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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Whose Song Is It?

On the subject of musical origination in the turbulent region that Turkey finds itself in, it's ancient "enemies" are reluctant to accept Turkish influences of any kind. There are even examples of fanatical extremes, such as the city of Athens, where any sign of Ottoman buildings or artefacts were knocked down and destroyed after the Greeks managed to win their independence from the Ottoman Empire. If you visit the city today you will see it interestingly devoid of its Ottoman Greece history. The city cleansed itself of its pariah and in doing so destroyed valuable antiques which the world still mourns today.

As the Ottoman Empire was a melting pot of cultures, it also worked both ways and in denying Ottoman influences they were indirectly rejecting their own local contributions to the long-running Empire.

Yet, Greeks and other eastern Europeans haven't managed to wipe from their psyche the 600 year Ottoman influence on their food, music and culture. These inner buildings were far less easier to destroy as they've been woven into the very fabric of their persona. It is also proof that that the Ottoman influence didn't merely stretch to an indifferent administration, which mainly showed itself in the form of tax collecting and the constructions of buildings and monuments.

The Ottoman sultans held the arts in high esteem, inviting foreigners from all across the world to entertain and show off their abilities - artistic, musical and especially culinary.

Ottoman Influences

One such example is the food sweet known as baklava. From humble Assyrian beginnings, to its discovery by Greek sea merchants that brought it to the attention of the chefs in the Ottoman palaces, arguably without the Empire such a dessert would not have been made known to the world.

There is also a strong argument that in the body arts, the form of belly dancing we know today - which has been adopted by many Arabic cultures, especially Egyptian - originated in the palaces of the Ottoman harems. Such dances and dresses were never meant to be seen by male eyes, and were created for the entertainment of the harem women, who dressed enuchs or the slavewomen making them dance to past the time in the harem and the hamams. Male sultans would have had male belly dancers.

Another example is Turkish Classical music, which along with Ottoman roots has Armenian, Greek and Polish influences. Armenians in the first couple of hundred years were the poets and artists of the Empire. Armenians and Greeks even invented makams - their names were given to those makams - and are still being used today (see Cantemir).

Ottoman influence over music was not restricted to the palace. The Alevi minstrals also travelled far and wide and many Turkic folk songs - in the 13th century and through to the emergence of the Ottoman Empire - were spread to other races. These poets and scholars, most from humble peasant beginnings, also began the enlightenment of Islam.

Music was not the food of life for the rich alone.

And these races adopted the music, making it their own. There are also many Iraqi, Pushti (Afganistani) and Hindu melodies which are taken from Ottoman makams, or modes, and the link is lost to all but those that either research it or study the history of music.

Even Ottoman military music was the forefather of Western military music and Western brass and percussion bands.

Whose Song Is It?

On this point, a Bulgarian art movie is concerned about one such folk song which is shared by other countries across the Balkans. Called "Whose Is This Song?" the Bulgarian director starts her journey in researching the origin of a Bulgarian song - only to trace it to the Ottoman Empire and its armies. However, Serbs, Greeks, Bosnians, Bulgarians and many more countries believe the song's origins lie elsewhere, and trying to infer that the song could come from Turkish roots incites hatred and indignance from certain cuitures.

Should Turkish music run a campaign to "bring their songs back home"?


Because what is really important here is the beauty that can come out of such collaboration. The Ottoman Turks could never have created such beauty had it not been for the mixture of cultures it brought together. To have all those wondourous pots of inspiration to dip their minds into or to act as an catalyst made it a hub of creativity - even if only for the myths of the origination of certain things, such as coissants and cappuccinos.

Turkish Music and Artists

Ottoman Empire Links:
Ottoman Empire (BBC Religion)
Discover the Ottomans

Ottoman Military Music Links:
Military Music of the Janissaries, MSN Encarta
Music Since the 13th Century, World Military Bands
The Turkish Band by Gustav Fischer

Alevi & Sufisim Links:
Alevisim Literature
Introduction to Sufi Music and Ritual in Turkey, Irene Markoff
Enjoy an afternoon of mystical music at Sufi concert, York University

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