As the scope for debate in China shrinks, the recent sentencing of human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi for “subversion of state power” has drawn much media attention (e.g. here; for Xu, see translations and interviews by David Ownby, Geremie Barmé, and Ian Johnson—note also this interview).
I gave some links to the work of other righteous dissenting scholars in my lengthy post on Guo Yuhua, who gave me such a valuable education in rural Shaanbei as she collected material for her brilliant book Shoukurende jiangshu [Narratives of the sufferers].
As I suggested, one might expect that exposure to the lives and cultures of poor rural dwellers would prompt us to ponder their situation and stimulate a social conscience. Even if it rarely surfaces clearly in fieldwork on China, perhaps that’s why authoritarian governments are likely to be wary not just of human rights lawyers but of anthropologists and “experts” in general.
The twin disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology (see Society and soundscape, and the canonical work of Clifford Geertz and Bruno Nettl, with a roundup of posts on the latter here) seek to study all of human behaviour (not only elites, but including them too, as well as popular genres such as karaoke and Eurovision); still, the lives of the under-represented subaltern poor, women, and minorities emerge as major themes (see also The reinvention of humanity). So perhaps ethnographers make natural allies with the righteous activists.
Thus “world music” should be more than just a fashion accessory. Even Songlines features articles on groups promoting the cause of liberation from oppressive regimes.
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:
Their programme at the Barbican last week (notes here) was intense right from the start, with Berio’s hieratic Contrapunctus XIX, an arrangement of the final unfinished work in Bach’s Art of fugue, completed with an enigmatic B-A-C-H chord. Then came Berg’s violin concerto (1935), mourning the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler—with another homage to Bach. Having been entranced by the piece through my teens, I was glad to hear it again, played by Veronika Eberle. Though this was the only piece requiring larger forces, the way she blended with the orchestral sonorities reflected the whole intimacy of the concert, reminiscent of chamber music.
Image: Mark Allen, via @londonsymphony.
After what is known as an “interval”, * Haydn’s Trauersinfonie, more Sturm und Drang than sombre, was delightful. Symphony orchestras venturing back into Early Music can sound ponderous and drab, but scaled down, in the hands of a tasteful director, they’re perfectly capable of bringing such works to life. Not an obvious choice, the symphony is full of the light and shade highlighted in the rest of the programme, and juxtaposing it with new works, Hannigan and the LSO reminded us of Haydn’s creative originality. The oboes and horns shone, the strings with some fine pianissimos between bursts of manic, angular noodling (1st and 2nd violins seated antiphonall, YAY!); and the Adagio (in E major!) was radiant (I couldn’t help imagining Haydn beating Henry Mancini to it with a minor-key variation on the Pink Panther theme).
And so to a most original finale: Lonely child (1980) (see e.g. here and here) by the Canadian Claude Vivier (1948–83) (wiki, and here)—yet another composer whose sound-world was enriched by Balinese gamelan. Without knowing of his traumatic, short life, his text may seem more dreamlike and reassuring, with its “great beams of colour”, stars, magicians, sumptuous palaces, and mauve monks. But Vivier’s music is “forever grasping at a place of security and eternity that is just beyond reach”, in the words of Jo Kirkbride’s programme notes. Hearing it live, I felt a certain remote Arctic chill—suggesting a link with Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, already a modern classic thanks to Hannigan.
Lonely child was first sung by Marie-Danielle Parent, for whom Vivier wrote it. Whereas Hannigan often combines singing and conducting, here she accompanied the evocatively singing of Aphrodite Patoulidou—here they are in 2019:
* At this point my keyboard was hijacked again by a Martian ethnographer, whose note I append here:
Interval: an interruption in the proceedings that appears to be widely accepted by the participants, when they take leave of the ritual building to partake further in the ingestion of mind-altering substances.
Isole che Parlano Festival, Sardinia, September 2022.
At the Turkish weekend of the London Jazz festival in November I relished Ozan Baysal’s rock gig on double-necked bağlama, but I missed his previous appearance at SOAS with the more traditional Anatolian Groove ensemble (both bands introduced here). So I was happy to hear him there last week in duet with Melisa Yıldırım on kamencha/kamene fiddle (website; YouTube; interview, and Songlines #166; note also her latest album with tabla-player Swarupa Ananth, Hues of imagination).
They stood to play—Melisa’s kamane equipped with one of the lengthiest spikes ever to adorn a spike fiddle. Along with extended taksim improvisations, zeybek dances, and an Azeri song, they explored Havada Turna Sesi Gelir, by the âşıkHisarlı Ahmet (1908–84)—who sings it here:
For more on the âşık tradition, see e.g. Thomas Korovinis’s chapter here, linking to a 1952 biopic on Âşık Veysel.
As a lively finale they played Nikriz Longa by Tamburi Cemil Bey (1873–1916)—again, here’s his own recording:
Still, while it’s interesting to return to early recordings, the concert never felt remotely like a homage to a hallowed past—Ozan and Melisa make a fine combo, exploring new timbres as they create a distinctive style. I like it when gifted musicianship makes me oblivious to unwieldy clichés like old or new, Eastern or Western…
On 12th March, also at SOAS, a benefit concert for the earthquake in Turkey and Syria:
The authors note the “heavy securitization, mass incarcerations, and attacks on local languages and other aspects of cultural identity” since 2014, with detainees in the camp system “subjected to systematic torture and rape, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. Outside the detention facilities Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are subject to a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, forced sterilization, and family separation”. […] Regional authorities have destroyed large swathes of built heritage, including mosques, shrines and graveyards; destroyed Uyghur language books and restricted the use of Uyghur and other indigenous Turkic languages; and imprisoned hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals and cultural leaders”.
As acknowledged in the 2021 International Criminal Court framework on cultural heritage, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often inseparable from—or the precursor to—acts of genocide.
Yet despite international condemnation,
UNESCO continues to acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz heritage in the Uyghur region through the inclusion of several items on its lists.
With “heritage” widely exploited as a tool of governance, the Chinese regime regards the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) system as
a resource to develop the tourism industry, and a propaganda tool used to present heavily stage-managed images of normality in the region. […] In the same way that mosques and shrines are closed to local communities but open for tourist business, community gatherings are transformed into glamorous stage shows purveying messages of interethnic harmony within the framework of Chinese nationhood, while local communities are terrorized and torn apart.
The report criticises UNESCO’s continuing recognition of several genres.
The Uyghur muqam The Chinese authorities supported muqam from the 1950s, and by the late 1990s there were several institutions in Ürümchi dedicated to its study, performance, and promotion. But
since 2017, several well-known professional muqam performers employed in government-supported troupes have been arbitrarily detained, along with unknown numbers of Sufi followers who performed muqam in religious contexts. The regional authorities have closed institutions previously tasked with researching the tradition, and introduced radical changes to the teaching and performance of the muqam in order to align with Xi Jinping’s policy of promoting a “pluralistic-unified” Chinese nation.
One informant stated that around 30–40% of the employees of the Xinjiang Arts Centre were sent to the camps, including celebrated performers such as Shireli Eltekin, Abduqadir Yarel, Aytulla Ela, and Sanubar Tursun. By 2022 the Xinjiang Muqam Research Office was among 160 organizations devoted to researching traditional Uyghur culture that were closed, with those remaining being used as a propaganda tool for government policy. UNESCO-inscribed heritage was now “deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region”.
The performance of muqam played a role in the religious context of Sufi gatherings, which had previously survived but were now attacked, as was informal secular music-making. Whereas performers have often been released on condition that they sing songs in public praising Xi Jinping, scholars have been sentenced to longer imprisonment or “disappeared”—notably Rahile Dawut, a fine ethnographer whose work had previously gained official support.
UNESCO has supported rival programmes in both China and Kyrgystan for the Kyrgyz vocal epic manas. But in Xinjiang, again, performers and researchers have been coerced and detained, and the genre has been exploited by the Chinese regime.
The meshrep A most incisive section of the report concerns the meshrep, “an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking, and storytelling, and an informal community court”. *
Meshrep: left, singing the Dolan muqam; right, village dancing. Images courtesy of Rahile Dawut. Source.
Both before and after the nomination, grassroots community meshrep gatherings have been designated by the Chinese authorities as criminal activities, meshrep leaders and participants have been arbitrarily detained, and Uyghur communities which formerly nurtured meshrep have been uprooted. In their place, staged meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.
As one interviewee explained,
We don’t regard meshrep as just for playing music, singing and dancing, community entertainment. It is an unofficial form of self-government, a core social structure for the Uyghur community. Meshrep helps the community to take care of its social issues. It’s an essential social gathering to preserve Uyghurs’ cultural and social existence and development.
The authors comment,
These are core values in UNESCO’s heritage framework and they are also the direct reason why the Chinese authorities have consistently and sometimes violently suppressed the grassroots practice of meshrep over the past thirty years.
They remind us of the suppression of a grassroots meshrep movement in the northern city of Gulja in the 1990s, part of the backdrop to a massacre in 1997. Still, in 2010 UNESCO ratified China’s nomination of meshrep for the ICH—which led to draconian restrictions, denying local communities the right to organise their own gatherings. And in 2014 meshrep was co-opted for “anti-religious extremism” campaigns in Aqsu prefecture (see Rachel Harris, “A weekly mäshräp to tackle religious extremism: music-making in Uyghur communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China”). Meshrep participants are among innumerable performers and scholars who have been detained since 2017 .
The “natural heritage” is also exploited and implicated in human rights violations. The Chinese nomination of the Tianshan (Tengritagh) mountain range as “an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity” was ratified by UNESCO in 2014. Forced relocations and suppression of protests had already begun by 2005, leading to “forcible displacement of indigenous Kazakh communities and the sale of their ancestral lands to Chinese tourist companies for commercial development”. The Uyghur karez irrigation system met a similar fate, formerly “an integral part of an ecosystem, providing water for domestic use, farm irrigation, native plants and wildlife habitats”—yet another aspect of Uyghur culture that has fallen foul of Chinese development projects. At the same time, history was being rewritten, just as with the intangible heritage.
The report’s Conclusion is devastating:
Heritage management is not an innocent celebration of culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. […] When the management of heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region—ones that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide—then the heritage system is complicit in those acts of genocide. […] China’s approach to heritage in the Uyghur region takes the heritage out of the hands of its rightful owners, by expelling communities from their ancestral lands and polluting the environment, by destroying built heritage and de-sacralizing religious traditions, and by criminalizing grassroots cultural practices, while using their staged representations to promote new political narratives. Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten, and the economic benefits of heritage accrue in the hands of the ethnic majority and flow back to eastern China.
The authors list points requiring urgent intervention by the international community—including a request for the removal of muqam, meshrep, and manas from the UNESCO lists, “given the serious and substantiated evidence set out in this report that the elements no longer satisfy the criteria for inscription on those lists”.
Despite numerous instances of co-option and suppression since 1949, it’s disturbing to think that Uyghur culture somehow coexisted with Party rule for many decades before the clampdown escalated. And while Xinjiang makes a particularly shocking instance, I have always felt uncomfortable with the ICH system as applied to Han Chinese communities, promoting reified, staged performances rather than providing genuine support for cultural activity among local communities.
Mukaddas Mijit’s The Thirty Boys (Ottuz Oghul, 2022) is a fine film on Uyghur meshrep gatherings in Kazakhstan, “occupying an uneasy space, one eye towards the growing ethnic nationalism of their host country, one eye towards China’s ongoing policies of securitisation, incarceration and cultural erasure in their homeland”:
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…
countries with high levels of support for populist, radical right parties voted more for songs from other countries that featured what the authors call “ethno-traditional” cues.
At first this may confuse the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”, many of whom are doubtless devotees of “world music” in some form. But while traditional cultures, the world music scene, and Eurovision may not always be clearly distinguishable, they are not congruent; moreover, the agendas of ethnomusicologists may differ from those of performers and audiences in the societies concerned—among whom there’s a wide spectrum of tastes, amidst widely differing political contexts.
The music of “the folk” has long been regarded as a counterpart to elite culture. As Bruno Nettl observes (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, p.406, under “Diversity and difference”), academic research tends to champion diversity, speaking out for neglected minorities. But one finds an overlap between nationalism and liberation from empires on one hand, and regional pride or Kumbaya-esque world music fusion on the other, with the lines often blurred. Nettl (p.435, under “Trying to make peace”) also observes the role of music in national and ethnic conflicts for contexts such as sporting events, political rallies, and wars.
Michael Church’s Musics lost and found makes a convenient survey. In the early days of collection, folklore was often conscripted to nationalist goals, as in east Europe (see e.g Fiddles and racism). In Franco’s Spain (Musics lost and found, pp.124–5), the culture of sub-groups (Galician, Catalonian, Basque) was downplayed; while flamenco seems to have been largely exempt, in Portugal fado was linked to fascism.
While the political allegiances of local communities may be hard to discern, in the USA and Britain the folk scene has long been associated with the left. In England, the “Christian socialist” Cecil Sharp was followed by a succession of left-leaning collectors and performers. But quite apart from the socialist heritage of British folk music, the Last Night of the Proms has become a focus of Brexit nostalgia. In the States, the Lomaxes were joined by singers like Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger; folk was the soundtrack for post-war protests. (In rock music, also commonly assumed to be anti-establishment, there’s a similar unease when ageing rock stars turn out reactionary—see e.g. here).
Modern nation-states have adopted a prescriptive, and proscriptive, stance towards their indigenous peoples. A classic case is the Chinese regime’s portrayals of its ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghurs (e.g. here) and Tibetans (e.g. Sister drum, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet). Within the socialist bloc around east Europe, whose heirs are perhaps the main breeding-ground for the ethno-trad movement, there was considerable resistance to state fakelore (tellingly evoked by Milan Kundera in The joke).
So besides the winning Eurovision entries of Ukraine, we can’t celebrate the Buranovo Babushki so innocently:
On one hand, the Eurovision voting blocs may regard each other as allies; on the other, beyond the media bubble, Brexiteers are not renowned for their enthusiasm for Balkan turbo-funk; and Greek-Turkish fusion is unlikely to feature on playlists of the far-right denizens of those countries. The Guardian article comments:
The populist radical right tends to be associated with very national narratives, a kind of inward-looking, nativist defence of domestic cultural traditions against the modernising, homogenising influence of globalisation.
This seems a worthy agenda—but Nettl’s comment that “ethnomusicology values a cultural mosaic, rather than forcing everyone into a melting pot” needs unpacking too. While regional diversity indeed tends to undermine narrow nationalist agendas, whatever one feels about the world-music fusion scene, it can lead to another kind of homogenizing grey-out (cf. the “Rough Guides phenomenon”, and Songlines).
However inconclusive, the Eurovision analysis makes a reminder that different performers and audiences will attribute different meanings to music (see e.g. Terylene).
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).
Left, Dilber Ay; right, Büşra Pekin in the title role of the 2022 movie.
Flying on Turkish Airlines, to follow the safety video (Trailer for a thriller) and a dodgy dervish movie (note here), I’m also grateful to them for introducing me to arabesk singer Dilber Ay (1956–2019), subject of a recent biopic (Ketche, 2022) that captivated me, even without subtitles. Here’s a trailer with German subtitles:
Dilber Ay was brought up in a Yörük-Kurdish tribe of Kahramanmaraş province, south Turkey. Her family migrated north to Ankara and then Düzce, where she was discovered by TRT scouts at the age of 13. Constantly abused at the hands of men, her story chimes in with what seems to be a dominant genre in Turkish cinema. This interview doubtless reads better in Turkish, but you get the gist…
Like much of the most moving music around the world (see e.g. under flamenco, or the Matthew Passion), Dilber Ay’s music expresses anguish—often stressing the theme of imprisonment, as in her Flash TV series Kadere Mahkûmları (Prisoners of fate, 2011–15). It’s always the plaintive slow laments that captivate me, often with exquisite free-tempotaksim preludes on violin. Two songs featured in the film:
Among her other songs,
Barak havasi, with further contributions on zurna:
 I featured İbrahim Tatlıses under The call to prayer. On the changing arabesk scene, Izzy Finkel’s instructive BBC radio programme “Istanbul’s factory of tears” (2019) includes contributions from various singers and producers, as well as Martin Stokes, author of The arabesk debate (1992).
Assessing sentimentality in music seems to be rather subjective (more on wiki here and here). I offer these random jottings largely as a reflection of my personal tastes.
It’s hard to police taste. In our times the term “sentimental” has come to have pejorative connotations—as wiki suggests, “a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason”; meretricious (and a Happy New Year), trite, even false. Other items on the word-cloud of sentimentality include maudlin, mawkish, tear-jerking, schmaltzy, manipulative, heart-on-sleeve, and self-indulgent—restraint being a virtue fraudulently claimed by the elite. Apparently emotions, and the declaration of sentiment, have to be earned (Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”).
Gender is a major element in the discussion, with the often-unpacked trope of rational/repressed men and emotional/communicative women. The “sentimental novel” (indeed, empathy itself) is often associated with the rise of female authors, although Dickens is a notable suspect, as well as some poetry of Wordsworth. In daily life, while objects of “sentimental value” seem exempt from censure, much-noted contexts include family, cute pets (the main content of social media, grr), teddy bears for Princess Diana, nature (the sentimental/pathetic fallacy; think sunsets), and Christmas cards. For a brilliant antidote, do listen to Bill Bailey’s Love song!
I note that my own playlist of songs is heavily weighted in favour of women singers, who seem most capable of emotional expression. By contrast with bubblegum/wallpaper music, at last the songs I’m considering are intense. Apart from the lyrics (even assuming we know or care what they mean!), much depends on the framing, the dramatic context. Irrespective of genre, one would suppose it difficult to “earn” the declaration of sentiment within the limits of a song lasting only a few minutes; but it’s perfectly legitimate to plunge right into a mood, as do many WAM songs. Performance is also crucial, the establishment of rapport: the vocal quality of the singer, the arrangement, harmonies, instrumentation (smoochy strings being a giveaway), and tempo. Some may find “the same song” sentimental (or not) according to such variables.
I’m not entirely fascinated by philosophical discussions, such as this from Charles Nussbaum (I’m somewhat thrown by his idea that “passion excludes sentimentality”—really?). He distinguishes sentimental music from the musical portrayal of sentimentality, which is OK, apparently. While critics defend such music by detecting layers of irony, detachment, and distance, isn’t it just those qualities that expose a song as false, a device for feigning passion? Surely we want sincerity; there’s nothing intrinsically superior about ironic detachment. It seems that a song can be both denigrated and excused for being fake.
I’m wary of Posh People claiming the cerebral high ground of lofty moral sentiments, trying to belittle the experience of the Plebs, moving the goalposts; as if their own emotions were noble, but those of the lower classes unworthy of expression. Corduroyed Oxbridge professors (and perhaps even the “tofu-eating wokerati”) pretend to more legitimacy in channelling feelings than a hairdresser from Scunthorpe, but if there was ever a time when this mattered, then fortunately it has receded. Responses to music can’t be policed (cf. What is serious music?!).
So the term is often used as a simple dismissal of a nuanced spectrum. WAM is a broad church, within which pundits make distinctions. Some more austere ideologues, still hooked on “autonomous music” (debunked by Small et al.), might claim to relegate emotion entirely, but WAM is full of it. Puccini is a classic case who appears to need defending (see e.g. here, and here), such as O mio babbino caro:
Predating anxieties over sentimentality, while I refrain from considering the courtly love of medieval ballads, we might now find sentimental some elements in the music of Bach (“O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild!”)—set within a religious frame. In WAM (as in Sufism) the portrayal of divine love can be controversial; some critics shrink from the sumptuous string harmonies that are part of Messiaen‘s unique musical lexicon. Baroque arias such as Handel‘s Lascia ch’io pianga, or Purcell’s When I am laid in earth, are never rebuked for sentimentality. Mozart arias too are presumably “rescued” by dramatic irony—such as La ci darem la mano (cf. Holding Don Giovanni accountable), the Terzetto from Così, or the Countess’s aria:
But many audiences, even “high-brow”, are presumably moved by such arias irrespective of the dramatic context.
Moving on to the Romantic era (generally considered OK, you gather), the OTT pathos of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is clearly “earned”. For Mahler, the kitsch of popular folk music made an essential and utterly moving counterpoint to his more metaphysical strivings. But he weaves layers of “sentiment”, such as the slow melody that contrasts with the monumental opening of the 5th symphony (above). The Adagietto, of course, is easily co-opted to what we might consider sentimental ends—a not uncommon fate, like Rachmaninoff in Brief encounter. Again, a lot rests on interpretation: conductors are often praised for toning down the sentimentality in Mahler’s music—WAM pundits are dead keen on restraint (cf. Susan McClary on the denial of the body). Returning to gender, this article by Carolyn Sampson on performing Schumann songs may also be relevant.
Modern times (1936).
Just as in opera, music manipulates us strongly in film (e.g. “weepies”), such as The way we were or Cinema paradiso. Again, our dour WAM pundits tend to disdain the art of film composers such as Korngold.
Turning to popular musics, I revisit my (not to be missed!) playlist of songs. Again, in such pieces a certain dramatic distance seems to help. Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived. The nuanced ballads of the Beatles seem sacrosanct—besides Yesterday and Michelle, She’s leaving home is a masterpiece of empathy. I’ve sung the praises of Dream a little dream (again, “elevated” by Mama Cass’s delivery, by contrast with that of Kate Smith). Am I “allowed” to relish Michel Legrand’s You must believe in spring? “Am I bothered?” Country music is more anguished than saccharine (indeed, the lyrics of the Countess’s aria could be from a Country song!)—I like the tone of this post. In jazz, the ballad was blown away by bebop, but survived despite recastings in a more edgy manner, like Coltrane‘s My favorite things. But while the modern reaction to sentimentality has been quite widespread, I can’t help wondering that it’s a handy slur used by the elite to denigrate popular culture.
While such concepts change over time, they clearly vary by region too. If WAM and popular musics share a considerable affinity in conceptual and musical language, the context broadens out widely with folk musicking around the world, where sentimentality doesn’t seem to be A Thing, confounding our narrow Western concepts. In the Noh drama of Japan, a transcendental message and austere sound-world pervade the common recognition scenes at the scenic site of an ancient tragedy. Conversely, the cante jondo of flamenco, its “brazen, overwrought, tortured, histrionic” style expressing “self-pity, posturing machismo, and hypersensitive adolescent egos”, doesn’t quite fit within the norms of sentimentality; nor does the heartache widely expressed in the anguished nostalgia of saudade and sevda. As in WAM or the sentimental pop song, the performance is exorcistic, cathartic.
So for some reason I seem to be requesting permission to be moved by certain songs—Pah! By contrast with some WAM-lite singers like Katherine Jenkins, Billie Holiday had a unique gift for singing sentimental lyrics without ever sounding remotely sentimental—such as Lover man, or You’re my thrill (“Here’s my heart on a silver platter”):
What knots we tie ourselves up in! In both WAM and popular genres, it’s worth positing all kinds of fine distinctions, and interrogating them; but pace the self-styled arbiters of taste, there’s little consensus on what is “legitimately” moving, and I’m reluctant to exclude any music along the spectrum of mood. Hmm, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”…
After our trip to Nardis in Istanbul, to supplement the myriad delights of Kuzguncuk, who’d have thought there’d be a dinky new jazz club there too!
We heard the vocalist and songwriter Fuat Tuaç, based in Canada since 2011, with Baturay Yarkın on keyboard and Aydın Balpınar on bass. It’s great to hear an acoustic gig. Singing without the protection of a mic must pose a challenge, the singer further exposed. Whereas I invariably gravitate to women singers (at least in popular music, as is clear from my Playlist of songs), Fuat has a great voice, with a strong, unaffected presence. He enjoys the variety of singing in six languages —notably Turkish, French, and English, as well as Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The British jazz musician Gilad Atzmon (b.1963) (YouTube topic; website), leader of the Orient House Ensemble, is a versatile wind player. A vocal advocate of the Palestinian cause, he renounced his Israeli citizenship in 2002. While his novels and political writings have prompted accusations of antisemitism, his musicking is more widely acclaimed.
Brought up in Jerusalem, Atzmon went into exile in London in 1994. Here I’ll just focus on his early albums with the Orient House Ensemble (named after the PLO’s former HQ in East Jerusalem), which he founded in 2000. Among the original lineup was drummer Asaf Sirkis, who worked in the band until 2009.
Of their seven albums from this period, here are some playlists—in the “global bazaar” of London, I admire the way that they never flaunt the various Asian/Balkan elements in their vocabulary, integrating them into their jazz language.
Gilad Atzmon &* the Orient HouseEnsemble (2000) (with Nard-ish as #4!):
Nostalgico (2001) (creative tributes to the classics—some great tracks, including #4 Singin’ in the rain!):
Exile (2003)—whose more oriental flavour is enriched in the opening tracks by British-Palestinian singer Reem Kalani:
In loving memory of America (2009), embellished by string quartet:
* * *
The albums are less challenging than their live gigs (“I don’t think that anyone can sit in a house, at home, and listen to me play a full-on bebop solo. It’s too intense. My albums need to be less manic”). Here’s Liberating the American people in 2006, full of contrast:
Some more recent examples: with Frank Harrison (piano), Asaf Sirkis (drums), and Chris Hill (bass):
Atzmon has remained loyal to his bebop inspirations—here’s another tribute to John Coltrane, from 2014:
* Pedants’ corner (yet again: see note here): the ampersand is authentic, if not to my taste…
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
The prime of CHIME, the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research, coincided with a heyday for Chinese music studies, encompassing a range of historical topics, regional traditions of ritual, opera, narrative-singing, folk-song, and instrumental music, as well as pop and avant-garde music. The CHIME journal is full of valuable information—articles, field reports, and reviews of books, CDs, films, and concerts—for the PRC, Taiwan, and the diaspora.
1989 seminar at Kingston, London, hatching the idea of CHIME.
A recent discussion of the board, when we hinted at an issue that I’m only just beginning to see more clearly, is doubtless relevant not only to China but further afield. From around 1985 to 2010 there was a remarkable energy in fieldwork, research, and pooling information. In the PRC after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s, along with the vast revival of traditional culture (see e.g. Testing the waters, and Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era) came a renewed vigour in fieldwork and research. The work of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, along with the major institutes in Beijing and Shanghai, open to new ideas (notably from anthropology), all rippled out to the provinces, counties, and villages. At the same time, Chinese and foreign researchers were able to collaborate on fruitful fieldwork and research projects. Outside China, apart from CHIME, ACMR in the USA made a useful forum (cf. Chinoperl); funding for tours was available, and recording companies like Ocora and Pan were keen to release CDs.
Antoinet Schimmelpenninck in Amdo-Tibetan area, south Gansu, 2001 (photo: Frank Kouwenhoven).
But as China has changed, so have we; much of that energy has since been deflected. CHIME was based in Leiden, where Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven devoted a charming old house to a growing archive, where they hosted lively gatherings. Since the sad loss of Antoinet in 2012, the bulk of the collection has been moved to Heidelberg, the instruments to Lisbon (both major tasks); meanwhile leading lights on the committee had found academic jobs, developing their own projects.
The CHIME journal: first (1990) and most recent (2019) volumes.
Of course, political constraints always had to be negotiated in the PRC, but the scene there was now deteriorating, first under the stultifying reification of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project (from around 2005), and then (since Xi Jinping came to power) with increasing limitations on research and publishing. Today, our research in the humanities is inevitably coloured by the spectre of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; state surveillance is ever more extensive.
Apart from CHIME’s annual conferences, I keep hoping that its online Newsletter can be maintained—but now I finally realise that it’s hard to do so. All the diverse material was relatively simple to collate when we were all going to China regularly, and when there was a wealth of stimulating activity to document. Despite the shrinking scope within the PRC, there must still be plenty to report, but one would now need to find other people to draw attention to it. While in the early days CHIME could serve as a clearing house for such information, one wonders who might be able or willing to do so now: various names have been mentioned, mainly younger European scholars currently based in China.
But another crucial factor in CHIME’s changing dynamics is the internet revolution, wondrous yet indigestible, with WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, and so on creating new, more immediate forums, as material (both textual and A/V) has become available online in China. Even so, outside China, if someone could take on the task, a comprehensive index would still be useful: a revamped CHIME website could make a useful focus for all the diverse information that emerges. Hopefully it will also include A/V material uploaded from the archive—working with Heidelberg, now its home. Apart from inclination, time and money are inevitable hurdles. Like Life.
The vision of Messi dancing his way through flailing defenders reminded me to expand my limited acquaintance with Argentine tango—don’t worry, I’m not going to try and dance. 
As with flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and rebetika, the demi-monde roots of tango in the ports and bordellos were soon co-opted in a typical progression from banning (like the waltz) to bourgeois respectability, as the genre’s sleazy, predatory background gave way to the elegant sensuality of polished cabaret and ballroom performance (for critiques of artistic competition, click here). Please excuse me if I round up some of the Usual Suspects below, and for focusing on music rather than dance.
The early years, and the Golden Age In the traditional style, the habanera rhythm, with the jagged, staccato syncopation of its 3+3+2 accents (cf. Taco taco taco burrito), is common to other Latin American genres (see this useful wiki page). The tango sound became more distinctive from the late 19th century with the addition of the bandoneón, originally used for church music in Germany (cf. Accordion crimes—including an early Polish tango).
The dance, with its sinuous intertwinings, spread around Europe from 1910. Echoing the “posturing machismo” of flamenco, Ricardo Guïraldes wrote in homage (sic):
Hats tilted over sardonic sneers. The all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts…
Naturally, in recent years the sexism of tango dance has been subjected to much critique.
The global fame of tango was spread by the new radio, recording, and film industries. Here’s Rudolph Valentino with a tango-travesty in The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921):
and the great Aníbal Troilo on bandonéon with singer Edmundo Rivero in Cafetín de Buenos Aires (1948):
Tango is part of a widespread musical family expressing heartache (duende, saudade, sevda, and so on), whose letras lyrics enhance its melodic melancholy; however, in vocal timbre I find none of the harsh anguish of flamenco cante jondo. The quintessential tango singer was Carlos Gardél(1890–1935), heard on playlists like this:
To redress the macho dominance, women singers from the Golden Age—some great tracks here:
With the lyrics it’s quite transformed—I like Carlos Gardél’s version (#5 in playlist above), reminiscent of fado. Like most performers, he sang the Si supieras version by Pascual Contursi, which is maudlin enough—but the anguish of tango is rarely expressed so extremely as in Matos Rodríguez’s own lyrics, heard in this 1945 recording:
La cumparsade miserias sin fin desfila The parade of endless miseries marches en torno de aquel ser enfermo around that sickly being que pronto ha de morirde pena… who will soon die of grief…
Well, that’s the last time I’m inviting him to one of my parties.
The piece must have become a millstone around the necks of tangueros—but its immortality was confirmed by Tom and Jerry:
Piazzolla Meanwhile, as juntas and Perónism rose and fell, Buenos Aires was in flux; with an ever-swelling immigrant population and changing tastes, “old-guard” tango declined amidst the rise of pop music. And so to the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla (1921–92) (Songlines; wiki), “the Boulez of the bandoneón” (an epithet attributed to L’Éxpress, making one worry about its readership figures), who “elevated” the genre to the status of art music in the concert hall (NB What is serious music?!). After his youth working with some of the great bands of Buenos Aires, Piazzolla was drawn to the style of modern WAM composers like Bartók and Stravinsky, studying with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger—who, to her credit, insisted that he follow his own path.
Studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, 1955.
He also recruited jazz musicians to his groups, although by the standards of jazz his arrangements were over-prescribed (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”).
Again, just a selection. Tres minutos con realidad (1957):
And the gorgeous Oblivion (1982; danced here, and here):
I’m keen on his late Quinteto Tango Nuevo, with Fernando Suarez Paz (violin), Pablo Ziegler (piano), Horacio Malvicino (guitar), and Hector Console (bass)—click here for their 1984 gig in Utrecht (playlist).
As the “world music” scene took wing and boundaries were breaking down, Piazzolla became a legend. A definitive book is María Susan Azzi and Simon Collier, Le Grand Tango: The life and music of Astor Piazzolla (2000). And here’s the documentary Tango maestro (Michael Dibb, 2004):
Joining a long list of London gigs that I kick myself for missing, in 1985 Piazzolla performed for a week at the Almeida Theatre! Awww…
* * *
The scene has continued to develop, with nuevo tango supplemented by neotango. But as Adam Tully observed,
It’s too easy to think that [Piazzolla] was leaving it all behind or rejecting it; in truth he was completely a part of this music and wanted it to be ever greater, to grow rather than to stagnate. And the dead end is to think that since Piazzolla innovated, then the natural progression of tango is the language that he invented. The danger there is for other composers, arrangers, and performers to get absorbed into Piazzollean language, which is what happened in the 80s and 90s.
Finally, some bonus tracks. Dance, with its complex technique, remains a vital part of tango’s social life, deserving greater attention than I can offer; but here are some staged representations. Carlos Suara’s 1998 movie Tango:
For Last tango in Paris and The conformist, click here. A scene from Frida (2002):
Hmm. Like I’d know—I was just admiring Messi weaving his way through yet another helpless defence, and recalling his time at Barcelona, comparable only to Bach at Leipzig [Late entry for 2022 Pseuds’ Corner Award—Ed.].
As a follow-up to Turkish jazz in London and our visit to Nardis in Istanbul, I delighted in the documentary Jazz in Turkey (Türkiye’de Caz, Batu Aykol, 2013; review here). You can watch it online here, and it’s on Mubi.
Opening with the elegant Emek Theatre in Beyoğlu (1924), the film recalls the early years of the jazz scene (cf. Midnight at the Pera Palace), dominated by non-Muslim musicians (cf. Songs of Asia Minor), mingling with foreigners (notably White Russians)—Armenians like Hrant Lusigyan and Gregor Kelekian, and Turkish Jews such as Leon Avigdor (here and here) and Gido Kornfilt. Here’s Gregor Kelekian’s band in 1933:
Also delightful is trumpeter Muvaffak “Maffy” Falay, whose priceless story about how his name was gleefully heard in the States (cf. Lives in jazz) accompanies the final credits—rather like the joke at the end of my portrait film on Li Manshan! And Dan Morgenstern introduces Atlantic Records under the Ertegün brothers.
Musicians note the effects of the pogrom of 6th–7th July 1955, whereafter the non-Muslim minorities who had nurtured the early scene disappeared. Still, as a new craze for American culture thrived (cf. Japan), jazz became a kind of “diplomatic weapon” in the Cold War, with some of the great musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones visiting from the States, going on to recruit young Turkish students to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. At the heart of the film is Cüneyt Sermet as he listens enraptured to a blues by Arif Mardin:
And despite the 1980 coup, the scene kept developing, with what became the Istanbul Jazz Festival. Also driving the scene at the time were musicians such as Onno Tunç, and drummer Erol Pekçan, also an influential publicist on radio and TV—he even broadened public taste to jazz from Poland and Spain. Here’s a track from his 1978 album Jazz Semai with Tuna Ötenel & Kudret Öztoprak:
Özdemir Erdoğan on guitar and wind player İsmet Siral made early experiments in incorporating an Anatolian folk vibe—here’s the latter’s Vay Sürmeli:
and, with Okay Temiz:
Further stimulus came with influence from the “world music” boom, borrowing in particular from the Balkan brass sound—even if commentators observe appositely that this taste is more popular among foreigners (the tofu-eating wokerati, I suspect) than within Turkey. Kerem Görsev and Can Kozlu make some sound points. Here’s Ilhan Erşahin’s band Wonderland:
The topic turns nicely to the importance of the master-pupil relationship, and respect for senior figures like Tuna Ötonel, while featuring the work of the younger generation such as trumpeter İmer Demirer. Finally, Can Kozlu points out that rather than relying on some antiquated cachet, it’s a positive sign that jazz now has to justify its place among other new genres in a “tough, fast, and merciless” new world.
Completed in 2013, Jazz in Turkey was clearly a labour of love for Batu Aykol. The Emek Theatre, which opens the film, was demolished in May that year—just one of the events that stimulated the Gezi Park protests. In 2016 Aykol also published a book with interviews and material that didn’t make it into the film.
The Silk Road has long been an alluring marketing slogan, but it made a spectacular pretext to gather musicians and craftspeople from all along the route—a remarkable feat of organisation, particularly only a few months after 9/11.
In tents set up on the National Mall (Xi’an Tower, Kashgar Teahouse, Nara Gate, Samarkand Square, Istanbul Crossroads, Venice Piazza…), a wealth of groups performed daily over ten hot summer days. To name but a few: Turkmen, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Mongolian, Afghan;  Bukharan Jewish traditions from the USA; Peking opera, narrative-singing from Beijing and Suzhou; Indian folk, notably Kathputli string puppets and Manganiyar musicians from Rajasthan; Persian classical, Khakasian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkish, Uyghurmuqam… And for sacred cultures, besides Tibetan monks from Drepung monastery in exile (cf. The Cup), Bauls from Bengal, and Syrian Christians, a group of Alevis from Turkey performed their sema ritual. Also featured were martial arts and wrestling from Mongolia, India, and Iran, as well as a range of craft and food traditions.
Here’s the thing: I hardly managed to catch any of these performances!!! My role was to look after the Hua family shawm band (2004 CD Walking shrill, my 2007 book, and Dissolving boundaries)—the shawm (suona/zurna) having reached China via the Silk Road, you dig. Having visited them at home in Yanggao county, north Shanxi, in 1991 and 1992, I had returned there in 2001 with a view to inviting them for the festival, and I then focused on Yanggao shawm bands for some time—only managing to devote my attention fully to the Li family Daoists from 2011. Anyway, I had to be constantly at the service of the band as minder and roadie, both on the Mall and at our hotel—handling their Byzantine (sic) family dynamics, keeping them happy, varying and refining the repertoire for two gigs of 30’ or 45’ each day, while augmenting my notes on their part in the ceremonial life of Yanggao. The Hua band were accompanied by the genial Li Hengrui from the county Bureau of Culture, who occasionally made himself useful—though I didn’t have the foresight to veto the yellow silk pyjamas that the bureau had designed for them.
Bureau Chief Li teased me for bringing them all this way just to play for “another bloody temple fair”, but the band found it a rather familiar setting. They also played on parade, with Yoyo Ma (figurehead of the festival) making a valiant effort to count to 4 on the gong—the band worked out that he was a Big Cheese, but couldn’t imagine that he would ever make it as a musician.
All the participants stayed at the same hotel, where our meals were provided; during the day on the Mall we rested in the performers’ area, where we were fed.
With able organiser Shuni, herself a gifted musician.
Impressive as the daytime gigs were, most delightful were the nightly parties back at the hotel, with everyone dancing to the Indian singers, Turks on zurna, Armenians on duduk, and so on. I did a routine with Indian juggler Kishan while Hua Yun did his amazing tricks on wind instruments.
On their first trip outside Shanxi, the Hua brothers were remarkably sociable. They particularly enjoyed hanging out with the Rajasthani musicians—significantly, both came from peasant backgrounds, whereas some of the other groups had rather more conservatoire training. Perhaps some of the musicians who shared an overarching tradition, like the various maqam groups or Central Asian bards, were able to forge more meaningful relationships. Any political tensions were swept under the (brightly decorated) carpet. I’m wary of the modern cliché “International Cultural Exchange” (click here, and here), even if the Silk Road embodies the idea—but the main point was simply for audiences to be able to hear all this wonderful unfamiliar music, as a gateway to further explorations.
The Hua brothers also met up with Zhang Fengxue, a paper maker from a village in Chang’an county south of Xi’an—their dialects made it hard for them to communicate, so sometimes I had to try and interpret (Yeah Right). Zhang recalled going on rain processions with the village “water association” (shuihui) to Taibaishan in 1952, 1976, 1979, and 1992.
Left, Kathputli puppets; right, Hua Yun with Drepung monk.
In the hotel’s outdoor pool, the Tibetan monks practised underwater meditation, their swimwear matching the colours of their robes. They offered me a Mañjuśrī mantra that they suggested could cure stammering:
OM A RA PA CA NA DHI
Left, blues; right, with Roksonaki.
I took the younger members of the Hua band out to hear blues at Bar Lautrec; everyone met up in the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer on Brazil for the World Cup final. At the 4th July party we admired the fireworks; a nice Turkish volunteer shaved my head, long before I became a regular with my Kurdish barber in Chiswick (cf. At the barbers). The Hua band did an impromptu gig with the Kazakh folk-rock band Roksonaki. Finally we admired a Silk Road fashion show, and Yoyo played a moving Bach solo alap in gratitude to the legion of helpers.
It was the most exhilarating time. There I was, rubbing shoulders daily with a wealth of musicians with whom I would now love to hang out; but there was nothing to be done—I gladly devoted myself to the Hua band.
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.
Hot on the percussive heels of Israel Galván’s flamenco reinvention of The Rite of Spring, I paid another visit to the splendid Bhavan Centre in west London, where resident vocal guru Chandrima Misra led her students in the first of two evenings displaying their progress learning a variety of north Indian ragas—the latest in a series of courses over many years.
Chandrima Misra directing students, Founders’ Day, March 2022.
Between the opening and closing numbers (with nearly a hundred students seated on stage) we heard a variety of solos and for two, three or more singers—mostly women—in the popular khyal style, discreetly supported by Chandrima Misra on harmonium, with Rajkumar Misra on tabla, whose own students also took turns. Students paid eloquent tributes to the diligence and inspiration of their unassuming guru.
Framed by rāgs Bhairav and Bhairavi (introduced here as part of my extensive series on north Indian raga), the programme illustrated a variety of ragas roughly in their proper sequence prescribed over the course of the day, such as Bhimpalasi, Multani, Puriya, and Bihag. Many used chromatic scales with augmented intervals—none more complex than Lalit (introduced here).
As I observed on a previous trip to the Bhavan, it’s always intriguing to hear how young students learn the building blocks of a raga, memorising increasingly lengthy bandish compositions before going on to develop their own voice. The event had a celebratory family charm that rather conjured up an image of the Tring Amateur Dramatic Society; and it suggested the core of the mehfil aficionados who attend concerts of the great visiting artists—a strong amateur basis for the appreciation of raga in the UK.
* * *
In this concert footage, Chandrima Misra sings rāg Multani (flat 3rd ga, sharp 4th Ma, with re and dha—both flat—only sounded in descent), again with Rajkumar Misra on tabla, and Prabhat Rao on harmonium:
Munawar Ali Khan was the son of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902–68)—who, as wiki notes, while agreeing that the beauty of classical music lies in leisurely improvisation, favoured shorter expositions of lighter ragas, reluctant to impose long alaps on his audience. In this brief excerpt he sings Bhairavi in thumri style:
And here he is heard in a selection of clips:
Chandrima Misra’s other main teacher was Vidushi Sanjukta Ghosh—in this radio concert from c1983/84 she sings rāg Lalit:
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.
I relished the Anatolian fusion ensemble, led by Ozan Baysal on bağlama plucked lute. Rather as the only word that makes any sense in the “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe” is “Daoist”, I wasn’t hung up on the Anatolian connection or the fusion, but the ensemble was exhilarating.
My ears having become attuned to the bağlama by its use to accompany the nefes hymns of Alevi ritual (click here, and here), I admired the creativity of Ozan Baysal (YouTube; and e.g. this intro), playing with Tolga Zafer Özdemir on keys and synth, Bora Bekiroğlu on electric bass, and Burak Ersöz on drums, all currently based in London.
While Ozan remains steeped in the traditional style, * the double-necked bağlama opens up new possibilities for him in a rock-based vibe, as he explores the şelpe style with a variety of left- and right-hand techniques. Being keen on free-tempo preludes, I appreciated his fine taksim intros, unfolding into long numbers in exhilarating dialogue with Tolga Zafer’s funky keys and synth. The band clearly loves playing together, and I’m All Agog (a complete gog, or perhaps ğöğ—cf. kösk) to hear more from them.
For a visit to the Nardis jazz club in Istanbul, click here!
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* In more traditional mode, here’s Ozan Baysal at SOAS earlier this year with the different lineup of Anatolian Groove, including the Kurdish/Alevi singer Suna Alan, and Melisa Yıldırım on kamancha fiddle (website, YouTube):
Click here for Ozan’s recent collboration with Melisa Yıldırım. For my belated education in Turkish culture, see under West/Central Asia: a roundup. And click here for a roundup of posts on jazz, including not just the Golden Age but also Ethiopia, Poland, and Japan.
Apart from feeling mildly guilty at defecting from Tang history, another spinoff of my current decluttering is rediscovering random notes from my time editing and indexing volumes of The Cambridge History of China. I’ve already listed some jocular citations from Han and Tang history, so here’s a sequel with gems that I may not have sneaked into the indexes.
An Lushan the Man
beauty, no harem
Liang, Later dynasty; Liang, Even Later dynasty
wife, monopoly tax
* * *
Meanwhile, here are some out-takes from my index to the 1981 English translation of Henri Maspero’s Taoism and Chinese religion:
Eating Filthy Things
forgetting the body
heavy breathing ho-ho hot breath
sitting down and losing consciousness
vermin, buried in
* * *
I also discovered some more drôle pronouncements on Tang music—we can probably hazard a guess at their author:
“Secular, amnesic, notational dyslexia in the reading of post-13th century flute notations of Tōgaku pieces”
—apparently “people forgetting how to play old scores”:
Perhaps this was a piece in which interest was quickly lost, a piece picked up as an item of temporary fashionable interest, but for which no interest remained after the Chinese court itself had lost interest following the An Lushan rebellion.
The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
In the course of decluttering my groaning bookshelves, I find I’m not ready to part with my little collection of the ouevre of the great
Ren Erbei 任二北, also known as Ren Bantang 任半塘 (1897–1991), 
who over his long career shone a light on sources for song, dance, and drama in the Tang dynasty (618–907) through the prism of the literature of the day (for a roundup of my posts on the Tang, click here).
At Cambridge I was introduced to his early writings by Laurence Picken and Denis Twitchett. Laurence was keen to explore such sources, but it was mainly Denis who led me deeper into the complex process of compilation of the musical material in the official Old Tang history (Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書)—notably the now-lost Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 [Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office] by Liu Kuang 劉眖, a work from the early part of Xuanzong’s reign, before the An Lushan rebellion (755–63).
Almost forty years ago, when I was beginning work on my PhD dissertation, I spent many enjoyable evenings reading through the “Monograph on Finance” of the Jiu Tang shu with Piet van der Loon, attempting to relate its text with other Tang period sources, and to see what is possible to deduce about the way Jiu Tang shu was put together over a period of more than two centuries.
YAY, party time indeed! After moving to Princeton in 1980, Denis gave me occasional updates on his work by postcard:
Meanwhile, scholars were studying an extant work from the heyday of Xuanzong’s court, the Jiaofang ji教坊記 by Cui Lingqin 崔令钦, edited by Ren Bantang in Jiaofang ji jianding敎坊記箋訂 (1962). Such sources made important material for Laurence’s recreations of Tang court music.
I now look on all this impressive research with a mixture of deep admiration, nostalgia, and relief that I went on to find a very different kind of party. By the early 1980s I realised how the study of Tang music had long been a hot topic in mainland China, and was now reviving vigorously there.  So it was Tang music that made the stimulus for my first visit to China in 1986 to study at Peking University under the great Yin Falu; but as I discovered the riches of living folk ritual culture on regular forays to the countryside, I was already in the process of defecting from the silent sources of early history. Though I picked up my own copies of Ren Erbei’s books in Beijing, I soon became a Tang manqué. Still, I continued visiting Laurence to update him on my fieldwork, and Denis kept in touch so we could meet up on his occasional return visits to Blighty.
* * *
Ren Erbei was prolific; most of his later publications were based on research he began before Liberation and pursued under Maoism. Two major books (albeit far from easy reading even for the heavy-duty sinologist):
On Tang drama: Ren Bantang, Tang xi nong 唐戏弄 (2 vols, 1958/1982)
On Tang sung poems: Ren Bantang, Tang sheng shi 唐聲詩 (2 vols, 1982; see e.g. here and here).
After the end of the Cultural Revolution he finally published his book on Chinese jesters,
Yet another interrupted career Whereas before I began spending time in China I had regarded such scholarship as belonging safely in libraries, once I began visiting senior intellectuals I couldn’t help becoming engaged with their life stories and tribulations under the decades of Maoism (see e.g. Craig Clunas on Wang Shixiang, in my post on his wife Yuan Quanyou; cf. Yang Yinliu, and Li Shiyu).
Brought up in Yangzhou, Ren Erbei gained admission to Peking University at the age of 18, embarking on the study of early ci and qu lyrics. After graduating he took up posts in his home province of Jiangsu.
Teachers at Yangzhou 5th Secondary School, 1921; Ren Erbei back row, centre.
Following the 1949 “Liberation”, he became professor at Sichuan University in 1951. While constantly beset by political problems, particularly after being branded a “rightist” and “historical counter-revolutionary” in 1957, he still managed to persist in his research despite spending extended periods in detention.
Rehabilitated following the downfall of the Gang of Four, after all his ordeals in Chengdu he was helped to return to his native Yangzhou, taking up a position at the Normal University there in his eighties.
Ren Erbei with his wife after their return to Yangzhou, 1984.
He now trained a bright young disciple, Wang Xiaodun 王小盾 (Wang Kunwu 王昆吾, b.1951) (see his tribute, and here), who went on to publish works such as Tangdai jiuling yishu 唐代酒令艺术 (1995) and Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci yanjiu 隋唐五代宴乐杂言歌辞研究 (1996, following the 1990 Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci ji 集, co-edited with Ren Erbei). 
Ren Erbei’s tribulations under Maoism were no less distressing for being so common, making his scholarship all the more impressive.
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.
The other day a further excursion around Kuzguncuk inspired me to reflect on the changing lives of its dwellers and the diffusion of the kiosk.
More grandiose than our humble kiosk, the Turkish köşk(a word itself borrowed from Persian kūshk) may denote a pavilion, gazebo, summer-house, pleasure palace, villa, or indeed belvedere (Chinese guan 觀, as in my own fantasy address “Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity”).
On the Asian side of Istanbul near Kuzguncuk are several fine köşks from the late Ottoman era, set in sylvan groves overlooking the Bosphorus. Two of them lead me to stories that encompass the Ottoman ancien régime, a household embodying the changing status of women under the Republic, and post-war Black Sea migrants in shanty settlements.
The Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion (wiki; more detail here) was gifted to the Prince by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1895. Abdülmecid (1868–1944), “the last Ottoman caliph”, was also a student of Western Art Music and a gifted painter—he depicted salon life at his köşk in the painting Beethoven in the harem (1915):
Abdülmecid (right, in pasha uniform) listens to his Circassian wife Şehsuvar Kadınefendi playing violin, Hatça Kadın (Ofelia) on piano, and his son Ömer Faruk on cello. One of the other two women may be his third wife Mehisti.
Abdülmecid went into exile in 1924, living in France. His mansion is currently open to the public for the Biennale, hosting an imaginative art exhibition.
The Cemil Molla Mansion (see here, and here) lies just above the main coast road towards the bridge and the Beylerbeyi Palace. It was redesigned around 1895 by the Italian–Armenian architect Alberti at the behest ofCemil Molla (1864–1941), minister and cultured confidant of Sultan Abdülhamid. It was even connected to the Beylerbeyi palace by a tunnel.
Lavishly furnished, the mansion was equipped with electricity, central heating, and a telephone—at a time when such luxuries were the exclusive preserve of the Yıldız Palace. The new köşk made an elegant retreat for the pastimes of Cemil Molla with his wife and children, and their English and French governesses. The children not only studied the Qur’an (Cemil Molla sometimes served as imam at the Üryanizade Mosque) but also learned solfeggio; dignitaries and philosophers assembled for elegant soirées, as the air filled with piano and oud, Baudelaire and gazals—just the type of gathering that musicians like Tamburi Cemil might have frequented.
Left: Cemil Molla köşk, interior; right, from The shining.
Upon the founding of the Republic in 1923, Cemil Molla went into retirement. After his death in 1941 the mansion was confiscated by the State Security Department. It was soon thought to be haunted, * with his ghost wandering in the gardens—“disconsolately” being the obligatory adverb here. Later buyers have felt unable to occupy the mansion, with the Nakkaştepe cemetery nearby. The story cries out (spookily) for a movie screenplay, like a Turkish version of The shining—with an eery soundtrack of taksim on kanun, and Ravel’s La valse, echoing through gilded salons adorned with sepia family photos… This brief introduction to the mansion has some of the ingredients:
* * *
To augment the story, with the encyclopedic Kadir Filiz we accompanied his neighbour, the sprightly Fatma Hanim (“Lady Fatma”), to revisit the slopes where she had made her home. Her account takes us on to the migrations of the post-war period.
Fatma Hanım with Augusta.
Fatma Hanım, now in her mid-80s, is one of those delightful grannies whom one dreams of meeting—we only had to mention a single keyword and she came out with a whole stream of reminiscences.
She comes from the Black Sea town of Boyabat in the hills south of Sinop, just east of Kastamonu. After her husband Ilyas was sent to Istanbul on military service around 1959, he managed to stay on there; soon after he paid a visit back to Boyabat, they returned to Istanbul with their first baby—the first of four.
Their new home was a gecekondu shanty-settlement just behind the Cemil Molla mansion. The land was owned by a Greek boss, who ran a pig farm and slaughterhouse as well as a gazhane factory producing gas. (His son Emil became a great friend of the popular gay singer Zeki Müren.) Fatma recalls life on the estate, in the heart of nature, as paradise—though she was shocked by the informality of the Greeks, with the men wearing shorts… She pointed out the trees she had planted herself.
Ilyas was a gardener on the estate, while Fatma worked as housekeeper for a lady who lived in a relatively modest yalı house on the coast just along from the Cemil Molla Mansion. In a most intriguing digression from the köşk, Fatma’s employer was none other than Sare Hanım (Sare Mocan, Sara Okçu, 1914–2000). This leads us to a complex family history that I can’t even begin to get my head around…
From a distinguished Ottoman family, Sare had been abducted on horseback at the age of 15 by Sefket Mocan, grandson of Sefket Pasha, and was later married to him. Her (much) older sister Celile (1880–1956), a painter, was the mother of the left-wing poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63; see also under Sabiha Sertel), and over his long years in prison Sare often visited her beloved nephew there.
Left: Sare Hanım in the 1930s, “the first woman to wear a bikini and trousers” under the Republic. Source. Right: Nâzım Hikmet with fellow inmates, Bursa Prison. Source.
Sare went on to become a modern cosmopolitan belle; she even flirted with the idea of becoming a Hollywood movie star. After divorcing Sefket she moved back into her family’s Bosphorus yalı; she remarried, and divorced again. Cemil Molla’s family also had a yalı below their köşk, so they were near neighbours.
Sharing the house with Sare was her niece Münevver Andaç (1917–97). Münevver had fallen in love with Nâzım Hikmet in 1949 while he was nearing the end of a long imprisonment, giving birth to a son and marrying him after his release in 1951—but he soon had to go into exile in Moscow. Prevented from accompanying him, she moved in with Sare; under surveillance, Münevver left for Warsaw in 1961 with her two children before making her home in Paris. Sare’s niece Leyla had also married, but moved back to the house after separating from her husband.
Left: Sare in old age, surrounded by her mementos Right: the green yalı on the Bosphorus.
So the female household where our eloquent guide Fatma Hanım worked for over thirty years sounds like a microcosm of women’s changing status under the Republic (for more, see Midnight at the Pera Palace).
Returning to Fatma Hanım’s own story, in 1992, after the notorious campaign of Istanbul mayor Bedrettin Dalan to destroy the gecekondu shanty–towns, thanks to Ilyas’s honest reputation he was able to buy an apartment in the Kuzguncuk mahalle itself for a good price, where he and Fatma have lived ever since.
* * *
Turkey being Umlaut Heaven, ** when diacritically-challenged infidels adopted the word köşk they didn’t quite know what to do with the vowel (for my wacky fantasy on diacritics, click here). Somehow our borrowing in English isn’t quite how I’d expect the vowel to behave (says he, sipping coffee in his pyjamas while plucking the lute), although I don’t know how we could have done better—”kosk” wouldn’t have worked, anyway. ***
In 18th-century Britain, Ottoman architecture enjoyed a vogue thanks to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (see under Hidden heritage).
Another British homage to Ottoman culture.
Our modern kiosk is far less grand. It might serve as a bandstand, or more often a little stall selling newspapers, cigarettes, snacks, and so on. We don’t seem so good at them in Britain—the garden shed, immortalised by Jessy on The fast show (cf. Rowley Birkin QC), is quite a comedown.
But I do enjoy a good French kiosque or Italian (um) edicola, and I recall some fine examples around pre-1990 central and east Europe—where the vogue had begun with King Stanislaus I (1677–1766) of Poland; for me, the kiosks of East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest were part of the Iron Curtain mystique, with the buzz of street life.
With All Due Respect to Ottoman architecture, perhaps the most iconic kiosk is the one in the middle of an eerily desolate Viennese square in The third man, accompanied by Anton Karas’s zither.
By 1942, with the grossly discriminatory Wealth Tax (evoked in the Turkish TV series The Club), the brunt of the burden was to fall on Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. For Istanbul during World War Two, see Midnight at the Pera Palace.
 In the more personal honorific style of Turkish relationships, Kadir and Augusta address her as Fatma Abla (“Elder Sister”) or Fatma Teyze (“Auntie”).
** Funny how “umlaut” doesn’t have an umlaut, eh. It seems that Turkish hardly needs a term to specify the ubiquitous dots, üzerine çift nokta koymak (“put a double dot on it”) being a tad over-generous. BTW, I’m very fond of the Hibernian umlaut, which I finally mastered on a tour of the States with a Scottish cellist, whose frequent refrain was “Shall we go and get some füd?”
*** This rather reminds me of my sample sentence of English borrowings from the Venetian language:
if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over an arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequinned pantaloons to a regatta…
My current sojourn in Istanbul happily coincided with another fine reception at the German Consulate on a balmy late summer’s evening, to celebrate Einheitstag unification day on 3rd October.
I’m all for a bit of Einheit, * particularly over copious wine and a varied menu in a sumptuous garden. In the Consul’s welcoming remarks he expressed solidarity with Ukraine, followed by personal solo renditions of both German and Turkish anthems sung by a Turkish staff-member. A local rock band then struck up—while I am no authority on these new-fangled Popular Beat Combos, a Good Time was had by all.
One could also soothe the ear by taking refuge in the salon inside to hear the versatile Consul on flute, accompanied by the radiant Augusta Tickling the Ivories most appealingly. She then offered a medley that included Hildegard Knef (Angela Merkel’s choice for her farewell ceremony, along with Nina Hagen), some Kurt Weill, a song from Marlene Dietrich’s Lola, and Francis Lai’s exquisite Plus fort que nous.
For more on the events leading up to Einheit, see Deutschland89; the biography of my orchestral colleague Hildi (parts 1 and 2); and other posts under the GDR here.
Given the recent regression to 1950s’ deference back in Blighty—the kowtowing of once-critical people to power and privilege, military pomp and Christian values, forming an orderly queue in one last swansong of Einheit before we all succumb to hypothermia and starvation—and the spectacular dog’s dinner that the Tory “government” is making of absolutelyeverything, surpassing even its own high standards (see also Get a proper speech impediment, FFS, and Drawing a line), I really should have availed myself of the Consulate visit to seek political asylum there…
* Not to be confused with the metaphysical quest, sent up by Woody Allen in a notional adult-education course list (“Spring bulletin”, in Getting even):
Manyness and oneness are studied as they relate to otherness (students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness).
When I go to concerts, I’ve always resented forking out for a programme. Such insights as it may bequeath are sandwiched between an array of glossy advertisements, reminding us of the mundane capitalism from which the event promises to afford us temporary refuge. Sometimes I do grudgingly buy a programme in search of some nugget of wisdom, but ideally I’d rather not be distracted from the experience of live musicking.
Having broached the issue here, sorry to go all world music on you again, but I can’t help going back to the ethnomusicological studies viewing Western Art Music (WAM) through the eyes and ears of a Martian, like Christopher Small’s Musicking or Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions. Concert audiences being highly literate, they tend to use that literacy as a crutch, a comfort blanket, seeking verbal explanation for an experience that might otherwise be more somatic and socially immersive. I wonder if we’re not quite prepared to immerse ourselves thus, almost as if we need some kind of distraction to allay potential embarrassment—while clubbers enter more fully into the live experience, audiences at rock concerts are distracted by filming the event on their phones…
Literacy is enshrined among the orchestral performers too, faithfully reproducing the printed score set before them; the conductor’s score on the podium serves as a holy text (the “quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance”), with only some maestros enhancing the experience by conducting from memory.
Conversely, at the musical gatherings of communities around much of the world (take your pick: Aboriginal dream songs, a Daoist ritual, an Alevicem ceremony…)—where the participants may not even be literate—no need is felt to explicate the event in words, to list the performers and the conductor’s glittering list of recordings and forthcoming engagements, nor to tell us what Haydn was doing in London in 1795; rather, expressive culture is part of the fabric of the community, not hived off into a museum. Tickets aren’t on sale. I should add that there are plenty of events in Western societies where you don’t have to buy a ticket, or a programme, for an enriching musical experience—weddings, lullabies, Irish pub sessions…
As to fieldworkers, no matter how they immerse themselves in a community, through the very nature of their constant questions (“Do you always do it like this? Is there a crucial part of the ceremony? Why are you inviting two groups of ritual specialists today?”) they will never attain the state of the inhabitants, for whom musical events form an intrinsic part of their lives. Of course, local participants may be quite capable of reflection, aware of nuances in performance, and concerned with the rules of variation; but such awareness is embedded in their hearts and bodies. The discursive mission of the ethnographer can only violate this sense.
For the little segment of modern Western society that attends WAM concerts, the written exegeses of the programme booklet may enrich our appreciation of the event as well as distracting us from it. I now realise that the copious ads (for insurance companies, corporate sponsors, posh schools, retirement homes), so diligently blanked out by those drawn to the repertoire by some kind of spiritual bent, are just as revealing as the programme notes. Whether or not the ads are welcome, they convey a subliminal message, making a telling commentary on the social demographic of the audience. Concert-goers may be seduced by the myth of “music as a universal language”, but advertisers know better; programmes don’t tend to feature ads for food banks, helplines for immigrants, or offers of legal aid for striking health workers. As often in fieldwork, seemingly peripheral aspects, easily neglected, can afford valuable insights into the nature of the event.
The concerns of an audience for Mahler 7, apparently—
perhaps not so different from those of participants at a Chinese folk ritual:
providing for the security of the family?
Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!
I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially
Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…
As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:
So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…
Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation
V.S.—or try sink, Iga!
It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!
* * *
Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in
Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.
Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.
* * *
Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:
There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.
Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”
And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:
To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!
Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.
Mahler is such an important figure on this blog (and indeed in “Western civilisation”!) * that I thought I should offer a roundup of posts—my The art of conducting links to many of these, but it’s always good to remind ourselves of his astounding body of work.
Note the definitive four-volume study by Henry-Louis de La Grange—and online, his series here, with essays on all the symphonies (cf. conductors’ ideas). Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (2010) is engaging and instructive. For recording guides, see here.
I began writing about Mahler with a post musing on performance practice, vibrato, and Daoism, and went on to offer reflections on the individual symphonies, all overwhelming in their different ways—with plentiful A/V embeds of some of the great interpreters like Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, and Rattle:
Here’s my detailed “programme” for the apocalyptic passage in the first movement of the 10th, with the “Scream”:
Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing, but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):
* The quotes there alluding, you gather, to the much-cited but elusive Gandhi story: when asked “What do you think of Western civilisation?”, he is said to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea”.
At last Sunday morning’s Prom I heard Amjad Ali Khan (b.1945), with his sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, on the fretless plucked lute sarod, accompanied on drums by Sanju Sahai (tabla) and Pirashanana Thevarajah (mridangam). I might have preferred the group to sit more closely together, creating a more intense atmosphere, rather than attempting to spread themselves widely across the ample stage.
You can listen to the concert here for the next year.
Note also documentaries by James Beveridge (1971):
and Gulzar (1990):
More early recordings of Amjad Ali Khan and other sarod masters here.
* * *
I’ve never paid much attention to the taxonomy of ragas by the time of day—which is anyway rarely adhered to in concerts, since they mainly take place in the evenings—and there’s a further potential refinement in the seasonal associations of particular ragas (see e.g. here). But the morning Prom did indeed feature morning ragas—which were largely chromatic and quite challenging.
First the two sons played rāgLalit in duet, like a kind of junior jugalbandi. Lalit has a highly chromatic scale, omitting the fifth degree Pa and featuring both natural and sharp versions of the fourth ma (for more, including a flute version by Hariprasad Chaurasia, click here).
Then the veneration in which Amjad Ali Khan is held was clear from the standing ovation he received as soon as he stepped on stage. First he played Miyan ki Todi (from 29.20; cf. this 2004 rendition), also chromatic and complex; here are its basic ascending and descending scales as given in The raga guide:
On first hearing, both these ragas may seem quite mystifying.
He went on briefly to compare the timbre of stopping the strings with nails or fingertips (from 56.14), and after another whimsical chromatic solo (rāg Purvi?) he demonstrated the link between tarana vocalisation and playing (1.10.07). Finally his sons joined him to play rāgAnand Bhairav (1.17.31, cf. this version) in an exchange that often resembled a training session for learning the basic building blocks of the raga. After all the earlier chromaticisms, its scale is almost entirely diatonic, only coloured by a flat re second degree.
While I would always trade the fast flamboyant final sections for lengthier introductory alap exploring the structure of the raga, this was a most charming, inspiring concert to remind us of raga’s vast ocean of discipline and creativity!
* Imrat Khan performed late-evening Proms in 1971 and 1978; at the peak of my own dabblings in raga, epic all-night concerts were held in 1981 (with musicians including Vilayat Khan on sitar, Sultan Khan on sarangi) and 1983 (dhrupad from Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ritwik Sanyal; Ram Narayan on sarangi, Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri); and the first main-evening Prom of north Indian classical music was held in 1989.
After the Cretan lyra (and its cousin on Karpathos!), as well as various types of kemence bowed lute (some of which feature in my post on Indian and world fiddles), the music of the Pontic lyra is also most beguiling.
Along with the Greek populations along the Aegean coast, centred on the port of Smyrna, the Greeks of the Black Sea also had thriving traditions, which suffered just as grievously from the devastating conflicts that led to the population expulsions of 1923. 
From Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger.
Instruments make a partial entry-point into regional cultures. For the wider musical setting, as ever, the Pontic lyra accompanies the singing and dancing of social musicking (parakathi or muhabeti),  with additive metres prominent. So far I’ve had more luck finding audio recordings than video footage in folk context (although the tributes below from the Union of Pontic Youth of Attica have some fine images, both still and moving). From east to west, the sub-regions of the Pontos also show distinct musical cultures.
Domna Samiou has many sound examples from the region. Alas, YouTube no longer has a compilation of Pontic music that claims to predate the population expulsions, or a recording of the music of emigrants from the Bafra district of Samsun, made soon after the expulsions. This playlist of traditional songs and dances of Bafra was issued in 2001 by Radio Trapezounta Boston, whose YouTube channel has a wealth of material:
Most of the musicians featured below were relocated to Greece and the diaspora, or were born there.
The Union of Pontic Youth of Attica has uploaded tributes to some of the great masters of yesteryear—including Giorgos Petrides (1917–1984) and Chrysanthos Theodoridis (1905–2001):
Giorgos Kougioumtzidis (1935–2007) and Christoforos Christoforidis (1905–2001):
Yiannis Tsortanidis (1900–1983) and Sevastidis Pantelis (1922–89):
Stathis Beniamidis (1920–95) and Apostolos Athanasiadis (1907–76):
Nikos Papavramidis (1907–95) and Christos Bairaktaris (1905–81):
Ilias Kementzides (1926-2006) was born in Kazakhstan after his parents were expelled from Samsun; in 1940 he moved to Greece, and in 1974 to the USA. Here’s a short film, with clips of him playing for the Pontic Society in Queens, New York:
Tsakalidis Kostikas (1933–82) was born in Drama, northeast Greece (see e.g. Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.75–82), where his parents had been relocated from Trebizond. Among tracks from this playlist is:
Activity doubtless continues in the Black Sea homeland (where the lyra became known—to Turks—as kemence), even if it has been much attenuated. The image from the 1950s at the head of this post is attractive, but would need further documentation before we could assess its relevance: does it show performers of the Pontic Greek style?
I’d like to find audio-video material (perhaps it requires a more informed search), but in the majority Turkish culture, Pontic Greek traditions there were doubtless under a cloud until the belated thawing of Greek–Turkish relations. Even then, in 2002 the Trabzon folklorist Ömer Asan was charged with “propagating separatism” for his book Pontos Kültürü (cf. the Armenian trials soon after). More recently, the work of anthropologist Nikos Mahailidis (Soundscapes of Trabzon: music, memory, and power in Turkey, 2016) will offer clues:
In Turkey, the enterprising Kalan Müzik has issued two archive CDs of Pontic refugees Pontus Şarkilari, featuring Yannis Haralambidis and Athina Korsavidou (here as playlists):
Lastly, an evocative clip of the Pontic bagpipe angeion (touloumi) at a parakathi gathering at the Association for Pontic Greeks in Cologne, 2012:
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”…
While the cheery Greek bus driver was waiting to set off, he was taking photos outside for a family of four Turkish kids and their mum, visiting her brother-in-law (an Istanbullu living in Chiswick), * before they boarded the bus. As they all chatted away, the uncle took group photos with the kids and the driver, and my companion Augusta got chatting with them too, reminiscing about Istanbul.
I’ve been meaning to go to Kings Place for ages—there’s a lot of good stuff going on there. it’s remarkable how the formerly seedy area has been regenerated, leading out onto a scenic view of the canal.
For my first visit last week, I heard Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan give exquisite renditions of two north Indian ragas on sitar, accompanied by Sanju Sahai on tabla. The main hall isn’t too big (cf. Venues and music), and there was a good contingent of mehfil aficionados.
Shahid Parvez (b.1958; website; wiki; interview) is the seventh-generation representative of the Etawah gharana, a style that he inherited through his uncle, the great Vilayat Khan (some of whose performances I’ve featured under Malkauns and Yaman).
Masters of the Etawah gharana: left to right
Ashiq Ali Khan, Enayat Khan, Imdad Khan, Wahid Khan, Sakhawat Hussain Khan,
Calcutta, c1910. Source.
His great-grandfather Imdad Khan (1848–1920) was so devoted to the discipline of riaz that he is said to have practised sitar in a state of chilla isolation for some twelve years. Alongside other early 78s that I’ve featured (Hazrat Inayat Khan, Gauhar Jan), he is heard on the first recordings of sitar in 1904—here’s an excerpt from rāg Sohini:
Shahid Parvez started with a lengthy alap in a raga that I wish I could identify. The scale was diatonic, using all the pitches except for the second degree Re, with stresses on Pa, ma, and Ni. In the second half he gave lighter renditions of a rāg that sounded to me like one of the avatars of Kafi, with both flat and natural versions of ga and ni. From his extensive YouTube channel, here are two brief alaps in rāgKafi:
I’ve been trying to get an impression of the underground music scene in Tehran.
While this sub-culture naturally attracts journalists and film-makers, this is not merely exotic decoration for our jaded palates, but a manifestation of urgent issues confronting young people in Iran—in particular, the options for women to express themselves within tight constraints (cf. Persepolis). This alternative scene makes an outlet for frustration (cf. GDR, China)—and often a route to emigration.
Your go-to authority on the variety of musicking of Iran is Laudan Nooshin. Further to her survey in The Rough Guide to world music (2009), she has published significantly on the popular music scene—  a scene, of course, that continues to evolve.
A few vignettes that I’ve spotted via the media: 
On the underground metal scene, here’s the incisive short feature film Forbidden to see us scream in Tehran (Farbod Ardebili, 2020) (see e.g. here, here, and here):
Writing in the LRB, Miranda Carter gives a thoughtful and entertaining survey of the history of Desert Island Discs.
Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:
Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.
Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].
Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.
When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]
Thatcher : When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.
Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?
And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:
Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.
Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]
Still in the 1960s,
the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]
But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.
As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:
Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.
I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.
As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.
After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme
became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.
And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.
Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:
A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.
Her parents were part of the vast wave of Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the population exchanges of 1922–23. Living in a shanty town on the edge of Athens, without water or electricity, she grew up in poverty. But at the age of 13, while attending night school, her life was transformed when she was trained by the musicologist and song collector Simon Karas (1905–99) (website, with some projects; wiki)—whose largely prescriptive work set forth from the study of Byzantine modes.
Having endured German occupation and civil war, Samiou began working for the state-run radio station in 1954. Mass migration made Athens a convenient base to collect songs from all over mainland Greece and its islands. By 1963 she was travelling widely on recording trips. In 1971, with Greece still under the junta, she left the radio and started singing in public, opening the ears of younger generations to folk music. Inevitably, covering such a wide area, her forays sometimes remind me of the “gazing at flowers from horseback” style of lesser Chinese fieldworkers, with specially staged performances—but given her own background as a folk singer, the comparison would be quite unfair. Her surveys suggest the rich regional cultures of song, dance, and instrumental music—Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Asia Minor and Pontos, as well as the islands (Crete, Karpathos, Skyros, Skiathos, Lesbos, and so on).
From her 1966–67 TV series A musical travelogue with Domna Samiou (twenty episodes, usefully introduced here), here’s the programme on musicking in Evros, Thrace:
 Apart from the material in this post, see e.g. this site; other starting points include wiki; The Rough Guide to world music and Songlines; The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, The Garland encyclopedia of world music, and so on.
Like WAM, the recordings and tours of the great jazzers have long had a devoted following in Japan. But as American culture became in demand in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat in World War Two, many fine musicians moved from mimicry to creating their own sound. For us, knowing where they come from (or even “are coming from”…), it may be tempting to seek a Japanese aesthetic in the music, such as the concept of ma “space” (see under Takemitsu) in Noh drama, or the inevitable Zen vibe. Irrespective of all that, my little playlist below has some impressive sounds—and there’s more to explore via the J Jazz reissues.
Toshiko Akiyoshi (b.1929) is the grande-dame of Japanese jazz pianists, still going strong in her 90s. “Discovered” in 1952 by Oscar Peterson, from 1973, now based in the States, she went on to form a big band with her husband Lew Tabackin. Click here for many playlists. Here’s Kyo-shu (Nostalgia), from The Toshiko trio, 1956:
Children in the temple ground, from the album Long yellow road (1974):
Kogun, from Road time (1976):
On sax, Koichi Matsukaze: At the room 427 (live, 1975—including an imaginative version of Lover man):
See also Hiromi—among my roundup of posts on Japanese culture. My jazz medley includes not only the Golden Age (Billie, Miles, Trane, and so on) and more recent figures, but also some great jazz from Poland (whose own vibrant post-war scene reminds me of Japan), Turkey, and Ethiopia, as well as notes on Istanbul and Shanghai.
The dispersal of the genre around the Aegean seaboard was further prompted by the displacement of the Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor (notably Smyrna) to Athens, Thessaloniki, and the USA. *
I’ve been re-reading the evocative introduction
Gail Holst, The road to rembetika: music from a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish (1975, many reprints).
When Holst first came to Athens in 1966, she was struck by the demeanour of the men dancing, often alone, to juke-box recordings in tavernas:
Not exuberant, not being done for the joy of movement, not even sensual […] the dancer would rise, as if compelled to make his statement. Eyes half-closed, in trance-like absorption, cigarette hanging from his lips, arms outstretched as if to keep his balance, he would begin to slowly circle. As the dance progressed, the movements would become more complex; there would be sudden feats of agility, swoops to the ground, leaps and twists, but the dancer always seemed to be feeling his way, searching for something, unsteady on his feet. The dance took place in public, people were watching it, and yet it appeared to a be a private, introspective experience for the dancer. […] It was as if the dance served as a sort of catharsis for the dancer.
While Istanbul was a teeming metropolis, the population of Athens only began to swell with the influx of migrants after the expulsion of Greeks from the Anatolian seaboard from 1922. This added the Smyrna style to the mix, but it would soon be diluted.
The rebetika scene thrived in the port of Piraeus. Its subaltern image was dominated by manges “spivs”, fuelled by hash and cocaine—part of a common theme in the urban underworlds of flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and tango. There was a nexus between the songs of the hashish dens and the prisons, the connection “being very effectively kept alive by the fact of the habitués of the former frequently becoming inmates of the latter”, as Rod Conway Morris observes.
As always, we find rapid social and musical change. Holst gives vignettes of 1920s’ Piraeus, with characters like Crazy Nick, Marino the Moustache, and Papazaglou the Cucumber. Women singers were common in Istanbul, and they became popular in Athens too, such as Marika Politissa, Rita Abadzi, Rosa Eskenazi, and Marika Papagika (listen under Songs of Asia Minor!). An influential male group was the “Pyraeus Four” (Syros, Márkos, Artemis, Batis, Stratos).
While rebetika was both censored by the Metaxas dictatorship and deplored by the Communists, a more general change was under way as it was eclipsed by new genres of popular commercial music. The change in style was expressed in going “to the bouzoukis”—which Holst found kitsch even in the 1960s. But as the nostalgia industry (cf. Kuzguncuk) became popular, old-style rebetika suited the anti-authoritarian mood of the 70s, and even if it was hard to hear live, recordings began to be reissued. As Holst observed,
What seemed to me like a faddish revival of early rembetika in the late 1970s has become an established phenomenon of the 80s.
She compares its trajectory to that of the blues, “similarly modified to suit the tastes of a broader audience and later revived in an artificially puristic style”; both “have been allowed to degenerate and die, and have subsequently been dug up by the youth of the next generation and lovingly enshrined”.
As to dance, the popular 9/8 zeibekiko (a solo male dance, like the one that so impressed Holst) was another import from Asia Minor.
Holst is keen on the singing of Sotiria Bellou (1921–97)—see e.g. her chapter (as Gail Holst-Warhaft) in Music and gender, “The female dervish and other shady ladies of the rebetika”. Here’s a 1959 recording of Bellou singing San pethano sto karavi (“If I die on the boat”), with an all-too brief opening taxim:
Ah, if I die, what will they say? Some fellow died, A fellow who loved life and enjoyed himself. Aman! Aman!
Ah, if I die on the boat, throw me into the sea, So that the black fish and the salt water can eat me. Aman! Aman!
Cloudy Sunday was composed in 1943 by Vassilis Tsitsanis during the occupation, and recorded in 1948:
Here’s the reissue Rebetika 1918 to 1954 (playlist):
Call Me Old-Fashioned (yet again), but I’m still drawn to the more introspective songs, such as Gazeli neva sabah (“The hour of death”, #5), with Rita Abadzi:
and Tıs ksenityas o ponos (“The pain of being abroad”, #8), sung by Antonis Dalgas, is reminiscent of the oriental, free-tempo style of early amanedhes:
By way of contrast, here’s Bouzouki favourites: smyrneika and rebetika (86 tracks):
I still can’t overcome the image of the bouzouki in the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch.
Supplementing my little list of reissues in Songs of Asia Minor, there’s a wealth of CDs, such as
Rembetica: historic urban folk songs from Greece (Rounder, 1992)
Lost homelands: the Smyrniac song in Greece, 1928–1935 (Heritage, 1995)
There are many documentaries, such as this seven-part series:
And the feature film Rembetiko (Kostas Ferris, 1983) is a classic:
Of course, while rebetika waxed and waned, there’s far more to Greek traditional music—ciick here!
* A 1981 essay by Rod Conway Morris is useful, with leads to performers and recordings. Note the site greeksongstories.com. The wiki entry is extensive too; see also The Rough Guide to world music. The wider context is described in chapters 5 and 6 of Peter Manuel, Popular musics of the non-Western world (1988), and by Paul Vernon (e.g. here); see also The Rough Guide to world music (under both Greece and Turkey), and Songlines.
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”.
Storytelling is always an oral repository of a people’s history and culture—as, for instance, in the Balkans (here, under “Bards”), Ukraine, Central Asia, and China. Now I’ve been trying to learn a bit about the dengbêj bards of Kurdistan.
There are majority Kurdish populations in regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, * all of whom have vexed relations with the relevant state authorities. Repressed in varying degrees of severity under different regimes, many have gone into exile. **
Dengbêj Among the variety of genres, here I’ll focus on Kurdish dengbêj storytellers within the borders of modern Turkey. In English, I look forward to reading
Ulaş Özdemir, Wendelmoet Hamelink, and Martin Greve (eds), Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia (2018; contents here), with its evocative cover image:
Musicians during the Festival of Folk Poets in Sivas, 1931.
Wendelmoet Hamelink, The sung home: narrative, morality, and the Kurdish nation (2014) (revised excerpt here, on politics and song texts).
Traditional settings included şevbihêrk evening gatherings, urban cafés, and weddings. For later generations the dengbêj came to be associated with poverty and dependency, working for a beğ or an ağa. Their broad repertoire comprises epic tales of love and war, recited solo, fast and loud; some distinct mournful songs (kilam, stran) may be heard with instrumental accompaniment. Waves of conflict and repression have impacted the dengbêj; and it soon becomes apparent that change over the past century has resulted in reification.
I was drawn to the bards by the enthusiasm of popular singer Aynur for the great dengbêj of yesteryear, such as Dengbêj Şakiro (1936–96):
As in many traditional societies, women’s voices are heard
mainly in domestic, private and all-female spheres to which outsider and/or male ears are rarely admitted. The impression that Kurdish women lack voice is hence a result less of the actual absence of voice than of the way in which public and private spaces are differently valued. The general devaluation of the private (and female) sphere means that voices whose range is limited to the private become considered as insignificant. What counts, in our modern age, is public voice—precisely that which women have frequently been denied.
The women dengbêj are known especially for their kilam laments, expressions of pain and suffering, “closely related to epic songs (destan), funeral lamentations (şîn), and lullabies (lorî)”. While the kilam may be sung solo, they also match the mournful quality of the qernête (duduk, balaban) double-reed pipe, as we have already heard.
Renowned female singers included Meryem Xan (1904–49) (wiki, and here):
Schäfers also cites a kilam by Dengbêj Gazîn (1959–2018) from Van, with a play of words on gazîn, which is both the singer’s stage name and means “cry” or “shout”:
I am Gazîn, I am a dengbej, I am neither deaf, nor am I mad My eyes are shedding tears I tell the sorrows of my heart Nobody hears my voice I tell the sorrows of my heart Nobody hears my voice.
I am the heart-broken Gazîn My insides are full of blood I am like Xeçê, like Zîn In the face of the enemies of tyranny There remains no place for me to go In the face of the enemies of tyranny I turn towards the struggle.
I am Gazîn amidst the villagers I am a milkmaid on the pastures I cry out like a crane In the face of the enemies of tyranny I have become a captive in the mountains In the face of the enemies of tyranny I turn toward the desert and the mountains.
and in many hauntingly plangent audio recordings, such as in this playlist, and:
Dengbêj Gazîn was sentenced to one year in prison for singing Kurdish songs in 2010, deemed by the state prosecution to constitute “propaganda for an illegal organisation”, though she was acquitted in 2013.
In her chapter in Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia, Schäfers cites Gazîn’s kilam on the subject of the Van earthquake in 2011, making further acute observations on the topic of the “ownership” of orally-transmitted songs.
The dengbêj “tradition” as it exists today is the result of a several-decades-long process of negotiation between different Kurdish individual and collective actors, between different parts of Kurdish society, and between these Kurdish actors and representatives of the state. It shows that both the state and the Kurdist movement(s) have demonstrated contradictory attitudes toward dengbêj, ranging from protection to disinterest and repression, and that the practice of the dengbêj as well as the definition of the “tradition” have been profoundly shaped by this process. […]
Even though there is no longer a ban, auto-censorship is still in force and the dengbêjs are represented as “innocent relics” who portray the Kurdish part of the “Anatolian mosaic” promoted by official narratives in the 2000s.
The first part of the paper examines the survival of a certain way of dengbêjîin in spite of repression by state institutions, wider social changes, and a rather disinterested Kurdish movement. The second section looks at the revival of the dengbêj practice and at a renewed interest among some Kurdish activists, looking specifically at the municipality-led project.
Following the partitioning of Kurdish territory with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, under the Turkish Republic the dengbêj have been subject to sporadic repression since the 1930s, most severely in the 1980s.
But dengbêjî was not only repressed by the state. It was also impeded by a Kurdish population that was both worried about persecution and had to some degree lost interest due to wider social changes (urbanisation, the arrival of television, and the development of new, “modern”, musical forms), and because of the attitudes of some within the Kurdish movement.
Scalbert-Yücel notes the change of context to performance at the official Houses of Dengbêj, for festivals, and on TV.
First, the songs performed today are shorter. […] Firstly, lack of practice, sometimes for a couple of decades, led to a loss of memory and shortening of the songs. The second reason is directly linked to the issue of the performance and the audience. The contemporary audience does not necessarily appreciate long epic stories, nor do they always understand them. This is reflected in the way in which people visit the House: they come for a little while, sit in the room with the dengbêj, and listen for them for a few minutes. They also often record the songs with their mobile phones, like they would shoot a photo souvenir. For the festivals and the television, the long epic songs are also largely shortened and cut.
Abbreviation had a longer history dating back to the early recording industry, to which the shorter kilams were better suited.
Economic and symbolic stakes also pushed people toward the use of instrumentation: adding instruments makes the dengbêj easier to listen to, more attractive, and potentially more famous. This changed the form of the music. […]
Political and guerrilla songs are also censored by the associations or TV channels. This means that an important part of the repertoire remains “in the chest” of the dengbêj and may eventually be forgotten. This can also halt the creative process and lead to a fixation of the dengbêj in the past, or give new directions to the creative process. Also, “old” songs seem to be given more value than the new ones as representing the “tradition”, the real “culture”.
As learning from tapes became common, the chain of transmission has been transformed.
Dengbêjs have become symbolic; they have become a heritage [mîras], as said one of the music professionals interviewed, who compared them to swords in a museum: before they were used daily by everyone; now they stand on a shelf.
Given a longstanding and engrained history of systematic and violent persecution, repression, denial, and assimilation of all matters Kurdish by the Turkish state, Kurdishness has effectively been rendered an inherently and inescapably political subject position in Turkey today.
She seeks an understanding that
allows for a continual slippage between cultural heritage understood as, on the one hand, marking the essence of the Kurdish nation and being therefore of an inherently political nature and, on the other hand, constituting a non- or pre-political realm of folkloric engagement with ethnic traditions.
And she notes Nathalie Heinich’s felicitous term “the administration of authenticity”.
As critics of liberal multiculturalism have repeatedly noticed, tolerance is extended only on the condition that the object to be tolerated remains within boundaries determined by the tolerant majority itself.
The dengbêj of Van are briefly introduced here, with this film:
Even those pushing for cultural preservation concede that the dengbêj is now a somewhat nostalgic embodiment of Kurdish identity. Movies and pop music are more influential than their laments, and the form’s rural strongholds are declining as young people move to cities. Whereas performers were once honoured guests at private houses and weddings, they now sing mainly for television, tourists, and folkloristic recordings. Their stories are shorter these days, in accommodation to both modern audiences and their own dwindling abilities.
** I think of the Tibetans, also stateless—their homes (within the People’s Republic of China) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Amdo, and Kham, as well as Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, India, and the diaspora; for some Tibetan bards, click here and here.
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:
* * *
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).
I’ve noted the exuberance of national anthems based on the style of Italian opera, notably that of Brazil. But I curiously omitted to pay homage to the Italiananthem, composed by Michele Novaro in 1847 when the concept of “Italy” was still novel. Though it soon became popular, it only became the national anthem in 1946.
With All Due Respect to the spirited renditions of players and spectators, it’s worth relishing it in a polished performance, with three of the six verses (1, 2, and 4):
For anyone not quite ready to sit through an entire Verdi opera, this makes a ready stopgap. The instrumental intro already passes through several moods in quick succession; the song, with its snappy modulation at 0.57, and the fine sequence from 1.18, is just as rousing.
Some of the lyrics may seem a tad niche, all the more so from the mouths of burly athletes—like the openings of verse 1:
Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’è desta, dell’elmo di Scipio s’è cinta la testa.
Noi fummo da secoli calpesti, derisi, perché non siam popolo, perché siam divisi.
Verse 4 is rather arcane too:
Dall’Alpi a Sicilia, dovunque è Legnano, Ogn’uom di Ferruccio ha il core, ha la mano, I bimbi d’Italia si chiaman Balilla, Il suon d’ogni squilla i Vespri suonò [noisy Vespas].
And verse 5:
Son giunchi che piegano le spade vendute Già l’Aquila d’Austria le penne ha perdute [make do with spaghetti then] Il sangue d’Italia, il sangue Polacco [checks notes] bevé col cosacco, ma il cor le bruciò.
Yet again, this exhilarating piece, bursting with energy and variety, only underlines the utter tedium of the British anthem (see also Haydn for football). For Italian folk musicking, click here; and do listen to Enza Pagliara!
Among this wealth of creativity, I’ve been admiring the Kurdish–Alevi singer Aynur Doğan. As a recent Songlines article observes, the media find her a potent symbol for the cause of the Kurds, “Europe’s latest fetish”. Weary though I am of the “Songlines effect” (cf. here), she much deserves her reputation on the World Music scene.
Aynur was brought up in a small Alevi mountain town in Tunceli province of east Anatolia. In 1992, when she was 18, her parents brought her to Istanbul, anxious about the clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK. As she studied at the Arif Sağ Music School there, she came to focus on the Kurdish–Alevi songs of her youth (for one source of her inspiration, see Some Kurdish bards).
Her song Keçe Kurdan (“Kurdish girl”, 2004) was briefly banned in Turkey, misunderstood by some as inciting women to take up arms for the Kurdish cause rather than as a call for women’s rights. Here she performs it live in 2017:
In Crossing the bridge, Aynur’s scene (filmed in an old hamam) is exquisite (you might start watching from 54.32)—here’s her lament Ahmedo (with Italian subtitles, to keep us on our toes):
In 2005 she appeared with her band in a meyhane scene in Yavuz Turgul’s movie Gönül Yarası (“Lovelorn”) (click here).
Following the lifting of the ban on the use of the Kurdish language in public life in 2004, when it was at last heard on the national TV station TRT, this was a progressive period for the arts in Istanbul. But the scene soon suffered from Erdoğan’s drive to Islamify and Turkify society, affecting Turks and Kurds alike. And the situation in the Kurdish homeland of east Anatolia remained tense. Following the 2011 Istanbul Jazz Festival, when Aynur was shouted off the stage for not singing in Turkish, she left for Amsterdam in 2012. Here she is that year with an impressive line-up at the Morgenland Festival in Osnabrück:
Her first solo album in exile was the 2020 Hedûr, solace of time:
with the official video of the title song:
And here’s Min digo mele live, on a return visit to Istanbul in 2020 (lyrics here):