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Turkish folk music in Ghent (Belgium):

Musical knowledge in a diaspora context

Conference paper European Association for Music in Schools ( Bolu, 2010) & British Forum on Ethnomusicology (Oxford, 2010)


Aim and methodology

The Belgian city of Ghent, a medium-large city and province capital of East-Flanders, accommodates an estimated 25.000 inhabitants (or ten percent of the population) of Turkish descent. The immigration of Turkish migrant workers started in 1964 and their integration process into the socio-cultural fabric of the city has developed different phases, evolving from loose ethnic networks to relatively closed ethnic enclaves and recently to a more interactive ethnic mosaic.

In the diverse ‘pool’ of music genres possibly relevant for a Turkish socio-cultural community, Turkish folk music fulfils a prominent place. Almost every section of a Turkish society or immigrant community embraces this musical genre at some points in daily life. Even if one does not deliberately chooses to listen to Turkish folk music, one will be confronted with this genre during multifarious private or public parties or celebrations within his community. Turkish folk music appears to be indispensable in any Turkish community, still fulfilling particular social and cultural roles and remaining a vehicle of vital social and cultural meanings.

To map out the theoretical knowledge about Turkish folk music possessed by its performers in Ghent, a qualitative survey has been conducted. The population for this study consisted of musicians presenting themselves primarily as artists (and sometimes secondarily as teacher or entertainer); apprentice musicians or only privately performing musicians were excluded. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eleven musicians: nine Turkish and one Belgian musician primarily dealing with Turkish folk music, and one Turkish musician practicing folk music only besides his main activities in the Turkish classical music field.

Possible knowledge aspects about Turkish folk music were divided into three main fields:

a music-theoretical field, a performance-related field, and a music-sociological field. The music theory field concerns internal musical organization: tonal organization, time organization and formal organization. Music notation was also positioned into this field. The performance field deals with aspects of performance practice and interpretation, such as variation, improvisation, ornamentation and texture. The music-sociological field focuses on contexts, meanings and functions of Turkish folk music.


The music-theoretical knowledge field

Musical notation

Almost all respondents recognized the importance of music notation and reading skills. Enlarged musical insight and increased accessibility of the repertoire were mentioned as the most important advantages of knowing music notation. Three musicians considered these skills superfluous, referring to their disposal of a well-developed ear and memory. Most of the musicians possessed skills confined to being able to follow the contours of written music. Some musicians were able to write notes in addition to reading them. Most musicians admitted that their skills were decreasing, due to a lack of practice.

Tonal organisation

Musical knowledge concerning this field was generally situated on a rather implicit or practical level not on an explicit or theoretical level. Music theoretical questions were preferably illustrated on the instrument or by singing, instead of verbally explained.

Comparing with the Western system proved to be the most productive way to define the typical characteristics of the Turkish system, namely horizontality and monophony. Every musician was aware of the larger number of tonal subdivisions existing in the Turkish tonal system, but their exact place and quantity were not always consciously known. The subdivisions were called ‘commas’, ‘microtones’ and most frequently, but incorrectly, ‘quartertones’. Some respondents mentioned the fact that microtones are not confined to Eastern music, but were also found in certain kinds of Western music, such as ancient Greek and Byzantine music. Few musicians were aware of the differences between the Turkish tuning system and the Western equal temperament.

Concerning the relation between Turkish folk music and Turkish classical music, some musicians argued that folk music uses a smaller number of microtones than classical music, but also that this gamut can be extended according to the needs of the music or the performer. The exact difference between the classical and folk music system remained undefined throughout the interviews. All musicians possess some knowledge about the makam system, which is defined by the classical musician as ‘a system of rules for melody formation’. Most of the musicians transplanted the makam system, which is more likely to be associated with Turkish classical music, easily to the folk musical field. The term ayak was known to some as the (academical) folk music equivalent of makam. The makams or ayaks of Turkish folk music were considered as differing in name and/or in number from the classical makams. Most of the musicians knew some names of makams or ayaks, and were able to recognise, play or sing the most common ones.

Time organisation

Regarding terminology, the concept of ‘rhythm’ was usually used in the sense of ‘metre’, while the term ‘tempo’ also caused confusion. Rhythm and metre were considered as essential aspects of Turkish folk music, connected to poetry and song texts, dance, melody, and performance aspects such as plectrum strokes. The classical musician defined the Turkish metric usul system as being cyclic versus the rigid (divisive) Western system. Concerning the metrical construction, some musicians pointed out that all metres exist out of combined units of 2 or 3 beats. Symmetrical and asymmetrical metres were also


mentioned, along with the fact that one time signature generally possesses different distribution possibilities. Almost all respondents spontaneously named or illustrated typical kinds of metre belonging to certain regions or genres, which transformed the discourse into a more concrete level.

Formal organisation

While rhythm was related to the verses of song texts, the larger structures of poetry were considered as defining the longer musical phrases and the general shape of a Turkish folk song. A strophic structure (with repetitions) was discerned besides a through-composed form (without repetitions).

Defining musical forms and genres turned out to be complicated. It didn’t become clear whether different genres should be associated with different regions, or more general forms are existing under different names in the different regions. Most musicians mentioned large covering categories of Turkish folk music, such as uzun hava and kırık hava, or türkü. The characteristics of specific genres however, were not easily described. Genres were characterised either by extra- or meta-musical parameters such as region, instrument and/or dance, or by musical parameters as tempo and metre. Sometimes characterisation involved the concept ‘style’, which in turn was defined by the parameters rhythm, melody and tavır. Tavır, a concept signifying ‘manner, style’, was used to denote region-specific playing styles, involving plectrum techniques or (under the name of its vocal pendant ağız) singing styles. Tavır and ağız are crucial concepts in defining regional styles and genres and in the performance-related discourse.

The performance-related knowledge field

Knowledge in the performance field turned out to be often situated on an implicit, non- verbal level, as was already the case in the music-theoretical field. Aspects of performance practice were easily illustrated on the instrument or by singing, while verbalising often unwittingly turned into a more abstract discourse.

Concrete constituting aspects of performance practice which were spontaneously mentioned by the respondents were (in order of importance): ornamentation and trills, dialect and pronunciation, singing techniques and ağız, plectrum techniques and tavır, tempo and phrasing. Dynamics were not spontaneously mentioned.

On the ‘philosophical’ level, different attitudes concerning performance practices of Turkish folk music emerged from the interviews. Rather ‘conservative’ attitudes were:

trying to imitate the original performer, following the tavır/ağız of the region in question, relying on the scores published by the TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) and using the appropriate regional instrumentation. Many musicians nonetheless recognised the impracticability of equalling the specific tavır or ağız of another performer and of a region other than the own region of origin. As rather ‘progressive’ attitudes can be seen: playing the music on alternative Turkish folk instruments, developing a personal style out of different examples, improvising on the basis of the existing repertoire, and adding Western elements (amplification, electronic instruments or other Western instruments, harmonisation, chords or polyphony, features of diverse Western music styles).


Variation was generally accepted, on the condition that it be limited, namely in the form of ornamentation, small additions or omissions, tempo fluctuations and rhythmical variations. About improvisation, visions differed more widely. It did not become clear to which extent and in which cases improvisation opportunities occur, and there was no unanimity about the question whether vocal or instrumental improvisation is more common. However, views converged on the recognition of the introductory uzun hava form as being the pre-eminent improvisation opportunity. Improvisation, like interpretation and performance practice in general, was considered to be based on the knowledge of existing models and repertoire.

The music-sociological knowledge field

In this last field too, concrete knowledge was alternated with more general opinions.

It was agreed upon the impossibility of retrieving the exact context, reason/occasion and period of origin and the precise author of the largest part of Turkish folk music, apart from certain exceptions and the most recent repertoire. Only since the registration and notation of Turkish folk music by Turkish state organisations from the first half of the twentieth century, information concerning the source musician (transmitting musician) and the place and date of recording are known.

According to a few musicians, traditional folk songs are still being collected today, while others asserted that nowadays only predictable, simple love songs are installing themselves in the TRT repertoire. The actual versus the historical meanings and functions of Turkish folk music were perceived as largely different. While folk music in the past was said to originate in an organic and functional way, present-day so-called ‘folk songs’ were considered as composed in an artificial, abstract (non-functional) way. Entertainment was said to have become their function and commerce their rationale, which evoked complaints about a loss of originality and quality.

Nevertheless, Turkish folk music was perceived as universal, still meeting present-day needs of the audience and musicians. As frequently occurring themes were mentioned:

(often unattainable) love, homesickness, war, farewell and blood feud. Regarding function, the following genres were spontaneously mentioned: religious songs, lamentations, political or social songs, dance music (recreational or ritual), music within the marriage rituals, lullabies, children’s songs, shepherds songs, market vendors songs and walking songs.

Folk music was generally considered as a way of life and as closely related to all events happening during lifetime and all stages of life. The musical characteristics, texts and dances of Turkish folk music were considered as closely interwoven with cultural traditions and living conditions, such as the way of life, the environment, the financial situation, the needs and the cultural characteristics of the people concerned. Certain old traditions were mentioned as still persisting nowadays, such as the aşıks (bards) with their improvisation duels or the cems (religious ceremonies performed by the alevishia minorities of Turkey).

Texts were considered as essential in Turkish folk music, while their interpretation often seemed to involve difficulties, due to their connectedness with, sometimes bygone,


specific traditions or contexts. The language of song texts was described as difficult, metaphoric or literary. The sometimes nonsensical or superficial nature of Turkish folk music texts was mentioned by the Belgian musician.


In the music-theoretical field, notation skills were considered as very important, but not all respondents had sufficiently developed skills at their disposal. The tonal organisation of Turkish music was generally perceived as differing from the Western system, but not in a radical, incompatible way. Explicit theoretical knowledge about the pitch and melodic organisation of Turkish folk music (if necessary in comparison with the classical system) could be still further developed. Metre and rhythm, as well as tonal organisation, were approached in a practical, rather implicit way and inextricably associated with concrete musical genres, as with song texts, dance forms and performance techniques. Musical forms were also related to textual structures; genres were usually defined by certain musical and meta-musical parameters, and regional styles by specific performance-related aspects. Explicit formulation of concrete musical features is still further developable.

Performance-related knowledge invoked either an implicit and practical approach or an abstract-philosophical discourse. Depending on the musician’s attitude(s) concerning the performance of the traditional repertoire, a broad range of interpretational styles turned out to be valid, involving ‘authentic’ performance as well as freer or westernised styles. Improvisation was one of the most discussable topics.

The original and actual meanings and functions of the repertoire were considered as very important and seemed to be in general quite well-known by the musicians. This knowledge turned to be based on ad hoc source consulting and text interpretation, as well as on acquired acquaintance with cultural traditions and living conditions.


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