Turkish folk music enjoying a renaissance, ethnomusicologist Tansug says

Interest in Turkish folk music surges and subsides like the ocean waves, says Feza Tansui, professor of ethnomusicology at Ankara’s ipek University.

Tansui, director of the School of Music and dean of the faculty of art and design at the university, told Sunday’s Zaman in an interview last week that Turkey has experienced many such waves during the 20th century.

“Still, I do not think that folk music at any earlier period could have captured the attention of so many people of different ages and of varying backgrounds as it is doing just now,” he said.

“Many decades ago, folk music was something that could hardly exist without the support of the movements for the preservation of the countryside. Today, shrewd managers can fill Istanbul’s concert halls by arranging folk music concerts with guest artists from distant lands,” said Tansui.

What’s more, countless bands in today’s Turkish pop music industry readily include folk ballads in their repertoires. All this passes under the designation “folk music” — a term that has come to mean both prestige and money these days, according to the professor, who has also taught at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan, Boiazici and Koc universities.

Here’s what else Tansui said about the recent popularity of Turkish folk music and efforts to preserve it:

What has really happened in this field to have created the conditions for the folk music “boom” of recent years?

Folk music has, indeed, never been static old forms have disappeared and been replaced by other, new ones. Earlier such changes took place slowly and unconsciously.

But is it not natural that the changes in our time occur more rapidly and more consciously?

Yes, the changes occur more rapidly today and these fast changes have formed new genres and styles in Turkey. Naturally, if we care to, we can label both Arabesque and pop the folk music of our time it all depends, really, on what we mean by the term.

Is this occurrence what we usually call a folk music revival? Or is it a question of a new folk music?

The term “folk music” has always been unwieldy, but never has it been more varied in its meaning than today. Numerous attempts have been made to arrive at a generally accepted definition, but no one has yet fully succeeded. There are, however, certain minimum requirements that we who are concerned with folk music in Turkey generally agree upon. It will suffice here to mention two of these requirements: Folk music is transmitted from generation to generation through an oral (or better, “aural”) tradition and it generally lacks a known author.

If one accepts these minimum requirements, it is easy to establish that much, perhaps even most, of what people today profess to be folk music is really flying under false colors. Both pop and Arabesque can immediately be eliminated. Likewise, all newly written ballads, however spiced with folk strains, may be removed from consideration as folk music. Moreover, it is quite clear that our country’s interest in “folk music” is a current fad — a foreign import, like so many other musical genres from “further west.”

Why do Turkey’s native pop bands sing Turkish folk songs in the American manner?

Pop bands sound about the same the world over, even if they derive their droll lyrics and their melodic material from some record of a folk ballad. As with all other fads, this one, too, will gradually disappear.

What then will remain of this wave of interest in folk music?

I believe that, in spite of everything, we have reason to look hopefully to the future. Side by side with — or parallel to — the commercialized and pop-tainted “folk music wave,” a serious interest in the real, genuine elements of folk music has emerged, especially among the intellectual youth. Even if this interest has been inspired in many cases by outside prototypes — as exemplified by materials that comprise Pete Seeger’s song artistry — the younger public has frequently come to discover the characteristics and the musical qualities of old Turkish folk music as well.

Completely aside from the broad and more or less fashion-dictated interest in folk music during recent years, we can nevertheless detect an increasing respect for folk music among the more music-conscious public — especially among those groups who otherwise prefer to listen to international art music or so-called “serious music.”

This development, which has been going on for many years, has many interesting features. Above all, it is noteworthy that the purely musical qualities — not primarily the age and the ethnological characteristics of this music — that have captured the interest of this public.

Thus, it is not surprising that it was the most qualified people — composers, critics and musical connoisseurs — who first observed that we had music of our own originating within our borders that was well worth listening to in its original form.

Did some composers devote much of their creative energies to rhapsodizing folk songs?

Many Turkish composers have used Turkish folk music in more or less artistic adaptations, but it appears as though time has run out on such romantic renderings in which composers have taken folk melodies and forced them into a harmonic framework that is strange to the music and embellished them with an orchestral garb. An author has pertinently remarked that this manner of treating folk music is like “dressing up poor relations from the country.”

Most frequently, the result is that the beautiful attire divests the melody of its individuality and its vitality. The belief that an encounter with a genuine tradition, mediated by a musician or a singer, should be able to constitute an artistic experience is a thought that was entirely foreign for composers and music audiences of an earlier generation. It was not until a composer of genius touched the material with his/her divine inspiration that it was transformed to music — to art.

This reversal in attitude toward the artistic evaluation of genuine folk music has been made possible through confrontation with the living tradition, a confrontation that previously was granted only to a few. It is well known — and not just in our country — that each wave of interest in folk music is usually followed by an intensive collection of that music.

It is worth mentioning a converse condition regarding this context. This qualified interest in genuine folk music is, at least in part, the result of collection efforts. It is primarily through recordings, distributed via radio, television and the Internet, that the public is afforded the possibility to meet the living tradition.

When the State Radio began in 1967 to inventory and record Turkish folk music as a living tradition, it was viewed by many experts as a rather hopeless and preposterous project. The living tradition that once existed had, of course, been collected and documented much earlier, and the living tradition was even then considered to be on the decline. And, to be sure, there were many good reasons for such skepticism.

The natural conditions for life and the habitat for folk music were altered in our country as far back as the previous century. As a result of musical reform, a uniform style in folk music gradually developed that homogenized the peculiarities of the different regional and local styles.

The seven or eight regional types of peasant music and even some local genres were labeled during the early years of the republican era, for the sake of convenience, “Turk Halk Musikisi” (Turkish folk music). They exhibited great variety in scales, meters, forms, types of composition, use of instruments and performance practice, as well as in styles of composition and performance.

These genres have many common features, such as a general tendency to use asymmetrical meters and ascending melodies, and these qualities partly coincided in their repertoires. The peasant music of the Western regions was in general on a high technical level and resembled the traditional art music of the cities, whereas in the eastern parts of the country, next to highly developed local cultures, very limited melodies have survived.

Regarding folk music, has urbanization played an important role in Turkey?

The onset of urbanization, improved communication and industrialization also served to change the past environments and create entirely new ones in which the old musical traditions no longer had any evident function. Also, the musical reforms of the previous century had a momentous influence on folk music. Its effect on the music of the minstrel musicians was in certain regions completely catastrophic.

The various reform movements also had a strong deterrent influence on songs and ballads, partially in that a large repertoire that was deemed unsuitable by some musicians was forced aside and partially in that the reform itself brought with it new songs whose melodies were strange to a previously homogenous musical milieu.

All of these factors have contributed to a situation in which an ever increasing number of people have lost their own musical language. They now know this language solely from the stereotyped “folksong” of the song books they read in school. All who have taken part in collecting old traditions have always been told that they started too late. And, certainly it was too late when we started our recording expeditions.

But it was still not completely hopeless. As it happened, there were certain reserve collections in which the old music had survived. Even though we no longer can speak of any isolated environments in our country (as newspapers, radios and televisions, etc. can be found in nearly every home), certain traditions have still remained alive with an amazing tenacity.

As an example, let me discuss the tradition of the “uzun hava” (long songs) — practiced by the minstrels of Anatolia. They are rhythmically free songs with broad, descending melodic lines, rich in ornamentation. Long songs have played an extremely important role within Turkish folk music. Thanks to the minstrel tradition, a rich treasure of long songs has been preserved even in our own times. And we have reason to believe that this music is among the most ancient that exist in our land. Certain researchers would even claim that it goes back to pre-Islamic times.

The reason is that this music has, throughout the ages, preserved its original function walking or riding alone on the grasslands, herders sang not for one another, but for themselves, their horses, the mountains and the steppe. At the same time, they identified themselves through their songs with the ethos of their people. The characteristic musical features shown by the songs of the Turkish nomads (for example, floating intervals and a rich ornamental art as well as the characteristic modality) have had an especially great influence on older vocal music as well as on the older music of the minstrel musicians. Generally, we daresay, it is perhaps the nomadic sounds that give the older Turkish folk music its distinctive feature — a character that outsiders often perceive as dark, melancholy, perhaps nostalgic.

Has the minstrel tradition completely vanished?

Yes, in many areas of our country, it unfortunately has vanished. The younger generations still play the tunes, but the tunes that they learn from notation lead a hollow life. However, in other tradition-rich provinces, we can still find a good many old minstrels who have experienced the ways in which it was a matter of course to summon the village minstrel in preparation for a wedding or other festivity. We have succeeded in tracing many of these minstrels and have recorded their playing.

In this way, we have succeeded in documenting the techniques of execution of the rhythmic, rich and complicated ornamental art form which are characteristic of these older musicians. Even though they appeared relatively late, these recordings comprise a valuable complement to the rich storehouse of transcriptions from the minstrels’ repertoires that we have in our land.

In writing down these notes, however accurately it is done, we cannot, of course, capture more than the framework of a melody. These old minstrels manage — to a surprising degree — to secure skillful pupils who, despite the fact that they themselves seldom perform, still have taken over the tradition in a proper manner and, in many cases, preserve it in an exemplary fashion.

Many of these younger minstrels have now begun to be appreciated by the public and are called upon from time to time for purely concert-type occasions, not as picturesque embellishments to concert programs, but as artistic entities in their own right. These collection efforts are engaged in a desperate race against time. The majority of the old genuine minstrels were between the ages of 70 and 80 years old when we had occasion to record their repertoires, and many of them have now passed away.

Just a few years ago Neiet Ertai, an internationally renowned folk singer who was known as the “Plectrum of the Steppe,” died at the age of 74. But these minstrel tunes are still easier to trace than the ballads which often lead an anonymous life. Therefore, the collection of traditional vocal material has been considerably more difficult and adventuresome than the hunt for instrumental music. But the results have been even more astounding concerning these songs.

Through appeals on the radio and in the newspapers and through the use of all sorts of local contacts, we have been able to trace a rich and ancient vocal tradition. And it is almost exclusively very old people, mainly women, who provided us with this unique material. These ballad singers, as a rule, belong to families with a deep sense of tradition, and in the majority of instances they have learned their ballads from parents or grandparents. And I can say without exception that they all have learned their repertoires as children or while still quite young.

What does the aural tradition include?

Of the approximately 20,000 recordings we have in our folk music archives, the songs comprise about half. A great many of these songs are from a later date (for example, the rich flora of love songs and songs about sensational events). But a great deal is considerably older, for instance the “turkus.” In Turkey, we reserve this term solely for folksongs. There are songs about wars, victories and rebellions there are songs based on legends there are songs about love, pleasure, separation and praise of dignity and songs about absences and sufferings.

That we succeeded in securing hundreds of recordings of such songs of bygone times — sometimes only fragments, to be sure — is, I believe, a rather fine indication of the vitality and will to survive that this tradition embraces. It is not entirely determined, however, whether the ballads represent the oldest and most valuable segments in our collection, despite the fact that they have their roots in Central Asia.

The lullabies can, in certain cases, belong to a time just as ancient, perhaps even older. They have had especially favorable possibilities of living on in a relatively unaffected state because they have filled the obvious function of being simple songs that old people sang, generation after generation, to their children. Even quantitatively, these types of songs assume a prominent place in our collections.

Can you explain more about these recording activities you’ve mentioned?

Even if we know that a good deal of our recorded material has traditions far back in time, we naturally cannot draw any conclusions about what the melodies sounded like in, for example, the Ottoman era. Compositional variations, “singing wrongly,” and the influence of different musical milieus have altered the melodies. But what we can learn from these recordings is in what form these songs and tunes survived during the 18th and 19th centuries. This knowledge affords us the opportunity to interpret the earlier chronicles that we have of long songs and minstrels’ music. Thereby, these recordings also assume a significant scientific value.

Certainly the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) is not a scientific institution, and obviously it is not mainly the scientific qualities of this old traditional material, but rather its value as program material that has made it desirable for us to collect recordings from the rural areas. Nevertheless, one can mainly say that the program and scientific interests in this case pretty much coincide, since the oldest and most genuine material which has the greatest interest from a programming standpoint should also reasonably have the greatest scientific value.

The principal responsibility for the recording and inventorying of materials which elsewhere resides on the various scientific institutions has in Turkey been carried by the State Radio. Scientists who have increasingly devoted themselves to musical research during recent years have become ever more aware of the fact that rapid and effective steps are required to complete the collections and save the last fragments of this dying tradition. However, radio, TV, and the web will continue to bear the responsibility in the form of programs and recordings of making the greater public more familiar with our own musical heritage.

I think that this activity is particularly important right now. The careless use of the designation “folk music” on all sorts of bargain products constitutes a danger, a danger of superficiality, which sooner or later will result in a reaction. The only effective cure is, as far as I can see, to offer the highest imaginable quality without compromises. And quality implies, in this instance, the responsible preservation and dissemination of the genuine living tradition.

Neiet Ertai, who died in 2012 aged 74, was one of the leading representatives of the minstrel tradition in Turkish folk music. (Photo: Sunday’s Zaman, Mustafa Kirazli)

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman