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The Silk Road Came to Washington


What is the Hagia Sophia
doing in the shadow of the Washington Monument? The famed museum of Istanbul is not exactly there, only a replica about as tall as you are. It’s part of a folk festival celebrating the ancient Silk Road, which began in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, went north and south of China's Takla Makan Desert, and through Central and Western Asia to the eastern end of the Mediterranean. A wealth of cultures and traditions lay along the route, and they come to life in the heart of Washington as well.

“The Silk Road,” the theme of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, celebrated the living traditional arts of peoples of Silk Road lands. The ancient Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes. Ideas, culture, music and art that crossed the mountains and deserts of Central Asia to connect East Asia and the Mediterranean.

Examples of these were on display at the festival. Twenty-six countries were represented and more than 350 artists participated. “Connecting cultures and creating trust” was the slogan. 1 million visitors enjoyed it from June 26-July 7.

Great cellist and Artistic Director of the Silk Road Project Yo-Yo Ma said that “The Silk Road is mostly remembered as a string of fabled places — Samarkand, Nishapur, Bukhara, Kashgar. For me, however, the Silk Road has always been fundamentally a story about people, and how their lives were enriched and transformed through meeting other people who were at first strangers. By starting a conversation and building shared trust, strangers could become allies, partners, and friends, learning from one another along the way and working creatively together.”

In Washington, enter through one of these "sentinels of arrival," or landmarks along the ancient Silk Road and you’ll be in a different world:

*     St. Mark's Square in Venice
*     Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) mosque/church/museum in Istanbul
*   Registan Square in Samarkand
*    Xi'an Bell Tower
*   The great gate to Todaiji Temple in Nara

Each of these landmarks housed a stage that reflected a different performance tradition. As you sat in “Istanbul Crossroads” tent in those typically hot and humid summer days of Washington, your five senses worked intensely. In addition to the audio-visual feasts, the smells of cinnamon, roasted almonds and curry could make you dizzy.

In the tent, your day could start with Sufi ritual music and dance with Alevi Semah of Hubyar, followed by the music of Rajasthan. Then the Urhoy Choir would take you to Assyrian Voices. Later, Shoghaken Ensemble could bring folk music of Armenia to you. How about Bezmârâ: Sounds from the Sultan’s Palace?

Turhal Cultural Association’s Alevi semah of Hubyar presented a colorful performance. Their ritual started slowly with sure steps. The Alevis were viewed with suspicion because of their revolt against the Ottoman Sunni authority. Their religious musical services are called cem. Accompanied by sung mystical poetry and the instrument known as bağlama or saz (plucked folk lute with frets), its purpose is not only spiritual. The ritual also serves to reinforce social solidarity through teaching the doctrines of the sect.

Their hands and arms symbolize birds. As the right hand is up, the left one is down meaning what’s received from God should be given to the people. As the tempo of the music increases, their figures become more complex and intense. Semah has been customary in nomadic societies’ religious rituals. In nomadic life, women and men played and equal role in daily activities as in the religious ceremonies. They were not separated by strict rules.

Whirling in semah symbolizes that nothing stands still but moves and changes. A guitar and ney
(an end-blown flute) duo called “Yansımalar” reflect the. Şenol Filiz, a member of old Ottoman music ensemble called Bezmârâ plays ney. Birol Yayla plays tanbur (a long-necked lute) and kopuz (a primitive stringed instrument) for Bezmârâ. But when they are together as a duo “Yansımalar,” a feast of alternative music combines ancient and modern.

And Bezmârâ… What is it? The group explains (*):

“The Bezmara ensemble, which specializes in early Ottoman music, was founded in 1996 together with the launch of a musicological project designed to revive the performance on early instruments of compositions to be found in ancient manuscripts which had up to then neglected by contemporary artists. Fikret Karakaya was able to carry out this project thanks to the support of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies and with the help of the American musicologist, Walter Feldman.

Instruments such as the ceng, the sehrud, the Ottoman Court kopuz, the metal-string kanun, the pear shaped tanbur and the cheeked ud, which cannot be found either in museums or in private collections, were reconstructed on the basis of miniature paintings or written sources. Some of these instruments had not been in use for three or four centuries. Furthermore, there was no information on how they should be played.

Fikret Karakaya, who has been performing on the kemence
for Istanbul [Public] Radio since 1982, set about rediscovering the ancient techniques of performance on the ceng. The famous tanbur player, Birol Yayla, succeeded in obtaining an irreproachable sound on the kopuz; as these two instruments never co-existed, he is able to play both the tanbur and kopuz in the ensemble. The performance style of the distinguished ney player Senol Filiz made him an ideal interpreter of these works. Serap Caglayan, who plays the modern kanun, quickly adapted to the sixteenth-century metal-string kanun, Kemal Caba, a violinist with Istanbul [Public] Radio since 1982, soon acquired great technical competence on the kemence. Osman Kirlikci, a performer on the ud for Istanbul [Public] Radio, quickly got used to the sehrud.

The kanun player Ihsan Ozer had already shown his skill in santur. On the other hand, it was only as the result of considerable effort that the flautist Tugay Basar was able to master the miskal, an extremely difficult instrument. Mahinur Ozustun, a performer on the kemence and also on the daire, is one of the ensemble's two percussionists. Kamil Bilgin, who plays the nakkare, quickly assimilated the early rhythmic patterns. As for the ud player Akgun Col, he experienced no difficulty at all in playing the sixteenth-century ud.

The Bezmara ensemble, which performs the works noted by Dimitrie Cantemir and which have not been heard for three centuries, gave many concerts in 1998, among them being one at the Palais de France in Istanbul and at the Topkapi Palace.”

At the Silk Road Festival, Bezmârâ
performed unique examples from the Ottoman music. Their style was not a crowd-pleaser, but those “strange” tunes have drawn a number of people out of curiosity.

A friend told me that she didn’t know the Ottomans had such a sophisticated form of music. Somebody else was also surprised back in the 15th century. American musicologue Walter Feldman tells us that story.

In the 15th century, Sultan Bayezid II’s son Korkut was governor of Amasya. Korkut was also a famed musician. According to Ottoman sources, he had invented a musical instrument called rûh-efzâ, a member of the tanbur family. One day, the Iranian ud virtuoso Zeyn al-Abidin was in Anatolia and he visited court of Prince Korkut. Zeyn al-Abidin, thought no Anatolian Turk could possibly be learned in the Islamic art music tradition, which was then centered in Iran and Central Asia. He played a simple folkloric song for Korkut. Prince Korkut told him, “You have behaved to me in accordance with the saying of the Prophet, ‘Speak to people according to the level of their intelligence,’ since you think I am an ignoramus. But I too have some skill in this art.” Then Korkut brought out his rûh-efzâ lute and played a concert entirely of his own composition. Zeyn al-Abidin confessed his embarrassment.

Most of us are unaware of the Ottoman sultans’ deep interest in music. Nevertheless, Feldman gives us all the details. To name a few, Bayezid II in 1400s; Murat IV in 1600s; and Mahmud I, Abdulhamid I and Selim III in 1700s; Abdulaziz in 1800s. They played various musical instruments, created masterpiece compositions, patronized both Turkish and Western music, sometimes blended the two.

A late Ottoman ruler, Sultan Vahdeddin was involved in both Ottoman and Western music. He played piano and kanun, and also compiled a major collection of Turkish music notations. Among his few compositions that survive today is called Hicran ile dil (I am sick at heart with exile).

The Silk Road, in Washington on the National Mall, stirred our interest and opened a window to the world's riches. As Yo-Yo Ma reflects, “Look deeply enough into any one, and you'll find elements of others. Discovering what's shared, and what can be appropriated, refined, and restyled, is the essential work of cultural exchange and innovation.”


(*) Yonca Poyraz Dogan works as an international broadcaster at the Voice of America in Washington, www.amerikanansesi.com or www.voanews.com/turkish
(**) Information from Bezmârâ CD's program notes.

This issue dedicated to such distinguished author Karen ARMSTRONG &
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