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”).
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…
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).
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…
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 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!
* * *
* 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.
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):
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).
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):
Complementing the Music in the Ottoman empire and in Turkey project of the Orient-Institut, and as part of the institute’s online workshop series, Esther Voswinckel Filiz and Salih Demirtaş recently convened “Experience of a city: multisensorial approaches to past and present” (booklet here).
The series aims to bring together approaches from musicology, historical ethnography, anthropology of religion, and cultural studies in exploring experiences of the city. Its theme moves away from ocularcentrism (a useful word!), and the assumption of silence—exploring how sound, smell, taste, touch, and other senses are vital in cultural practices of dwelling, movement, and social life (cf. China: film, and attempts to correct the discursive bias of approaches to religion).
After a keynote by Cambridge anthropologist and musicologist Peter McMurray on dreamscapes, Martin Greve discusses the changing atmosphere of Alevi rituals in Dersim and Istanbul (cf. his 2018 article). Older people remember the greater spirituality of cems in ordinary village houses, including both trance and the performance of keramet supernatural power:
Music was not perceived as something isolated, but rather was a part of the all-encompassing atmosphere, where musical elements such as intonation, melody, or the control of voices had no separate importance.
Burcu Yaşin explores the sonic atmospheres of Romani wedding ceremonies in the Sarıgöl neighbourhood of Istanbul, where meticulously chosen songs stress the wealth of the spouses’ families, and recals (improvised poems performed mostly by women) praise the beauty of the bride. The festive atmosphere relies on the dynamic communication between participants and performers, all coming together as the members of the same community. She analyses how the Romani community employs music and sound to reproduce social hierarchies, to strengthen intercultural relations, and to subvert gender roles within the uniformed kinaesthesia imposed by the lead singer.
On late Ottoman Istanbul, Onur Engin explains how “talking machines” generated new modes of listening. Jacob Olley discusses the multisensorial clamour of the gazino, the screeching of the tram, and the seemingly unintelligible songs of migrant street musicians. Nazan Maksudyan explores sound and temporality, with houses of worship orienting their believers to the tempo of daily routine and religious life—citing the ezan call to prayer and the Orthodox semantron, as well as the secular innovation of clock towers. And Tülay Artan evokes soundscapes of the Ottoman Bosphorus:
Rain, nightingales, oars splashing and creaking, busy landing places, the hymns of dervishes, gulls and other sea birds, fishermen’s songs, calls to prayer, the wind in the trees, waves swirling around the wooden piles of piers and waterfront mansions. Reflected in the hues of the opposite shore, whether in sunlight or by the moon, and occasionally dotted by flickering candles, lanterns, torches, or fireflies.
It’s good to see (hear, taste, smell, touch…) Istanbul still serving as a hub for such creativity.
As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.
Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.
By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.
Meetings with remarkable menis the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).
I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.
And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.
Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.
While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.
Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.
To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.
He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.
This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.
Music Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:
Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.
If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.
It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.
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Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.
The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in
Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).
Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.
Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.
All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:
Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.
Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.
If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.
Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.
He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.
Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.
Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.
Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.
But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):
But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.
He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalised music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):
The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.
In conclusion Yildirim observes:
Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.
While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.
Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).
The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.
Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]
Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.
This leads suitably into UlaşÖzdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,
Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.
As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:
The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:
I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.
The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:
An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.
This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.
Papadopoulos provides an Afterword,“Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Park protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.
Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.
Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s, social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:
You are saying this and that We are fed up Your one-man decisions, your commands We are fed up We are so bored What kind of a wrath this is What is this anger? Take it easy When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares Everywhere it is shopping mall I don’t like to pass from your bridges What happened to our city? It is full of buildings with hormones.
The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.
In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:
Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.
Some of us were first entranced by the Iranian santur with Nasser Rastegar-Nejad’s playing on the 1970 film Performance. Here’s a further selection.
This 1955 recording is by Hossein Saba (1924-1957):
Here’s a 1984 LP by Faramarz Payvar:
And Hossein Farjami:
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Whereas the Persian santur is also often part of chamber ensembles, the Turkish kanun now seems to be more commonly heard solo.
Plucked or hammered zithers were part of the multicultural musickings of the Ottoman empire and its periphery.  I can’t interpret the clues from early written sources and iconography, but the term santur looks more common. In Constantinople, zithers seem to have been played mainly by musicians of the peripheral minorities; by the 17th century Evliya Çelebi described the santur as of Jewish origin. This 1779 image shows six Muslim and six non-Muslim (Greek or Armenian) musicians, including a santur, as well as ney flutes and both rebab (keman) bowed lute and Western violin:
Concert at the official residence of Sir Robert Ainslie, British Ambassador in Constantinople, by Chevalier d’Otée 1779.
In Constantinople the kanun seems only to have become a regular member of elite chamber ensembles from the late Ottoman era. In his entry on “Qānūn” in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, Christian Poché states
Turkish writers agree that the qānūn in its present form was introduced into their country during the reign of Mahmud II (1785–1839) by a Syrian immigrant, Ūmer Effendi, from Cairo. It would thus seem that the instrument was diffused from the area of Egypt and Syria. […]
The more recent history of the qānūn resumes at the time of the technical revolution that reached Istanbul in 1876. There is a gulf between the old qānūn and the new, the earliest examples of which were made by the Istanbul instrument maker Mahmut Usta.
In wider Turkish society, both urban and rural, Sufi ritual groups and davul-zurnadrum-and-shawm bands continue to maintain imperial traditions. By contrast, I’m unclear if the kind of “art music” traditions that incorporated the kanun have survived beyond the concert platform; perhaps someone can tell me if it’s commonly part of folk ensembles around Anatolia.
Anyway, it’s a most beguiling sound—especially in solo free-tempo modal taksim, always to be relished (cf. Indian alap).
Here’s an early recording by Ahmat Yakman (1897–1973):
In her vimeo series (in Turkish) Esra Berkman profiled some masters from the senior generation, some samples of whose playing you can hear below.
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.
Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.
Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.
Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.
Wedding bands, 1970s.
The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.
Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.
Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:
After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.
Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.
It hasn’t worked for months, even when I imaginatively changed the batteries; so in the absence of a sturdy knocker (cf. Horatio E. Brown, Some Venetian knockers), my rare visitors have been reduced to beating vigorously on my door. Now, working diligently with a fine array of tools, my fine neighbourhood handyman has managed to reinstate the ding, but I still find myself without dong. It makes me feel better that it wasn’t just that I put the batteries in the wrong way round.
Conditioned by long experience, on hearing the ding one’s ears eagerly anticipate the dong. Thus I can’t help hearing the first pitch as a mi, looking forward to a resolution on do (“do, a note to follow mi“—see Solfeggio). If the first note were a single pitch devoid of social history, one could perfectly hear it as a do, or indeed any other pitch degree.
The two-note motif could be any major third, actually: I doubt if anyone hears it as ti–so or la–fa, or even the fifth and third of a minor triad, as at the opening of Brahms 4—but once my second note is restored, I’m going to have a jolly good try to hear it that way. Were I an Inuit hunter (yeah right), the motif would have its own associations (looks around for doorbell on igloo).
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If you’re really at a loose end (and currently for me this serves as a welcome distraction from trying to get to grips with ritual theory, with all its “redemptive hegemony“flapdoodle), the doorbell has an interesting history. Or at least a history. As Wiki helpfully explains, it’s
a signalling device typically placed near a door to a building’s entrance. When a visitor presses a button the bell rings inside the building, alerting the occupant to the presence of the visitor.
Thanks for that, wiki (it’s even funnier, with a link defining the word “door”—”a hinged or otherwise movable barrier that allows ingress [entry] into and egress [exit] from an enclosure”). The article goes on:
William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, installed a number of his own innovations in his house, built in Birmingham in 1817; one of these was a loud doorbell, that worked using a piped system of compressed air. A precursor to the electric doorbell, specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, was invented by Joseph Henry around 1831. By the early 1900s, electric doorbells had become commonplace.
Before electrical doorbells, large houses and estates often had complicated mechanical systems to allow occupants of any room to pull a bell pull and ring a bell at a central bell panel in the staff quarters, to summon a servant.
Indeed, you may recall that I rejoice in the sonorous Chinese surname of Zhong 鐘, “Bell”. Picture a domestic scene in Hubei in the 5th century BCE: whenever someone popped in for a chat with the Marquis Yi of Zeng over a pot of tea and a macaroon, a slave had to notify his master by striking the relevant bell of his immense set of bianzhong with a wooden mallet. Fortunately, of the sixty-four bells, only one is required to create the ding-dong, as each was ingeniously designed to sound two notes a third apart!!!
The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. 
Ray’s early life in Hong Kong Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.
In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.
At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street,  where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.
Ray finds his feet in the UK Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).
Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).
Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”
Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:
The “London Co-operative Workers’ Association Music Group”, late 1956; Ray (holding violin) is fourth from right.
Just a few days after arriving in London, Ray was recruited to an ersatz group to be shown on BBC TV, portraying a sanitised image of the London Chinese community—all spruced up in smart suits and ties, a far cry from the drudgery of their real lives. Ray was the youngest, and as he recalls with a chuckle, though apparently the only one in the photo not playing, he was the only real musician in the band—“they no play anything at all!”. When they told him the group was going to appear on television (which indeed was still in its infancy), he asked, “What’s that?!”
As Chinese and Indian restaurants began to provide jaded British palates with a welcome relief from their drab post-war diet, Ray took work where he could find it, mainly as waiter and cook around the north of England—Hull, Manchester, and York; he remembers Bradford as particularly poor.
Back in Hong Kong he had enjoyed the sound of the saxophone in the Cantonese opera ensemble. While working in the first Chinese restaurant in Belfast he paid £165 for his first sax, taking part in jazz bands. He was startled to have to fork out £920 for his second one, paying it off by HP instalments.
After learning to drive in Newcastle in 1957, in Soho Ray spent some time as a driving instructor: “That’s right, I was the first driving instructor—in history!”, he chortles; “All my students were gamblers and gangsters!”. But he managed to avoid being ensnared by the Triad mafia.
Meanwhile Ray’s father was still suffering from the effects of TB, and Ray spent a stressful time finding treatment for him on the impressive new NHS—which enabled him to live until 1998.
A fast learner, Ray was hard-working, easy-going, and popular. Quite soon he had aspirations to become his own boss. By now his mother was living with her father in New York; they encouraged Ray to come and join them there, and he was tempted—not least by the prospect of learning to play jazz on the sax. That would have been a different story altogether (“That would have been a different story”). Instead, his jazz idols came to Soho.
The 1960s: swinging London By now the Soho jazz scene was beginning to take off. In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his club in the basement of 39 Gerard street.
From 1962 Ronnie’s began hosting jazzmen from the USA, working round the ban on overseas musicians. Just up the road was Ray’s restaurant—which itself soon served as an after-hours nightclub for jazzers still on a high, needing to keep jamming after they staggered out of Ronnie’s at 3am. There Ray loved hearing great artists like his idol Ben Webster—here he is with Ronnie in A night in Tunisia (1965, as part of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series):
BTW, Ben Webster took the first solo in BillieHoliday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!
Billie entranced by Ben Webster’s playing.
Ray was captivated by the new sound, so very different from the slick commercial pop music of the day. Himself a migrant from a poor rural background, he identified with the way that black people gave voice to their hard life, infused by the blues, “singing from the heart” (as later did Liu Sola, from her very different background). Later, during my time with the band, Ray was bemused and amused by the raised eyebrows of patrons when the splendid Black British percussionist Reggie took part.
Original caption (source): Mrs Edith Kirk smiles at Ronnie Scott as he holds a glass of wine and stands alongside Rahsaan Roland Kirk, outside Ronnie Scotts’ [sic!] Jazz Club, 39 Gerrard Street, London circa 1963.
Recalling the blind street musicians of his youth in Hong Kong, another jazzer whom Ray much admired was the blind sax player Roland Kirk. Here he is at Ronnie’s in 1964:
Doubtless those early sessions also gave Ray his lasting taste for the “jazz cigarette”. At the same time, he is well aware that trying to make a living from making music is a fraught and insecure life. While unable to transcend mundane concerns (like Henry James!), he is devoted to the amateur ideal of Chinese music, aspiring to the simple life with a kind of detachment that now reminds me of my Daoist master Li Manshan.
One day at the club Ray received a visit from a cheery plainclothes sergeant from Holborn CID. “We’ve been watching you for the last six months, Ray. My partner’s crazy about your place. Enjoy it! Just slip us a hundred quid now and then, there’s a good fellow…”
Opening the shop By 1967, as the jazz scene was catering to rather more salubrious patrons, Ronnie’s had moved to its present venue in Frith street. Ray lost a lot of money in 1969 with his older brother on an ambitious project to organise “the first professionally-organised, full-length Cantonese opera in London”, but they now managed to set up a takeaway together. In 1972 Ray took on a little restaurant at a prime location in Covent Garden just across from Chinatown, on the corner of Earlham street. He began by selling instruments from a corner of the restaurant, with a display in the window looking onto Shaftesbury avenue. Soon this promised to become a business on its own.
Ray’s shop, 1982.
Another guest at Ronnie’s was the versatile jazzman Yusuf Lateef—here he is live in 1966:
Yusuf Lateef’s music often featured oriental instruments such as shawms, flutes, and bells (e.g. Eastern sounds, 1961), and later he used to augment his collection at Ray’s shop. It was he who introduced John Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book on Sufi music which a mystically-inclined fellow violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me in 1978—just around the time I was playing in Ray’s band!
Our paths converge On Sunday afternoons Ray got a band together to rehearse for occasional appearances at Chinese community events. The musicians were then still largely second-generation immigrants or recent arrivals from Hong Kong, some just passing through.
While Ray was gradually accommodating a more “pan-Chinese” style, his own culture was rooted in Cantonese opera and instrumental pieces. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the youthful genre of “Cantonese music” had been remarkably innovative through the Republican period, incorporating jazz-tinged violin, guitar, sax, and zany xylophone (cf. Shanghai jazz). Click here for a playlist with nine LPs of the great Lü Wencheng呂文成 with his band, issued between 1957 and 1967. There’s more to Cantonese music than meets the ear—here’s a fine traditional rendition of Shuangsheng hen 雙聲恨 (“Double voicing of bitterness”), based on the plangent yi-fan mode (with brief excursions into more cheerful scales), with a trio led by Yin Zizhong, c1930: 
In 1972, as the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were subsiding, I began studying ancient Chinese at Cambridge under Denis Twitchett, often visiting Laurence Picken there to learn about Tang music—at a time when Chinese music seemed to reside solely between the pages of history books, and the survival of any traditional cultures in mainland China was a matter of guesswork. In those days, blinkered by my classical training, I had little idea of either jazz or folk (cf. What is serious music?!). While my listening tastes in Asian music were for Indian raga, visiting Ray’s shop gave me my first inklings of how a living Chinese musical tradition might sound.
By now I had begun picking up the erhu fiddle. On my visits to Soho and Chinatown, besides finding books on Zen and Daoism at Watkins in Cecil court, I would browse in the recently-opened Guanghwa bookshop. Among the Chinese books there, alongside collections of model operas, revolutionary songs, and the occasional pamphlet on imperial culture (mostly fulminating against Confucius), I found a tutorial for the erhu and a couple of collected scores of modern solos. That was how I first acquainted myself with cipher notation—but I would learn more through emulating the nuance of Ray’s playing.
With Ray Man’s band for Chinese New Year at Imperial College, early 1980s (the music-stands revealing our novice status!). Ray in the middle on plucked lute, me second left on erhu.
After graduating in 1976 I settled in London, working in orchestras under maestros like Boulez and Rozhdestvensky while continuing to help Laurence Picken on his Music from the Tang court project. It was through taking part in Ray’s Sunday sessions that I got used to playing the erhu in ensemble. All this was long before I first began visiting China in 1986, coming to realise the huge variety of regional cultures and joining in sessions at silk-and-bamboo clubs in Shanghai.
Ray’s shop was “like a bazaar”, as TheAsia magazine described it. There he began offering tuition on a range of instruments. In 1975 he married Manyee, who had recently arrived from Hong Kong; they went on to have three children. Ray must have had a certain flair for business, but soon he could let Manyee take on the daily business of running the shop while he sat sage-like in the basement studio, surrounded by his instruments and the fug of herbal substances, his eyes always sparkling. A true aficionado, his English has remained engagingly impressionistic, as has his Mandarin. I guess I imagined him as a kind of musical Lee Chong.
Since the 1980s The early Chinese communities around the UK had largely been Cantonese-speaking immigrants; even in the 1980s mainland Chinese voices were still rarely to be heard on the streets (for fictional treatments of Chinese lives in London, click here).
The insular dominance of the Cantonese community in the UK might have lasted longer had it not been for the death of Mao, the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the ensuing dismantling of the commune system, which paved the way for the spectacular emergence of mainland China after decades of isolation, reverberating widely. Soon, as people arrived from all over China to study or do business, Mandarin was commonly heard on the streets of London. Gradually, as restaurant workers moved out to the suburbs, along with the wider transformation of Soho, the Cantonese focus of Ray’s band was diluted.
Back in the homeland too, amidst radical social change—both in postwar Hong Kong and in mainland China (following both the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ liberalisations)—“Cantonese music” lost much of its energy, becoming stultified in polished renditions on the concert platform. 
As “world music” became A Thing, Ray’s Soho shop continued broadening to stock a wide array of instruments from around the globe, and stars from the pop and film music scenes (George Harrison, Elton John, Björk, Noel Gallagher…) began visiting in search of exotic sounds.
The shop in Chalk Farm.
In 1999 the shop relocated to Chalk Farm, opposite Camden market, catering to the growing market in ethnic instruments; but in 2020 it was forced to close by the pandemic.
Whereas the Bhavan centre makes a well-supported focus for Indian expressive culture in west London, with fine visiting musicians teaching and performing a range of genres, London lacks a comparable venue for Chinese music. Numerous community associations have been formed; New Year brings out a parade of pan-Chinese lion and dragon dancing around Chinatown; Cheng Yu maintains a forum for the literati world of qin and pipa, and the “pan-Chinese” style that had evolved out of silk-and-bamboo. But Ray’s dream of a London Chinese music centre has remained unfulfilled. Similar initiatives in Chinese musicking have been held in the communities of Liverpool and Manchester, again broadening out from their original Cantonese base. If only south Fujian immigrants (a significant component of the later UK Chinese demographic) had a community maintaining the venerable amateur art of nanyin, for instance; but for such regional traditions we can only look to China itself.
 Chapter 15 of my 1995 book Folk music of China has a basic survey, along with various genres in Guangdong province; the Shuangsheng hen recording (transcribed on p.360) is #15 of the CD with the 1998 paperback edition, or #8 of disc 2 of my 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. Many thanks to Yuan Jingfang, who introduced me to a range of genres at the Central Conservatoire, Beijing, in 1987.
 See also The folk-conservatoire gulf. For the changing times of Hong Kong musicking, note the research of scholars such as Bell Yung (including Cantonese opera: performance as creative process, ch.4) and Yu Siu-wah 余少華. Opera played a prominent role for early Cantonese immigrant communities in north America (cf. sites linked under A Daoist temple in California); and click here for Cantonese music societies in Vancouver since the 1930s.
When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.
Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:
initial hymn to the Twelve Imams babalar semah (semah of the baba)
dem nefesi oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma) Kerbelâ song
End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:
semah of Forty; two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work); gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!); lokma (new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.
Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:
Imam declaiming from prayer niche in mosque following the call to prayer, Kuzguncuk 2022.
In Turkey, whereas the rituals of Sufi groups like Bektashis and Alevis take place largely beyond the earshot of outsiders, the call to prayer (ezan, Arabic adhan; useful article here), declaimed five times daily by the muezzin, is the most public soundscape of mainstream Islam.
As I write from Istanbul, it punctuates my day; even on a fleeting visit, one might soon begin to take it for granted—but whatever the varied responses of those who have heard it from birth, its impassioned free-tempo melisma accompanies the hubbub surrounding the mundane lives of people who might otherwise be impervious to the complexities of traditional makam.
To make an impertinent analogy, it’s rather as if the entire population of Europe went about their daily business constantly hearing Mark Padmore as Evangelist sing the heart-rending recitative that leads into Erbarme dich in the Matthew Passion, growing up to internalise it as the bedrock of their aural experience.
Many of the great singers of the Arab and Persian worlds came from a background of performing sacred chant, like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian in Iran; musically, “sacred” and “profane” styles are related. A general Arabic term for sacred chant is inshād (cf. China: nian “reciting”, rather than secular “singing” chang), imbued with ḥiss “a voice charged with an acute potential for relating the spiritual needs of the community to God”. 
Again, of course I can only get a glimpse of this vast topic, but for Turkey, the Ottoman and Republican history of the ezan is introduced here. The Republican government’s attempt to make Turkish the compulsory language of the ezan lasted only from 1930 to 1948. Here’s a 1932 recording of Sadettin Kaynak in Turkish:
Meanwhile amplification became standard, with a loudspeaker mounted on the minaret—which suggests to me that muezzin no longer need to be so fit…
This sequence features ezan from Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya:
Note also the CD by David Parsons, The music of Islam vol. 10: Qur’an recitation, Istanbul, Turkey (1997), part of an extensive series.
Meeting a wise imam In small villages the imam also assumes the role of muezzin; in larger communities they are usually separate duties. However, at the mosque just opposite the Kuzguncuk ferry (next to Armenian and Greek churches and a synagogue!) Aydin Hoca serves as both imam and muezzin; we learned much from our meetings with him.
Aydin Hoca is an exceptionally wise and tolerant man. Born in Manisa near Izmir, he studied “Islamic mystical music” (tasavvuf müzigi) at the ilahi (“spiritual”) department of the Imam Hatip High School—he has kept in contact with Manisa, joining in events there. He furthered his studies of ilahi by enrolling at the Open University in Eskisehir.
In 1990, aged 25, Aydin Hoca settled in Istanbul, becoming muezzin that same year at the Kuzguncuk mosque, while taking vocal and musical training with the renowned Amir Ateş at the Üsküdar Music Society, and furthering his education in Turkish classical and sacred music with Mehmet Kemiksiz. He values the inspiration these teachers gave him, as well as his overall education in morality and humanitarian ethics under Hafiz Fahri, based in Bursa.
In 1996—the year his first son was born—Aydin Hoca became imam at the mosque. He continued to receive training in solo and choral singing under respected teachers. Though offered positions as imam in more prominent mosques in the city, he prefers to remain with his Kuzguncuk parishioners.
He cites the popular expression Aşk olmayinca meşk olmaz “without love there can be no dedication” (meşk “devotion to practice”, often used in the context of music, perhaps resembling the riaz of north Indian raga). As in any walk of life, a voice can only be trained through diligence and application; oral transmission from master to disciple (usta-cirak) is crucial, as he learned through his training and now finds in nurturing his own students.
As to the Turkish branch of the vast makam family, he outlined the sequencefor the five daily ezan, such as Saba for the dawn call, and a somewhat variable list for subsequent calls that includes Rast, Uşşâk, and Segah (see e.g. under this overview of “religious music” in Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul, and here).
As Aydin Hoca explained, while the maqams are important, they are only an opening. Inside the mosque, for the fourfoldrekat (standing, bowing, and prostrations) the imam recites in four different maqams: Isfahan, Rast, Hüseyni, and Evic. In between the four sections, in order to “lighten” the maqams and give the congregation space to reflect, ilahi hymns are chanted.
Reminding us aptly of the wider theme of liturgical chant, the imam also notes the expression of dhikr in ayin communal gatherings at lodges such as Karagümrük Cerrahi tekke of the Halveti-Jerrahi order (many instances on YouTube under Jerrahi zikr e.g. this); here the worshippers accompany their group singing with frame-drums (bendir, def) and sometimes ney flute. He mentions the qaṣīda (e.g. here, and here), a three-part form with opening, a more expansive central section, and a calming conclusion; again, between sections they may add ilahi in various soulful moods.
Aydin Hoca stresses feeling. He often listens to early ezan recordings, “to reconfigure and order my mind.” Whereas some Muslim listeners lament “bad” or “ugly” voices, he has a more benign view, since all voices are given by Allah. But as he says, there are uneducated voices.
The muezzin are careful about the volume of the ezan: the mic should be neither too close nor too distant, not too loud or piercing; the sound must be natural. The broadcast of the Kuzguncuk ezan is linked to the central transmission of Kadıköy district. Aydin Bey decides when he wants to recite live; he often does so to keep his voice in practice. On Fridays he always chants live.
As to the ezan in the media, “everyone may recite the ezan, but first he has to be heard and recognised by the muezzin/imam.” The vocal style isn’t alien to daily life; it’s commonly adapted by pop singers. Aydin Bey considers arabesk star İbrahim Tatlıses an important voice:
Further questions are addressed in the documentary Muezzin (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2009), based around a kind of Pop Idol competition for ezan—here’s a trailer:
Here’s an early rural fantasy from the iconic trans singer Bülent Ersoy, answering the plea of an ailing villager:
The call to prayer may be performed alternately by two muezzin (çifteezan, double ezan), not only from different mosques (quite rare in Istanbul, though it may be heard at Sultanahmet and Üsküdar), but even from the same mosque. Here’s an instance of the latter from Izmir:
Here’s another video (which a BTL comment suggests comes from Ankara rather than Istanbul), with father and son declaiming:
And here’s a popular TV contest with çifteezan:
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The message of the text and the act of dhikr are primary; as in other sacred traditions, zooming in on the use of pitches in the various scales, and on melismatic decoration, may be largely the preserve of the muezzin—even if such details are at the heart of the ezan‘s efficacity. Its varied delivery deserves to be appreciated; clearly many of the faithful do so, rather than allowing it to become part of the aural wallpaper.
Augusta with community leader Saliha, visiting from İskenderun in the far south.
Curious about what the ezan means to different types of İstanbullus, I suggested a little project to Augusta. With her precious gift of rapport (cf. Bruce Jackson, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck), she relishes interacting with people in all walks of life, chatting easily with labourers, simit vendors, taxi drivers, intellectuals; pious Muslims, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish İstanbullus; men and women, old and young… Ours was a tiny sample, but I was impressed by their firm opinions on the topic; no-one merely takes the ezan for granted.
Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.
Taxi driver Serkan, around 50, from Kayseri: “The ezan is imperative, denoting order. Of course I love it, as do all Muslims!” Still, “not everyone has a good voice! Not everyone can recite the ezan, I can tell you! But they recite with the voice Allah gave them. Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter. It is our call.” He feels a difference between the different makam, but is not aware of them. His wife prays five times a day, and he has started to join her a few times a week.
Another taxi driver, around 60, commented, “There is no voice so honourable as the ezan. It is the wisdom and blessing of Allah, bringing confidence.” For him the ezan “opens the heart, changes one’s outlook on the world, bringing people to their senses, to find peace”. For a simit vendor from Kastamonu it denotes honour, respect, reverence. As a 28-year-old cleaner commented, the ezan is a reminder that we have a conscience, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to remember any wrong-doings, and to be thankful, opening a door so that abundance and blessings may enter the home.
A Kuzguncuk barber (49) speaks with pride of his local imam Aydin Hoca reciting the ezan for the ceremony after his own birth and those of his children and grandchildren.
All mentioned the dawn ezan, finding it soothing, welcoming, a blessing, setting intention at the opening to the day. And any music that is playing must be stopped during the ezan; it is even “sinful” to play music on the radio or TV then.
Despite Aydin Hoca’s enlightened view, themes that emerged include a distaste for “ugly” reciting, and for the “cacophony” that results when nearby muezzin fail to listen to each other; the poor quality of some loudspeakers; and the “centralised” broadcasts, which are at least dependable.
 For more, see e.g. Scott Marcus, “The Muslim call to prayer” in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.6. A good introduction to various styles of vocal liturgy just further south in Aleppo is the CD Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1992).
In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. 
A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups.  While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.
I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now…
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In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.
To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.
As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,
The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.
In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):
Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]
The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.
Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.
Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads”  were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.
Lodges and houses of gathering The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”)  and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.
The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. 
State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.
Ritual practice Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).
Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as
I introduce the work of Jérôme Cler in a sequel to this post.
Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic.  Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.
As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.
Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbet—more commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:
animal sacrifice and preparations
arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
“secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
sequence of nefes hymns
tripling (üçleme), with toasts
pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
further sequence of nefes
closing prayers and blessings.
The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.
In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).
Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:
In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]
In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema“ ritual. This film could do with more documentation:
In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.
A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.
Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.
Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.
Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.
He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.
An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.
Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.
After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.
The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowlwhile chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.
Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.
Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.
A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.
An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâhlodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.
Alevi ritual in the diaspora The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:
Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta, with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!
 For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, on the useful site History of Istanbul, here and here. Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.
 I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.
 For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema/ sama. For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.
I was tickled by a recent headline in OK! magazine:
There’s the ultimate DOOF DOOF:
What if EastEnders isn’t real?? Like, if they’re all… acting??
Confession: I’ve never been able to interpret the doof doofs. How do we hear the rhythm—how would you beat time to it? Or is it a free-tempo prelude? I guess most EastEnders fans don’t talk in such fancy terms, so such online talk as I’ve seen is limited to a fatuous debate over how many doof doofs there are (nine, obvs), irrespective of rhythm. More to the point, can people keep a regular beat to it?
We have an Urtext of Simon May’s melody from 1985. The synth drums were added to the opening in 1994, in a version that remained in use until 2009, when he rescored the theme tune to include a stronger drum beat and additional percussion. But I haven’t seen a score for the doof doofs. Because one’s ears (rightly) want it to be a 4/4 bar, like the following melody, somehow I’ve always heard the first three drumbeats as a triplet:
That’s close—but a more accurate rendition, as I am reliably informed by a talented drummer, is
That opening syncopation, even before a tempo has been established, must confuse other listeners besides me. Still, EastEnders addicts evidently take it in their stride, like Aretha fans with the triple-time insert in the chorus of I say a little prayer, or Turkish dancers with aksak limping metre—or, now I come to think of it, music lovers everywhere…
The opening of Beethoven 5 may sound to the casual listener like a triplet upbeat—as PDQ Bach observes in his illuminating commentary, “I don’t know if it’s slow or fast, cos it keeps stopping, folks… doesn’t seem to be able to get off the ground” (NB also Creative tribulations).
A comparison that springs to mind (OK, my mind) is the luopu motif that opens and closes the hymns of the Li family Daoists (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.280; examples in our film, e.g. 1.01.56). In this post the motif is mainly a pretext to tell a story about the singularly unimaginative opening of the Beethoven violin concerto on timpani—which would be much enlivened by replacing it with the Doof Doof.
Click here for Fatima Manji’s fine book on Britain’s historical affinity with west and south Asia—and the current xenophobia. Posts on Uyghur culture (with separate tag) are rounded up here. For a remarkable gathering of performers from the whole vast region, click here.
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
Sola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.
In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).
After graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was
irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.
By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.
London and New York In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.
With Vini Reilly, 1988.
Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.
In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.
Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):
After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.
In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:
In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.
Back in the PRC After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she
cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.
In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:
The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.
From The afterlife of Li Jiantong.
Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.
Here’s a short CCTV documentary:
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Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing, and Rock it, mom), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.
The Bhavan Centre in West Kensington is a lively venue, running courses on Indian raga (both vocal and instrumental), dance, and so on, with regular concerts (see Indian and world fiddles).
As live events resume, last weekend I went along to hear Prabhat Rao accompanying his students on harmonium singing a light programme of north Indian raga, with Himmet Singh Bahra on tabla.
Of course, group tuition in London is quite different from family training in India (cf. The changing musical life of north India, along with the splendid films of the Growing into music project). But the basic task is to memorise short and longer patterns, before achieving the freedom to develop one’s own interpretations of the material (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”). While I had to adjust to the choral format (some of the larger-scale numbers rather evoked The sound of music), it’s great to hear young musicians becoming fluent in sargamsolfeggio, learning the building blocks of ragas like Yaman, Jog, Bihag, and Bhairavi.
I’m quite fond of the way the Bhavan tends to roll back the yellow curtain to reveal a tableau of the musicians already seated on stage—making a change from the lengthy preparations normally de rigueur as they adjust their clothing and tune up interminably…
Whether or not the students go on to take up khyal, thumri, or even dhrupad (main topic of my extensive series on north Indian raga) in earnest, this is a valuable element of their training in London’s global bazaar.
If I leave my own town, will anyone visit me? If I wander in the town of orphans, will anyone visit me? I have drunk the nectar of love, overflowed like a boiling pot If I abandon this world, will anyone visit me?
— from Nawa muqam
Having relished live music from Afghanistan, Georgia, Iran, and Anatolia at the Wigmore Hall for the launch of Musics lost and found, it was good to catch up with Uyghur musicking in London last Saturday for a concert at St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield—the oldest parish church in London, well worth a visit on its own.
The concert, in aid of the Tarim Network for the global Uyghur youth community, featured Rahima Mahmut and the Silk Road Collective of Uyghur Music and Culture, together with Uzbek musicians led by the master percussionist Abbos Kosimov on doira frame drums—illustrating a shared culture. The livestream (mirrored!) is on Facebook.
Spoken introductions were provided by singer Rahima Mahmut of the World Uyghur Congress, and Rachel Harris of SOAS (dutar), whose meticulous research covers the range of Uyghur culture and its current eradication (see here, and here).
Abbos Kosimov (website; You Tube channel) is enthralling. No mere virtuoso, he’s a sensitive ensemble player, relishing his rapport with the fine rubab/dutar player Sardor Mirzakhojaev. After a charming number on qairoq castanets, in the second half he launched into an astounding party-piece, culminating in polyrhythms on three frame-drums at once.
It was the most inspiring drumming I’ve heard since Asaf Sirkis accompanying Krzysztof Urbanski for Polish jazz at POSK… And I’m in the mood for frame-drums since my recent trip to Istanbul, having found some Uzbek/Kirghiz ones at Mustafa Bey’s instrument shop in Kanlica as gifts for friends’ children.
Uyghur music was represented by excerpts from the muqam, and regional folk songs; Dostonbek Mirzakarimov played an undulating solo on Uzbek ney flute. The second half opened with a lively Uzbek dance from Rashid Shadat, and ended with Uyghurs and others from the audience dancing gracefully in the aisle.
Until a few years ago, activities like those of the London Uyghur Ensemble were inspired by a vibrant muqam scene in Xinjiang, nourished by exchanges with outstanding musicians there such as Abdulla Mäjnun and Sanubar Tursun. Now that Uyghur culture in the homeland has been brutally repressed and all contact cut off, the activities of diaspora groups take on a greater significance.
In southern Anatolia, the inhabitants of the “high pastures” (yayla) around the towns of Çameli and Acipayam claim descent from nomadic Turkmen peoples (cf. Bartók’s 1936 visit to the Yörük around Adana).
As Cler explains, the zeybek is a slow solo dance performed by men; the kïvrak oyun havalarï is a faster, more popular dance. Among song genres, the unmeasured gurbet havasï is a type of uzan hava “long melody”. Instruments included plucked lutes (cura, a variant of saz); the reed flute sipsi; davul-zurna; and violin, played upright like the kemenche, resting on the thigh (cf. Indian and world fiddles). Aksak additive metres are standard, with various combinations of 2s and 3s, usually in nine beats.
Here’s Cler’s video montage of yayla musicking in society—including a scene on a bus from 19.01; davul-zurna from 21.53; song indoors with fiddle and saz from 26.22, followed by a fine contrast:
Cler released an excellent overview of yayla musicking in his CD Turquie: musiques des yayla (Ocora, 1994). This selection has most tracks:
It’s an enthralling album. In 1998 Cler followed this up with two further CDs,
Turquie: le violon des yayla
Turquie: le sipsi des yayla.
He has also published a book on the topic:
Yayla: musique et musiciens de villages en Turquie meridionale (2011),
with video illustrations here.
Cler’s website has many more entries on yayla musicking here.
The neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus is a delightful community from which I can hardly drag myself away. Amidst constant inspiration, I’ve met more people there in the last week than in the previous five years… Having made a few brief trips to Istanbul Back in the Day to perform with London early music groups, I feel the European side of the city can wait—rather as I take eccentric pride in never having visited the Great Wall on all my stays in Beijing.
As elsewhere in Istanbul, vestiges of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish cultures are still evident in the architecture of Kuzguncuk (click here for a fine study by Amy Mills).
Armenian church next to a mosque.
Inside the main synagogue.
The two Greek churches.
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Among Kuzguncuk dwellers are migrants from Kastamonu, due east of Istanbul in the region south of the Black Sea. Kastamonu is a leading centre of festive köçek dancing, and for the celebrations following Republic Day on 29th October a group came to perform along the lovely tree-lined main street of Kuzguncuk that leads up from the Bosphorus. The dancers’ main instrumental support is provided by davul–zurnadrum-and-shawm, ubiquitous accompaniment to festivities over a wide area.