prominent spectacles of global pop visibility” in the 2004 and 2016 contests.

The Introduction opens with the 2004 Eurovision in Istanbul, where Ruslana won the contest with Wild dances, a song that soon became an emblem of the Orange Revolution:

While Ukraine itself is “liminal”, a “quintessential borderland”, Sonevytsky explores the stereotype of “Wildness” associated with the Hutsul people of the western highlands, and the “erotic auto-exoticism” of etno-muzyka—among many instances in the book where I’m reminded of China’s portrayal of its ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. I’d also like to read what Sonevytsky might have to say about The Rite of Spring.

This book asserts that Wildness structures much of how Ukrainians today envision their horizons of possibility, and that wild music is a key vector through which citizens debate what Ukraine has been what it is today, and, even more urgently, what it ought to be.

Soon after the Maidan Revolution and the Russian takeover of Crimea, she attended a performance at a rural festival where a Crimean Tatar trio “wilded” the national anthem, with its “rather uninspiring (and in 2014, dispiritingly apropros) title ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ ”, in a rendition “stripped of its pomp and revitalised with wild feeling”.

She ponders “sovereign imaginaries” and the instability of nation-states, observing Ukraine’s multi-ethnic and multi-national population. She notes that since Independence in 1991, “the Ukrainian state has repeatedly proven its untrustworthiness, incompetence, and disregard for its non-elite subjects. […] Many Ukrainians across socio-economic categories suffer from revolutionary fatigue, having lived through many cycles of social collapse, revolutionary hope, and eventual disappointment.”

Sonevytsky notes that

This generation tends to reject the creeping nationalism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but they also do not fully embrace faltering models of European statehood. They are suspicious of voracious capitalism and understand the dangerous precedents of “actually existing socialism”.

Chapter One pursues Ruslana’s “transformation from a marginal figure of post-Soviet Ukrainian estrada to a global etno-pop star, and then to a political activist with ambitions to transform state policy and redefine Ukrainian futurity.” Ruslana first came to fame in 2002 with Znaiu Ya (“I know”), referencing tropes of Hutsul culture:

As Sonevytsky notes,

The project depicted a community based on qualities of essentialized Wildness but exclusive of other groups prevalent in Western Ukraine, many of whom also endure histories of objectification (this includes Jews, Roma, Poles, Armenians, and others).

This led to Ruslana releasing an album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and representing Ukraine at the 2004 Eurovision contest. From the press materials:

Here we see wild and sexy, hot and dangerous, mystic and knowledgeable about all the secrets of Carpathian mol’far (shamans) mountain Amazonkas. Fur and leather, dangerous games and unique meditations all of this charms and entertains you, gives shimmering in the heart.

Such representations commonly use folk instruments as symbolic props, such as trembita long horn, tsymbaly hammered dulcimer, and the drymba jews harp of the mol’far shaman.

Despite Ruslana’s involvement with ethnomusicologists in L’viv, such glossy exoticism was soon debated, not least by the Hutsuls themselves. Some of the discussion revolved around the archetype of “femininity”.

In 2005 Sonevytsky visited the Carpathian highlands, source of Ruslana’s inspiration, with a feeling of “naïve expectance”, such as many fieldworkers will have experienced, reaching the village of Kosmach where the Znaiu Ya video had largely been filmed (for a less glamorous Chinese scholarly  romanticization of Daoist ritual, cf. Debunking “living fossils”).

Familiar with the long history of Hutsul romanticization by L’viv urbanites, and as someone who thinks of herself as allergic to exoticizing rhetoric, I nonetheless briefly entertained the possibility that maybe, somehow, this would be “the place”, as the press release boasted, “where you find true Ukrainian exotics!”.

It soon transpired that the locals were underwhelmed by Ruslana’s repackaging of their culture (cf. the exploitation of Tibetan culture by a Han Chinese singer in Sister drum). This was not the kind of celebrity that the Hutsuls would have envisaged. Sonevytsky joined in a wedding procession, with guests “in festive, but not folkloric attire”, far from the portrayals of the media. Consulting authorities like the patriarch of the Tafiychuk family, she found considerable resentment of the Hutsuls’ “wild” image, along with some more nuanced views weighing their heightened profile and the stimulation of tourism against the price of “disgrace and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes”. Yet others took the hype in their stride. Wild dances

provoked anxious discourse among Hutsuls about whether Ukraine could be taken seriously as a “European” state if it portrayed itself as a cradle of ancient, primitive expressive culture. Wild dances represented an obstacle on the path to Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.

Given the Hutsuls’ “hybrid identities as a borderland people whose culture is fused from Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Roma, and other elements”, Sonevytsky notes the irony of their adoption as emblems of “authentic” Ukrainian ethno-nationalism. (Note also Sergei Parajanov‘s 1964 film Shadows of forgotten ancestors, a fantastical drama based on Hutsul culture.)

Many urban intellectuals, too, bemoaned “the fact that Ukraine’s most visible post-Soviet cultural export to date came ensconced in leather and metal”. They recycled the sonorous slang term sharovarshchyna, the banal caricaturing of folk culture propounded by the former Soviet regime (cf. Kundera’s The joke)—although Sonevytsky, citing the work of Ana Hofman on Slovenian and Serbian state ensembles of the socialist era, offers the caveat that it wasn’t a monolithic style, and didn’t deprive musicians of agency.

As Ruslana’s focus shifted away from ethnic culture, her progression to “eco-activism rooted in a civically minded pragmatic patriotism“ is illustrated in the futuristic Wild energy (2008), addressing the need to oppose both female trafficking and Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy imports:

In Chapter Two Sonevytsky reflects on the “freak cabaret” of the Dakh daughters, “Spice Girls with Molotov cocktails”, or “Pussy Riot—with good music”. Like many musicians, they set out by disavowing politics—Sonevytsky unpacks the various strands in the bourgeois ideal of artistic autonomy with thoughtful references (to which I might add the work of Christopher Small and Bruno Nettl), compounded in former Soviet states by antipathy towards the politicization of music. The Dakh daughters were only spurred to take up the cause with the Maidan Revolution in 2013, a performance that Sonevytsky analyses with typical insight.

Again, their mash-up of symbols (Indigenous femininity, revolutionary feminism, Hutsul rurality, experimental theatre) prompted opposing reactions, from “hipster rebellion” to”neofascist agitation”. And again, they sought “an articulation of Ukraine’s future as not either Western or Russian, but as something else”. One band member described the revolution as attempting to escape the “lack of joy” present in both “the puritanism of the west and repressiveness of the east”.

Dakh daughters

The band’s seven trained actors and musicians were managed by the influential impresario Vlad Troitsky. The Maidan performance of Hannusya was based on the lament of an elderly Hutsul woman, becoming a metaphor for survival.

In a section titled “On feminist fascists”, Sonevytsky introduces the topic of gender studies in Ukraine. She paid several visits to another celebrated partisan baba in the village of Kryvorivnia, and explains how the terms “fascism” and “neo-Nazism” (currently being touted by Putin) are a glib recurring slur. The Dakh daughters now subverted the notion of the World-War-Two Banderivka nationalist resistance to Soviet occupation (also with its base in western Ukraine).

Chapter Three examines the interesting failure of avtentyka singers on the reality TV competition Holos Kraïny (Voice of the Nation). Rather than merely bemoaning the banality of such shows, Sonevytsky perceives the failure as “an act of refusal of the limited musical forms that dominate Ukrainian media and an assertion of the ungovernability of Ukrainian rural expression”.

The young singer Oleksiz Zajets came from a rural background, going on to study with the influential Kyiv pedagogue Yevhen Yefremov. In the first edition of the show in 2011, Zajets disrupted the rules of the game through the strident timbre and volume of his voice. As the show’s host commented, “He wasn’t just born two hundred years too late, but two thousand years”. While the “coaches”, including Ruslana, concurred that his voice was outstanding, praising its “depth and wisdom”, they couldn’t find a way to corset it into the pop-dominated format of the show.

Of course, defining the term avtentyka is elusive. By contrast with the “fakelore” of sharovarshchyna, it may refer both to local singers in the countryside thought to be uncontaminated by colonial encounter and Soviet cultural policy, and to the urban performers and scholars who seek to emulate their style. Sonevytsky illustrates the latter with vignettes of her own studies in Manhattan with Yevhen Yefremov, who meticulously trained students in the technique and variational creativity of rural singing, seeking to remove traces of the choreographed Soviet choral style. Despite the limitations of what ethnomusicologists might regard as a crucial shift of context from rural life to the classroom,

Students do not learn an ür version of a song. Though field recordings are a kind of wellspring for avtentyka singers—many of whom were trained as ethnomusicologists in the late and post-Soviet era—contemporary avtentyka singers do not seek to simply recreate those field recordings. In fact, multiple field recordings of the same song are reference when possible to inform an interpretation. […]

So instead of perfecting the art of imitation, students are taught how to creatively utilise the conventions that govern these traditional songs in order to replicate them in as “authentic” a manner as possible, in part by exerting their own agency as singers.

I note Yefremov’s teaching with envy, since while the collection of folk-song has long been popular in China, the scholars there rarely take part in singing themselves, either in the field or after their return (cf. Participant observation, and Speaking from the heart).

Fieldworkers like Yefremov paid particular attention to calendrical ritual songs, absent from collections during the Soviet era—here, remarkably, Chinese fieldworkers have done well, having been diligent in collecting ritual music, both during the first fifteen years after the 1949 revolution (e.g. under Yang Yinliu) and since the 1980s’ reforms (e.g. the great Anthology).

Most of the rural voices that Ukrainian fieldworkers found were female:

Due to wars, famines (such as the 1932–33 Holodomor), and various Soviet social engineering projects that decimated the male population of Ukrainian citizens during the mid-20th century, women have been the primary subjects of post-World War Two Ukrainian ethnomusicological enquiry since they tend to constitute the vast majority of surviving village elders.

This is very clear from the Tree website and the Polyphony project.

Appearing in the second season of the TV show was Suzanna Karpenko, a Kyiv-based aventyka singer. Her background was similar to that of Zajets, but the show portrayed them very differently:

If Zajets was depicted as a quintessential rural bumpkin with a “natural voice” that is simply too rich to include in the competition, then Karpenko was portrayed as a scholar, whose intellectual investments in “real folklore” (that is, avtentyka) were rewarded when she was chosen to advance in the competition despite the melismatic gestures, huks [swooping cries], and timbral quality that made her voice and style largely incompatible with the pop songs she was asked to sing in later rounds. Tellingly, though they circulate in the same milieu of urban avtentyka singers in Kyiv, Karpenko was assimilated into the programme as an urban folklorist (where “folklore” became the operative term appended to her vocal style), whereas Zajets was depicted as either an idiot savant or a shaman; in either case, he was the unknowable, somewhat comic, rural other. […] The contestant who is portrayed as and embodies “real authenticity” is destined to failure, while the singer who is depicted as an urban expert—someone who has domesticated the village style—is at least permitted to compete.

Karpenko is a member of the ensemble Bozhychi, which she joined after leaving the influential Drevo (“Tree”) group, and also takes part in the Polyphony project. She was encouraged to take part in the show on learning that Oleh Skrypka (veteran of Soviet-era Ukrainian punk, and later a champion of etno-muzyka) would be among the coaches. Though she advanced in the competition, her non-pop timbre and rural stylistic flourishes led to her elimination.

Sonevytsky asks:

Is the failure of these singers to win merely an example of the triumph of cosmopolitan pop in the marketplace—and are we left with a bitter Adornian culture industry critique of homogenization? […] Is their participation just a cynical move on the part of television producers to add dramatic fodder by introducing these folklore revivalists as nostalgic oddities or rural buffoons?

The reader may be tempted to answer these questions with a simple Yes. But Sonevytsky observes when the avtentyka voice emerges from the “cloistered contexts” of the academy (and from the village?) to participate in the TV spectacle, “it is disruptive, introducing a heterogeneous notion of etnos into the constrained sovereign imaginaries available…” Still, for all her theorising on the “politics of refusal”, in the end avtentyka singers appear only rarely, and they certainly can’t progress far in the show. As she concedes, failure is still failure.

Again I’m reminded of similar shows in China, where there’s also a lasting hangover from the fakelore of the high state-socialist era, and yuanshengtai 原生态 (“original”, “unspoiled”) folk voices are sidelined, despite the best efforts of pundits like Tian Qing (for examples of the style, listen to the folk-song CDs in this post). See also Critiques of artistic competition.

Chapter Four turns to the Crimean Tatars, covering Radio Meydan, the soundscape of marshrutki microtransit buses, and Jamala’s Eurovision triumph in 2016. If Hutsul music relates to European folk cultures further west, the Sunni Muslim, Turkic-language Tatars of the Crimea lead us towards the East—glib polarities that Sonevytsky resists, along with many other Ukrainians.

On the forced deportation to Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan) in 1944, here’s the movie Haytarma (Akhtem Seitablaiev, 2013):

Some 200,000 Crimean Tatars returned to the peninsula in the late 1980s—where they continued to suffer discrimination in the fields of civic, religious, and land rights. Radio Meydan began broadcasting from Simferopol in 2005, soon becoming a key expression of Crimean Tatar identity, while deferring to the authority of the post Soviet Ukrainian state. Sonevytsky describes the power of such community radio stations. As “tensions between the Indigenous population, the predominantly pro-Russian public, and the weak Ukrainian state simmered below the surface of everyday interactions”, Radio Meydan was variously interpreted as “Orientalist menace or strategic exoticism”. Despite its ambition to serve as a forum (meydan) for diversity, as Sonevytsky discovered on the marshrutki buses in 2008–2009, it soon became an “aural battleground of rival sovereign imaginaries”.

After some time the station also provided a launchpad for a new generation of pop musicians exploring the wider market for an amorphous “Eastern music”, within which distinctive Crimean Tatar sounds often lost their identity. The first Crimean Tatar hip-hop DJ to emerge was DJ Bebek, with his 2004 album Deportacia; he went on to create the iconic jingle for Radio Meydan.

The station was outlawed soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. With Russian-backed radio there now offering its own take on Crimean Tatar music, independent performers and broadcasters migrated both online and to Kyiv.

Sonevytsky ends the chapter with a brief section on the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala, whose 2016 Eurovision victory in Stockholm is fresher in the memory than that of Ruslana twelve years earlier. Her song 1944 won despite Russian complaints regarding its political overtones. Here it is In performance:

and in the official video:

As Sonevytsky comments,

Such aural assertions of cultural sovereignty in an international forum such as Eurovision act as a generative refusal to consent to the annexation. […] Through musical sounds coded as Eastern music, Crimean Tatars continue to contest their liminality, harnessing the representational force of such wild music to amplify their political claims within the shifting terrain of post-Soviet geopolitics.

Jamala is also the subject of a useful recent Twitter thread by Jennifer Carroll.

Chapter Five, “Ethno-chaos: provincialising Russia through Ukrainian world music”, discusses the Kyiv-based quartet DakhaBrakha, sister group to the Dakh daughters—both groups were by promoted by Vlad Troitsky. Their international career on the world music scene was launched at WOMAD in 2011. Again, they were closely involved in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, revising etno-muzyka into the slogan “ethno-chaos” and “refusing national mythologies of continuity and coherence”.

DakhaBrakha

The three women singers had all taken part in fieldtrips to collect rural songs, but the group’s inspirations were diverse. As Sonevytsky observes, the wide-ranging and sometimes indiscriminate incorporation of “disembodied sound markers” is standard practice in “world music”.

Here’s Carpathian rap from DakhaBrakha’s 2010 album Light—a bricolage of Hutsul, central Ukrainian rural, Soviet-era, and “global” material, elements which Sonevytsky analyses in turn:

Again, Ukrainian ethnomusicologists were underwhelmed by the foreign enthusiasm for DakhaBrakha’s “authentic” vocal style. The band give a subsidiary role to the accordion (cf. Accordion crimes), archetype of the Soviet socialist soundscape, using it in a functional rather than “elevated” way—a process that Sonevytsky regards as subversive.

Next she discusses Sagir Boyu (from The road, 2016), another gesture of solidarity with the Crimean Tatars—a joyous wedding song reworked as “a pensive and ultimately frenetic lament”:

Sonevytsky offers further reflections on the world music business. She is wary of sounding too celebratory. First, “it would be disingenuous to consider the members of DakhaBrakha as ‘subalterns’, given their origins in the eminently literate and urbane world of Ukrainian experimental theatre”. And their success comes within a world music industry governed by Euro-American capitalism. Still, she finds their path constructive, “an aesthetics of transformation, a product of Ukrainian modernity on its own terms—not filtered through the gaze of neighbouring states and entities”.

The Conclusion, “Dreamland: becoming acoustic citizens”, written in 2018, opens with Oleh Skrypka’s Dreamland summer festival outside Kyiv in 2015, still resolutely featuring a Crimean Area. Sonevytsky proposes the idea of “acoustic—rather than musical—citizenship”. She notes moments of tension at the festival. Reflecting on “revolutionary fatigue”, she asks “What comes next?”. Since publication, the answer seems at once appallingly predictable and (this week, at least, in that Putin’s invasion has given new life to Ukrainian and wider solidarity) somewhat optimistic.

Bingo

By way of the Russian war of disinformation, Sonevytsky returns to Jamala’s song 1944, which

reveals the politics of Eurovision to itself, exposing how rhetorics of international friendship mask the violent unresolved histories and ongoing conflicts between competitor states.

Since Jamala fled the invasion, she has been raising awareness by performing the song:

* * *

Sonevytsky sometimes steps back to interrogate her own partiality. With her focus on the niche of etno-muzyka and the cultures of Hutsuls and Crimean Tatars, she doesn’t attempt to cover the most commercially successful music such as estrada (I think of research on Chinese pop, where studies have been dominated by “alternative” bands—with the noble exception of Andrew Jones’s Like a knife). And she reminds us that the majority of Ukrainian citizens do not consume or engage in any way with etno-muzyka. Her focus, as well as her status as a Ukrainian American, hardly leaves space for her to consider pro-Russian viewpoints. Also, committed to the project of decolonising ethnomusicology, she deliberately downplays nationalism in music. Nor, I might add, does her remit cover the glut of young urban-based “roots” bands from west Ukraine and the wider Carpathian region, less political and less internationally hyped—for some of these, try the forgottengalicia website (cf. this page on the useful euromaidanpress site).

The book’s origin as a PhD thesis is revealed in its theoretical vocabulary, which some readers may find somewhat dense (and which I have cited only sparingly here); but, blending politics with soundscape most perceptively, Wild music richly deserves to be part of reading lists on the modern history of Ukraine.

Many of my interlocutors […] point out the potential futility of any music to do anything. I do not dispute that music has little power against bombs, or BUK missiles. But I do assert that the study of music cannot be consigned only to our study of “the good life” since it is so prominently enmeshed in systems of capital, and therefore in the operations of power, and—importantly—because it also holds the affective power to captivate imaginations, move bodies, and support political actions. The politics and aesthetics of wild music allow us to investigate how the good life is imagined in dark times.

It was almost inevitable that Ukraine would win Eurovision this year, with the “rap lullaby” Stefania by the Kalush orchestra.

Anyway, now everything will be different.

* * *

Here I boldly essayed a medley of more traditional soundscapes from Ukraine. See also William Noll on the fate of blind minstrels in Ukraine, with links to several sites; Folk traditions of Poland; and Musical cultures of east Europe, not least Retuning culture.

Broadening the theme, Music and conflict (ed. John O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, 2010) has sections on music in war, music across boundaries, music after displacement, music and ideology, music in application, and music as conflict, with case studies from many regions of the world.
Among topics covered on this blog, I think of Afghanistan; the war of the Chinese state against the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and its own people (e.g. China: commemorating trauma, and Guo Yuhua); the genocide of First Nation peoples; Mali; and indeed Bach, haunted by the trauma of the Thirty Years War (Bach—and Daoist ritual, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”).

In praise of Fatma Yavuz

Fatma
(In the automatic Google translation of Turkish,
“he” and “him” should of course read “she” and “her”.)

The story of Fatma Yavuz (summed up here) encapsulates several age-old debates within Turkish society.

Born in Istanbul to a conservative family in Üsküdar, she graduated from the Imam Hatip high school there, and in 2000 from the Theology faculty of Marmara University. A devout Muslim, in 2004 she became a Qur’an course teacher for the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), teaching women and children there for fourteen years.

With cogent arguments, she disputed irrational decrees in Islam like the menstruation taboo; she sought to waive fees for children of poor families. Such rational thinking eventually led to her excommunication in 2019. She was then fired from her job at the Faith desk of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Since 2017, with the 10th-anniversary commemorations of the murder of Hrant Dink, she has come to embrace Armenian identity. Her political affiliation is with the HDP People’s Democratic Party.

Under vitriolic attack from the mainstream Islamic establishment (further animated by misogyny), the sinister charge of “insulting Turkishness” was aired yet again. As she responded nobly,

I have the manners to know that it is the minimum requirement of civilisation to respect not only one’s own but all beliefs, and to share their joys and sorrows. In this respect, I approach every belief, every culture with respect; I try to understand, and to establish good relations; but I only worship what is necessary for my own faith.

She also rebuffs the accusations more specifically.

Fatma with Orthodox

On social media she celebrates the diversity of religious experience within Turkey (Alevi, Kurdish, Jewish; Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Christians; and indeed atheism), speaking up for belittled minorities, criticising human right violations—including terrorism in the name of religion—and supporting women’s and LGBT rights.

Among expressions of support for her vision, see e.g. here. Her cause has been championed by the Freedom of Belief Initiative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Fatma cover

Now she tells the story in her book Hangi Diyanet? Bir Aforozun Öyküsü [Which Diyanet?: the story of an excommunication, 2022, reviewed e.g. here).

While one wonders if the resilient stance to which she is driven by the polarising effect of social media may be counterproductive (for some variant views, see e.g. here), Fatma Yavuz’s mission is to build bridges, setting forth from an entirely laudable desire to contribute to the creation of a more humane vision of Islam and to embrace the diversity of faiths.

See also Inter-faith ping-pong.

Three Women of Herat: a new edition!

Herat 1
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.

Herat cover

Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.

Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.

Wedding bands, 1970s.

The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.

Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.

Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:

After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.

Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.

You really must buy this book! And as you read, do listen to the tracks, and watch the films, in my original post.

Catherine Bell on ritual

*For main page, click here!*
(under “Themes” in top menu)

Themes menu

RTRP quotes

I’ve just added a page outlining Catherine Bell’s masterly surveys of ritual and the history of ritual studies, where she considers themes that are also significant in the related disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology.

Bell astutely unpacks the wide range of scholarship on this slippery topic, interrogating the work of the seminal figures such as Durkheim, Eliade, Grimes, Geertz, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, Tambiah, Staal, and Victor Turner. Noting where their interpretations concur and diverge, she seeks “to break free of the circularity that has structured thinking about acting by undermining the very category of ritual itself”.

As a taster, just a few of her wise insights:

While the activities we think of as “ritual” can be found in many periods and places, the formal study of ritual is a relatively recent and localised phenomenon. When made the subject of systematic historical and comparative cultural analysis, ritual has offered new insights into the dynamics of religion, culture, and personhood. At the same time, it has proven to be a particularly complicated phenomenon for scholars to probe—because of the variety of activities that one may consider ritual, the multiplicity of perspectives one may legitimately take in interpreting them, and the way in which defining and interpreting ritual enter into the very construction of scholarship itself.

We focus on explaining those things that constitute a problem of some sort for us. Hence, we are highly motivated to use our own assumptions and experiences to explain that problem in such a way as to make our world more coherent, ordered, and meaningful.

Part of the dilemma of ritual change lies in the simple fact that rituals tend to present themselves as the unchanging, time-honoured customs of an enduring community. Even when no such claims are explicitly made within or outside the rite, a variety of cultural dynamics tend to make us take it for granted that rituals are old in some way; any suggestion that they may be rather recently minted can give rise to consternation and confusion. […]
It is pertinent to ask if a rite that is well over a thousand years old actually works today in the same way or means the same thing to people that it did when it was new, or only fifty or five hundred years old. […] Does the age of the rite, with its progressive distance from the rest of the social world, make it stand for something different today than centuries ago? Are meanings left behind or simply layered and relayered with new connotations and nuances?

I conclude the page with some thoughts on fieldwork, and my own experiences in China, setting forth from Bell’s comment:

Scholarship on ritual, as in many other areas, does not usually proceed so directly from data to theory. Most often, explicit theories or implicit assumptions lead scholars to find data that support or challenge these views. Hence, what counts as data will depend to a great extent on what one already has in mind, the problem that one is trying to solve.

The tanners of Zeytinburnu

Z cover

Following our visit to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul [1] to seek the wisdom of a senior Bektashi couple, I’ve been admiring

It’s published in a bilingual edition, lavishly illustrated, with chapters on the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, holy springs and churches, lodges and mosques, the walls, health institutions, economy and demographics, and leisure.

Zeytinburnu map

I find the exemplary diachronic ethnography of the tanneries particularly impressive (cf. the cinematic climax of Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary tree), in the chapter on the Kazlıçeşme quarter (pp.100–153). I suppose I’m drawn to it partly by my interest in the changing social role, and technical expertise, of low-status craftsmen in China—including household Daoists, ritual artisans, coffin-bearers and grave-diggers.

In the 15th century, under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, 360 tanneries were constructed in Kazlıçeşme. The great 17th-century ethnographer Evliya Çelebi described the scene:
(here and in other citations below I’ve revamped the somewhat unwieldy English translation, attempting—not necessarily reliably—to make it more reader-friendly, while inevitably sacrificing the nuance of the original)

In the Byzantine era, people coming from plague-afflicted regions could not enter Istanbul before staying at Yedikule [Kazlıçeşme] for seven days; this was called nazarta (quarantine). After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror resettled all the tanners and slaughterhouses to this region.

[Kazlıçeşme] is a developed town by the seaside. It has one large and seven small mosques, one inn, one bath, seven fountains, and three lodges. It has three hundred tannery shops, fifty glue workshops, and seventy string workshops. But few of the inhabitants are married; it is a bazaar of bachelors. During wartime, the town can mobilise five thousand strong tanner bachelors who are tough as iron and very courageous.

People who are not used to the foul smell of this town couldn’t tolerate it even for one moment. But for the inhabitants that smell is like musk and ambergris; they don’t like it when people who put on musk approach them. They treat others with respect and honour. They have abundant property. Their spiritual master, the late Ahi Evran, asked a caliph who was passing by with his skirt filled, “What’s that in your skirt?” He replied: “It’s kuruş (piasters, coins).” But he was actually carrying dog faeces—he gave this answer out of shame. Ahi Evran even recited prayers saying, “May Allah bestow blessings on your goods and supplies”. Thanks to such auspicious prayers, the trade of the leather workers has been prosperous, and they are always generous in treating others. Moreover, a leather trader called Hadji Ali had worked with dog faeces for forty years, and the English infidels wanted to buy his supply for forty thousand kuruş but failed to do so. This is a famous story.

A vivid image known beyond the town is the relief of a goose under the arch of a fountain, carved in white marble by a master craftsman. It’s indescribable in words; when people see it they think it’s alive. Hence the name Kazlıçeşme, Goose Fountain.

Goose relief

Source: wiki.

In another account, Evliya Çelebi surveys the trade over the wider city:

Evliya 1

Evliya 2

In that last paragraph, note the reference to the furriers on parade with their own Janissary band!  Among other guild parades that Evliya Çelebi documents are those of sable merchants, falconers, leopard- and lion-keepers, barbers, and acrobats (see under Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul).

The book goes on:

People who had committed a serious crime sought refuge in one of the tanneries at Kazlıçeşme, working there so as to evade conviction and rid themselves of state prosecution. Since the tanneries faced difficulties in finding workers, they took the risk of providing patronage to criminals. Around the 1720s, this state of affairs passed to kadi registers, and the state took active measures against the brigands who had converged at Kazlıçeşme. The names of the enterprises and the workers operating in the area were recorded in an effort to stop the brigands linking up again.

123

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Republic, the tanneries were modernised in the 1920s. The chapter gives a list of seventeen factories, as well as a further ninety-six workshops. Besides Muslim Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were prominent in the trade.

106

Some tanneries were still operating in the early 1990s. We read fascinating interviews with elderly workers. Saim Çetintaşoğlu (b.1932) gave a vivid account:

The gate of Kazli’s bath was next to the house where I was born. I used this bath a lot during my childhood, so I recall it very well. Its basins and even floors were covered with marble. At the place where the carpenter Nayır brothers make cupboards for leather tradesmen were the changing room and cooling room. In the boiler room, the water was boiled in a square boiler, using leather remnants and cobs instead of wood or charcoal. There was a heavy odour everywhere. The boiler that opens to the cross street was named Çıkmaz Sokak (blind alley) after this. In 1950s Münir Altıer rented the bath and turned it into a tannery. When he died, the bath passed to metal workers, who have been doing casting work ever since then, such as Kaplan Deri and Kemal Kurban.

Bath-keeper Srap Zehra, the bath employees, and Osman the Cook used to live in this building. Opposite, where the tanneries are located today, lived Artaki, who provided the tanners with egg white, egg yolk, and cattle’s blood for polishing purposes. Kazlıçeşme’s headman, the blacksmith Cezmi Öztemir, lived there too. In the building of Faik Cihanoğlu lived charcoal seller Mustafa and Murat Gökçiğdem, imam of the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa mosque. The two-storey wooden house on the opposite corner was inhabited by Süleyman Effendi, owner of the Safa bar-restaurant at Yedikule.

Sara nightclub occupied an important place in the lives of the Kazli tradesmen. In the evenings, tanners used to go drinking there. Bahçeli restaurant, run by Pehlivan İbrahim, which one reached by climbing down a staircase near the Castle Gate, was famous as a venue frequented by tanners for drinks. Quarrels caused by the drunkards were settled at the gate of the military police to the right of the Castle Gate. Women, drinks, and insults were indispensable passions of tanners. Those who couldn’t help having a drink during working hours in the daytime stopped by Arap Şevket’s Kazliici bar.

At the site of Celil Tanatar, at the entrance to Karakol Street, was the stable of “everyone’s uncle”, the “walking bank” Abdürrahim Gezer, who was the backer of everyone at Kazli. Gezer owned two horses, one black and one white, and a fine phaeton. Originally working in the pumping business, Uncle Gezer was a benevolent Kazli property owner, an exceptional personality who had grown up among Greek rowdies and enjoyed giving money to people in need. Fifty years ago, the carts went about their work and phaetons carried passengers, bringing women to the Kazli baths from Samatya and Bakırköy. Unlike today, the passage through Demirhane Avenue was easy.

Kazlıçeşme, 1986.

Proceeding along Demirhane Avenue, on the site of Bekir Uyguner we come to two-storey wooden terrace houses. I lived on this terrace together with my father. Next door was Kirkor’s repair-house, and next to that was the three-part casting and lathing maintenance house belonging to Kazli’s backer Rami Bey. And on the site of the present Derimko was a two-storey white wooden house belonging to Kumcu (Sand-seller) Mustafa. In the red-brick house on the site of Hayati’s tannery at the beginning of Yeni Tabakhane Street resided Mustafa Ulus, the oldest and the best known machinery manufacturer. Here the houses ended and the stout-leather factory belonging to Kamhis began at the site of Alber Beresi.

Demirhane Avenue used to end at the factory of Alekos Dulos, which extended as far as Genc Osman Avenue. Because the coast road wasn’t yet built, there was no entry to Kazli through Genc Osman. The passage was made via Yedikule Gate, and one approached Demirhane between cemeteries. To the right of Demirhane Avenue was a spinning mill run by the British; in its garden was a large pool, with water channels. There were about twenty workers’ houses in a field full of trees. From this field one could get to the Kazli train station, which was in the form of a shed. At the site of Ümit Soytürk lived Muhittin Aga.

Mustafa Ulus and Dokumacılar Inn was the vegetable garden of Hüseyin Aga and Ayşe Hanım, where delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley were grown. When her husband died, Ayşe Hanım sold the place to the Çengiçs and bought a four-floor apartment block at Aksaray with the proceeds; the Çengiçs constructed an inn in the garden and rented out rooms to textile workers.

Near the mausoleum of Derya Ali Baba (who endowed all his property to the leather tradesmen and was probably the oldest leather tradesman in Kazlıçeşme) was the Guild Coffee-shop, which passed by inheritance from him down to us. One climbed up to it by two staircases, and people sat on berths around the walls. The administrative room of the association was entered via the coffee-shop, and its affairs were conducted at the back of the mausoleum. Beside the room, under black fig trees was the garden of the association. Later, a cookhouse was opened for the garden workers, run by the late Ahmet Ahmet İşbilen. During the tenure of Cezmi Öztemir the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down and a building was constructed in its place; the first floor was rented to Yapı Kredi Bank, while the upper floor was allocated to the association. In this way, the mausoleum area was invigorated.

Beyond the Guild Coffee-shop were restaurants, the Kazli Bakery, the porters’ coffee-shop, the cartwrights’ coffee-shop, and the restaurant of Cemil the Cook. Next to Mumhane [Wax-house] cul-de-sac were Greengrocer Hüsamettin’s father Hadji Mustafa’s restaurant, Zemci the Butcher, coffee-maker Acem Şaban, and a large recreation area at the back of Kazlıçeşme. Next to that was Acem Süreya’s coffee-shop, with bachelors’ rooms at Taş Han [Stone Inn] above. After becoming Süreya’s son-in-law, Policeman Memduh ran this coffee-shop for many years. Along with Taş Han it was turned into a tannery, with the open space behind the fountain enclosed by a wall. This ancient fountain, which hadn’t failed to supply water to everyone for five centuries, was cast into the middle of the street; still, it hasn’t been offended and continues to function today.

 Opposite Taş Han was a wooden police station, rebuilt before 1950 in stone and brick by the Association of Leather Manufacturers. After the police station were wooden sheds. The Fatih Hotel was constructed much later. Aya Paraskeva on the opposite side faced Müezzin Hasan Street—it wasn’t covered by the Arkadaş Coffee-shop then. No tanneries were yet built in Müezzin Hasan Street. At the entrance of Hadji Mehmet Street was the workplace of Salih Usta the Carpenter, with his house above. Among the habitués of Kazli who were born in this house were Metin and his brother Alaettin, who carried the goods of many Kazli factories to the marketplace. In Hadji Mehmet Pasha Street was a rented property of Mehmet Pasha; when my father and his associate purchased this place, about ten or fifteen families had been lodging there.

The front of the rented property was open, giving access down to the sea from the hill 20 or 30 meters in front of it. The present Salhane Street and Kotra Street had not yet been created in the 1950s. In front of and to the right of the property, beneath oar-level, the seawater was deep blue where people entered the sea. From there, sweet water, like sweetened fruit juice, came to the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha Mosque. whose fountains supplied drinking water with a gurgling sound.

There was a square on the intersection of Müezzin Hasan ve Mosque Şerif. At the site of the present Sezai and Sabahattin Gülsever brothers was a wooden house, and just on the opposite corner was the fishermen’s coffee-shop. On the hill behind the coffee-shop customs officials worked. People went down to the sea by the side of this hut. Boats were pulled onto the sandy beach. Near Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Mosque, at the position of the present Rıza Pedük Factory, was a boathouse where boats were repaired and rowing boats could be protected when the sea was turbulent. In the direction of the fountain square of Camii Şerif Street were the stone-made houses of Greeks who earned their livelihood by fishing. Fifty years ago, the shores of Kazli were not yet polluted [really?—SJ]; an abundance of sea bass, mackerel, lobster, and hermit crab was to be caught. Tasula’s children Koço and Lambo used to go fishing early in the morning, putting their catch into willow-branch baskets and bringing it before Patronlar Kahvesi Tevfik to put on sale. When fish became scarce at Kazli, the famous fisherman Karaçivi and his son Panayot came over to our stout leather factory.

Among the cartwrights of Kazlıçeşme there were famous figures such as the theatre actors Naşit Ziya and Dümbüllü Halil, as well as İsmail Efendi, who made his fortune as a coachman. So that his stout leather wouldn’t get damaged, Fettah Koşar had his items carried in a coach until his death—how can one forget Fettah’s cart, drawn by white horses?

Also with roots in Kazli, our colleagues the leather tradesmen İsmail Ilgaz and Selahattin Ilgaz were born in houses next to the Kara Mustafa Mosque. Towards the fountain at Mosque Şerif, there were Greek houses on the site of the inn of Nusret Canayakın, Zeki Özzengin and Bakkalbasi. Right at the end, on the intersection of Öcal Street, we come to coffee-shop keeper Tevfik’s place, where tradesmen used to gather after the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down. In a sense it became the marketplace (stock exchange) of the leather tradesmen, where raw hides and stout leather were bought and sold. Fettah Koşar used to open the market and dictate the prices of stout leather, and lesser tradesmen would wait for his sales before adjusting their own prices. After business was completed in the mornings, backgammon parties and card-playing contests were held in the afternoons.

At the site of the gas station, opposite Tevfik’s, was the coffee-shop of Acem Dervisih, with tables and chairs placed around, surrounded by half-walls, with people drinking tea and coffee. This was the main stopover for workers and masters. At the back of the coffee-shop, opposite the police station, where Ergun Çelikoğlu now lives, resided Hüseyin the Charcoal Seller. Next to him lived Artin Usta the Cook, while Lambo the Fisherman lived above. Next to them was Koco Usta, the carpenter who made the best cupboards in Kazlıçeşme. Right next door was the workshop of Hasan Usta, then the best lathing master at Kazlıçeşme. Hasan Usta always shaved his head with a razor, walking the streets bald-headed; he had weird ideas, but he was a good master. Bachelor workers used to inhabit the three-storey wooden house on the site of the present premises of Türkiye İs Bank.

At the site of the Eren Depot, reached by following Demirhane Avenue up from Kazli cemetery, was a vegetable garden with a wood. At the site of the present leather tradesman Nezir or Caglar’ın yerinde was the pickaxe- and spade-factory belonging to Hanris. What remains from this factory is a stone wall, stretching all the way along. Further on, in Semsiye Street, were summerhouses and houses overlooking the sea. Kazli’s backer Rahmi Bey and İsmail Efendi the Grocer used to live in this street. The area from here up to Gemalmaz Street, and the places opposite it where Derby Lastik, Kadir Safak ve Hayriş dye-houses are found, were just empty fields belonging to Kör Sıddık the Coachman. Kör Sıddık used to live at the house at the beginning of Gemalmaz Street. Ali Rıza Efendi the Butcher, father of yogurt-maker Halik Efendi, the father of Ergun Celikoğlu, is said to have resided further on. Our colleague Celikoğlu was also born at Kazlıçeşme—his mother still lives here.

The editors supplement this fascinating account with further notes on the locations and characters listed.

127

The oldest tanner the researchers found was Nurettin Keskiniz, whose rather more technical account describes the transformation of the business:

I was born in Yugoslavia in about 1900. Both my grandfather Musa Usta, whom I remember, and my father Ahmet Usta were tanners as well. My grandfather migrated from Leskovca to Kumanovo during [the 18]93 war and practiced tannery there. After the Balkan War they became emigrants for a second time and moved to Skopje. When I was 8 years old, while I was attending the district school, I was going to the tannery. During my holiday periods, I was doing tannery work. This means I’ve been going to the tannery for seventy-six years now; that’s how long I’ve been inhaling the smell. It’s a blessing for us. To some extent, my tanner guests and friends, who’ve been visiting over the last decade since I’ve had problems with my legs and feet, bring me that smell. All tanners carry it with them and exude it.

In 1935, when we immigrated here, Turkey was a poor country, where the rate of unemployment was very high. Production of vileda at Kazlıçeşme was too backward , and there were [only] five or six factories producing it. Because we had come from Yugoslavia as free immigrants, we had brought high-quality vileda and rubber heels with us. I had the chance of selling even these high-quality items. Mahmut Bey had not yet immigrated. Worried about the market conditions of the period, I wrote to him, “Do not disrupt your system. Things are not moving smoothly here. I will return as soon as possible.” He replied, “Assume that I have not read your letter. Drop your plans of returning here. Continue to work at all costs.” Mahmut Bey was a very experienced and far-sighted man who managed to serve as a member of parliament in Yugoslavia. He was older than me. After less than a year, he also migrated with his family to lend me a helping hand. This letter incident was instructive. A few years later, there was a coup in Yugoslavia and the Communist regime was established there.

When we arrived in Turkey, the first thing we did was to rent a shop at Kapalıçarşı, Perdahçılar Avenue. We tried to create capital by selling the goods we brought from Yugoslavia. One year later, we started to dye the tanned leather that we obtained from Anatolia, on the second floor of an inn in the Kapalıçarşı Örücüler (Weavers) Market. At one point we returned to tanning and the business went well. In the meantime, I had been going to Kazlıçeşme, the centre of the leather industry. There I talked with the tanners and did some shopping. I saw that in order to continue in the tannery business, it would be necessary to settle there.

We first rented and then bought the factory building in Çapraz Street from Rahmi Gezer, who was regarded as the mobile bank of Kazlıçeşme and who extended interest-free financial assistance to tanners. When I came to Kazlıçeşme in 1937, there was a small number of Turkish tanneries here: Rasim Gürel, Ahmet İşbilen, the Çengiç brothers, Saraç Hüseyin, Fettah Koşar, Mustafa Kantarlı, İhsan Sarı’s father. Except for the Çengiçs, all of them processed raw leather. They didn’t know about chromium tanning. But we had learned how to do it while in Yugoslavia. We had been producing chromium undercoating material and chromium Moroccan leather. In a sense, we may be regarded as one of the first appliers of chromium tanning in Turkey. Afterwards, the late Tahir Öztemir, father of Cezmi Öztemir, started to process chromium vileda together with Spitzer, one of the German masters. State Railways put out to tender a project for removing fabric-covered train seats and covering them with leather, which was more durable and clean. Luckily, we won the tender and were given the work of covering all the train seats with red and green chromium Moroccan leather.

We thus proved our talents in chromium tanning. In 1944, patent leather was in demand, but only Alecos Dulo’s firm had been processing it. Because we had been processing chromium leather, we transferred Panayot Sani, the master at Alecos Dulo, and began to process patent leather. For us, the most enjoyable years in tanning were the ones spent with the sale of patent leather. In order to buy one reel, the customers used to make a deposit and form queues to buy the goods. Panayot Sani came over and made things difficult for us. In the meantime, Hasan Yelmen began practicing tanning as a chemical engineer. Patent leather was prepared by boiling linseed oil. The first thing we asked Hasan Yelmen to teach us was how to bake patent leather, to rid us of the hegemony of Panayot Sani; after a short while, we succeeded and freed ourselves from him.

Over the following years, production of stout leather increased rapidly and the golden age began. Along with this increase, the number of tanners at Kazlıçeşme went up too. I don’t know who should come first, but I wish to commemorate my friends with this list, most of whom have passed away: [24 names]. These friends of mine used to deal with stout leather production. Among those who used to work in chromium tanning were: [19 names]. These characters sum up the Kazlıçeşme of the 1940s.

Forty years have passed, and we are now in the year 1984. The outlook of Kazlıçeşme has changed almost totally. Some old firms are now represented by their offspring. What I mean by the outlook changing is that there are now more newcomers than seniors. During this transfer, this outlook will be subject to change once more. If God permits us to live longer, I think no-one from the older generation will remain.

117Later we went into partnership with Hasan Yelmen and worked together for thirty years as Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. When Hasan Yelmen stepped in, Panayot Sani, who had been making patent leather, moved back to his place. In those days, we could do chromium baking with the double-bath technique. But Hasan Yelmen managed to obtain better results by applying single-bath chromium baking. After he stepped in, we began to process chromium leather from sheep, designed for jackets. Thus it was we who first launched in Turkey the production of leather for jackets, which is in great demand today and which brings two hundred million USD of foreign earnings to Turkey. This is an important historical account. A Belarusian master tailor named Timochenko began to collect chromium sheepskin from us and sew leather jackets. When making chromium Moroccan leather for the railways, we had been highly skilled in the application of cellulose dye. The jacket material kept people warm, so it was in demand in the winter. Also, thanks to its cellulose finishing, it was water- and rain-proof. After learning how to sew leather jackets while working for Timochenko, Sabri Aykaç and Selahattin Tuncer left the Belarusian tailor. We supported them by providing them with jacket material on credit. Afterwards, Dona da Leon also began to sew leather jackets.

First, drivers and police officers began to wear leather jackets. The centre was established at Karaköy. In particular, the crews of the steamers that docked at the Galata quay were the first serious customers. Later, State Railways awarded the contract for purchasing leather jackets for its staff, and numerous workshops were opened at Karaköy and Mercan for the purpose. Shops were opened at Beyoğlu, where finer leather jackets were sold and this business spread among the people. Then women started wearing leather jackets, coats, and skirts, which constituted the third phase. In the fourth phase we exported leather jackets to foreign countries.

Undoubtedly the most important phase began with the entry of Derimod into leather fashion. Ümit Zaim is part of our family circle because he is the grandson of my partner Mahmut Bey, and the cousin of Hasan Yelmen. I can say that it was we who developed the leather-jacket business, and that Ümit Zaim took it to its peak. I trained many staff, both workmen and masters. Some of those we trained became bosses at Kazlıçeşme: Faik Altıer was one of our masters back in Skopje. After coming to Turkey, Rıza, Halil, Münür Altıer too worked for us. Zekeriya Tabakçı had worked for us in Skopje. Sadettin Toprak and Halil Öztürk were our patent-leather masters. Emin Sez made travels for us. Rıza Pedük worked in the emery-stone trade. I was happy to see all of them becoming bosses.

What a bustling subaltern society these vivid recollections evoke, hinting at the variety of trades centred around the tanning industry—factories, slaughterhouses, glue workshops; carpenters, cartwrights, blacksmiths, charcoal sellers; landlords, rowdies; cooks, fishermen, police posts, steamers, the railways; ambient venues like lodging houses, baths, mosques, coffee-houses, inns, vegetable gardens… 


[1] In recent years, Zeytinburnu has become home to increasing numbers of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang (see e.g. here, and here). Rachel Harris’s studies of the expressive culture of the Uyghurs have expanded to their life in exile there.

A blind accordionist

Muammer

Further to my series on blind musicians, and on Turkish culture, Muammer Ketencoğlu (b.1964), based in Istanbul, is a popular performer and collector of folk music from west Anatolia and the Balkans, including rebetika. Besides fronting his own band, collaborating with a range of musicians, he has hosted the weekly radio programme Tuna’nın Beri Yanı since 1995. His website is useful, and he’s on Twitter.

A few tracks to whet your appetite (more here):

In a thoughtful interview on rebetika in Istanbul (cf. Songs of Asia Minor), he mentions the reception in Turkey of the 1983 film Rembetiko (see Road to rebetika).

  • Istanbul: between Orient and Occident, playlist:

  • Ayde Mori, playlist:

  • Karanfilin Moruna (booklet), playlist:

  • From Balkan journey:

  • Sandığımdan Rumeli Türküleri (booklet), playlist:

  • On film, a trailer for Whose is this song? (Adela Peeva, 2003):

  • A TV show:

Sevdalinka:

See also Musical cultures of east Europe, and Folk traditions of Greece; and click here for Annie Proulx’s great ethnomusicological novel Accordion crimes.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music: