Turkish delights

Sounds from the crossroads of Europe and Asia

Hemmed in by Greece and Bulgaria on one side and Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria on the other, Turkey has always held a unique position at the frontier of Europe and Asia. The presense of large expanses of water to the north and south — the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea, respectively — has helped ensure almost all east-west human traffic over the millennia has been funneled across the land. This has resulted in some fascinating music, distilled from centuries of colliding cultures.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that the Traditional Crossroads label should be the ones to issue a lavishly annotated and illustrated survey series of Music of the Sultans, Sufis & Sereglio, performed by the young Ottoman music ensemble Lalezar together with guest vocalists. The first two of the four CDs are titled Volume I Sultan Composers and Volume II Music of the Dancing Boys. Both feature an instrumental mix that includes tanbûr (lute), ney (flute), kemence (upright three-stringed fiddle), kanun (plucked zither) and assorted percussion.

Music from the latter days of the classical Ottoman period of 1350-1600, and the ensuing centuries of chaotic wars and homicidal purges, is the focus of Sultan Composers. The imperial sultans themselves, who typically spent their days waging bloody campaigns to oust each other, were sensitive souls by night. Not only were they (like many rulers through the ages) patrons of the arts, but many of them were prolific composers and performers of intricate art music themselves.

One of the highlights here is the 15-minute "Sevkutarab Kar," the magnum opus of Sultan Selim III (1789-1808), boasting a Persian gazal (poetic song) text which has never been recorded before. The last sultan, Mehmed VI (1918-1922), weighs in with a prophetic, "I am sick at heart with exile," written shortly before he was banished to Italy and replaced by a cousin (who was given a lesser title).

In Volume II Music of the Dancing Boys we see a fascinating cross-pollination of seemingly irreconcilable traditions: the lowly tavern of the lusty infidel and formal Sultan court of the holy Muslim. The kocek (dancing boys) were a craze for over two centuries in the Ottoman courts and taverns alike, boys and men who dressed as women and performed erotic dances blending Arabic, Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish elements. Denounced for their androgynous characteristics and loose morals by early visitors from the West — and by the imperial authorities themselves in the 1800s — the kocek eventually left Turkey for Egypt.

The musical legacy of the dancing boys is an intoxicating mix of Sufi, Balkan and classical Anatolian influences, some of which survives in popular Turkish music today. Originally performed in bawdy taverns or at public celebrations such as Imperial circumcisions, military victories or to mark the end of Ramadan, the dancing boys often shared the bill with swirling dervishes and were sometimes accompanied by the Imperial orchestra. It is said that the majority were of Greek and Armenian extraction, and some of the better-known dancers were Jewish.

Another taste of the Greek/ Bulgarian/Turkish interface can be found on The Road to Kesan (Traditional Crossroads), performed by an ensemble led by clarinetist Selim Sesler. Turkish Rom (Gypsy) music from in and around Thrace, a city of 40,000 near the border with Greece, is highlighted. It's all very lively, with rhythmic meters of 9/8, 7/8 and 16/8 not uncommon.

Isolated from the rest of the world until the late 1970s by a lack of paved roads, the villages of the area retain distinctive cultural practices. Very local dance tunes, wedding medleys, drinking songs and love songs are presented here, sung by Sesler and another group member, backed by clarinet, violin, lute, kanun (plucked zither) and percussion. While individual villages in this small border area have their own dialects, customs, music and dance repertoire, some breaking down of the barriers has taken place in recent years. Folks have learned each other's tunes and dances and incorporated them into their own. If this is what paved roads bring, how will they handle the Internet?

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