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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Five Turkish Things?

Symbol of the Turkish clan or "oghuz" that began the Ottoman Empire/Mevlüt Kılıç
Although the Ottoman Empire is historically referred to as the Turkish Empire because it was founded by a clan of Turks, the reality was that it grew and grew to become one of the most powerful states in the world as a multinational and multilingual empire.

It's ruling royal family shared Ukrainian, Greek and Turkish ancestry; the first introducer of musical notes among the Turks was not a Turk at all, but a Moldavian prince (more about him further below).

The empire's architects, teachers, musicians, builders and its leading officials hailed from all over the world, taking advantage of a system that allowed you to rise within the ranks - whether you were there by choice, by force or by exile - no matter your ancestry. Tales of rags to riches and then some.

Hence the question mark in the title. The things I'm going to share are Turkish things, and not, because they exist as a direct result of diversity, and sharing, and contribution.

It's what attracts me most to my heritage, that it is such a melting pot of loves and desires and people of all different colours. The Ottoman Empire was at the centre of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for over six centuries - over half a millennia - and what rubbed off revealed a lot of beauty now left to the world - as well as a lot of barbarity.

Below I share just five of these things of beauty with my comments; five distinctly Turkish things, and yet, not, because they rise and go beyond mere race. Music, food and the city of Istanbul. We have loaned them off the Ottoman, who in turn loaned them off someone else, who in turn did the same. The beauty shared is human, as the products from unity always are. Enjoy.

1. Music: Kâtibim in Piano (Cyril de Saint-Amour)

In a 2004 post titled "Whose Song Is It?", I mention the undercurrent of the multicultural and multinational Ottoman influences across Europe musically. One Bulgarian director went in search of the roots of a Bulgarian song, only to discover it had Ottoman origins. The modern Turkish song known as "Kâtibim" or "Üsküdara" has a melody that will be instantly recognisable across the Balkans, Anatolia and the Middle East.

Some Americans may even have heard Eartha Kitt's tongue-in-cheek (and unintelligible) re-take on it as "Uska Dara" (A Turkish Tale) - a 1953 send-up song based on the Turkish folk song about a woman and her secretary (the kâtib or clerk in the tale) travelling to Üsküdar in Istanbul. Street legend has it that Kitt's record company chose her the most foreign sound thing to sing to dissuade her from becoming a singer and to stick to dance.

I discovered a particularly moving rendition of the old classic by Cyril de Saint-Amour, an amateur French pianist. Played in this way, it would make a great intro into the wedding march as you watch your bride walk up the aisle. Or you could just kick it off with Kitt."

2. Music: Kâtibim in Ensemble (Jordi Savall)

Another take on the classic Istanbul folk song above, this time by a master of early music, Jordi Savall. If you haven't heard of Savall, then you have sorely missed out on this distinguished Spanish instrumentalist from Catalonia. Savall's works (now released under his own label, Alia-Vox) lean more towards medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music, but he has forayed into Ottoman classical music, too - most notably releasing the Prince of Moldavia, Dimitrie Cantemir's 17th and 18th Century Ottoman compositions. There is just something about early music and its neglected musical treasures that really hooks me in; it may take a while for modern ears to catch the vibe, but once you do, it holds on to you.

The above video is a prime example, give it a few moments, and see where it takes you. Here, Savall creates the definitive Ottoman ensemble as his group perform "Üsküdara" at the Trinitatis church in Copenhagen, part of a concert during the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is recognized as Denmark's highest musical honour, and was awarded to Savall in 2012. First they play the song in four different languages, starting with Turkish, then there is an interlude with a recording by Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras, who specialised in early music. Her voice, without understanding a word she sings, reduced my girlfriend to tears.

Figueras was married to Savall, and regularly performed with her husband until she passed away in 2011, after a long battle with cancer. Savall's face when his late wife's voice comes in for the lament or interlude is just heart-breaking before the big finish, when all four languages are unified together under the same melody. This is the type of ensemble music that just cries out to be played during a wedding meal. It's a marriage of the best sort."

3. Food: Gluten-free Baklava (The Guardian)

I'm one of those lucky people that has the digestion of an ox and don't put on weight easily. I can eat anything, and enjoy eating well. Baklava is one of my favourite desserts, and is a dish that has been adopted by many nations as their own. I like the idea presented here that the way to make this dish more accessible to different lifestyle diets is to mix it with another cuisine. Diversity in its infinite combinations make us all the richer, and life definitely sweeter. Works for me as metaphor and as a motto for life. Split it up into portions and gift them in little boxes or papered pouches. Perfect for a wedding day reception goodie bag. Your guests will adore you even more than they already do."

4. Istanbul: Things To Do For the Modern Byzantine (NYT)

Makes a great honeymoon itinerary, updated to 2014 of course. What would be on your cheat sheet? Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman? Whatever it would include, for a real slice of this city it would have to be a hybrid of many different tastes and sounds, sprinkled with the salt of the centuries, styled on modern sensibilities. But then that's Istanbul for you." (The NYT article is dated 2007 so if the above banner link expires over time you can use this screencap.)

5. Istanbul: Of Things to Come (MSN UK)

In the race to build Europe's tallest buildings, the skyscraper is getting taller all the time and some of the most imposing designs are right here in Europe. Istanbul is part of the innovation. Large constructions and modern architecture fascinates me, it's a team effort and nothing gets built on its own. But it has to be done responsibly, in harmony with the environment, with respect for the historical skyline and without wasting resources. Who knows what Istanbul will look like - for better or worse - when it comes to renewing vows or a second honeymoon?" (MSN UK's advertorials have a habit of expiring, so just in case you can use this screencap.)

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