Raga at the Proms

Amjad Prom

My extensive series on north Indian raga includes reflections on several live London concerts (Bhavan, British Museum, Kings Place). And as an honorary member of “the other classical musics”, raga has long featured at the Proms. * While such a genre is best experienced in intimate venues, it still works in the vast Albert Hall, with the close attention of the Prommers perhaps resembling a core of mehfil aficionados.

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.

* * *

Amjad and Hafiz
Source.

From the long hereditary Bangash gharana lineage of Gwalior, Amjad Ali Khan is son of Hafiz Ali Khan (1888–1972) (see here, and wiki)—who can be heard here in excerpts from rāg Bhairavi:

and Darbari Kanada:

Amjad Ali Khan (website; extensive YouTube channel) first performed in the USA as early as 1963, and at the Proms in 1994. Here’s a long exposition of Yaman from 1977:

Kafi Zila, 1978:

and Marwa, from 1994:

Note also documentaries by James Beveridge (1971):

and Gulzar (1990):

* * *

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 rāg Lalit 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:

Todi

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 rāg Anand 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.

My use of roman and italic here is another example of the hierarchy of admission to “our” elite musical club—tabla (like sitar) having become part of the English language, sarod and mridangam not so much, yet…

Also on sarod, I’ve featured Ali Akbar Khan under Shri and Yaman.

The Pontic lyra

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

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

Pontus mapSource.

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

Trebizond 2
From Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

He is also heard here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In search of the sacred in modern India

Nine lives

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

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

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

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

So extraordinary was the pace of development that

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

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

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

So

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight

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

As he notes,

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

Nine lives map

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a YouTube playlist with 61 short clips:

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

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

DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.

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

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

And two more films within a controversial representational field:

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

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

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

bhopa 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Qalander dervishes

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

Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.

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

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

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

This clip gives a flavour of the festival:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalrymple reflects:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—

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

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

Manisha confides,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

From the holy mountain


The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.

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

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

Xanadu

His first book

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

In his own words,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But as he notes,

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

Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes

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

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

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

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

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

Gok medresse

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

Laura chador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uyghur kids KeriyaUyghur children, Keriya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Holy mountain map

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover,

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

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

It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.

And the following chapter opens:

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

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

My cell is bare and austere. **

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

But his quest is only just beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy mountain 1

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

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

Ealing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy mountain 3
The monastery of Mar Saba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, Plato had already lamented the discovery of writing!

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

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

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

I’d love to find videos of such rituals.

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


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

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

Dead.

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

Greek–Turkish rapport in Chiswick!

Acton Green

Drenched in Mediterranean sunshine on our way into town for a concert of Indian raga the other day, a delightful scene greeted us at the Acton Green terminus of the 94 bus, a fabled route that is something of a bridge between East and West—albeit somewhat less exotic than the boat across the Bosphorus.

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.

All we needed was a little table of succulent meze, retsina, some rebetika from Roza Eskenazi and a chorus of Kardeşin Duymaz, the bus passengers all joining in a handkerchief dance. Go easy on the bouzouki though… **

The tableau was just the kind of thing that never happens to me in Chiswick! OK, the warmth of the Kuzguncuk mahalle is special, but it seems to envelop Augusta wherever she goes.


* For the charms of my mahalle (“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”), click here.

** This is somewhat akin to the touring musos’ restaurant fantasy.

Raga at Kings Place

*For my series on north Indian raga, click here!*

Shahid

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).

Imdad group
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:

Yaman Kalyan:

and (Mishra) Kafi:

* * *

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 rāg Kafi:

and click here for a rendition of rāg Marwa.

New musics in Iran

Forbidden

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— [1] a scene, of course, that continues to evolve. 

A few vignettes that I’ve spotted via the media: [2]

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):

Earlier films include Not an illusion (Torang Abedian, 2009) and No-one knows about Persian cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009):

Here’s an excerpt from No land’s song (Ayat Najafi, 2014; wiki, here, and here):

Sanam Pasha

For Sanam Pasha (who chose to remain in Iran) and her all-female rock band, here’s an interview from 2018:

A related scene is rap and hip-hop (e.g. here and here)—here’s Salome MC (wiki, and here):

And there’s a sub-culture of electronica.

Of course all this a minority culture (even in Tehran, let alone Iran), but the endeavours such musicians face are just some of the myriad challenges faced by women and men there daily.

On the broader soundscape, the Sonic Tehran project has much interesting material.

For more on Iran, see under my roundup of posts on West/Central Asia. See also Punk: a roundup.


[1] E.g.

  • “Subversion and countersubversion: power, control, and meaning in the new Iranian pop music”, in Annie J. Randall (ed.), Music, power, and politics (2004)
  • “Underground, overground: rock music and youth discourses in Iran” (2005)
  • “The language of rock: Iranian youth, popular music, and national identity”, in Mehdi Semati (ed.), Media, culture and society in Iran: living with globalization and the Islamic State (2007)
  • “ ‘Tomorrow is ours’: re-imagining nation, performing youth in the new Iranian pop music”, in Laudan Nooshin ed., Music and the play of power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia (2009)
  • “Whose liberation? Iranian popular music and the fetishization of resistance” (2017).

[2] Some general introductions include
https://www.kierangosney.com/blog/banned-from-the-orthodoxy-punk-in-iran

https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/jun/04/irans-rock-stars-and-their-underground-scene

Jazz in post-war Japan

Toshiko
Toshiko Akiyoshi, 1978. Source: wiki.

With jazz and Japan both the subject of many posts on this blog, it’s taken me a long time to clock jazz in Japan (“Like, hello?”)—alerted by a Guardian article (see also wiki).

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):

and Earth mother (1978):

Also on sax, Sadao Watanabe (b.1933), Orange express (1981):

Masabumi Kikuchi (1939–2015, piano), East wind (1974):

On trumpet, Terumasa Hino (b.1942)—Love nature (1971):

and Journey into my mind (1973):

Kohsuke Mine (sax), Mine (1970):

Tohru Aizawa
Tohru Aizawa with his band. Source: Guardian.

The Tohru Aizawa Quartet with their album Tachibana (1975):

Masahiko Satoh (b.1941, piano), Metempsychosis (1971)—with the astounding Stomu Yamash’ta:

and Edo Gigaku (2011):

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) and Ethiopia, as well as notes on Istanbul and Shanghai.

Road to rebetika

Rebetes 1933

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

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

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

I’ve been re-reading the evocative introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Kurdish culture: Zaza and Hawrami

Pir Saliyar 1

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

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

Zaza Alevi

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

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

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

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

Pir Saliyar 2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some Kurdish bards

dengbej old young 2

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

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

Kurdish mapMap, CIA 1992. Source: wiki.

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

Biro 1936

Şeroyê Biro (right), 1936. Source.

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

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

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

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

dengbej Gazin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and in many hauntingly plangent audio recordings, such as:

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

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

Here‘s an extensive playlist for the dengbêj.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She seeks an understanding that

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

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

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

dengbej old young 1

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

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

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


* For background, see e.g. Walter Posch and Jaffer Sheyholislami (eds), The Kurds: history, religion, language, politics (2015). Note the bibliography by Chris Houston, Anthropology of Kurdistan (2017), and Robert Riegle, A brief history of Kurdish music recordings in Turkey (2013); see also Christine Allison, “The shifting borders of conflict, difference, and oppression: Kurdish folklore revisited” (2016). For introductions to Kurdish music, see sections in The Rough Guide to world music, the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and the Garland encyclopedia of world music. As elsewhere, the popular songs promoted in the media inevitably receive more media coverage than musicking in rural life. But note some fine CDs from Kalan Mûzik, such as Traditional music of Hakkari (2004). See also e.g. Gönenç Hongur, Politics, struggle, violence, and the transformation of expressive culture: an ethnography of Kurds’ musical practices in Turkey (2014).

 

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

Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ersu 10

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

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

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

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

coffee house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ersu 14

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Another useful introduction in English is

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

He too notes the broad social basis of musicking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

1638 procession

1638 procession 2
Source.

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

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

Evliya 42

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Aynur: Kurdish popular music

Aynur

To follow my recent posts on the soundscapes of Istanbul (here and here):
for the contemporary scene, here’s the film Crossing the bridge: the sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, 2005), with German subtitles:

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):

But the Turkish authorities continue to hamper performances of Kurdish pop.

For handy introductions to modern Turkish history and society, see Midnight at the Pera Palace and Turkey: what everyone needs to know—among many posts in the west/Central Asia tag.

Istanbul: multisensorial experiences

Further to Landscapes of Istanbul:

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

1

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

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

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

2

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

3

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

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

4

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

Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers

Gurdjieff 1

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.

Anyway, I thought I should catch up with George Gurdjieff (c1877–1949; besides various Foundations, see e.g. the websites of the Gurdjieff Heritage Society and the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation).

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.

Gurdjieff cover

Meetings with remarkable men is 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.

Gurdjieff 2

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.

movements
Source.

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:

and Meditation:

Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.

If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.

It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.

* * *

Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.

Landscapes of music in Istanbul

Landscapes cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rembetika 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion Yildirim observes:

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

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

Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).

Here’s the blind Alevi bard Âşık Veysel in 1969 (YouTube topic here):

The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.

Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]

Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.

This leads suitably into Ulaş Özdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,

Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.

As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:

The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:

I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.

The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:

An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.

This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.

Papadopoulos provides an Afterword, Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Part protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.

Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.

Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s,

Social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:

You are saying this and that
We are fed up
Your one-man decisions, your commands
We are fed up We are so bored
What kind of a wrath this is
What is this anger?
Take it easy
When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests
They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares
Everywhere it is shopping mall
I don’t like to pass from your bridges
What happened to our city?
It is full of buildings with hormones.

The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.

In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:

Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.

See also Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

Zithers of Iran and Turkey

To follow my posts on bowed zithers (Korea and China, and Alpine), among an extensive family of plucked or hammered zithers around west and central Asia are the Persian santur and the Turkish kanun. Both have developed a solo repertoire quite recently.

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:

* * *

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. [1] 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:

Ottoman music 1779

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-zurna drum-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.

Nuri Şenneli (1922–2006) (interview):

Nevzat Sümer (b.1927) (interview):

Cüneyt Kosal (1931–2018) (interview):

Erol Deran (b.1937) (interview):

Chinese parallels for the shift from folk activity to the conservatoire might be the zheng zither and pipa lute; cf. Musicking at the Qing court 1 and Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei, also featuring the yangqin dulcimer.

If Pachelbel played the zither, it might be called Pachelbel’s kanun—to complement Pachelbel’s capon.

 


[1] For musicking in Ottoman Constantinople, note the work of Ersu Pekin, e.g. here. See also the introduction to Ottoman music on wiki, and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books: a path to restructure the forgotten Ottoman instruments” (2017).

Three Women of Herat: a new edition!

Herat 1
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.

Herat cover

Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.

Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.

Wedding bands, 1970s.

The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.

Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.

Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:

After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.

Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.

You really must buy this book! And as you read, do listen to the tracks, and watch the films, in my original post.

Ding without dong

À propos household appliances, I’ve already regaled you with the saga of my ancient fridge. Now, in another of those “hideous encounters with domestic necessity“, my trusty doorbell is on the blink.

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.

Examples I’ve heard of the ding-dong (not to be confused with the polemical ding-dong, nor with Dang in Gujarat and Korea—nor indeed with Dingding, Chinese for Tintin, or Doof-doof) all seem to be standardised at the same pitch, concert F♯–D:

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.

Brahms 4The 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).

* * *

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.

Bell-pulls

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.

Note the operative word there (cf. All things bright and beautiful).

Bell pull cartoon

James Gillray, 1804.

Irresistibly evoking the capacious household of the baffling Jacob Tree-Frog, aka The Haunted Pencil or Minister for the 18th century,

bell pulls may be used to summon workers in homes of people who employ butlers, housemaids, nannies, or other domestic workers, [who] and often have a tassel at the bottom.

Owl's bell pull

English readers of a certain age may also associate the bell pull with Eeyore and Owl.

Of course, more artsy sounds have been developed. I’m reminded of Helen Rees’s fine aperçuDoorbells play muzak when pressed”.

Zeng Houyi bells

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!!!

See also Cowbells: Mahler, Messiaen, and Bill Bailey.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:

1956 club for blog
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.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott’s, original venue. Source.

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 Billie Holiday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!

Billie
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.

Ronnie with KirksOriginal 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.

RM shop
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: [3]

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.

RM band c1979
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 The Asia 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. [4]

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.

RM Chalk Farm shopThe 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.

From 1986, when I finally began exploring China, my fieldwork soon came to focus mainly on ritual life in poor northern villages, leading me to Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists. But it was Ray who first opened up that world to me, and I still feel grateful for my early exposure to Cantonese music with him—rather as he seems to have continued recreating the dream of his early musical inspirations in Hong Kong.

With many thanks to Ray and Manyee


[1] In addition to chatting with Ray and his wife Manyee, I’ve consulted various early press cuttings, notably an article in The Asia magazine (29th August 1982).

[2] For the transformation of Temple street in later decades, see e.g. this 2011 documentary.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia

 

Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

Further to my post on Bektashi and Alevi practice in Istanbul, Alevi ritual groups are widespread throughout rural Anatolia. As an instance, I’ve continued to admire Jérôme Cler‘s fieldwork there.

In 2003 he documented Alevi cem rituals in hill villages of Tohal in the region of Tokat, eastern Anatolia. Here’s a more extended sequence of the second video in his post:

Cler’s research in the hill villages of the southwest also extends to some fine documentation of the annual cem ritual (birlik) in the Alevi village of Tekke Köyü, sacred site of Abdal Musa, who was among the founding saints of the Bektashi, a disciple of the 13th-century sage Haji Bektash Veli.

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.

Cler birlik

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:

  • Opening:

initial hymn to the Twelve Imams
babalar semah (semah of the baba)

  • sofra (meal):

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:

For more bibliography, see my first post.

The call to prayer

Imam

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), 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”. [1]

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 cropped

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 sequence for 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 fourfold rekat (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 (çifte ezan, 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 çifte ezan:

* * *

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.

A with Kadir's mum

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.

* * *

Among other regions, note the SOAS “Sounding Islam in China” project, notably here (as in Germany or the UK, contrasting with societies where Islam is the dominant culture). For Gregorian and other traditions, see Chant and beyond, as well as A cappella singing. For free-tempo preludes, click here—notably the alap of dhrupad, star exhibit in my series on north Indian raga.


[1] 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), with notes by Christian Poché. It opens with a solo adhan sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006) (listen here; playlists devoted to Sabri Moudallal, largely featuring concert groups, including the Ensemble Al Kindi, are here and here).
    Indeed, the CD features further devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following the solo free-tempo qaṣīda is the choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums (listen here). The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

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. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] 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

* * *

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” [3] 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”) [4] 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. [5]

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.

The accuracy of the cherished notion of gender equality has recently been challenged by Alevi women.

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

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] 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” (sohbetmore 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
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • 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:

But their outline sums up the issue:

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 altar room

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.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

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 bowl while 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.

Alevi sema 7

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.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede 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 dergâh lodge, 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.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

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:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), introduced here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]

 

Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!


[1] 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, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] 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.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] 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.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

Doof doof

Doof Doof

I was tickled by a recent headline in OK! magazine:

OK

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:

Doof triplets

That’s close—but a more accurate rendition, as I am reliably informed by a talented drummer, is

Doof

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.

Most rhythmically satisfying of all is the Pearl and Dean theme tune!

New tag: West/Central Asia

In the sidebar I recently added a new tag for West/Central Asia.

Turkey is a growing presence among my posts, so far including

with more to follow…

Some posts on Kurdish culture:

For a wide-ranging journey, see

Elsewhere, by way of

I may list

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.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

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:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Liu Sola, voice of alternative China

Ever since the 1980s, Liu Sola (刘索拉, b.1955) has remained an invigorating alternative voice in both Chinese music and literature.

The main websites are here (with this fine survey of her ouevre, cited below) and here.

Sola and motherSola 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.

Sola CCM 1978 for blog
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).

Sola popAfter 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.

Sola Vini
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.

Sola Chaos

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!):

Sola painting

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.

Sola Blues CD

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.

Sola operaFrom 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:

* * *

Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing), 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.

Learning raga at the Bhavan

Bhavan

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.

Prabhat Rao

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 sargam solfeggio, 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.

Uyghur music in London

Uyghur gig for blogPhoto: Isabela Rodrigues.

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.

Uyghur programme

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.

Do also watch the recent online concert “Longing for home: Uyghur muqam in exile”, with Shohrat Turson (Australia), the Meshrep Uyghur Ensemble (Netherlands), and the SOAS Silk Road Collective—beautifully introduced by Mukaddas Mijit.

Useful sites include Stop Uyghur Genocide, the European Uyghur Institute, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project; the YouTube channel of the London Uyghur Ensemble, and The music of Central Asia. Click here for a roundup of my series on Uyghur culture.

Turkey: musicking of the yayla

Yayla CD 1

Continuing to educate myself belatedly about the rich musical traditions of Turkey (on a bit of a Turkey roll—see e.g. Songs of Asia Minor; The Janissary band; Köçek in Kuzguncuk!): among the various ethnic groups, the musicking of the yayla is documented by Jérôme Cler.

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).

Yayla map

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 sipsidavul-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.

I like his comment—reminding me of arriving in a dingy modern Chinese county-town, and widely applicable around the world:

The traveller in search of music will see nothing; he [sic] needs an introduction.

Köçek in Kuzguncuk!

A fanfare in advance of the anniversary of Atatürk’s death on 10th November

Kocek 6

Just back home after an ecstatic week in Istanbul—first time I’ve needed my passport since visiting Li Manshan in 2018!

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.

Synagogues.

synagogue 2

Inside the main synagogue.

 

The two Greek churches.

* * *

Kastamonu deli

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 davulzurna drum-and-shawm, ubiquitous accompaniment to festivities over a wide area. 

AM filmingIn the afternoon, first they performed at the entrance to the shops lining the street. As locals and visitors threw lira notes at the twirling feet of the two dancers, they gyrated gracefully down to pluck them up in their mouths. The group then made a base at the entrance of a side-street, performing a lengthier sequence beneath a large banner depicting Atatürk; the musicians, now seated, were supplemented by a kemençe bowed lute (cf. Indian and world fiddles, Musics of Crete), with gutsy, exuberant singing. Here are some clips from Augusta’s fine filming:

The band bursts into song as the dancers kneel to assemble the notes around the skirt:

They get back on their feet for the climax:

That evening they went on to perform for a lively street party up the hill.

* * *

Köçek troupes, 1720 (wiki):
left, musicians and dancers entertain the crowds;
right, at a fair for Sultan Ahmed’s celebration of his son’s circumcision.

 Köçek dancing (cf. this introduction) thrived from the 17th century, along with çengi. Notably since the late Ottoman era, courtly genres dispersed among the folk from the courts (a transmission trope also commonly attributed to late imperial China—see “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“; cf. The Janissary band). The androgynous young male dancers, * then recruited from non-Muslim subject peoples of the empire, began training early (for the Ottoman background, note the useful article by Şehvar Beşiroğlu, “Music, identity, gender: çengis, köçeks, çöçeks”), as well as his “The musical role of Turkish women in perspectives from the Mediterranean music scene“. Having long been part of meyhane tavern culture, groups have continued to perform for folk festivities such as weddings and circumcisions.

In folk traditions today, there may be a solo dancer, or a pair. Of course costumes (and concepts of gender) have changed over time, throughout the whole Levant. We saw two young adult dancers, both clean-shaven, their costumes and props each playing on male-female roles. One wore a long flaring skirt decorated with coins, jewels, and gold, as well as a kind of sporran at the waist, but a (“male”?) waistcoat; he/she sounded the zil finger-cymbals, as played by the female çengi dancers. Meanwhile the “male” dancer wore the skirt of the çengi, and necklaces, clacking the kaşık spoons (cf. çarpare castanets). 

I’ve adapted these leads from §4b here:

Specially-composed musical forms for çengi and köçek dances include tavşanca, çiftetelli, and ağırlama. A collection of songs in the same modal form with lively instrumental ritornellos is called takım. These include songs by named or anonymous composers and performers. Hammamizade Ismail Dede (himself a fine composer of köçekçe) called such forms musikinin orospuluğu (“musical whoring”). Köçekce are composed in popular modal systems like karcığar, gerdaniye, hicaz, hüzzam, gülizar, bayati araban, and saba. Those köçekçe in aksak limping metres are beautiful in both their musical style and poetic lyrics.

The köçek tradition of Kastamonu is renowned. Among many videos online, this general introduction includes a wedding party from 7.14:

Here’s a succinct personal account of change in the livelihood over the last two decades (with a rather confused appeal to “the government” that reminds me of China):

I can hardly begin to encapsulate the myriad delights of Kuzguncuk…

See also Greek Christmas in Kuzguncuk, and for more on modern Turkey, this roundup.

 

With boundless thanks to Kadir Filiz, Caroline Finkel, Augusta,
and Millie!


* Elsewhere too, cross-gender dancing is rather common, such as in Egypt and Afghanistan (see the distressing 2010 documentary The dancing boys of Afghanistan), not to mention Europe and east Asia.

Bowed zithers, 1: Korea and China

ajaeng

Korea: the ajaeng.

Leading on from Dangak, I’ve been exploring the theme of bowed zithers in Korea and China.

Organology can be a stimulating topic (see e.g. here), illustrating the riches of human creativity. Under the Sachs-Hornbostel system [1] chordophones are classified as lutes, harps, and zithers; it considers playing techniques as well as construction (and while I think of it, do admire the gardon of Gyimes!—here, under “Hungary, Transylvania, Romania”). We find many types of zithers: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Bowed zithers are a minor but intriguing rubric.

zithers

 

Schematic chordophone types, from Hournon, “Organology”.

Still, organology tends to reify, whereas instruments should lead us to the genres in which they play a part, and to musicking in society. I can meet that challenge for China, but below my explorations for Korea are somewhat hampered by the fact that such clips as I’ve found on YouTube largely feature performances on the concert stage rather than folk activity.

Grove Zither 1

Grove Zither 2

From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.

East Asia is notable for its half-tube board zithers. In Korea, a striking component of the hyangak ensemble is the ajaeng bowed zither. The bow, now usually made of horsehair, is traditionally a rosined stick.

In the sanjo genre, Kim Il-Gu:

and in Kim’s style, Han Lim:

Kim Yong-seong:

Here’s Kim Young-Gil’s 2012 CD L’art du sanjo d’ajaeng (playlist):

The ajaeng is used in the sinawi genre, derived from shamanism:

Here’s the CD Korea: the art of sinawi (playlist):

Note also the bowed fiddle haegeum, whose Chinese characters 奚琴 attest to its early origin (see Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi, 中国弓弦乐器史 [History of Chinese bowed string instruments, 1999] pp.174–83).

kut

Away from the concert stage, to complement the video footage of a shamanistic kut ritual in my previous post, in this 2001 film of a ssitkimgut post-death cleansing ritual from the southwestern island of Jindo (cf. Keith Howard) both ajaeng and haegeum are part of the accompanying ensemble (e.g. from 14.03):

* * *

In China, if the variety of bowed lutes (fiddles) is rather little known, bowed zithers are fewer but also remarkably widespread. Following the 1992 Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴 (pp.262–4), Xiang Yang devotes chapter 4 of his book (see above) to them.

XY table 1

XY table 2

Bowed zithers in Chinese folk traditions, with alternative regional names.
Table, Xiang Yang pp.165–6.
Illustration from the Yueshu of Chen Yang (1101).

In early history, the zhu 筑 was a struck zither, long predating bowed lutes, as Laurence Picken noted in his “Early Chinese friction-chordophones”, The Galpin Society Journal 18 (1965); Xiang Yang discusses it further in his chapters 2–3.

Left: yaqin, Yixian in Hebei; right, yaqin, Pingdingshan, Henan.

In modern folk traditions, the yazheng 轧筝 or yaqin 轧琴 (here and here) accompanies some regional vocal genres, such as in Yixian county, Hebei (where it was part of the Shifan ensemble), the Handan region of south Hebei, Hejin county in south Shanxi, and the Pingdingshan region of Henan. For the cuoqin 挫琴 around Qingzhou in Shandong, and links with early bowed zithers, see here and here. Recently in China such instruments tend to attract Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle, but hey. For the plucked zheng zither in Shandong, click here.

Left: wenzhen qin, Putian; right, yaqin, Hejin.

In Fujian, the Shiyin bayue ensemble of Putian includes the wenzhen qin 文枕琴.

This excerpt from Pingdingshan in Henan features the yaqin:

For the sequel on Alpine bowed zithers, click here. See also Zithers of Iran and Turkey


[1] See e.g. Geneviève Dournon’s chapter in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp. 276–7.

With thanks again to Simon Mills

Dang: Gujarat and Korea

Stewart Lee’s recent playlist for Songlines is just as wacky as one would expect. Although I have to mark him down a bit for going down the hackneyed route of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder, he roams the clouds from Shirley Collins and Laura Cannell to Ethiopian jazz. Like Moriarty pursuing Holmes to Tibet, just when I thought I was catching up on jazz behind the Iron Curtain, he’s outwitted me again—Dang!

[And I like to think that “Stew” himself might interject:]

Funnily enough, Dang is a region of Gujarat famed for its dance. These dancers are accompanied by rousing shawms:

which are also heard here:

Pawari dance

And beat this for a wind instrument—the pawari (cf. pāva and satārā):

Here’s a Dang pas-de-deux:

And in ensemble:

All this is remote from the ethereal world of north Indian raga.

* * *

The music of Dang is not to be confused with Dangak, which is the Korean equivalent of Japanese Tōgaku [Oh, right you are—the Plain People of Ireland]. Both genres are obscurely derived from the music of the Chinese Tang court, and both are largely marginally preserved today through museumification—far from the lively Gujarati folk scene. BTW, the population of Gujarat is larger than that of (South) Korea!

Thankfully (did I say that?), only two pieces survive, Nagyangch’un (Chinese: Luoyang chun 洛陽春, a title not in the Tang Chinese repertoire, FWIW):

and Pohŏja, which is the Chinese Buxu 步虛, Pacing the Void:

The hyangak repertoire is native to Korea; here’s Sujecheon:

and P’yojŏngmanbangjigok:

These genres in turn are not to be confused with a-ak, the Korean version of the Confucian yayue 雅樂:

Turning to ritual in living society, mudang shamans are active, as in this ritual filmed in Seoul:

And we might even consider the tang-ki 童乩 self-mortifying spirit mediums among the Hokkien in southeast China (Ken Dean) and Taiwan (David Jordan). For links to posts on Chinese mediums, see here.

* * *

Anyway, all that was meant just as a little preliminary aside—sorry, got carried away (What am I like?! LOL). Throwing pursuers off the scent, what I’m trying to get round to is Stewart Lee’s choice of Ethiopian jazz. But to cite the Plain People of Ireland again, here’s me bus, so I guess that’ll have to wait for another time [Later: here’s the post]… Dang.

With thanks to Simon Mills

Posts on Uyghur culture

Dawut

Rahilä Dawut.

Tarred as I am by the brush of specialising in China, my interest in Tibetan and Uyghur cultures is merely that of an outsider. But having written a series of posts on Tibet, it seems suitable to round up my readings on Uyghur culture—and its recent decimation—with a selection from the Uyghur tag in the sidebar.

I began by reviewing

For the fine publications of Rachel Harris, see

See also

which leads us to the outstanding work of anthropologist Rahilä Dawut, who was disappeared in 2017:

On the work of Mukaddas Mijit, see

Two more posts feature the wonders of Uyghur music, as they were until recently:

See also

Rāg Vindaloo

With apologies to my esteemed mentors…

swanee kazoo

Jugalbandi duet, rāg Vindaloo.

While I very much hope that my series on north Indian raga will encourage you to absorb the melodic and rhythmic intricacies of all the individual items, I’ve reached a point where a certain levity is called for.

In classical treatises rāg Vindaloo is described as a raga for dusk, shortly after opening time; the Portuguese etymology perhaps explains its saudade mood (though fado only seems to have taken root in Goa). To the great relief of mehfil aficionados, the raga is rarely performed today.

Scholars have recently questioned the authenticity of a ragamala painting depicting an obese balding accountant in a pink sombrero, bedecked in opulent wombat furs and clutching a gaily-coloured [can of] Kingfisher, his sumptuous belvedere adorned with a garden gnome.

Questionably, Bhatkande classified rāg Vindaloo under Paneer thaat. It had already appeared by the 18th century in the bold attempt of picaresque, nay swashbuckling, adventurer and arms-dealer Lord Auberon Cholmondeley-Smythe to codify the repertoire, notwithstanding his comment in the Prefatory Observations that “it all sounds the same to me, this Indian music”.

PPIn dhrupad renditions the nomtom syllables tiddley-pom and poppadom are prominent. As to arohana and avarohana patterns, whereas in ascent flat and natural re, ga, dha, and ni, natural and sharp ma may be sounded interminably and apparently at random, in descent all notes are avoided entirely. In the gat, a common phrase—alluding to rāg Madhuvanti, * and later adopted by Henry Mancini—is

Sa, Re ga, Ni Sa Re ga dha Pa, Sa ga Pa Ma,

with a descending anuraṇana “resonance” on the cadential note.

In lengthy alap expositions, the phrase Ni dha pi serves as a cue. The tempo picks up upon the entry of the pakhavaj drum; the rhythmic cycle prescribed in early sources is chapati tāl with 792 mātras. But even in the more leisurely conditions of bygone courtly performance, no-one ever managed to get through even one whole cycle; so more often used in modern times is the challenging dintāl consisting of only one beat, subdivided 2 3 3 4 2 3, the first beat of the 3s marked with a cheery wave of the hand—a subtlety only revealed since the advent of slow-motion technology.

As a legacy from the days of the Raj, the raga is sometimes played in jugalbandi duet with swanee whistle and kazoo, hastening the audience’s departure.

* * *

For instructive multi-cultural exercises in solfeggio, click here. Cf. the spoof entries for the New Grove dictionary; for spoofs on early Chinese history, see Yet more French letters, Faqu tu 2, and More Tang drolerie. Cf. The ascent of Rum Doodle.


* In a vain attempt to redeem myself, for the sake of including some genuinely wondrous dhrupad in this post, here’s Zia Mohiuddin Dagar playing rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina:

A garland of ragas

As my coverage of north Indian ragas grows, this may be a good moment for an overview. [1]

To guard against any timeless image, divorced from social change, it’s good to start with Daniel Neuman’s fine book:

In my post on Noor Inayat Khan I referred to her father Inayat Khan’s 1921 classic The mysticism and sound of music, along with his 1909 recordings.

I illustrate most of these posts with 17th-century ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings reproduced in The raga guide.

* * *

In my Beatles roundup I wrote:

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

See also Analysing world music.

To immerse ourselves in the melodic soundscape, note The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999, with 4 CDs), and (among a wealth of online material) this site by Patrick Moutal, including audio and video archives for both vocal and instrumental renditions (cf. his 2012 book Hindustani Raga Sangita). Also worth consulting is my post Unpacking “improvisation”.

To help us focus on the infinite riches of raga, it’s illuminating to anchor ourselves in the sargam solfeggio that expresses the pitch relationships. [2] Here are the basic pitches of the heptatonic scale:

Sargam

In this series I use upper-case initials to denote higher degrees (e.g. Ma, sharp fa), lower-case for their lower degrees (ma, natural fa); Sa and Pa (do and so) are invariable.

Always relishing long alap preludes, I marvel at the constant variations of the master musicians, as they explore new connections between pitches and motifs—stages on their lifelong devotion to riaz practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”, as characterised by Neuman).

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone, and registering stressed and cadential pitches. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

What’s great about the whole progression of an extended alap is that we are gradually coaxed into learning the melodic building blocks, so that by the time the faster, more ornate patterns begin unfolding we’re just about familiar with the scalar language. Recalling the Growing into music films, wouldn’t it be great if our kids could grow up learning to sing and create with this fluency in pitch relationships?! (Cf. flamenco palmas).

Armed with the introduction of The raga guide (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas. In these posts I content myself with offering a few signposts, with very rough outlines based on prominent cadences, leaving you to zoom in on all the detail in between. For dhrupad, my star exhibit, the signposts include the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Richard Widdess) [3] such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down:

The raga guide introduces 74 ragas—like the repertoire of Chinese qin players (see my comments on Chapter 6 of Neuman’s book), few individual musicians perform more than a couple of dozen ragas, and some concentrate intensively on a handful. So here’s my series so far:

Besides vocal renditions, these are illustrated with instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, [4] sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi; so in a further post,

  • Raga for winds, I feature further instances on bansuri flute and shehnai shawm, featuring some of the above ragas as well as rāgs Desh, Lalit, and Puriya.

Even this modest selection displays great scalar variety: some ragas are largely “diatonic” (Yaman, Maru Bihag, Kedar), some “minor” (Kafi Zila, Bhairavi, and the anhemitonic pentatonic Malkauns, with Chandrakauns a revision of Malkauns with a semitone from Ni to Sa); others showcase augmented intervals (Bhairav, Shri); and Marwa is a challenging yet beguiling “A major over a C drone”.

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

To draw you into the individual posts, in the playlist below I choose one rendition of each of the ragas I’ve discussed so far, highlighting alap, dhrupad (the Dagar lineage, and Uday Bhawalkar), and Nikhil Banerjee.

  • Kafi Zila:

  • Yaman:

  • Maru Bihag:

  • Bhairav:

  • Bhairavi:

  • Malkauns:

  • Shri:

  • Chandrakauns:

  • Kedar:

And on a meretricious yet entertaining note, a spoof (with a serious bonus of rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina):

Two more posts derive from concerts I attended at the Bhavan Centre in west London:

See also

I’ll add to this list as I explore further… In other fields, see A playlist of songs, and the Chinese selections in the playlist as you scroll down in the sidebar, with commentary here.

In the words of a Classic FM presenter,

It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

With thanks to Richard Widdess, Morgan Davies, and Daniel Neuman.


[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of sargam is a good way of listening to traditional Chinese melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organising sound (cf. What is serious music?!).

Some might date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, or even the invention of graphic notation

[3] As a taster for the definitive study Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004) by Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, the latter’s “Involving the performers in transcription and analysis: a collaborative approach to dhrupad” (Ethnomusicology 38.1, 1994) takes rāg Multani to illustrate the rich fruits of analysing alap, with detailed attention to the performer’s vocabulary (e.g. the instructive transcription on p.63).

[4] The timbre of the rudra vina rather reminds me of the Chinese qin zither, almost making me wonder if the lost art of improvisation therein might have sounded like this—all the more in view of the scalar variety of Chinese music before the Song dynasty… “But that’s not important right now“.

Raga for winds

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Left, Bismillah Khan; right, Hariprasad Chaurasia.

So far in my series on north Indian raga, besides vocal renditions I’ve only featured instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi, all of which have illustrious traditions. * While these dominate the scene, the bansuri flute and shehnai shawm have also taken to the “classical” concert recital format, emerging from more popular styles. They are best known through the work of three masters.

The bansuri is strongly associated with Krishna. With its mellifluous timbre, in media publicity it’s particularly prone to romantic visual imagery, with sunsets and rippling waters adorning naff titles like Relaxing Lord Krishna flute music for meditation. But none of this should deafen us to the artistry of the great exponents.

The pioneer of bansuri as a concert instrument was Pannalal Ghosh (1911–60)—here he performs rāg Malkauns:

More recently, Hariprasad Chaurasia (b.1938) became the celebrated master of the bansuri. Here he is with  Marwa (“A major over a C drone”):

Now for two ragas that I haven’t previously featured—Desh (largely “diatonic”, with flat ni in descent):

and Lalit:

With flat re and dha, lacking Pa, Lalit is quite daunting—here are its basic melodic contours as shown in The raga guide:

Lalit

Again, we can hear Pannalal Gosh playing Lalit:

For Lalit on sarod, see under Raga at the Proms.

Here’s the 2013 documentary Bansuri guru on Hariprasad Chaurasia, directed by his son Rajeev:

* * *

More strident, but no less beguiling, is the shehnai, of which Bismillah Khan (1916–2006) was the great exponent (for the modern evolution of the shehnai, see here; cf. shawms in Nepal and south India; see also Shawms around the world).

Here’s his long, entrancing rendition of rāg Yaman:

Bhairav:

and Bhairavi:

(for Bhairav and Bhairavi, click here).

Here’s Malkauns again, in this short film.

In this early video he plays Puriya and (from 16.32) Maru Bihag:


* The mixture of roman and italic here reflecting my confusion about the current status of the instruments regarding their currency in the Western world. BTW, in modern China we find a similar descending hierarchy in the solo conservatoire repertoire: from the plucked zheng and pipa, to the bowed erhu, down to the less common dizi, guanzi, and suona (see e.g. here, and here). But in both China and India, beyond the confines of urban musicking, folk ensemble traditions dominate the soundscape.

Rāg Kedar

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Kedar ragamala

Kedar, ragamala:
“… in penance, adorned, grey [with ashes] and dark, a young man beauteous in every limb,
[this is] Kedar raga.”

RF Dagar

Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar.

Another raga that I’ve only acquainted myself with recently is rāg Kedar.

Sargam

Here’s the introduction in The raga guide:

Kedar RG 1

Kedar RG 2

So (unlike my recent posts on the “chromatic” Shri and Chandrakauns) rāg Kedar is largely “diatonic”, with the sharp fourth Ma also enriching the complex ascending and descending patterns (cf. Yaman).

Beginning as ever with dhrupad, here’s Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar:

He lingers on ma before introducing the sharp Ma, revealing how both degrees appear within particular motifs around Pa, as from 18.17, going on to mirror the semitone from Ma to Pa with that from Ni to Sa (introducing the interval NiMa), with an interlude from 30.55 in the lower register. Ever more confident phrases build to climactic cadences on top Sa from 37.30. From 41.17 he sets off again more reflectively, ascending from the middle range. By this stage of the alap, as the tempo accelerates, long phrases commonly embrace the whole range of the earlier explorations of motifs, as here from 46.18.

In standard dhrupad structure, he then becalms the mood to lead into two concluding dhamar songs of praise, in 12-beat chautāl (from 52.09), and then 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4, from 1.07.57), both becoming ever more exultant.

Here Uday Bhawalkar sings an alap to introduce another song in dhamar tal (from 20.16):

This track has only a short introduction leading into the praise song in dhamar tāl:

And on sitar (guess who), Nikhil Banerjee, with 16-beat tintāl (from 24.52), then 12-beat ektāl:

Here he launches straight into a gat in tintāl:

Rāg Chandrakauns

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Dagars

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar.

To follow rāg Shri, another raga I’m just getting to know is Chandrakauns.

Sargam

Indeed, The raga guide describes it as “a ragini of Malkauns”, sharing flat ga and dha, and stressing ma along with Sa—the 5th degree Pa absent from both melody and drone, and also lacking the 2nd degree Re (though listen to Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar below). But in the common variety of modern times, natural Ni (replacing the flat ni of Malkauns) is also pivotal. The third paragraph here lists some variant forms:

Chandrakauns 1

Chandrakauns 2

As ever, I begin with dhrupad and the Dagar lineage. The longue durée of Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar, live in concert, is wondrous (ending with a dhamar praise song from 1.05.00):

And here’s Uday Bhawalkar in duet with Bahauddin Dagar on rudra vina (missing opening and closing sections):

Here the intense depth of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina blends magically with the voice of his brother Zia Fariduddin Dagar (live in Amsterdam, 1985):

In most interpretations of Chandrakauns that I’ve heard, ma sounds like a tonic throughout. But I find the Dagars’ whole long opening section rather different: stressing the semitone from ni to Sa, with excursions up to ga and down to dha, ma is heard only in passing. It is only later that ma begins to compete as a pitch centre, often seeming to serve as a “tonic” from 16.48, and for sustained cadences—so it’s only now that we may have to remind ourselves that we are hearing not Sa but ma, just as in rāg Malkauns. Even after the introduction of a faster, firmer rhythmic pulse revolving around ni–Sa from 46.22, ma remains a subsidiary part of the tonal palette to the end, featuring more strongly in passages from around 50.45 and 53.45.

Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar creates a quite distinct effect/affekt—not only is ma important throughout, but he frequently uses natural Re in passing (even descending ma-gha-Re-Sa from 16.06, and again from 42.42 and 53.57). Again he ends with dhamar from 59.22:

Lastly, I always delight in the sitar playing of Nikhil Banerjee:

Shawms around the world

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

Shawm bands, accompanied by percussion, are an essential—and seriously loud—feature in the soundscapes of life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies in many parts of the world, appearing often on this blog. So in lieu of an unwieldy tag, here’s a roundup of some of the main posts.

Shawms (with a wooden body and a flared bell, small unlipped double reed enclosed in the mouth, and a pirouette, overblowing at the octave) are more common than oboes (like Chinese guanzi and Armenian duduk), although the distinction is complex, also involving cylindrical or conical bores (zzzzz)—see here.

Names for shawms are often variants of zurna, but there’s a wealth of local terms. The musicians are low in social status.

For China, large shawms are particularly imposing in the north, as shown in my two books Ritual and music of north China. The starter post is

I analyse the complex melodies of the Hua family band in

See also

and, observing a certain scholarly reluctance to countenance such orally-transmitted cultures,

The Shaanbei bands feature in my post on the great

and, adding nearby Gansu, cf.

See also

and for trouble in Shandong,

Shawm bands are common in south China too, such as in Fujian and Hunan.

Some of these styles also appear on the Playlist in the sidebar (##5, 6, 11, and 15, with commentary here).

For Xinjiang, see

and for Tibet, as well as the monastic shawms and long trumpets (still only featured at the end of this post), the courtly gar features in

Elsewhere, most traditions have spread with Islam from the Middle East. See

Among a wealth of audio-video tracks on the playlist of

is a fine taksim on the Turkish zurna.

Additive shawm metres from Turkey and east Europe feature in

For Azerbaijan, see under

and for Morocco, under

In Europe, Spain features in

And for Italian shawms (not least the 1963–64 recordings from the USA!):

See also

And cf. the extensive trumpet tag.

Rāg Shri

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Shri ragamala

Shri, ragamala:
“Splendidly enthroned, of peerless beauty, he sits hearing stories from Narada and Tumburu.
By the great sages he is called Shri-raga king.”

So far in this series I’ve mainly surveyed ragas that I’ve long known, but now I’m beginning to explore some that haven’t previously come to my attention.

Sargam

The sargam solfeggio system.

Here’s the introduction to Rāg Shri in The raga guide:

Shri 1

Shri 2

A “mysterious, gentle, and austere” raga for the early winter harvest, its melodic progression is distinctive, with the pivotal wide intervals of flat re and sharp Ma (D♭ and F♯, if you will); the natural third Ga and flat sixth dha are heard mainly as fleeting ornaments; in ascent the flat re leaps to sharp Ma or directly to Pa. The natural Ni gives the option of three adjacent semitones NiSare; while the flat sixth dha is less prominent, the equivalent sequence Ma–Pa–dha may be heard.

As ever, dhrupad makes a fine way of immersing ourselves in the raga. Here are the “Junior Dagar brothers” Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar:

More recently, Uday Bhawalkar is just as wondrous (cf. his Yaman, and Bhairav):

Udayji’s opening exposition revolves around long sustained re, and then Sa and Ni, introducing the sharp Ma, and Pa, in the lower register at 1.50, ascending to re, now decorated with Ga. At 6.17 he ascends to Pa before returning to the semitone cluster around Sa. From 8.16 he clearly expounds the ascending sequence Ma Pa Ni Sa re. After revolving around the augmented interval of reMa, he reaches sustained cadences on Pa from 9.29. From 16.31 he explores the upper range around top Sa (17.06: Ma Pa Ni, Sa Ni, re Sa).

For the jor section of the alap from 21.29, Udayji injects a firmer pulse, with a mixture of nomtom and ākar (“aah”) syllables around low Sa; having explored around low Pa from 21.24 he returns to Sa after 26.15, the wide interval reMa always featuring prominently. From 31.02 he is oscillating around high Pa, eventually reaching up higher, with sustained cadences on top Sa from 34.19 as the melodic phrases become more florid.

From 38.13 Udayji returns again to the lower register, Sa eventually giving way to Pa as pivotal pitch from 46.14, incorporating the higher register from 49.33 before the pakhavaj drum enters.

From 56.18 he concludes (as in his wonderful Yaman) with a praise song at a more sedate tempo in 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4), followed by a faster section from 1.13.02 in sūltāl with five duple units (as he does for Malkauns and other ragas). The very ending is missing.

An audio recording by Udayji appears over two tracks, with alap and a lively jod:

followed by another song in dhamar tal:

On sitar, here’s the sublime Nikhil Banerjee in 1975—note how he features Ga quite prominently, and relishes the interval Ma–dha:

And a longer performance:

This up-tempo version by Ali Akbar Khan on sarod from 1969 brings out the angular wide intervals even more:

And here’s a short but exquisite rendition by Ram Narayan on sarangi:

With thanks yet again to Morgan Davies!

The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons

Bach

In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.

Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.

Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).

On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *

Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):

Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.

Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.

Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.

Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000

was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.

Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:

There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]

One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.

As Gardiner notes,

The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.

Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:

For another of many doom-laden cantatas, see Lukewarm Laodiceans and puffed-up Pharisees.

As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.

Cantata schedule

After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.

Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.

For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:

But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:

Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.

Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:

The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes

high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.

(Cf. my fantasy of Bach on the erhu.) Indeed, the riches of Bach’s writing for the oboe are inexhaustible—as are those of world shawms! Returning to Gardiner’s own performances, here’s the Saba cantata:

Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:

In accord with the brief of ethnomusicology (e.g. works like Enemy Way music, or Thinking in jazz; cf. Pomodoro!), Gardiner’s study integrates social life, sound object, and doctrine, which lesser scholars often consider separately.

* * *

Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.

Whatever their responses, I never cease to envy them as they dutifully turned up every Sunday to be regaled with such extraordinary new music. And the musicians—imagine Bach’s oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch when he got home after rehearsal:

“Good day at the office, dear?”
“You’ll never believe it when you hear what our new Kantor has given me to play this Sunday! God knows how I’m going to manage it—but it’s amazing…”

For the cantatas, Passions, and much more, see under A Bach retrospective.


* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.

Rāg Malkauns

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Malkauns ragamala

Malkauns, ragamala:
“A scarf round his neck and and fanned by the fair-hipped one,
a golden seat has been made for the king of the gandharvas.
Handsome and wealthy, Shri Malav is known as the fifth Malav.”

Here’s another post in my series on the wonders of north Indian raga.

Malkauns is a pentatonic raga for the late night, to which supernatural powers are attributed (see e.g. here and here). To reacquaint ourselves with the basic sargam solfeggio system of raga:

Sargam

Here’s the summary for Malkauns in The raga guide:

Malkauns 1

Malkauns 2

First, a note for those who are no more expert than me in the subtleties of sargam. Taking C as the notional tonic, you may at first hear the basic scale of Malkauns as
C–E♭–F–G–B♭–C (as in the lighter rāg Dhani, for a flavour of which click here; also in The raga guide); however, in Malkauns the drone strings are not the common C and G, but C and F—so the scale is actually
F–A♭–B♭–C–E♭–F—or rather, transposed with the tonic as C:
C–E–F–A–B–C,
in sargam (lower-case denoting the lower degrees of pitches):
S–g–m–d–n–S,
with the 5th (Pa) and 2nd (Re) degrees absent. In other words, what one first hears as a Pa is actually the tonic Sa!

Dagar

Dhrupad always makes a fitting introduction to the subtleties of the unfolding melodic phrases—here are the “junior” Dagar brothers Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina with the vocals of Zia Fariduddin Dagar in 1968, blending perfectly:

So here the lenghthy alap opens with the tonic Sa—descending to ni and then dha before ascending to ma at 1.35, with ga featuring. In a lengthy passage from 4.04, dha, ni, and Sa are explored in the low register, from 10.10 juxtaposed with ga and ma in the middle range.

From 14.46 the middle range returns more strongly, with Sa as the pivotal note. From 20.25 ga begins featuring more often. Following a low ma in the voice from 22.59, rather more extended sequences gradually begin to emerge, before another low vocal passage from 31.19.

A more dynamic vocal passage from 34.25 does nothing to disturb the tranquility. A sequence from 36.52 is again juxtaposed with the low register. At last from 43.00 we reach top ma—before returning to the low gamut yet again.

From 46.35 we hear mukhṛā repeated pitches in a regular pulse, and by 51.36 some longer ascending melodic phrases are appearing. More often, ga falls to Sa rather than ascending to ma. Only by 58.30 can we finally feel a faster tempo, with rhythmic exchanges.

Even by the lofty standards of dhrupad I find this whole exposition exceptionally still and profound.

In north Indian raga (as in other traditions, including WAM), variation emerges from the character not only of the raga itself but also that of the performers and their lineages—as well as over time, and according to the contextual dynamic. When the Dagar brothers recorded that performance in 1968, the intensity of dhrupad was little appreciated outside the circles of mehfil aficionados. But fifty years later it had enjoyed a wider revival—here’s the great Uday Bhawalkar (himself a disciple of the Dagars) again:

Perhaps as a sign of the changing times, Udayji seems more concerned with structural markers and melodic exposition than the Dagar brothers, with longer phrases and a clearer sense of “development”. He explores the pitches around high ma more; and he injects a firm mukhṛā pulse with repeated notes from 23.43, as his decorations become ever more florid. From here on I’m guided by Morgan Davies, worthy custodian of my sarangi: from 55.47 the jhāla section, sung to rapid nomtom syllables, is accompanied by pakhavaj drum, introducing a stately seven-beat rupak tal (3+2+2) from 1.02.09. The rapid final section from 1.16.00, a sādra, is in sūltāl, with five duple units (commonly used towards the conclusion of dhrupad, as in Udayji’s Yaman and Bhairav).

Here he sings another version of Malkauns:

With that orientation, I’ll leave you to admire the detail of instrumental renditions. On sitar, we can explore several versions by the mellifluous Nikhil Banerjee, such as this from 1966:

And this 1972 recording is wondrous too:

I can’t find dates for these next two, longer versions:

This one has a lengthy alap:

Here’s Vilayat Khan in 1985:

and two consecutive renditions by his younger brother Imrat Khan on surbahar in 1975:

Bernard Lortat-Jacob also recommends Balaram Pathak on sitar:

On sarangi, here’s Abdul Latif Khan:

and Bundu Khan:

On violin, N. Rajam:

For renditions on bansuri and shehnai, see Raga for winds.

And then it’s always worth returning to the meditative dhrupad versions…

We might follow this up with rāg Chandrakauns, in which natural Ni replaces the flat ni of Malkauns.

With many thanks to Morgan Davies

Amazing Grace meets gagaku!

Making an elegant bridge between the enchanted worlds of Aretha and ancient gagaku, here’s Hideki Togi playing Amazing Grace on hichiriki—aptly uploaded to YouTube on Inauguration day:

Do click on those links above—the first to Aretha’s overwhelming 1972 sessions, the second to the great Toru Takemitsu’s captivating explorations of Japanese traditional soundscapes—notably gagaku.

I find myself more amenable to this arrangement than to the “world music fusion” that I churlishly characterised as “throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, Balkan brass, kora, and didjeridu…” (cf. Bach, um, marches to the world!).

Tibet: the Golden Age

L'age d'or cover

Adding to my series of recent posts on Tibet, I’ve been reading a fine book in French:

  • Katia Buffetrille, L’âge d’or du Tibet (XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles) (2019; 311 pages)
    (review here; this brief notice; numerous other publications by Buffetrille here).

While Tibetologists have long focused on early history, more recently many scholars have turned, impressively, to addressing the complexities and traumas of Tibetan society since the Chinese occupation in 1950; so this volume on the historical background is welcome. Notwithstanding the focus on the “Golden Age”, it provides material on both earlier and later history, making a useful, wide-ranging introduction for the greater Tibetan region—including Amdo and Kham—before the Chinese occupation, as well as relations with neighbouring countries including Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Manchu China.

Using Tibetan, Chinese, and European sources, the book is attractively presented in the Guide Belles lettres format, with copious illustrations and a bibliography arranged by topic. Paying attention to both material and conceptual aspects of Tibetan culture, Buffetrille covers not just the upper echelons but popular life too, correcting misconceptions in the process (cf. Tibetan clichés).

Here I’ll merely list some main themes of the eight chapters.

History: subsuming both the thriving period of political stability under the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82), with the hegemony of his Gelugpa school of Buddhism, and attendant power struggles.

The Tibetan space: cosmology; central Tibet and the peripheral regions, notably Amdo and Kham; and cosmopolitan Lhasa, with its ethnically mixed population (also including Muslims, Newars, Armenians, Christians), dynamic commercial life, and monuments.

Chapter 3 looks at the political and administrative organisation in more detail, including justice, the army, finance, and the postal system.

Chapter 4 unpacks the society and economy. Buffetrille introduces the nobility; the varied strata of common people (“serfs”, in the parlance of some modern observers), including brigands; and the clergy, another stratified category. As to the economy, she discusses agriculture, nomadism, commerce, measures and currency, mining, hunting, and the artisanat.

Age d'or 1

In a chapter on Time, she discusses astrology, the calendar, divination, and the life cycle.

Chapter 6 considers Religions in all their forms. Besides giving a useful overview of the various schools of Buddhism (with earlier historical background) and Bön, Buffetrille features “social inscription”: the life of monasteries, lay practices, pilgrimages, beliefs, indigenous rituals, and local deities.

Age d'or 3

Intellectual life: language, writing, paper, xylography, printing, libraries, and literature (Buddhist, historical, scientific, fiction).

Age d'or 4

The arts, again enmeshed with religious practice: artists, painters (with an interesting vignette on pigments), iconography, sculpture, architecture—ending with a brief mention of music, which is further covered in

Pastimes, with the annual cycle of festivals, both in Lhasa and in rural communities, including courtly and popular songs and dances, lhamo opera—and picnics.

Private life, including naming customs, family, women, sexuality; the house, tents, food and drink; healthcare, costume.

All this makes a suitable reminder that before the Chinese occupation, for all its social issues, Tibet was a mature, functioning, independent society. This concise introduction much deserves an English translation.

Toru Takemitsu

Takemitsu

The recent additions to my series on Messiaen (here and here) remind me that he was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu (193­0–96). Here I’ll just feature some of his works directly inspired by the traditional Japanese soundscape—though of course there’s much more to explore in his ouevre (wiki; see also e.g. Tom Service’s succinct general introduction).

Having spent his early years until 1938 with his family in Dalian in occupied northeast China, where his father worked as a businessman, military conscription in 1944 further alienated him from Japanese militarism and nationalism; coming to associate these—not incorrectly—with the musical traditions of Japan (see e.g. this article on gagaku), he was drawn instead to new Western Art Music. He extended his initial aversion to Japanese music to other traditional forms:

There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a “contemporary style” is nothing but a deception). [Hah! Discuss!]

Indeed, by contrast with the value-free ears of outsiders, some younger urban native listeners often hear their own traditions as tainted by association with a repressive or stultifying establishment—such as Chinese and Moravian folk, English choral music, or Russian Orthodox liturgy.

So it was only from the early 1960s, partly through John Cage—another important inspiration for him—that Takemitsu came to value the Japanese concept of ma 間 “empty space” (exemplified by Noh drama) and began consciously to borrow from Japanese music. As he recalled:

One day I chanced to see a performance of the Bunraku puppet theatre and was very surprised by it. It was in the tone quality, the timbre, of the futozao shamisen, the wide-necked shamisen used in Bunraku, that I first recognized the splendour of traditional Japanese music. I was very moved by it and I wondered why my attention had never been captured before by this Japanese music.

Here’s the second story, “Woman of the snow”, from the soundtrack for Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964):

November steps

Best known among his Japanese-inspired works is November steps (1967), for shakuhachi, biwa, and orchestra, commissioned by the New York Phil at the behest of Bernstein, premiered under Seiji Ozawa:

For the same combination is Autumn: into the fall after a little while (1973):

Traditional Japanese music, notably the courtly tradition of gagaku, deriving from Tang China, had long inspired Japanese and Western composers. Henry Eichheim‘s visits to east and southeast Asia (for his trips to China, see here) led to works such as Oriental impressions (1919–22), including the gagaku-derived E[n]tenraku (cf. Japanese nocturne); in 1931 Hidemaro Konoye (who the previous year conducted the very first recording of Mahler 4!) made a more faithful orchestral arrangement of Etenraku. Both works were soon taken up by Leopold Stokowski in his programmes with the Philadelphia orchestra.

After the war, Etenraku was again the basis for Yoritsune Matsudaira‘s Theme and variations for piano [hmm] and orchestra (1951); he followed it in 1961 with the orchestral piece Bugaku. Also channelling gagaku were Henry Cowell in Ongaku (1957), and Olivier Messiaen in Sept haïkaï (1963)— to which I devoted a separate post. [1]

Reigakusha

The Reigakusha ensemble (site, largely in Japanese).

But now some composers actually began writing for the gagaku ensemble itself, as innovation became a significant subsidiary theme in the gagaku world. Takemitsu wrote Shūteiga for the gagaku ensemble of the Imperial Household (hichiriki oboe, shō mouth-organ, ryūteki flute, biwa lute, gakusō zither, and percussion), later incorporating it into In an autumn garden (1973), one of the most enthralling essays in the genre. Besides the Imperial Household’s own version, the sonorities of this recording, by the Reigakusha ensemble that grew out of it, are even more mesmerising (cf. this live performance):

Garden rain (1974), for brass ensemble, evokes the cluster-chords of the shō mouth-organ (so very different from the anhemitonic pentatonic organum of its Chinese ancestor the sheng!):

See also this interview with the enterprising shō performer Mayumi Miyata.

Just in case you suppose all these to be avant-garde creations far distant from their model, here’s some “traditional” gagaku:


[1] For the Japanese explorations of Eichheim, Cowell, and others, see W. Anthony Sheppard, Extreme exoticism: Japan in the American musical imagination (2019), ch.3. For other Western works inspired by gagaku, click here. For Western devotees of Zen, see The great Gary Snyder, and More East-West gurus; see also under Some posts on Japanese culture. See also Amazing Grace meets gagaku!

Messiaen in Japan

 

Messiaen Ozawa 1962

Messiaen with Yvonne Loriod and Seiji Ozawa, July 1962.

The exotic soundscapes of the Mystic East have long attracted composers, particularly in France (Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy).

Messiaen may be more commonly associated with Indian music (e.g. Turangalîla), but his fascination with Japanese culture goes back to his honeymoon there with his wife Yvonne Loriod in summer 1962. [1]

While the young Seiji Ozawa led rehearsals for a performance of Turangalîla, Messiaen, besides sightseeing and birdwatching, bought books and recordings of gagaku (cf. Laurence Picken, with whom he shared a love of birdsong), and attended an evening of koto zither, as well as performances of bunraku, kabuki—and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture):

I delighted in the music, the steps, the slowness of the movements, and the extraordinary cries of the tsuzumi.

Noh 2

Noh drums, 1992. My photo.

After admiring Mount Fuji and Nara, they visited Hiroshima, guided by the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Ernest Goossens. The fifth movement of Sept haïkaï was inspired by a boat trip to the Miyajima shrine; his notes evoke many images that recur throughout his music:

The sea: salty smell, of seaweed and of water, and the scent of a grove of pines. Large red torii [gateways] in the sea. Marvellous red Shinto temple, maze of rooms, corridors, columns of red wood. Dark interior of the temple where the divinity is hidden (principle room), and the other temple (which one cannot see) with the invisible true God, behind the red torii, in the sea and the sky. Monstrous stone lions defend the temple—stone lanterns on the path beside the sea—the mountains velvety with pines. Sunset above the temple. From a distance one can see the torii against the evening clouds, orange, red, pink, violet. At night one can just make out the torii in the darkness—a full moon, gold and silver, with a hazy red halo, veiled by a thin strip of completely black cloud.

Torii

The result was Sept haïkaï (for piano, wind, brass, percussion including cowbells, and eight lonely violins!), premiered in 1963, with Yvonne Loriod on piano and Pierre Boulez conducting.

  • Introduction
  • Le parc de Nara et les lanternes de pierre
  • Yamanaka cadenza
  • Gagaku (from 7.36; for an earlier orchestral adaptation by Hidemaro Konoye, see here)
  • Miyajima et le torii dans le mer 
  • Les oiseaux de Karuizawa
  • Coda

The vignettes are purely instrumental—it is only the title that alludes to haiku. But I’ve composed a couple for the occasion:

Besides world music
Olivier Messiaen
Enjoyed his birdsong

Meanwhile in Cambridge,

Wise Laurence Picken
Finding gagaku too slow
Relished birdsong too

See also Toru Takemitsu.

 


[1] See e.g. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (2005). Apart from the voluminous scholarly literature on Messaien (Paul Griffiths, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and so on), good overviews of his ouevre are Richard Taruskin, The danger of music, pp.289–99, and Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.485–96 (see The right kind of spirituality?).