In China after the 1949 “Liberation”, all kinds of religious activities persisted, with difficulty, at local level under Maoism—even during the Cultural Revolution—until they could be observed more openly since the 1980s’ reforms, as shown in numerous posts on this blog. Among the diverse cast of practitioners in local communities are spirit mediums, who constitute an important resource consulted by those seeking to resolve various physical, psychological, and practical afflictions (see this roundup of posts).
From Manshin: ten thousand spirits (see below).
In Korea (where they are mostly women), there’s a range of terms, among which mudang and manshin are commonly heard; in English they are widely, if controversially, known as “shamans” (see the useful discussion in wiki). While their practices in the south are well documented, they have clearly also maintained clandestine activity under the severely impoverished conditions of the DPRK in North Korea—a regime often likened to an ongoing Cultural Revolution. 
So I write these notes mainly out of curiosity; for whereas scholars who were previously limited to fieldwork in Taiwan have been able since the 1980s to turn their attention to religious life under state socialism in mainland China (see e.g. The resilience of tradition, Kristofer Schipper, Ken Dean), no such thaw has occurred in the DPRK, so clues to their activities there, gleaned mainly from defectors, remain highly elusive.
Two jangseung tutelary deities outside a Korean village, 1903. Source.
After the Korean war, the ecstatic shamanic tradition of the Hwanghae region (now the southwest of the DPRK) was introduced by many shamans taking refuge in the south. It seems important to distinguish the large-scale kut rituals performed by the mudang and the less public divination sessions of jeomjaengi fortune-tellers. An NPR article from 2021 provides some clues to the recent situation:
In South Korea, shamanistic rituals are visually flashy and involve a lot of sound, whereas in the North, from what I’ve heard, they are very small-scale and quieter. […] Practitioners can be jailed, sent to reeducation and labour camps, or executed for taking part in what’s considered an illegal superstition.
As in China, where religious activity increased in response to periods of extreme deprivation (such as in Hunan), an article on North Korea from 2015 suggests that consulting shamans (or at least the jeomjaengi fortune-tellers) has surged in popularity since the 1990s’ famine. As one defector commented:
North Koreans widely believe in shamanism. Before marriage they check their marital compatibility, when moving houses they check the site of their future home, and before they leave for business people used to ask me whether the journey would be comfortable or not.
an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. […] Authorities continued to react by taking measures against the practice of shamanism. […] Defector reports cited an increase in Party members consulting fortune-tellers in order to gauge the best time to defect.
A South Korean scholar consulted for the 2021 article commented:
Because North Korean shamans who hold rituals risk being discovered and arrested, some shamans there simply do fortune-telling, which can still be effective in explaining the reasons for clients’ problems.
The article goes on:
Lee Ye-joo told fortunes in North Korea before defecting to the South in 2006 at age 33. She now lives in Chungnam province, south of Seoul. When she was 12, Lee began studying a book of divination called the Four Pillars of Destiny, based on the Chinese calendar system. She began telling fortunes eight years later. “All people who came to me were officials”, she recalls. Because ordinary North Koreans “don’t even have enough to eat, the only people who seek out fortune-tellers are those with money, like big-name officials. They usually ask when they might lose their job or who their children should marry.” Lee built up her clientele surreptitiously, by word of mouth. She had to be careful not to get caught, she says—but then again, so did her clients. “They were all linked to other officials who introduced me to them”, she says. “So if one of them got me into trouble, I could tell on all the others.” Telling fortunes didn’t pay well, so she turned to trading. She says she bought and smuggled goods out of a special trade zone to sell, often making a perilous trek through the mountains to evade authorities.
In the late 1950s, the state began to conduct campaigns against “superstitions”—a term that often included more institutionalized forms of religion as well. Since women made up the majority of fortune-tellers’ customers, the Women’s Union carried out most of these actions. […]
There are even reports about shamanistic rituals occasionally being performed in the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s—but a limited number of participants carried out such rites quietly, without music or singing, to avoid discovery. […]
The situation began to change in the early 1990s. Economic crisis and famine seriously damaged the once hyper-efficient surveillance system, and poorly-paid enforcers lost much of their erstwhile zeal. Simultaneously, the new world of trade, starvation, opportunities, and dangers made all kinds of superstitions far more popular. Amid capitalist uncertainties, it was too tempting to believe that a skilful shaman would persuade spirits to guide the newly established venture to prosperity. […]
Though sacrificial offerings, called jaesa, remained banned for a few decades, the state partially permitted some graveside rites from 1972. […]
As to geomancy and physiognomy, palm reading and dream interpretation,
North Korean refugees report that during the “Arduous March” famine it became common to consult with kunghap specialists about a would-be spouse.
Just as in China, assaults on custom are often made in the name of anti-extravagance campaigns:
In April 2007, Choseon Yeoseong (Korean Woman) magazine criticised large celebrations for the “four family events” of coming of age, weddings, funerals, and ancestral worship. “This extravagance leads to the waste of grain which was harvested with such great labour, and creates conditions for drunkenness.”
* * *
In South Korea, besides having to adapt to commercial pressures and competition from Christianity (the latter also a significant underground presence in the DPRK), shamans have also experienced periods of state repression. A celebrated figure since the 1980s, when the mudang first came to wider attention and were documented by scholars and the media, is Kim Keum-hwa (1931–2019).  The vicissitudes of her life are brilliantly depicted in the splendid Manshin: ten thousand spirits (Park Chan-kyong, 2013), both documentary and biopic, a must-watch (here) even without English subtitles—which are at least provided in this trailer: 
Born in Hwanghae province—now part of North Korea, and then under Japanese occupation—Kim was subject to disturbing sinbyeong visions in her youth (such psychic crises commonly indicate that one is “chosen” to become a medium, in China and elsewhere); by the time she was 17, her parents could no longer resist, and her grandmother (who was also a mudang) initiated her with the naerim-gut ritual.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, Kim Keum-hwa’s “superstitious” practices came under attack from troops of both sides. For this turbulent period, the film (from 23.44) has some intriguing detail, which Simon Mills has kindly summarised:
During the war, Kim recalls seeing someone’s head explode and their guts fly up into the branches of a tree—she still feels disturbed when she thinks of it. One day a man wearing a communist-style cap and trousers said “You! Come out here!” As she came out, he said “So you’re a mudang, eh? Bring out all your things and we’ll burn them!” So she has nothing remaining from that period. At the time it was a case of do or die.
[Recreation] A woman asks Kim: “Could you help us? I hear that you’re a new mudang! Please do a kut just this once for us, to save my son-in-law Mr Park!” Kim replied: “I sense that his fortune is good. Let’s figure out a suitable date for the kut.”
(Still, as she recalls: “When the Communists retreated, the home guard treated us even worse—thinking that mudang were corrupting people’s minds and spying for the communists [presumably because they held discussions with many people and travelled around to see clients—SM]. In that period, we never thought we’d be able to hold rituals, but even people in the army would come to me for help.”)
So Kim makes the risky decision to head out to heal Mr Park—a spy from the South. During the ritual, she declares “He’ll get better” but in her head she’s hearing “He’s going to die”—and as she sings, her unconscious thoughts come out. A man points a gun at Kim and says “an unskilful novice just kills people; you should die right now!”, but both the woman who invited her and the afflicted man intervene. Kim comments: “That kind of thing happened all the time—people saying that it was all superstition and illusion… When they accused me, I just said: “My only sin was being born as a mudang…”
“As it turned out Mr Park returned to full health, but as the war situation became worse I escaped, fleeing from island to island in the West before arriving in Incheon.” She almost died in a sea storm, clinging onto some cymbals for protection, and hearing others speak of the River Jordan, wondering what they meant…
Ritual specialist attacked in anti-superstition campaign, South Korea 1972. Still from Manshin: ten thousand spirits.
Kim Keum-hwa eventually managed to relocate to Seoul, going on to master major rituals from great shamans. She started promoting the artistic features of shamanic rituals to the public, going on to win an award at the National Folk Art Competition in 1974.
Anything that hinted at superstition was frowned upon. I was persecuted day and night. I detested that I couldn’t be a normal housewife, raising a family that loves me. I loathed my fate for that. As I encountered one obstacle after another and saw how happy other people were, I was envious. Then I told myself off for coveting things that weren’t mine. My path was clearly in front of me, and I made up my mind to live it the best I could. After 40, I stopped envying the lives of others.
By the 1980s shamanism began to enjoy a vogue, and Kim Keum-hwa received the title of Living National Treasure in recognition of her work in preserving rituals, notably the baeyeonshin-gut fishing-boat blessing.
The film also shows a ritual for unification that Kim performed in 1998 near the demilitarized zone, during which she became possessed by the spirit of DPRK leader Kim Il-sung, behaving exactly as he did, to everyone’s amazement.
Still in South Korea, several other renowned mudang have perpetuated the northern Hwanghae style (see e.g. this 1988 article, and here on Yi Hae-gyŏng). Here’s a short film on the younger shaman Seo Gyunguk:
Back in the DPRK [unreleased Beatles track?], under the state ideology of juche “self-reliance”, the intense fervour for the Supreme Leader that is demanded at public demonstrations has led scholars to suggest influences from traditional Korean religions, such as the ecstasy of shamanic ritual. I would need to read up more on this before being convinced, since such politically-induced veneration appears across diverse cultures.
If grass-roots religious practices in China like those of spirit mediums have become a sub-theme of research alongside the formal institutions of Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity, it remains impossible to conduct such ethnographic fieldwork in North Korea. Still, it’s clearly not a religious void, even if tantalising clues from defectors suggest that “shamans” there mainly practise surreptitious divination, rather than the grand public rituals of the south. If only we could somehow gain access to internal reports from local Public Security and Cultural bureaus on the continuing need to suppress “superstitious practices” among the people, such as we have for Maoist China (see e.g. under Hunan).
With thanks to Simon Mills.
 For the opaque society of the DPRK, note Barbara Demick’s fine book Nothing to envy: ordinary lives in North Korea (2010); and the Inspector O crime novels of James Church are both imaginative and well-informed. For divided Germany after the war, see links here, under the GDR.
 For the story of the goddess Houtu rescuing a Chinese brigade during the Korean war, see The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan before and after Liberation”—another article that shows the tenacity of religious faith under Maoism. Cf. the deified young soldier shown on the pantheon of a Shanxi medium,(here, under “Dongye township”).
To accompany my post on Ethio-jazz, the whimsical piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923–2023) made another great coup for Buda Musique producer Francis Falceto in the CD series Éthiopiques. Vol. 21 (2006) opens with the enchanting sounds of The homeless wanderer (playlist):
Her father, the European-educated diplomat and former vice-president of Ethiopia, Kentiba Gebru Desta, was 78 years old when she was born, making her possibly the only person on the planet alive in 2023 with a parent born in 1845. The young Guèbrou was a glamorous society girl, educated at a Swiss boarding school and fluent in several languages. She had piano and violin lessons at a classical conservatoire in Cairo (learning under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz), immersing herself in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. On her return to Addis Ababa, she started to write her own compositions, and assisted Kontorowicz when he led the Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard Band (she recalls playing the Emperor some solo piano pieces and singing him a ballad in Italian).
Following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Emahoy spent time in confinement with her family on an island near Sardinia (cf. this post). In 1948 she was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for some reason she couldn’t take up the offer. Depressed and apparently disillusioned, she abandoned high society life to take holy orders, going to live barefoot at an austere convent on the holy mountain of Gishen Mariam north of Addis Ababa.
There she stayed for a decade before returning to Addis to live with her mother, when she started playing the piano again; her recordings between 1963 and the mid-70s have become the basis for her canon. She remained in Ethiopia after the 1974 coup, but was increasingly involved in charity projects with the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, where after her mother’s death in 1984 she lived in a convent for the rest of her life.
In the words of John Lewis, her compositions are a “curious fusion of fin de siècle parlour piano, gospel, ragtime, Ethiopian folk music, and the choral traditions of the country’s Orthodox church… pitched somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, and Professor Longhair”, using
a series of pentatonic scales, or kignits [useful intro here], which are the building blocks of all Ethiopian music, from its ancient liturgical chants to its folk songs and funky pop music. These five-note scales are similar but musicologically quite distinct from Arabic maqams or Indian modes. They have names like the anchihoye, the tizita and the bati, and most have major and minor-key variations (some, like the ambassel, don’t have a minor or major third at all, and so have a wonderfully ambiguous, open-ended feel). Guèbrou’s piano playing manipulated these modes to draw us in and hypnotise us, like a snake charmer with a pungi.
Here’s an excerpt from the long-awaited documentary Labyrinth of belonging:
In her all-too-brief life, the film-maker Sara Gómez (1942–74) applied a critical ethnographic eye in documenting everyday lives in Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
One of only two black film-makers in ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos), and the institute’s first (in her lifetime, Cuba’s only) woman director, she was “concerned with representing the Afro-Cuban community, women’s issues, and the treatment of the marginalized sectors of society” (black people and women, the poor, religious, and young)—highlighting social injustice, as well as racial and gender discrimination. *
From De cierta maniera.
Most of her oeuvre consists of short films, such as her debut Iré a Santiago (1964)—visually innovative despite some almost touristy images, its voiceover as yet unchallenging but eschewing the clichéd travelogue style later parodied by Monty Python—note the funeral from 4.07, and Carnival from 11.53:
The social agenda (both the regime’s and her own) develops in Una isla para Miguel (1968):
In her final, full-length, masterpiece De cierta maniera (One way or another, 1974) Gómez incorporates a fictional love story within a documentary style to shed light on tensions in the revolution, using real people playing themselves alongside professional actors. While the style of the criticism session that opens the film may recall China under Maoism, her message is far more probing than in Chinese films of that era. Here it is:
Melodramatic outbursts of emotion are followed by an erratic camera flowing freely inside crumbling edifices. Sociological musings fade in favour of heartfelt musical renditions. Transitions are rarely seamless, clashing with every canon possible (even the revolutionary ones), but precisely because of such frontal disregard, Goméz’s cinema feels liberated. Only answering to the concerns of the souls framed on screen, every moment is used to challenge official narratives and position the urgency of the work still to be done.
Note also the vignette on the Abakuá religious fraternity (14.35–18.23)—here Gómez’s analysis concurs with socialist orthodoxy:
This cultural manifestation epitomises the social aspirations, norms, and values of male chauvinism in Cuban society. We believe that its traditional, secret, exclusive nature sets it against progress and prevents it from assimilating the values of modern life. Therefore, in the present stage it generates marginality, promoting a code of parallel social relations that is the antithesis of social integration.
Discuss—for a range of more nuanced approaches to ritual, refer to Catherine Bell…
With Gómez’s black middle-class background (see her 1966 short Guanabacoa: crónica de mi familia), her musical training was classical—but she was animated by the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the streets, lovingly documented in the fine Y… tenemos sabor (1967): **
The procession from 22.27 even features a shawm! ***
Here’s the illuminating documentary Sara Gomez, an Afro-Cuban filmmaker (Alessandra Müller, 2004):
* * *
More recently, note the films on Cuba in the Growing into music series. Akin to Goméz’s stress on marginalized groups, for the Maoist decades in China Guo Yuhua documents “the sufferers”—ironically, the peasant majority, again including women. For musicians’ “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”, click here. ****
** More piffling linguistic pedantry: the three dots should indeed follow the opening word Y, although many citations put them before it. No less pedantically, I note that the 2004 documentary seems to lack the accent on Gómez’s surname. Yes, I should get a life.
**** This isn’t the place for an analysis of suitable venues for a revolution (cf. Bill Bryson), but I recall a tour of France with an early music group playing worthy recreations of Qing-dynasty court music, where we ended up in the same hotel as a young early music group from Cuba, playing recreations of early Cuban music in the same festival. While our group were all buried in our arid, ponderous early music conservatoire shtick, the Cubans exuded sensuous physicality from every pore, laughing, grooving, alive. With All Due Respect, I realised I was doing the wrong gig—like the musos’ recurring dream. For the denial of the body, cf. Madonna and McClary.
Left, with Ghulam Sabir Qadri
Right, Magriel’s Ganda Bandan ceremony to become Abdul Latif Khan’s shagird disciple, 1995.
As he documents the sarangi’s history, he introduces the home life, cloistered musicianship, and training of its hereditary exponents—based in accompanying vocalists, including the popular songs of tawayaf courtesans (see e.g. the opening videos on this page).
Magriel devotes chapters to the art of two among around a hundred players whom he visited through the 1990s, Ghulam Sabir Qadri (1922–c2000) and Abdul Latif Khan (1934–2002). His detailed transcriptions and analyses supplement the rich audio-video archive on his website, elucidating melodic patterns, ornamentation, and technique. On the website even his brief musical descriptions of videos are instructive, such as the page on Chanda Khan accompanying Lakshmi Bai (e.g. notes on variant tunings, and a solo improvisation “vaguely in rāg Yaman with some impressive tans, and a bit of Maru Bihag”).
Along with performances on the concert platform that dominate our image (a context to which sarangi players gained admission belatedly), what I find just as remarkable as the musical detail is the panorama of domestic musicking that Magriel unfurls naturally, without labouring ethnographic points—ritual and commemorative gatherings, practising and teaching, dance parties…
The Appendices give technical details of the instrument’s construction and maintenance, with images and discussion of 321 sarangis. Also fascinating are minutiae of gut strings, bows, rosin, and tuning pegs, as well as the craft of repairing skins, fingerboards, and so on. He notes the instrument’s curious decorative fish motif.
The book is so fascinating that I take scant comfort in the thought that it’s no more likely than my work on north Chinese ritual to soar up the best-seller charts…
Just as Aleppo was receding from the news, it suffers yet again, the devastation of civil war now compounded by the earthquake. How will the city’s renowned musical life be further transformed amidst the ruined buildings and traumatised residents?
A handy introduction to the city’s history is
Philip Mansel, Aleppo: the rise and fall of Syria’s great merchant city (2018),
with a succinct main text at 73 pages (forming the framework of my outline below), the second half consisting of early travellers’ accounts.
Aleppo was yet another of those “global bazaars” (an image that masks tensions), populated by Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Venetian, and French peoples. Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted rather than living in harmony; while the town had no major religious shrines to exacerbate conflict, rival Christian groups (Armenian, Maronite, Orthodox, Syriac) had a long history of enmity. While the diversity and tolerance of the Ottoman empire is an article of faith, conflicts became increasingly acute after the Ottoman empire crumbled.
The late-17th-century traveller Evliyâ Çelebi made several visits to Aleppo, listing 61 mosques, 217 Koran schools, 5,700 shops in the central market, 7,000 gardens, 105 coffee shops (a regular venue for musicking), and 176 dervish convents.
By the 18th century, the town’s Janissaries were mainly shopkeepers and artisans, in conflict with the ashraf gentry. Tensions between rival power groups grew through the 19th century. Long linked with Constantinople and other regional cities, from 1890 railway lines connected Aleppo to Beirut and Damascus.
Aleppo was a major hub in the deportation of Armenians from Anatolia in the Long March of 1915. Despite obstruction from the Ottoman authorities, the Armenian community there made great efforts to provide relief for the refugees (see e.g. here).
Even in 1922, T.E. Lawrence still found “more friendship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Turk, Kurd, and Jew than in perhaps any other great city of the Ottoman empire”. While the city remained multi-denominational, under the French mandate from 1920, Aleppo became subordinate to Damascus. Syria gained full independence in 1944. Many Jews left from 1947, not only to the new state of Israel but around the world, such as Beirut, New York, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires.
Though the city thrived in the 1950s, people continued to emigrate. Tensions, based on religion, increased after the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963 (cf. Everyday life in a Syrian village). In 1986 the Old City was listed as a UNESCO World heritage site. Aleppo was already being described as a “city of memories”. Even the 2011 book My Aleppo portrayed the city as a living culture—but under Bashir Assad, Aleppo, like Syria, was in crisis.
Since the outbreak of civil war In the early days after the outbreak of the war in 2011, Aleppo seemed immune from the conflict. But by July 2012 it became a centre of the uprising, and the population was soon at the mercy of both the brutal government and rebel militias. The latter established themselves in the sprawling industrial zones in east Aleppo, home to poor migrants with little or no investment in the cosmopolitan culture of the hitherto prosperous west of the city.
Channel 4 reports through the period are impressive (archive here). Meanwhile Waad al-Kateab was making the moving documentary For Sama. Note also the reports of Charles Glass, such as this from 2017 (cf. wiki).
Government forces finally regained control of east Aleppo in December 2016. While the situation remains tense, with predatory militias still operating, the painful process of rebuilding could begin among transformed demographics (detailed report here, and for the collection of cultural memory, see e.g. here).
Musicking Aleppo has long been renowned for its musical life.
Among the accounts of early European travellers that make up the second half of Mansel’s book, some bear on music. He cites Alexander Russell’s A natural history of Aleppo (1756), including this passage:
The coffee-houses are only frequented by the vulgar. The masters of these houses have often, for the entertainment of their customers, a concert of music, a story-teller, and in time of Ramadan particularly, an obscene, low kind of puppet-show, and sometimes tumblers and jugglers; and these, properly speaking, are all their public diversions. […]
The music of the country is of two sorts, one for the field, the other for the chamber. The first makes part of the retinue of the bashaws, and other great military officers, and is used also in their garrisons [cf. The Janissary band]. It consists of a sort of hautboy, shorter, but shriller than ours; trumpets, cymbals, large drums, the upper head of which is beat upon with a heavy drumstick, the lower with a small switch. A vizier-bashaw has nine of these large drums, while a bashaw of two tails has but eight, the distinction by which the music of one may be known from that of the other. Besides these, they have small drums, beat after the manner of our kettle-drums. This music at a distance has a tolerable good effect.
Their chamber-music consists of a dulcimer, guitar, dervises flute, blown in a very particular manner; Arab fiddle, a couple of small drums, and the diff, which serves mainly to beat time to the voice, the worst of all their music; for they bellow so hideously that it spoils what without it would be to some degree harmonious. This diff is a hoop (sometimes with pieces of brass fixed to it to make a jingling), over which a piece of parchment is distended. It is beat with the fingers, and is the true tympanum of the ancients… […]
Besides the above mentioned instruments, they have likewise a sort of bagpipe, which numbers of idle fellows play upon round the skirts of the town, making a pretence to ask a present of such as pass. […]
From A natural history of Aleppo, 2nd edition, 1794.
The print annexed represents a Turkish concert, drawn from the life; in which care has been taken also to show, through a window, the inner court-yard of a house, with the little garden, fountain, &c. and through another is seen part of a mosque, with the minaret, from whence the imams call the people to prayers. The dress of the performers also shows the different kinds wore by the ordinary people, according to their sect, &c. The first, who bears the diff, represents that of an ordinary Turk; the next a slovenly ordinary Christian; the middle figure is a Dervise; the fourth is a Christian of a middle rank, playing upon the Arab fiddle. What is peculiar in his dress is, that the sash of the turbant is strip’d with blue, and his slippers red. The last is an ordinary fellow, beating the small drum with his fingers, as they often do, instead of drumsticks. His head-dress is such as is worn by many Janizaries and commonly by the Arabgarlees, a race of Armenians, who attend upon the Europeans.
Moving on to modern times, I can’t really judge this, but whereas the Ottoman musical heritage of Istanbul has long become a niche market, the Sufi-tinged chamber music of Aleppo seems to play a greater role in the imagined soundscape of outsiders. Long before the civil war, the city had already become regarded as a kind of musical museum—a reified, nostalgic image at odds with the diverse changing genres that are universal in modern cities amidst the growing challenges of daily life.
The liturgy of Aleppo, largely a cappella, was renowned. On CD an introduction to the style is
Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1980/1992, recorded in 1975), with notes by Christian Poché.
After a solo adhancall to prayer sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006; for a playlist devoted to him, largely featuring concert groups, click here), the CD continues with devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following a solo free-tempo qaṣīda is a choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums. The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation. Here it is:
And here’s a track from Nawa: ancient Sufi invocations and forgotten songs from Aleppo, recorded just before the war (reviews here and here):
Like the liturgy of mosques and lodges, the polished, commodified versions of chamber music traditions that have attracted attention in the niche world-music scene are imbued with Sufism, but they differ in both context and sound. Formerly heard at intimate gatherings in hawsh private houses and public cafés,  these groups showcased long wasla suites (including qaṣīda and muwasshah vocal sections) accompanied by takht instrumental ensemble. The Ensemble Al-Kindi became prominent exponents of this style on the concert stage. Here’s their first album, then comprising an instrumental trio (1988):
One of their early albums was with Sheikh Hamza Shakkûr, Qadiri Sufi singer from Damascus:
Even if to my taste their shows are flawed by the Curse of the Whirling Dervishes, the ensemble went on to work with distinguished singers from Aleppo. Here’s their 2-CD album with Sheikh Habboush:
This playlist includes tracks from The Crusades and The Aleppian Music Room, featuring singers Sabri Mudallai and Omar Sarmini:
Here’s the album Orchestre Arabe classique d’Alep (Musiques du Monde, 2006):
I surmise that the social context of lodges and mosques was more enduring than that of the “secular” gatherings, so such recordings were largely an attempt at “salvage” (among many such instances around the world, cf. the suites of late-imperial Beijing); of course, they can never replace detailed studies of changing cultural life. This brief report describes the revival of qudud singing in Aleppo since the end of the war—and hints at its maintenance even under the bombings.
Joseph Eid’s viral image of Abu Omar listening to gramophone, 2017. Source.
The musical life of Syria will now be substantially in the hands of refugees and the diaspora. As music helps people come to terms with pain and loss, this 2015 documentary shows music-making in Zaatari camp, Jordan:
And we should spread the musical net beyond the “classical” genres imbued with Sufism—this article introduces the Aleppo metal scene.
 The booklet to The Aleppian music room CDs mentions a “blind men’s café” still functioning until after World War Two, where blind instrumentalists accompanied parties of women (cf. Blind musicians in China and elsewhere).
So far, my dabblings in the ritual traditions of Istanbul have consisted mainly of exploring the cem ceremony of the Alevis—itself a substantial topic, both in the city (here, with sequel) and around Anatolia. In its values, gender inclusiveness, and ritual style, Alevism is closely related to Bektashi beliefs, but is quite distinct from other Sufi orders (tariqa) active in Turkey.
Naqshbandi traditions Like other tariqat, the Naqshbandi order has a wide presence around west, central, and south Asia.  It is influential in Turkey, where it is largely urban, supported by literati, bureaucrats, and merchants.There its pronouncements evince a less than liberal strain, vocally opposing perceived social decadence; opposing Westernising reforms, its leaders are critical of “heterodoxy”.
Hakan Yavuz, in his chapter “The matrix of modern Turkish Islamic movements: the Naqshbandi Sufi order”, observes that “the Sufi orders have turned out to be the major institutions for the aggregation of economic and political interests”. Focusing on Istanbul, he considers the Naqshbandis under the rubrics of inner cultivation and religious salvation, a tool for upward mobility, a network for social and political services, and a model for a community—headings that one might well apply to other orders too.
As to the Ottoman background, Sultan Mahmud II (1808–37), suspicious of charismatic popular leaders and competing loyalties within the state, banned the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya order in Istanbul, as well as the Bektashis. But under later Sultans the Naqshbandis expanded their influence, often taking over Bektashi lodges, becoming “one of the most important forces between ruled and ruler”.
In the early years of the Republic, despite their support for Atatürk’s War of Liberation, the Naqshbandi and other Sufi lodges were banned. Still, their
ability to adjust to new situations and to develop new arguments neutralises the hostile propaganda of opponents who seek to identify the movement as fundamentalist or an “enemy” of modernity. For example, the Naqshbandis fully supported the Turkish War of Independence but protested against the radical and authoritarian secular transformation of the system by Mustafa Kemal.
Most of the eighteen rebellions against state policies between 1924 and 1938 were led by the Naqshbandiyya. But they were better able to survive persecution than some other orders.
In response to repression, most of these orders gradually transformed from strictly religious associations into competing educational and cultural informal associations with religious underpinnings. They gathered support from sections of traditional society, which regarded the Kemalist variant of secularisation as too radical and destructive for Turkey’s social fabric.
Indeed, “the post-Republican elite, which shaped the opinion and identity of the leading Muslim movements, evolved among local Naqshbandi groups in Istanbul and Anatolia”, and “the Turkish Muslim understanding of Islam is very much filtered through Naqshbandi concepts and institutions”. In modern Turkey, Naqshbandi is the most politically active of the Sufi orders; like others, they are closely involved in education, healthcare, commerce, and media promotion. Of the four main branches in Istanbul, most wealthy and influential is the lskenderpaşa, based at their Mosque in Fatih. But Hakan Yavuz argues that the remarkable adaptive powers and pragmatism of the Naqshbandi
may lead to decline, not so much because of state suppression or rivalry from other orders, but because of its smooth adaptation to capitalism and its integral involvement in Turkish politics, both of which may undermine the spiritual and cultural aspects of the order.
As he suggests, along with a reduction in the mystical and heterodox features of Islam and Sufism, Islam has been delocalised and a new, abstract, highly centralised and economically conscious faith created to cater for the modern urban population.
Dhikr On the Anatolian side of Istanbul, we visited the village of Beylerbeyi, just along the Bosphorus from Üsküdar and Kuzguncuk, to attend the Thursday evening dhikr (zikr) ritual at a Naqshbandi dergah (see here, and wiki), where Sheikh Mesud Efendi (d.1908) was influential. Set in a picturesque old quarter up the hill, the wooden building is just as fine.
The practice of collective dhikr (zikr) is intense. Among the Naqshbandiyya it is traditionally classified as either khafi “silent” or jahri “loud”; they seem to find both acceptable—see e.g. Isenbike Togan’s chapter on the historical controversy between them in Central Asia, n.1 below.
Glimpses from the women’s gallery.
Directing prostrations in a packed hall, the sheikh chanted a series of invocations, with occasional simple group responses. As the lights were switched off, the worshippers turned to sit in a circle facing the sheikh, the repetitive group invocations becoming more intense. In a segregated area on the upper floor a substantial group of women was also deeply devout, as my companions reported.
* * *
With such a very basic grounding in live ritual, I turned to YouTube for the wider picture, where several videos suggest the deeply immersive somatic experience of Naqshbandi dhikr. In her Introduction (n.1 below), Elisabeth Özdalga observes:
Many Sufi orders practice the dhikr collectively, with intensive and emotion-laden expressions, where the partakers move their bodies rhythmically as they loudly pronounce the names of Allah. The Naqshbandis are traditionally known for greater self-restraint. […] [They] have generally been regarded as more sober and orderly in their religious practices than other Sufis.
I can’t assess this as a general characterisation, but from the clips below it seems to need modifying. This substantial excerpt from a haḍra ritual in Bosnia is well annotated, featuring both Arabic qasidahs and Turkish ilahis:
Still more imbued with emotive expression are the rituals of Uyghur Naqshbandis, in a region of Central Asia that was invaded by the Chinese Communists in 1949. In retrospect, the Chinese state’s approach towards Islam in the decades before the clampdown under Xi Jinping may now appear relatively benign (see here). This zikr was recorded by Jean During in southwest Xinjiang in 1988, during a period when Uyghur traditions were enjoying an impressive revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution:
And the remarkable excerpts below show Uyghur Naqshbandis performing zikr in south Xinjiang on the eve of the Chinese campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture:
As to the Western diaspora, Naqshbandi groups meet in Europe and north America (cf. Alevi ritual), such as the Osmanli Dergahi in New York, transmitting the teachings of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani (1922–2014), who moved from Istanbul to Syria, while also based in his native Cyprus (cf. wiki)—this 2017 video is among many on their YouTube site:
* * *
I’m acutely aware that outsiders like me cannot even begin to comprehend Sufi ritual. But my visit to the Naqshbandi lodge in Beylerbeyi reminded me again that (as in much Daoist and Buddhist temple ritual) the heart of ritual performance lies in The Divine Word, embodied through the pure a cappella vocal liturgy of the mosques and Sufi orders. In this case, the observance is unmediated even by percussion.
I’ve long been hooked on the gritty art of flamenco (series rounded up here), and The Rite of Spring is utterly compelling in both orchestral and ballet versions, always a rich source of inspiration for new interpretations. It makes perfect sense for them to come together, and the other day I was delighted to attend a solo dance performance of La Consagración de la primavera by the ever-innovative Israel Galván at Sadlers Wells.
It’s hard to unhear the sonorities of the orchestral score, but the pared-down arrangement for two pianos (played by Daria van den Bercken and Gerard Bouwhuis) worked well, and Galván was mesmerising, embodying Stravinsky’s vision with his chthonic percussive energy.
Here are excerpts from a performance last year:
The dance complemented the agonised ethos of flamenco—modifying its ”self-pity, posturing machismo” (Timothy Mitchell) and the “culture of victimage” (William Washabaugh) (see Flamenco, 2). Blurbs for Israel Galván typically remark on how he “challenges gender norms”. While stressing the angular syncopations of Stravinsky, he added his own rhythmic counterpoints. His whole body became a sound-box, with relentless stomps and shimmies (his legs sometimes concealed beneath a huge billowing skirt) and expressive arms. Much as he deserved a nice sit-down, you might not think that the hectic Danse sacrale that concludes the piecewould be quite the moment, but he spent most of it on a chair—legs, feet, and arms frantically busy as ever.
The Rite of Spring usually makes a climactic finale, but here it was the centrepiece of a continuous event, amidst two contrasting musical works, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti—also making suitable vehicles for Galván’s style. The programme brought out the highly percussive nature of the piano, even if I couldn’t help imagining a version on bandoneón and xylophone.
Having been impressed by Epiphany at the Greek church near the iskele ferry in Kuzguncuk, recently we got to attend Sunday service at the main Greek church further up the main street (for a fine study of the mahalle‘s multi-ethnic past, see Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism).
The Greek population of Istanbul (like other ethnic groups there) having progressively dwindled since the early 20th century, only special feast days attract more than a very few worshippers from around the city.
One might just find the service a sad illustration of the decline of Greek culture in Istanbul, but it made me think. While I’ve long been alienated from prissy, drab Anglican worship, turning as an outsider to Orthodox liturgy (or to any ritual and musical tradition) I’m not in search of the exotic, but I’m drawn to it as if it’s a mystery, not in the sublime sense but like a thriller—trying to work out what’s going on, to decipher its rules.
The distinction between emic and etic perceptions comes into play. Rather than the more spectacular rituals that often attract scholars and visitors, stimulating their mystical romanticism, it’s good to attend normal services to get an impression of ritual as routine. As with the rituals I’ve frequented with Li Manshan’s Daoist band in rural China, one begins to perceive that for those attending it’s partly an obligation, and that for the ritual specialists, to some extent “it’s just a job” (more radically, Frits Staal described ritual as “meaningless”; cf. Catherine Bell). Of course, in both cases there are elements of duty to tradition, even faith; but any “meaning” we impute must be broader than mere doctrine, involving changing social perceptions.
In church the liturgists and assistants do their job unfussily; as in Britain, the little congregation goes through the motions with greater or lesser commitment—it’s a weekly duty. Devout spiritual feelings can’t be taken for granted.
In China, conversely, where the Gaoluo village Daoist/Buddhist ritual association often seemed to be going through the motions, attending vespers in the house church of the Catholic minority there I was struck by their intensity and solidarity, apparently a result of their outlaw status since the 1949 revolution. But whereas the Chinese village Catholics maintain their faith tenaciously, the Greek urban Catholics are a tiny minority overwhelmed in a sea of Islam.
And without being at all hung up on “living fossils” or Ancient Wisdom, I am somehow inspired by being reminded of a world beyond the dominance of the three-minute pop song, just as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer does more insistently, more publicly (and also routinely). Whereas the silences between phrases of the call to prayer are part of its magic (again, a magic that is not necessarily experienced), in church the liturgy is more continuous; even in melodic material, it reveals a different world from that of the call to prayer or ilahi hymns, though the latter are largely diatonic too.
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).
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.
* 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.
For another lesson from the Turkish Airlines in-flight menu, click here.
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 Conflictingmemories). 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.
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, 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:
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.
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.
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.
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”:
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.
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”.
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.
Disillusioned 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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pābūjīhere, 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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:
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.
The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.
Travel writing takes many forms, fromEvliyâ 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 southernPeloponnese). 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
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 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.”
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.
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 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.
Wedding 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called 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”.
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.
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.
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”…
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).
A 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.
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.
Such material as I have seen  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, has been turbulent, with several bloody rebellions against the Turkish Republic, notably in Dersim (1937–38).
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.  Here’s a short film: 
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.
In the same region, I’m keen to learn more about siyaw chemane singing.
 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 with a high public profile; https://zazaki.de/index.php/en; and even wiki (here and here). I note en passant that Zaza means “stammerer”.
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. 
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. 
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 ortaoyunupopular theatre, as well as wrestling, acrobatics, and juggling.
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, qadis, müderrises, 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:
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 mehterJanissary 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:
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:
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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.  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.
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:
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.
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.
 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
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…
 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).
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.
Li Shiyu with his wife, 1993. My photo.
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.  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 , 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.
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”.
With 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?”.  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  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 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
It’s good to see (hear, taste, smell, touch…) Istanbul still serving as a hub for such creativity.
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).
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 (!).
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.
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.
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.
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 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
George Amos Dorsey, The Arapaho Sun Dance: The Ceremony of the Offerings Lodge (1903, 228 pages, lavishly illustrated)
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):
* * *
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:
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. *
Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.
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.
As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.
Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.
By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.
Meetings with remarkable menis the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).
I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.
And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.
Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.
While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.
Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.
To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.
He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.
This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.
Music Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:
Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.
If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.
It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.
* * *
Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.
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.
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.
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).
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 UlaşÖzdemir, “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 Park 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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:
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):
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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.
At a tangent from Bektashis and Alevis (here and here) is the Rufai (Rifa’i) Sufi order, now most common in the Balkans (see e.g. here).
Again thanks to Kadir Filiz, I note two remarkable early film sequences showing a Rufai lodge in Skopje performing the burhan ritual (“proof” of faith) with self-mortification (cf. Kurds, Amdo Tibetans, and Hokkien Chinese)—demonstrating both the shaykh’s charismatic powers and the worshippers’ transcendence of the mundane world. This silent footage shows a healing ritual at a lodge in 1930:
And this 1951 film—now with sound—was shown in 1955, with useful commentary:
That second footage shows the same group, in a much reduced lodge. By 1930 Skopje had just become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; after German occupation in World War Two, by the time of the 1951 footage it was part of Tito’s socialist state—offering food for thought on the maintenance of traditional ritual practice under such regimes, just as I find for Maoist China.
When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.
Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:
initial hymn to the Twelve Imams babalar semah (semah of the baba)
dem nefesi oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma) Kerbelâ song
End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:
semah of Forty; two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work); gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!); lokma (new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.
Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:
Imam declaiming from prayer niche in mosque following the call to prayer, Kuzguncuk 2022.
In Turkey, whereas the rituals of Sufi groups like Bektashis and Alevis take place largely beyond the earshot of outsiders, the call to prayer (ezan, Arabic adhan; useful article here), declaimed five times daily by the muezzin, is the most public soundscape of mainstream Islam.
As I write from Istanbul, it punctuates my day; even on a fleeting visit, one might soon begin to take it for granted—but whatever the varied responses of those who have heard it from birth, its impassioned free-tempo melisma accompanies the hubbub surrounding the mundane lives of people who might otherwise be impervious to the complexities of traditional makam.
To make an impertinent analogy, it’s rather as if the entire population of Europe went about their daily business constantly hearing Mark Padmore as Evangelist sing the heart-rending recitative that leads into Erbarme dich in the Matthew Passion, growing up to internalise it as the bedrock of their aural experience.
Many of the great singers of the Arab and Persian worlds came from a background of performing sacred chant, like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian in Iran; musically, “sacred” and “profane” styles are related. A general Arabic term for sacred chant is inshād (cf. China: nian “reciting”, rather than secular “singing” chang), imbued with ḥiss “a voice charged with an acute potential for relating the spiritual needs of the community to God”. 
Again, of course I can only get a glimpse of this vast topic, but for Turkey, the Ottoman and Republican history of the ezan is introduced here. The Republican government’s attempt to make Turkish the compulsory language of the ezan lasted only from 1930 to 1948. Here’s a 1932 recording of Sadettin Kaynak in Turkish:
Meanwhile amplification became standard, with a loudspeaker mounted on the minaret—which suggests to me that muezzin no longer need to be so fit…
This sequence features ezan from Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya:
Note also the CD by David Parsons, The music of Islam vol. 10: Qur’an recitation, Istanbul, Turkey (1997), part of an extensive series.
Meeting a wise imam In small villages the imam also assumes the role of muezzin; in larger communities they are usually separate duties. However, at the mosque just opposite the Kuzguncuk ferry (next to Armenian and Greek churches and a synagogue!) Aydin Hoca serves as both imam and muezzin; we learned much from our meetings with him.
Aydin Hoca is an exceptionally wise and tolerant man. Born in Manisa near Izmir, he studied “Islamic mystical music” (tasavvuf müzigi) at the ilahi (“spiritual”) department of the Imam Hatip High School—he has kept in contact with Manisa, joining in events there. He furthered his studies of ilahi by enrolling at the Open University in Eskisehir.
In 1990, aged 25, Aydin Hoca settled in Istanbul, becoming muezzin that same year at the Kuzguncuk mosque, while taking vocal and musical training with the renowned Amir Ateş at the Üsküdar Music Society, and furthering his education in Turkish classical and sacred music with Mehmet Kemiksiz. He values the inspiration these teachers gave him, as well as his overall education in morality and humanitarian ethics under Hafiz Fahri, based in Bursa.
In 1996—the year his first son was born—Aydin Hoca became imam at the mosque. He continued to receive training in solo and choral singing under respected teachers. Though offered positions as imam in more prominent mosques in the city, he prefers to remain with his Kuzguncuk parishioners.
He cites the popular expression Aşk olmayinca meşk olmaz “without love there can be no dedication” (meşk “devotion to practice”, often used in the context of music, perhaps resembling the riaz of north Indian raga). As in any walk of life, a voice can only be trained through diligence and application; oral transmission from master to disciple (usta-cirak) is crucial, as he learned through his training and now finds in nurturing his own students.
As to the Turkish branch of the vast makam family, he outlined the sequencefor the five daily ezan, such as Saba for the dawn call, and a somewhat variable list for subsequent calls that includes Rast, Uşşâk, and Segah (see e.g. under this overview of “religious music” in Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul, and here).
As Aydin Hoca explained, while the maqams are important, they are only an opening. Inside the mosque, for the fourfoldrekat (standing, bowing, and prostrations) the imam recites in four different maqams: Isfahan, Rast, Hüseyni, and Evic. In between the four sections, in order to “lighten” the maqams and give the congregation space to reflect, ilahi hymns are chanted.
Reminding us aptly of the wider theme of liturgical chant, the imam also notes the expression of dhikr in ayin communal gatherings at lodges such as Karagümrük Cerrahi tekke of the Halveti-Jerrahi order (many instances on YouTube under Jerrahi zikr e.g. this); here the worshippers accompany their group singing with frame-drums (bendir, def) and sometimes ney flute. He mentions the qaṣīda (e.g. here, and here), a three-part form with opening, a more expansive central section, and a calming conclusion; again, between sections they may add ilahi in various soulful moods.
Aydin Hoca stresses feeling. He often listens to early ezan recordings, “to reconfigure and order my mind.” Whereas some Muslim listeners lament “bad” or “ugly” voices, he has a more benign view, since all voices are given by Allah. But as he says, there are uneducated voices.
The muezzin are careful about the volume of the ezan: the mic should be neither too close nor too distant, not too loud or piercing; the sound must be natural. The broadcast of the Kuzguncuk ezan is linked to the central transmission of Kadıköy district. Aydin Bey decides when he wants to recite live; he often does so to keep his voice in practice. On Fridays he always chants live.
As to the ezan in the media, “everyone may recite the ezan, but first he has to be heard and recognised by the muezzin/imam.” The vocal style isn’t alien to daily life; it’s commonly adapted by pop singers. Aydin Bey considers arabesk star İbrahim Tatlıses an important voice:
Further questions are addressed in the documentary Muezzin (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2009), based around a kind of Pop Idol competition for ezan—here’s a trailer:
Here’s an early rural fantasy from the iconic trans singer Bülent Ersoy, answering the plea of an ailing villager:
The call to prayer may be performed alternately by two muezzin (çifteezan, double ezan), not only from different mosques (quite rare in Istanbul, though it may be heard at Sultanahmet and Üsküdar), but even from the same mosque. Here’s an instance of the latter from Izmir:
Here’s another video (which a BTL comment suggests comes from Ankara rather than Istanbul), with father and son declaiming:
And here’s a popular TV contest with çifteezan:
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The message of the text and the act of dhikr are primary; as in other sacred traditions, zooming in on the use of pitches in the various scales, and on melismatic decoration, may be largely the preserve of the muezzin—even if such details are at the heart of the ezan‘s efficacity. Its varied delivery deserves to be appreciated; clearly many of the faithful do so, rather than allowing it to become part of the aural wallpaper.
Augusta with community leader Saliha, visiting from İskenderun in the far south.
Curious about what the ezan means to different types of İstanbullus, I suggested a little project to Augusta. With her precious gift of rapport (cf. Bruce Jackson, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck), she relishes interacting with people in all walks of life, chatting easily with labourers, simit vendors, taxi drivers, intellectuals; pious Muslims, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish İstanbullus; men and women, old and young… Ours was a tiny sample, but I was impressed by their firm opinions on the topic; no-one merely takes the ezan for granted.
Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.
Taxi driver Serkan, around 50, from Kayseri: “The ezan is imperative, denoting order. Of course I love it, as do all Muslims!” Still, “not everyone has a good voice! Not everyone can recite the ezan, I can tell you! But they recite with the voice Allah gave them. Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter. It is our call.” He feels a difference between the different makam, but is not aware of them. His wife prays five times a day, and he has started to join her a few times a week.
Another taxi driver, around 60, commented, “There is no voice so honourable as the ezan. It is the wisdom and blessing of Allah, bringing confidence.” For him the ezan “opens the heart, changes one’s outlook on the world, bringing people to their senses, to find peace”. For a simit vendor from Kastamonu it denotes honour, respect, reverence. As a 28-year-old cleaner commented, the ezan is a reminder that we have a conscience, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to remember any wrong-doings, and to be thankful, opening a door so that abundance and blessings may enter the home.
A Kuzguncuk barber (49) speaks with pride of his local imam Aydin Hoca reciting the ezan for the ceremony after his own birth and those of his children and grandchildren.
All mentioned the dawn ezan, finding it soothing, welcoming, a blessing, setting intention at the opening to the day. And any music that is playing must be stopped during the ezan; it is even “sinful” to play music on the radio or TV then.
Despite Aydin Hoca’s enlightened view, themes that emerged include a distaste for “ugly” reciting, and for the “cacophony” that results when nearby muezzin fail to listen to each other; the poor quality of some loudspeakers; and the “centralised” broadcasts, which are at least dependable.
 For more, see e.g. Scott Marcus, “The Muslim call to prayer” in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.6. A good introduction to various styles of vocal liturgy just further south in Aleppo is the CD Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1992).
In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. 
A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups.  While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.
I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now…
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In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.
To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.
As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,
The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.
In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):
Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]
The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.
Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.
Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads”  were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.
Lodges and houses of gathering The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”)  and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.
The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. 
State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.
Ritual practice Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).
Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as
I introduce the work of Jérôme Cler in a sequel to this post.
Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic.  Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.
As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.
Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbet—more commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:
animal sacrifice and preparations
arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
“secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
sequence of nefes hymns
tripling (üçleme), with toasts
pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
further sequence of nefes
closing prayers and blessings.
The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.
In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).
Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:
In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]
In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema“ ritual. This film could do with more documentation:
In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.
A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.
Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.
Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.
Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.
He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.
An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.
Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.
After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.
The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowlwhile chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.
Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.
Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.
A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.
An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâhlodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.
Alevi ritual in the diaspora The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:
Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta, with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!
 For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, on the useful site History of Istanbul, here and here. Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.
 I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.
 For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema/ sama. For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.
It’s also Epiphany (Theophania) for the Greek Orthodox Church, observed with the agiasmosSanctification of Water ritual, when the Bishop throws a wooden cross into the Bosphorus to be retrieved by swimmers—a ritual performed at several sites around Istanbul (for background on the religious life of Istanbul Greeks, see e.g. here). But the core ritual is the lengthy service that precedes it, which we attended at the lovely little Agios Georgios church in Kuzguncuk—next to the synagogue, on the other side of the road down from the main Greek church Agios Panteleimonas.
In Istanbul today Greeks are far fewer than Armenians, but this was an impressive service, with a quartet of liturgists punctuating the recitation of the priests, with jangling thurifer.
Left, the head priest blesses worshippers with light;
right, preparing to sprinkle blessed water on the congregation with a sprig of herbs.
On right, dove awaiting release to the heavens (and an ICONIC choice of jacket).
We all followed them across the road through the ferry station to the shore, where two pious swimmers retrieved the wooden cross from the waters; meanwhile a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) had waited patiently during the service before being released to the heavens (cf. Messiaen).
Left, at Fener (source); right, at Kuzguncuk,
with swimmer presenting cross that he has retrieved from the Bosphorus.
Our Greek friends note the symbolism of fish, Ichthys, and Jesus as fisher of people, as well as abundance. China makes the same connection between yu 魚 fish and yu 餘 abundance; and most large-scale rituals (both for temple fairs and funerals) there include segments for Fetching or Inviting Water (qushui, qingshui, and so on; see e.g. our film, from 41.06).
Last year Covid rules prevented the Sanctification of Water being held in Greece, but it was observed by the Greek community in Istanbul. For more thoughts on Greek liturgy in Kuzguncuk, click here.
Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?
And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,
The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοι, mágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίαν, oikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.
In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.
Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.
The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.
This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).
Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.
Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:
Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.
Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.
Belatedly keen to explore Turkish culture, I learned a lot from
Andrew Finkel, Turkey: what everyone needs to know (2012).
For all its populist Q&A format, it’s full of useful insights, constantly unpacking simplistic preconceptions while presenting a range of viewpoints both within Turkey and abroad, based on the author’s long experience as a journalist based in Istanbul.
The chapters open with Historical background, summarising the legacy of the Ottoman empire—ethnic conflicts in the aftermath of World War One, the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne leading to the foundation of modern Turkey with Atatürk’s Republic. Andy ponders the mixed record of Turkey’s measures to preserve the culture of the past: typically, alongside apparently impressive legislation, archeology clashes with ideology and the pecuniary demands of tourism and development, as the Ottoman heritage is Disneyfied.
The next chapter on Economy describes “a complex economy in its own right, but one well situated to become a conduit of goods and services between Europe and the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union”. He notes the profound inequalities between regions, with the eastern provinces accounting for less than 10% of the country’s economy; the flaws of state development projects, notably hydroelectric; the steady decline of agriculture; and the culture of complicity. As often, all this reminds me of China. Andy evokes the contrast between Istanbul and Ankara, with the former’s loss of political power doing nothing to damage its status as Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.
Turkey in the world observes Turkey’s pivotal strategic position in global politics. Many in the West understand that
the choices facing Turkey are not Manichean, a clash of civilisations between East and West, but rather are based on a nuanced calculation of where the country’s best interests lie.
Andy outlines Turkey’s response to the end of the Cold War, 9/11 followed by the invasions of Iraq, and the Arab Spring; relations with the USA, Israel, and the EU; the war in Syria, human rights, and Cyprus.
Politics… and the military covers democracy, coups, more on human rights, nationalism, religious interests, the uneasy alliance between state and government, nepotism, the slow pace of reform, and (a topic on which he has particular authority) limits on press freedom.
The Introduction has already explained how the very concept of “Turkish” and “Turk” arose from the ashes of the Ottoman empire; and how the racial and linguistic term “Turkic” (Turcoman) is used in English for tribal peoples from Central Asia (some of whom migrated to what is now Turkey!)—a distinction not made in Turkish. Society and religion opens with a discussion of the role of Islam in public life, as the secular state wrestles to reconcile its avowed secular identity with Muslim values. Checks on Turkey becoming a fundamentalist state include a de facto diversity and tolerance among the people—although this is hardly put to the test, since Turkish-born non-Muslims now comprise only 1% of the population.
For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilisations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity.
In religion, with non-Muslim minorities having dwindled severely since 1900, the promotion of “faith tourism” is highly selective, with monuments to Anatolia’s multi-confessional past merely vestigial. While the building of mosques proliferates, within Islam there are disparate groups, such as the Alevis, whose practice distances them from the mainstream.
The situation of the Kurds is the subject of a rather extensive discussion.
Ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds actually find themselves.
In Turkey they are based in the southeast and east of the country, but Istanbul is “almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world”. While discussing the Turkish state’s campaign against the PKK (boosted by wider anti-terrorist sympathies after 9/11), the book observes that
Kurdish nationalism […] does at times appear to be a distorted reflection of the Turkish nationalism it opposes.
Not only is the whole region underdeveloped, but cross-border tensions are heightened by the movements of refugees.
In 1989 Eastern and Central Europe rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism and embraced a democratic ideal. Yet Turkey, which might have been expected to reap a dividend from the end of the Cold War, became more authoritarian. It became embroiled in a costly fight to suppress Kurdish insurrection and has in some measure been corrupted by it.
With the prospect of Greater Kurdistan ever remote, the Kurds’ search for greater political and cultural rights continues.
Photo: Selahattin Giz.
This is followed by a section on gender (see also here). On one hand, Atatürk is praised for having emancipated women, and legal reforms have continued, described by one campaigning NGO as succeeding in
safeguarding women’s rights, and bodily and sexual autonomy. […] All legal references to vague patriarchal constructs such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs, or decency have been eliminated and definitions of such crimes against women brought in line with global human rights norms. […] The new code […] brings progressive definitions and higher sentences for sexual crimes, criminalises marital rape; brings measures to prevent sentence reductions granted to perpetrators of honour killings, eliminates previously existing discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, criminalises sexual harrassment at the workplace and considers sexual assaults by security forces to be aggravated offences.
Yet, as elsewhere, “feminists are not as grateful to their male liberators as the official history would have them feel”. The shops and restaurants of central Istanbul cannot represent the general picture. Secularists have failed to tackle obstinate patriarchal attitudes. As to the sensitive question of headscarves,
many believe it is a right and obligation for pious women to cover their heads. Others see it as a deliberate affront and a symptom of creeping fundamentalism.
Some issues are explored in Kutluğ Ataman’s Women who wear wigs (2001), “part of a warning about recklessly attributing motives and categories”. This is followed by a section on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and LGBT people in Turkey.
Finally, the vexed arguments surrounding the Armenian genocide are cogently summarised—a topic to which I devote a separate post.
Lastly, Andy provides a succinct list of further reading. Amidst the shifting picture, he’s well aware that constant updates are to be desired; but with its digestible style and thoughtful perspectives, the book makes a valuable overview.
A short research report, almost entirely built on others’ research
Recently I agreed to do some pro-bono translation work for the History Museum in Chico, a small city of about 100,000 people in the northern part of the Central Valley of California. I had time to stop by the museum in person in August 2021, while driving from Boston to San Francisco and back to pick up my stuff from storage, and was very courteously put-up and dined-out by the emeritus archaeologist in charge there, one Keith Johnson, and his family. I should note right at the start here that I know nothing about this topic, and that essentially all of the information here is shamelessly pulled either from Keith Johnson’s book Golden altars, or from the fantastic and too-little-known Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC) website, which should be the real first stop for anyone interested in Chinese culture in 19th and early-20th century North America. Another great online introduction is this series of articles from the National Park Service, which gives a brief but lively account of Chinese settlement in 19th- and early 20th-century California, as well as its physical remains.
Some of the main Chinese temples in California discussed on the CINARC website.
Alta California acceded to the United States in 1848, in the wake of the Mexican-American War. Gold was discovered in the mountains there in the same year, prompting the first gold rush, and bringing the first Chinese immigrants (mostly from the Pearl River Delta) to the ports of California, especially San Francisco. By 1855, the Chinese community in San Francisco had Daoist temples, an opera house, two newspapers, and several civic associations. While the early communities prospered in many professions, they were shut out from various industries by discriminatory legislation and mob violence; many of the stereotypical images of “Asian” professions in frontier America (railway workers, launderers, shopkeepers) resulted from their systematic and often violent exclusion from other fields of work. Nevertheless, the Chinese immigrants successfully established businesses and Chinatowns all across the American West from the 1850s onward.
Chico The “Palace of Serried Sages” (Liesheng gong 列聖宮) at Chico was founded in 1884 by immigrants from south China, attracted by the mining, logging, and mercantile opportunities afforded by the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Later, many found work as launderers, grocers, cooks, and domestic servants. The community was financially and commercially sophisticated—the Chico History Museum possesses a detailed 1917 account-book for what seems to be a Chinese banking and money-lending operation, recording loans, withdrawals, interest, and annuities.
Interior of the Chico temple showing altar, 1910. Source.
Judging from the dates inscribed on the altar paraphernalia, the Chico temple seems to have been active between the 1880s and the 1910s. This tracks the history of popular Daoism in America generally. As Bennet Bronson notes, popular Daoist temples flourished in Chinese immigrant communities across North America from at least the 1850s onward, with many of the earliest surviving temples on the continent located precisely in the Central Valley region. However, the religion seems to have suffered a sudden and poorly-explained collapse in the 1920s, with many shrines closing or becoming inactive. In the case of Chico, part of the reason may have been an FBI-assisted police raid on a Chinese-run opium-distribution network in 1924 (as a result, the museum today possesses some beautiful carved and inlaid Chinese opium pipes). By the 1930s the Chico Chinatown had almost entirely vanished, and in 1939, three elderly Chinese residents gifted the surviving altar- and temple-goods to a white-American friend, from whose hands these items eventually came to the museum. The temple building was torn down in 1946.
The Bright Gate.
From the plaques and inscriptions within the temple, we get a detailed sense of the trans-Pacific and trans-Californian networks that sustained this community. Many of the temple items were manufactured in China. One such item was the massive and intricately carved Bright Gate (caimen 彩門), a gilded frieze depicting opera figures that originally hung above the temple door. According to the inscription, the Bright Gate was built on the Street of Meeting Immortals (Huixian jie 會仙街) in Guangzhou. In other cases, we have the names of the manufacturers. One of the multiple square arches that made up the altar reads:
香港 Hong Kong
城隍街 Street of the City God
百步梯 Hundred-Step Stairs
俊昌造 Made by Jun Chang
In some cases, precisely the vast distances involved in these networks appear as proof of the gods’ all-encompassing power, extending even to the shores of the New World. One set of matching couplets (duilian 對聯) around the altar reads:
The Emperor’s protection is grand and deep, linking both Chinese and Barbarian;
The god’s benevolence is vast and broad, flowing even to the nations beyond the seas.
Most of these goods were gifted to the temple by various fraternal organizations (tong/tang 堂), which could be based either in China, in San Francisco (the nearest large city and sea-port, with a large and well-established Chinese population), or elsewhere on the Western seaboard of the USA. Another inscription on the Hong-Kong produced altarpiece explains how it arrived in Chico:
A gratefully received gift of the assembled disciples of the Yee Fung Toy association,
erected on an auspicious day of the first moon of spring in the 18th year of the Guangxu reign .
The majority of inscriptions in the collection are of this sort, recording the charitable or pious gifts to the temple and community, usually by major fraternal associations. While often terse, they do give a sense of how active Chinese civic organizations were in supporting the new settlement in Chico. In a few cases the objects are gifts from individuals, usually described as “disciples” (dizi 弟子) of the god. One inscription from 1908 on a pewter censor describes it as given by “the disciple Zhou Lianzi and the pious woman Yue Hao” 弟子周連子信女月好敬送, indicating that the community of believers included women wealthy and independent enough to be noted as donors.
The purpose of all these donations was to demonstrate one’s own wealth and piety, but also to adorn the communal space with beautiful objects and sophisticated calligraphy. Beyond the gorgeously carved altarpieces and Bright Gate, there are also several elegant plaques and matching couplets. In some cases the calligrapher is identified. One is a decorously anonymous Grass-hall Layman (caotang jushi 草堂居士), whom I have not been able to trace. Another couplet in a cultured hand, described as having been “repaired” (chongxiu 重修) in Guangzhou in 1891, urges lofty sentiments:
Our intent is for the Springs and Autumns, extending great righteousness;
Its qi fills heaven and earth, and protects all living things.
Calligraphy respectfully written by Dong Qigeng, after burning incense and performing ablutions.
Most of the dates given in these inscriptions are in traditional Chinese format—either an imperial regnal title (“such-and-such year of the reign of the Guangxu emperor”), or in sexagenary format according to the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (tiangan dizhi 天干地支) system, or both. That is, at least as far as formal inscriptions in their temple were concerned, this community counted the years according to the accession of the Manchu emperors in far-off Beijing. One brief inscription on a pewter censor, however, gives insight into another sort of politics:
A gift from the Hongshun Association,
on an auspicious day of the 6th year of Heavenly Motion (Tianyun).
The Hongshun Association is one name for the Heaven-and-Earth Assembly (Tiandihui 天地會), an anti-state secret society with branches in many Chinese communities, especially in San Francisco. “Heavenly Motion” is an anti-state calendrical term dating back to at least the 17th century. Its use implies that the Hongshun Association viewed the ruling Manchu imperial house and its regnal titles as illegitimate, and it was thus a statement of revolutionary intent.
When I originally saw the “6th year,” I naturally wondered what “year one” was. A note on the ever-fascinating CINARC website puts the puzzle-pieces together. Another inscription from Victoria, British Columbia, reads “Heavenly Motion 3, or the ding-wei year” 天運三丁未年. The ding-wei year corresponds to 1907. As the CINARC editors note, the famous revolutionary Sun Yat-sen gave a speech in San Francisco in 1904 endorsing the use of Heavenly Motion dates as an anti-state signifier. Thus it seems that at least one revolutionary group on the West coast of North America began to date their calendars from that year. The “6th year of Heavenly Motion” on the pewter vessel in Chico should be from 1910, only one year before China’s last imperial dynasty did in fact collapse in the face of a nationalist rebellion.
As for the rituals that took place inside the Chico temple, our only information is from old photographs and the ritual objects themselves. Like all Chinese temples anywhere in the world, the Chico temple contained incense pots, in which one could place lighted sticks of incense before bowing or “striking the head” (kowtow or ketou 磕頭) at the altar. (Hence the common term for Chinese temples in 19th- and early-20th- century English sources, “joss [incense] houses.”) The altar itself contains spirit-plaques (shenpai 神牌) dedicated to Lord Guan (Guangong 關公), Avalokiteśvara-Guanyin (觀音), the historical doctor Hua Tuo 華陀, the astrological god Great Year (Taisui 太歲), and a god of wealth called “The Astral God of Wealth and Silks” (Caibo xingjun 財帛星君). Another item is a wooden stamp with the words, “The fountainhead of wealth pours broadly in” (Caiyuan guangjin 財源廣進), presumably used for endorsing paper or cloth articles brought to the temple for luck. I haven’t come across anything recording an actual ordained Daoist priest resident in Chico, but it seems probable that one or more laymen had enough basic ritual knowledge to see to their own community’s spiritual needs.
Chico funeral procession with American flag. Source.
Related to these public funeral processions, a major concern of many Chinese communities in North America was the ritually proper burial, and reburial, of the dead. One photograph shows the Chico Chinese graveyard as it stood in the 1950s. The museum has on display two Chinese gravestones, both with elegantly simple inscriptions giving the name, place of origin, and date of death of the interred:
會邑 Hui Town (Huizhou)
古井磨耳村 Old Well Millstone Village
趙贊美墳磨 The grave of Zhao Zanmei
光緒拾六年 In the 16th year of the Guangxu reign
眾于四月卄一日 He passed away on 21st day of the first moon [June 8th, 1890].
Another interesting object in the museum is a small red brick, with the following terse inscription:
白洪[ ]井村 Bai and Hong [one character missing] Well Village
馬贊喜公墳 The grave of master Ma Zanxi
Passed away in the 4th moon of the 31st year of the Guangxu reign [~ May 1905].
Such Chinese “grave-bricks” are known from across North America, as far north as Alaska. Many Chinese immigrants, concerned about dying abroad without descendants or proper burial rituals, wanted their remains to be shipped back to their native villages. An elaborate trans-Pacific network sprang up to facilitate this. These small bricks would be buried with the body, providing an accurate name and address in the event of disinterment.
The arrival of special teams from China to disinter corpses was an object of morbid interest in the American press at the time. In his capacity as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain described one attempt by the California legislature to discourage Chinese immigration by banning such ritual disinterments, calling the proposed legislation “an ingenious refinement of Christian cruelty.” Another newspaper article (again, quoted on the CINARC site) describes the arrival of such a team in Chico in 1893:
The Chinese population of the town of Chico, Cal., has for the past two weeks been under a strain of excitement concerning the exhumation and removal of all the bodies buried in the Chinese cemetery of that place. This has been a gruesome spectacle. A company of native resurrectionists dug into the graves, took up the coffins, removed their contents and deliberately set to work getting rid of the more or less decomposed flesh, scraping the bones, drying them, then gathering them in bunches, carefully tied, wrapped, then labeled with the respective cognomens of the several deceased and the residence of the particular families in China … (San Francisco Call 1893-11-14, p.19)
The prurient tone of this newspaper article suggests some of the darker aspects of the Chico Chinese community’s story. For all that the Chinese community lived and prospered in Chico for over fifty years, they remained isolated amidst a society that could treat them with open and sometimes violent racism. The Chico temple was founded only two years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The following decade saw a wave of brutal massacres, expulsions, arson attacks, and acts of mob violence against Chinese in the United States and particularly in California. By the end of the decade, many counties in the area had expelled their entire Chinese populations, often with multiple fatalities. In Chico, a fire destroyed much of the Chinatown in 1887; the firehose that might have put it out was found severed in four places. The California State University at Chico holds and has digitized the minute-book for the “Chico Anti-Chinese League,” which goes on for over a hundred pages between the years 1894 and 1896, in mercifully illegible handwriting.
Unfortunately, this story of discrimination and communal destruction is not yet over—witness the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the USA. Nor is California’s fascinating heritage of popular Daoist temples safe from harm in 2021—according to Chico archaeologist Keith Johnson, at least two historic Chinese temples in California have been destroyed by accidental fires in the last decade, and more are now in danger from the massive climate-change induced wildfires that now regularly sweep across the state, consuming towns and cities.
In early 2019, I hosted a Chinese friend in San Francisco, a Beijing-based film-maker with whom I’d worked together to document at-risk temples and historic mural sites in impoverished parts of rural Hebei province. As we walked along the waterfront in Berkeley, looking across the great blue Bay to the cloud-wrapped towers of downtown SF, winds off the Pacific were driving long trains of waves through the Golden Gate to crash on the shores of America. I told him that I was as much, and as little, a foreigner here as he. Chinese people have been in California for as long as Anglo-Americans, and Russians and Spanish and Mexicans were here before that, and before them, the Maidu, Ohlone, Miwok, Yokuts, and more peoples too many to name. When some part of this place’s history vanishes, the loss belongs to all of us.
And we might even consider the tang-ki 童乩 self-mortifying spirit mediums among the Hokkien in southeast China (Ken Dean) and Taiwan (David Jordan). For links to posts on Chinese mediums, see here.
* * *
Anyway, all that was meant just as a little preliminary aside—sorry, got carried away (What am I like?! LOL). Throwing pursuers off the scent, what I’m trying to get round to is Stewart Lee’s choice of Ethiopian jazz. But to cite the Plain People of Ireland again, here’s me bus, so I guess that’ll have to wait for another time [Later: here’s the post]… Dang.
Petits pays, grandes musiques: le parcours d’un ethnomusicologue en Méditerranée (2020; 512 pages).
Among BLJ’s main fieldsites, the focus here is on the Mediterranean, notably Sardinia—his early work on Morocco only features en passant. His remit also extends to India, Java, Iran, the Hebrides, Brazil, jazz, and Western Art Music. Most valuably, the text is cued to 63 wonderful audio and video tracks on this onlineplaylist, so that we can instructively listen and watch as we read (or even before Rushing Out to buy the book). Meanwhile BLJ also considers changing ways of musicking (the French musiquer is good), and changing trends over his long career in ethnomusicology. One feels his rapport as participant observer; while applying thick description (cf. Geertz) to both social and musical aspects, his style is deeply engaged, full of character.
BLJ entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.
* * *
The Introduction by Giovanni Giuriati gives background on early influences on BLJ’s studies and the significance of his ouevre; while sharing many approaches with Anglo-American ethnomusicology, he has also been at the centre of a distinctively European tradition (cf. posts under Society and soundscape).
The main text is a parcours in three parts, each with nine chapters—an anthology of mostly previously-published articles, illuminatingly arranged by themes.
Part One, “Improvisation: permanence et transformations”, unpacks the creative process (cf. Nettl).
After an introductory chapter, BLJ offers three vignettes on Sardinia, featuring the launeddas (in memory of Aurelio Porcu); dances with organetto; and songs with guitar. Alongside detailed musical analyses, he always pays attention to social context (festas, bars, and so on).
“Bartók’s kaleidoscope” is a thoughtful tribute, dating from 1994. Focusing on Béla Bartók’s early recordings and transcriptions of the folk music of Romania (cf. my Musical cultures of east Europe), it’s further informed by BLJ’s own fieldwork there from 1991 to 1996 with Jacques Bouët and Speranţa Rădulescu (see A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie, 2002, with DVD, including amazing clips like #23).
Chapter 6 is a more general discussion of models and typology, in which BLJ spreads his net to Iran, India, and Scotland—as well as Morocco, illustrated by the Aissawa cult of Meknes (#15), and Turkey, with a fine taksim on the zurna (#18b).
He then continues exploring Romanian village traditions with chapters on the oral traditions of the Ouach (Oaș) and Baia Mare regions. He discusses the misleading dichotomy between fieldwork and the laboratory.
In an intriguing experiment, the team asked local musicians to play their own transformations on short extracts played to them from a Brahms Hungarian dance, The four seasons, and West Side story (##24–27). While I appreciate the idea, here I’m rather less excited by the insights it yields.
A numinous image, also used for the cover of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz—
just the kind of fusion of ethnographic and musical detail that BLJ practises.
Part One ends with a virtuosic entr’acte, “The jazz ear”, suggesting grander themes through two suggestive analytical vignettes. Seeking to assess contrasting evaluations of Chet Baker’s vocal intonation, BLJ gives a micro-analysis of his “deviant” pitches at the opening of I fall in love too easily (cf. Deep in a dream, and Chet in Italy). And the “cultural ear” is apparent too in his discussion of the harmonic implications in Charlie Parker’s different melodic renditions of Billy’s bounce. While this kind of analysis stops short of explaining why audiences are so moved by both jazzmen, it suggests fruitful paths.
This jazz vignette leads BLJ to suggest three approaches:
the imperial (“not to say imperialist”) position, whereby ethnomusicologists, with their universal science, declare themselves the omniscient authority, taking credit for the aptitude of others (Others) without asking too many questions;
the discouraging opposite view, as expressed famously by Bruno Nettl‘s teacher in Iran: “You will never understand this music”;
a middle way, which BLJ favours: that it is precisely the problematic accessibility of the music of others that is at the heart of our task.
Part Two, “Chanter ensemble, être ensemble” (and the word ensemble is more evocative in French!) returns to Sardinia, considering vocal polyphony there (“Les mystères des voix sardes”). Five chapters explore aspects of the Castelsardo confraternities, with their annual cycle of rituals culminating in the Passion rituals of Holy Week, illustrated with magnificent video clips like #35 and #39 (more under Sardinian chronicles). Exquisite as is BLJ’s Chants de Passion (1998), he reflects that
les mots du livre sont beaucoup moins riche que les paroles qui leur ont donné naissance. […] L’écriture est toujours maladroite lorsqu’il s’agit de rendre compte des intonations et de la richesse de l’oral…
Musical notation too is an imperfect tool.
BLJ in deep harmony with tenore quartet at wedding, 1998. Photo: SJ.
In the fourth chapter of this section BLJ expands his consideration of vocal polyphony in Sardinia to the more widely-known secular genre of the tenore quartet, including the distinctive group from Fonni, who open his 1991 CD Polyphonies de Sardaigne (#36b).
Chapters 5 and 6 offer more perspectives on the Castelsardo liturgy, reflecting on the aesthetic judgements of the participants, and on memory, individual style, conditions and constraints (the ritual cycle, sense of place), grammatical rules, preparation. With such factors in mind, BLJ analyses a 1993 Stabat mater (#41).
Chapter 7 considers such orally-transmitted group singing in the less formal (male) social interaction of the cantina. Describing the singer as “creator of empathy”, he notes that while such societies commonly refer to nos anciens, the word “tradition” doesn’t belong to such societies, but is an invention of the “professors”—an issue to bear in mind in China.
This discussion makes a bridge to the last two chapters of Part Two. Chapter 8 is a version of BLJ’s 2013 article “Multipart drinking (and singing): a case study in southern Albania”. After apéritifs in Ancient Greece and the Andes, he describes the Tosk ensemble seated around a table (also a focus of Chinese musicking), singing in free tempo as they make toasts with raki (e.g. #45), revealing the correlation between social and musical rules and their spatial and temporal dimensions.
La performance a pour but de render contigus, de façon construite et progressive, le proche et le lointain, le present et l’absent et—pourrait-on dire plus largement—les mondes physique et métaphysique.
He notes the presence of virtual as well as real participants:
Il s’agit d’etres mythiques: héros convoqués par les textes des chants dont on célèbre l’importance, faits d’armes divers (en general contre les Turcs), fiancées perdues ou inaccessibles dont on ne sait pas meme si elles existèrent un jour. Mais aussi présences-absences: le chant est la trace d’un souvenir, d’une situation précédente, de l’objet de ses pensées, et qui se voit adoubé d’attentions expressifs particulières. De sorte qu’être ensemble revient à s’inscrire dans un présent, mais consiste tout autant dans l’évocation et le rappel des absents.
As to the polyphony of the Lab people further southwest in Albania, Chapter 9 discusses the mournful song Ianina, led by Nazif Çelaj (#48; full version on BLJ’s 1988 CD Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales). It was premiered at a 1983 folk festival in Gjirokastër, and despite being promptly elevated by the regime to national status, audiences agreed that it was both original and moving. This seems to have been a rather rare occasion in folk tradition to witness a song regarded as a “new creation”; while BLJ describes the innovative aspects of the vocal arrangement (always embedded in tradition), I’d like to know more about just how the song came into being.
One particularity of the song is its evocation of the funeral laments of women:
Il est comme un esquisse ou un rappel des lamentations funèbres dont les femmes ont en principal l’exclusivité. Il emprunte ainsi, sans le dire, au vaj (cri, plainte ou lamentation féminine). Il y a là un travestissement qui ne peut passer inaperçu. En fait, un double travestissement, car ce chant d’hommes emprunte aux femmes et il ne raconte pas seulement une histoire: il la met en scène en y insérant—en live—le chagrin occasionné par le mort du héros.
Chant de douleur de l’ancien régime, il renvoie au temps de la domination des Turcs. Mais aussi et sourtout au régime qui l’avait vu naître, comme si, à son tour, il ne pouvait plus s’extirper de ce passé encore brûlant. Cependant, il n’est pas nécessaire que son référent soit precis, car en tant que plainte masquée Ianina chante la douleur. Or, celle-ci ne manque pas des scénarios anciens ou nouveaux pour fair irruption: elle renvoie à ce qui fut autrefois, mais aussi à ce qui est aujourd’hui (l’instabilité morale, l’injustice social et l’émigration notamment). Et sans doute a-t-elle même l’étrange pouvoir d’inclure les douleurs à venir. Elle et à la fois précise et indécise. En cela réside sa fonction paradoxale autant que son charactère opératoire.
In Part Three, “La musique en effet”, we return again to Sardinia. Chapter 1 reflects on BLJ’s “home base” of Irgoli, opening with villagers’ apparent indifference to the intrusion of American rock music blasting from the TV in the bar. He contrasts the whole social soundscape with the silence surrounding vendetta. The tenore style of Irgoli has hardly been affected by the fashionable adoption of other such groups onto the “world music” bandwagon. And meanwhile the canto a chitarra, the improvised “jousts” of the gara poetica, and dancing in the piazza continued to thrive there.
Further pondering how music reflects the social structures in which it is inscribed (an idée fixe of ethnomusicologists), in Chapter 2 BLJ revisits the launeddas and the liturgy of Castelsardo.
In Chapter 3, “Le cheval, le chant, la poésie”, he reflects on the limitations of comparison, even between the various festive cultures of Sardinia. Chapter 4 explores the connection between flowers and liturgical song. The following three chapters discuss Lévi-Strauss, the “science” of music, and affect—ending with an astute commentary on the speaking voices of women in Castelsardo.
In Chapter 8, BLJ’s return to Orgosolo in 2011 after thirty years prompts reflections on memory and the individual “proprietors” of repertoire among his various fieldsites. This in turn leads to a discussion of female mourners in Albania (#61), and the return of a celebrated Albanian singer to his desolate natal home, shown in BLJ’s film with Hélène Delaporte, Chant d’un pays perdu (2006) (extracts e.g. #62b and 62d).
For both performers and audiences, a complex, imprecise nostalgia may be involved in a synchronic event (as well as in later reception history, I might add). He ends with a note on music, memory, and possession—the latter here denoting the power of absent or lost beings in the performative expressions of the living.
This leads suitably to the final chapter of Part Three, on Georgia on my mind as sung by the “alchemist” Ray Charles. Applying the same methods he has developed for folk traditions, BLJ analyses the musical features that create the multivalent portrait of an elusive protagonist, with its “tempo-malaise”.
“Georgia”—l’être évoqué—existe a travers son énonciation chantée, des qualités d’intonation spécifiques, un timbre ô combien particulier, des transitoires d’attaque et de fin, etc., constituant non pas l’accessoire du chant mais son essence.
Noting the human voice as marker of social discrimination, he explores the “black voice”, anchored in the memory of douleur, and “le nègre blanc”; the pentatonic basis of the song, both gospel and rural (another pays perdu); and the arrangement by Ralph Burns. Nor does he neglect to pay homage to the 1941 recording of Georgia by Billie Holiday (and one might cite her Don’t explain as a succinct assessment both to support and criticise his method?!).
In his thoughtful Postface/Volte-face, BLJ reflects on the major themes that have emerged, describing the ethnomusicologist as both droguiste and acrobate-gymnaste. While noting the reduced local diversity of rural traditions since his first fieldtrips in the 1960s (a theme, indeed, that one might trace back to the origins of anthropology), he has remained alert to change, constantly refining his “models”.
All this makes one keen to explore the final bibliography, discography, and filmography—and do also consult the ear-opening CD set Les voix du monde, in which BLJ played a significant role. What—no index?!
This stimulating tour de force is both a survey of Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s lifetime immersion in musicking and another reminder of the wealth of Mediterranean traditions on our doorsteps, along with their relevance to a global understanding of local cultures.
Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.
On Franz Boas(1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is
Charles King, The reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air [“Discuss”!]. Reviewed e.g. here, here, and here.
Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.
Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.
Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.
Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston.  As Francis Gooding comments,
It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.
The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.
More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.
the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […] In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.
Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where
some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.
King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.
The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.
* * *
Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.
The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.
During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:
Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.
While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.
Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.
In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.
The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.
The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).
Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:
Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.
Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.
While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […] The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.
With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)
Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.
The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…
Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.
Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.
Boas was coming to perceive that
What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.
Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.
The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.
As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.
In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.
Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:
Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)
Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.
In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.
There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.
Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.
Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:
Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […] Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.
And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:
Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”
His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.
Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,
The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.
* * *
So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.
Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.
In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.
The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.
As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.
In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.
A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.
On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.
Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:
Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.
In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.
Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.
Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.
Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).
Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”
Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.
Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as
the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.
Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:
Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.
Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.
Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,
What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.
Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.
the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.
She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.
Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:
I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.
King goes on,
You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…
Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.
Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.
By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria
a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.
I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.
Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,
provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.
When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.
Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.
Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.
In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).
Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation.  Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.
Yet the price of such methods
was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.
* * *
The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet
volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.
Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here).  Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:
Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.
Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.
After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.
Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.
Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.
From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:
And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.
* * *
The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,
None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.
Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.
Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:
With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.
While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:
Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:
* * *
King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.
Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence
that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.
If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.
Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.
 Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,
Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.
 Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).
 This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.
For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—
Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:
Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück, Seinen Gott verneinet Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick Bitterlichen weinet. Jesu, blicke mich auch an, Wenn ich nicht will büßen Wenn ich Böses hab getan, Rühre mein Gewissen!
And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:
Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears Dem Höchsten zu Ehren! to honour the Almighty! Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not: Tell the world and heaven your distress: Dein Jesus ist tot! your Jesus is dead!
I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:
I wonder how many of us pause to notice that today, the 25th March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. At least in north Europe, popular awareness of the cycle of feast days in the Christian calendar has been much diluted (that’s an observation rather than a lament). So here are some representations of the event in art and music.
The Annunciation is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, notably frescos and paintings. Wiki introduces variations over time and region:
The composition of depictions is very consistent, with Gabriel, normally standing on the left, facing the Virgin, who is generally seated or kneeling, at least in later depictions. Typically, Gabriel is shown in near-profile, while the Virgin faces more to the front. She is usually shown indoors, or in a porch of some kind, in which case Gabriel may be outside the building entirely, in the Renaissance often in a garden, which refers to the hortus conclusus, sometimes an explicit setting for Annunciations. The building is sometimes clearly the Virgin’s home, but is also often intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple, as some legendary accounts placed the scene there.
The Virgin may be shown reading, as medieval legend represented her as a considerable scholar, or engaged in a domestic task, often reflecting another legend that she was one of a number of virgins asked to weave a new Veil of the Temple.
Late medieval commentators distinguished several phases of the Virgin’s reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and the news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision, followed by reluctance to fulfill the role, to a final acceptance. These are reflected in art by the Virgin’s posture and expression.
In Late Medieval and Early Renaissance, the impregnation of the Virgin by God may be indicated by rays falling on her, typically through a window, as light passing through a window was a frequent metaphor in devotional writing for her virginal conception of Jesus. Sometimes a small figure of God the Father or the Holy Spirit as a dove is seen in the air, as the source of the rays.
Less common examples feature other biblical figures in the scene. Gabriel, especially in northern Europe, is often shown wearing the vestments of a deacon on a grand feast day, with a cope fastened at the centre with a large morse (brooch).
Especially in Early Netherlandish painting, images may contain very complex programmes of visual references, with a number of domestic objects having significance in reinforcing the theology of the event.
Among Byzantine representations:
Armenia: Toros Taronetsi, 1323.
Russia, 14th century.
Annunciation to Zechariah, from an Ethiopian Bible, c1700.
In A question of attribution Alan Bennett introduced his drôle and perceptive views on the lost symbolism of art, fancifully attributing his comments on Annunciation paintings to the Queen (see On visual culture).
And recalling her Catholic upbringing in Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood reflects on her youthful quest for enlightenment:
While we were growing up there was another painting in our house: Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It was one of those paintings that seem to continue outside their own borders and reach into real life; this, I thought, must be what “good art” must mean. Two hands stretched out of the sun and shot a streaming gilt tassel into Mary, who bent over the place where she was struck. The angel, with feathers like a fractal quail, delivered his message directly into her eyes. Mary’s face was an unripe peach, not ready, not ready; a little book slid off her right thigh like a pat of butter. Stars in the ceiling pierced down. Far to the left, those two green grinches of sin, Adam and Eve, began their grumbling nude walk offstage.
When I left home, I hardly ever saw pictures of the Annunciation anymore. I was not expecting this somehow—I thought I would still encounter the messenger angel everywhere. It was the messenger angel who captured my attention, and not the angel with the flaming sword and not the dark-headed angel of death and certainly not the angel with the regrettable name of Phanuel. By instinct I understood that the most interesting one is the information angel, who carries the newspaper that is meant for you over the doorstep and into your life.
And how does the good news arrive? It does not arrive in your ears, exactly; it arrives in your face as a great gush of light. It is carried to you, not like a rose but like the symbol of a rose, straight into your understanding. There is no sound. It happens in your bedroom, or in your cave in the middle of the desert, with a lion’s head spreading on your lap, or on top of the pillar where you’ve sat for a hot century. It happens in your study, wherever that happens to be.
In German, rather than Verkündigung, the Annunciation is commonly known as Englischgruss—which one realises means “Angelic greeting” (cf. the finale of Mahler 4), rather than a stiff handshake and lugubrious “How do you do”.
So here’s Brahms‘s a cappella setting Der englische gruß, simple and affecting:
Continuing to educate myself about Tibet (roundup of posts here), I always admire the writings of Jamyang Norbu. I’ve cited the useful volume Zlos-gar that he edited, as well as his vivid comments on lhamo opera. His website contains a wealth of information—including the text of a lecture he gave on Women in Tibet.
This may seem a strange way to stress the maturity of Tibetan culture before the Chinese occupation, but his article The Lhasa ripper is a fascinating vignette on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa society before the Chinese occupation, in the tradition of subaltern studies. Setting forth from the story of a serial killer murdering sex workers in late 1920s’ Lhasa, he goes on to cover begging and crime.
By this time the modern police force, recently formed, had met resistance from the monasteries and conservative faction. It was only reinstated in 1948.
Colonel Bailey, the British Political Officer in Sikkim, visited Lhasa in July 1924. In his report he mentions: “Laden La has organized a very creditable police for Lhasa city. The men are smart and dressed in thick khaki serge in winter, and blue with yellow piping in summer. They are stationed in different parts of the city [in police boxes—JN]. The fact of their presence has reduced crime in the city considerably and the inhabitants appreciate this.” The police force also had a bagpipe band (Tib: pegpa), which Bailey took credit for introducing.
It was mainly by chance that the “Lhasa ripper” case was solved in the mid-1930s. Jamyang Norbu relates variant accounts of the arrest of a minor monk official, a Nepalese national, after he was overheard.
In Part Two he broadens the theme:
I have long been interested in what might be called the “dark underbelly” of old Lhasa society: the professional gamblers, criminals, burglars, pickpockets, forgers, bandits, beggars, scavengers, and even the ladies of easy virtue, though some may object to their inclusion in this class. Granted, this particular dark underbelly wasn’t so “dark” or extensive as that of London or New York, and certainly not as exotic as that of old Peking or Shanghai, I suppose, but it was interesting in its own way because of its medieval flavor, and, as with all things Tibetan, its inevitable though nonetheless odd connection to religious life.
He introduces the kuma petty criminals, with their various specialities, such as thep-tre street urchins targeting peasants and pilgrims in Lhasa.
When the Communist Chinese occupation force took over Lhasa, I was told that many of the thep-tre shifted their attention to Chinese troops, relieving them of their watches, wallets, and fountain pens, and in the case of the officers, even pistols.
And outside Lhasa, the jhagpa armed bandits:
the chivalry of some of these bandits could be decidedly ambivalent – happily looting monasteries on the one hand while making lavish gifts to their own lamas.
In 1985 Jamyang Norbu staged a musical tableau in Dharamsala, depicting
a street scene in the Holy City where ordinary city folk, aristocrats, lamas and so forth go about their business, while in the background a line of ten dranyen musicians play and sing songs related to the unfolding scenes. I had also included a (pantomime) donkey carrying firewood, Drekar beggars, and two actresses playing the role of the famous singers of old Lhasa, Shimi Lemba (Cat label) and Porok Lemba (Crow Label).
I was taken to task for this production by a Dharamshala mob and later the exile-parliament, and charged with insulting the Dalai Lama on his birthday by showing donkeys and prostitutes. I attempted to argue, quite unsuccessfully, that these two famous ladies were not prostitutes but respectable entertainers belonging to the Nangma musical guild (nangmae kyidug) of Lhasa, who even performed at cabinet banquets (kashag thogtro) in the old days.
Next he evokes the professional and spiritual beggars. The Ragyabpa guild of professional beggars/scavengers/undertakers was a kind of halfway house for freed criminals;
It was said that the Ragyabpa would curse you if you didn’t pay [the mandatory tariff on entering Lhasa] and a Ragyabpa’s curse was considered malignant. This was essentially a kind of cultural extortion, resembling the practice of the transgender Hijra community in India that still derives its income from similar begging/extortion performance rituals.
Other professional beggars in Lhasa were the fiddlers (tse-tse tangyen), beggars with performing monkeys (trangbo-tre-tse), and wandering acrobatic dance troupes (khampa repa) who were not only skilled tumblers, drummers and dancers but claimed a spiritual connection to Milarepa. And he has more on the drekar and lama mani.
In a section on the chang beer taverns and a note on chang brewing, he notes:
Tibet was admittedly a politically backward and industrially undeveloped society, but the account of Lhasa beggars drinking beer that was at least clean and wholesome made me think of Gustave Doré’s engravings of the squalor and despair of working class London, and Hogarth’s famous print of Gin Lane (in the notorious slum parish of St. Giles) where the working poor destroyed themselves and their children by drinking manufactured spirits (frequently mixed with turpentine), foisted on them by a government whose primary concern was raising revenue from alcohol sale. I wrote about something much the same happening in Lhasa from the early 1980s onwards, “a ubiquitous alcoholism fuelled by the sale of cheap Chinese rot-gut, baijiu and sanjiu … pushing Tibetans into immediate unemployment and ultimate extinction.”
For more on alcoholism since the reforms, see here, following this article on the period from 1959 to 1978.
On pre-occupation Tibet Jamyang Norbu goes on to cite Hugh Richardson, Britain’s last representative in Lhasa and leading Tibet scholar of the day:
From fourteen years’ acquaintance with it I maintain that it was not deliberately cruel or oppressive. It did not need force to maintain itself … It had evolved a closely knit society with a balanced economy and higher standard of living with far less distance between rich and poor than obtained, say in India [and also say in China—JN]. There was a regular surplus of grain, and large reserve stocks. No one suffered the degrading conditions of life of which we read in the industrial revolution here or in Ireland.
* * *
While such a study debunks the obstinate view of an isolated, exotic, spiritual Tibet (cf. Tibetan clichés; cf. Echoes of Dharamsala), for me it offers further evidence that it was a real, mature society, warts and all—far from the simplistic Chinese polarity of exploiters and victims. One might suppose the current regime would regard this as welcome evidence of the iniquities of the “old society”—but it also opens a can of worms on the realities of life both before and since the Chinese occupation.
To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,
Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),
makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.
The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume). The editors themselves provide a detailed overview of Helffer’s life (cf. their tribute after her death in January 2023, at the age of 95). The book includes a bibliography and discography of her work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under https://archives.crem-cnrs.fr).
Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.
Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.
The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.
The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharamsala), including this on Tantrism:
Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).
Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.
The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.
The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.
Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.
In my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double albumAmazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you can still find it on BBC i-Player (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… 
BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.
Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).
Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.
With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.
On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.
The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.
Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.
Complementing studies of the largely “secular” Polish folk genres, an interesting chapter there is
Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the Peregrination of Virgin Mary’s Icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”.
Despite secular, atheist Communist policy, the Catholic church remained central to Polish identity, and a focus of resistance.
Among many pilgrimages in Poland, the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa northwest of Kraków inspires a national network of religious devotion, with its holy icon of the Virgin Mary, the Black Madonna (most famous of many such images around Europe and around the world).
The pilgrimage was sometimes interrupted by political movements from the late 18th century, and notably during the wars of the 20th century.
As in Communist regimes more widely, a partial thaw followed the death of Stalin in 1956, though persecutions of the clergy continued. From 1957 major round of Peregrinations to the Icon got under way in many dioceses and parishes, which were held until 1966—just as in China local folk rituals that had managed to persist during the first fifteen years of Maoist rule were also silenced by the Cultural Revolution. After the Icon was “arrested” that year, empty frames were taken on pilgrimage, “the best example of authentic folk piety”.
Meanwhile in Jasna Góra small copies of the Icon were consecrated and offered to all parishes in Poland for veneration. With the approval and guidance of the institutional Church, domestic services (“Small Peregrinations”) before the Icon also became highly popular. Even after the clampdown, all these manifestations of popular piety persisted, emerging more openly by the 1980s.
As with any study worth its salt, Jackowski pays attention to the soundscape, going on to give details of religious song, under three broad headings:
Church songs, from official songbooks, with official approbatur
Religious songs from the songbooks especially issued on the occasion of the Peregrination
Local religious and devotional folk creations—a rich repertoire.
Pilgrimage songs were led by przewodnik/prowadnik “guides”, often elderly women.
With religious devotion and pilgrimage significant elements in the popular resistance to the Communist regime, such songs were also sung during strikes and protests.
La gaita: dance and festive music of La Rioja (Pan, 2000), with instructive liner notes by Ad Linkels.
It comprises vocal hymns and dance music from the fiestas of villages in La Rioja (the northern province of Logroño) for their local patron saints.
Short of being there, or watching video footage, as an aural portrait these recordings are highly atmospheric—with most tracks captured live during feast days, and most inclusive in showcasing the variety of the ambient soundscape. They hardly offer the illusion of listening as disembodied sound.
So the CD title refers to the whole festive soundscape, with its gaita dances (often using sticks, stilts and ribbons—cf. Morris) accompanied by small shawms (dulzaina, gaita) and tamboril drums. But the latter are only one element in the texture of the soundscape, which also features campanillas ritual songs of confraternities, punctuated by church bells and hand-bells; festive jota songs; castanets, and the chirping of caged birds.
Here it is as a playlist:
The CD includes extended sequences from three village fiestas: ##1–8 from Cervera del Rio Alhama (for Santa Ana and San Gil); ##13–17 from Anguiano (for Santa Magdelena), with twirling, perilous zancos stilt-dancing; and ##18–23 from San Vicente de la Sonsierra.
Here’s a video of the Anguiano stilt dancers:
San Vicente de la Sonsierra is also among many villages which hold self-mortifying processions:
And here shawms accompany giants at the nearby festival of Estella:
(many more clips under “Gaiteros de Estella”).
The region is also among many parts of Spain notable for a variety of bagpipes. For links to posts on shawms around the world (China, Tibet, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe), click here.
In Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the cant d’estil are short festive songs sung on the street and on procession. My baroque gigs there have coincided with a couple of processions to the cathedral, but I’ve never managed to hear cant d’estil live. What I did pick up, though, was
Antologia del cant Valencià d’estil1915–1996,volumes XXV–XXVI (!) of Fonoteca de materials of traditional Valencian music,
a 2-CD set with 192-page booklet by Jordi Reig in both Valencian [related to Catalan] and Spanish, containing 59 pieces by 46 singers; the erudite notes (with photos, transcriptions, analysis, and English summary) consider (quite limited) musical change over the 80-year period.
And cant d’estil is the subject of yet another fine CD by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, assisted by Vicent Torrent, compiler of the Antologia:
Espagne, València, cant d’estil, joutes chantées(Ocora, 2005), with recordings from 2003—here’s the playlist:
Of the two main genres,valencianes are accompanied by guitarró, with wind bands providing formulaic punctuation; albas are framed by dolçaina small shawm and tabal snare-drum. The songs themselves are more florid and free in tempo than the rigid, banal instrumental sections—the two seem in deliberate conflict; even the fandango strummings of the guitarró serve merely to offset the rhythmic freedom of the singing.
Within a framework that seems based on “art music”, there is considerable latitude in both texts and melody. The creation of songs, with llisteros and versadors whispering in the singer’s ear to prompt themes, may remind us of the garapoetica “poetic jousts” in Sardinia. Both men and women sing in the same range, the former in a “forced” high register.
The brief lyrics are not just traditional, but also cover charmingly topical themes:
I ask the crowd here assembled To give a thought To whether the powers that be Will ever find a solution To the parking problem.
Others seek to do little more than introduce the band (cf. Sgt Pepper):
Today the wind section Are all here Toni on the powerful trombone Tico on the trumpet And Casar on the clarinet.
Among many YouTube clips, this sequence, from 9.14, after the opening speeches, shows the prompters: