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Turkish folk music and the bağlama in Ghent (Belgium)


The Turkish migration to Belgium was initiated by the bilateral agreement of 1964, facilitating official

labour migration. The economic crisis of the 1970s lead to an immigration stop in 1974, followed by increased chain migration through family reunification or family formation (De Bock, 2012). At present, Belgium accommodates approximately 150,000 people with Turkish nationality or former Turkish nationality (Schoonvaere, 2013, p. 5). The city of Ghent, a province capital with 250,000 inhabitants, has a large Turkish population of at least 20,000 people (Verhaeghe, Van der Bracht, & Van de Putte, 2012, p. 14), possessing a permanent quality deeply anchored in the city’s social fabric. The majority of the Turks in Ghent originates from the western central Anatolian province of Afyon (in particular the town of

Emirdağ) and adjacent provinces, complemented by a considerable presence from the eastern Anatolian provinces of Elazığ and Ardahan (in particular the town of Posof), and from Istanbul (“Geboorteplaats Turken,” 2012). The regions of origin are indicated on the map below:

Turkish folk music and the bağlama in Ghent (Belgium) 1 T HE T URKISH DIASPORA IN

Fig. 1 Regions of origin of the Turks in Ghent


An ethnographic study of a series of twenty ‘musical events’ (Nketia, 1990; Stone, 1982), involving live performance of Turkish folk music, was conducted. The observed events took place within the city of Ghent or in its direct environment, and involved residents of Ghent as an audience or as employers. The

  • 1 Based on De Bock, 2012 and Verhaeghe, Van der Bracht, & Van de Putte, 2012.

selection of the events was based on maximum variety. The data collection was accomplished by participant observation, semi-structured interviews and audio- and video-recordings. An overview of the attended events is provided in the table below:




Short description

  • 1 Ghent


Oct. 2011


Cultural festival

  • 2 Ghent


Dec. 2011


Turkish evening

  • 3 Rupelmonde


Dec. 2011


Circumcision party

  • 4 Ghent


Jan. 2012


Türkü evening’

  • 5 Ghent


Jan. 2012


Open day of ‘Intercultural Centre’

  • 6 Ghent


Jan. 2012


Türkü evening’

  • 7 Ghent


Feb. 2012


Turkish evening

  • 8 Ghent


Mar. 2012


Karaoke evening of student club

  • 9 Ghent


Mar. 2012


Turkish evening

  • 10 Nazareth


Apr. 2012


Wedding party

  • 11 Temse


Apr. 2012


Benefit evening for the village of Suvermez (Emirdağ)

  • 12 Ghent


Apr. 2012


Türkü evening’

  • 13 Ghent


May 2012


Café concert

  • 14 Ghent


May 2012


Türkü evening’

  • 15 Ghent


May 2012



  • 16 Ghent


May 2012


Student festival of world music school

  • 17 Ghent


May 2012


Cem 2

  • 18 Wachtebeke


May 2012


Open-air festival (seyran)

  • 19 Ghent


Mar. 2013


Official opening of music café

  • 20 Ghent


Oct. 2013


Celebration of 50 years of Turkish migration

Fig. 2 Overview of the attended musical events

The systematic study was of course complemented by long-term ethnographic research, covering many observations, formal and informal interviews and conversations, and by the study of written sources. In addition, eight weeks of field research have been conducted in Turkey (2011-2012). Although the bağlama is an important instrument in different genres, including özgün müzik and other kinds of Turkish popular music, the focus of the present study is on Turkish folk music.



As mentioned in section 1, Ghent has been the stage of a fifty-year history of a substantial Turkish diaspora. The cultural and musical aspirations and activities of the Turkish communities gradually integrated more and more into the overall cultural structure and infrastructure of the city. At present, there

  • 2 A cem (lit. gathering) is a religious ceremony of the alevis, a shii minority in Turkey.

are two türkü bars in Ghent, programming Turkish folk music and özgün müzik besides other genres, and an Intercultural Centre where Turkish music is also an important pillar in its programming. Besides this, there are many Turkish associations and organizations, also contributing with cultural and musical activities. The education of Turkish music takes on different shapes, ranging from formal education in municipal music schools or organized by associations, to informal kinds of education and private lessons. Turkish folk music with all its different forms and styles is an important genre within the Turkish music scene, both in performance and in education. In both fields, the bağlama figures as the most important instrument.


3.2.1 Instrumentation

An analysis of the twenty observed musical events shows that the bağlama is the instrument with the highest prevalence in Turkish folk music performance in Ghent. Only one event did not feature the bağlama. In certain events involving the alternation of different groups, the bağlama was not present in all the line-ups but still at some time during the musical program. The occurrence of instruments throughout the twenty observed events can be seen in the diagram below:

Number of events

12 Davul Guitar/electric guitar Keyboard/synthesizer/electric piano Bağlama/cura Voice 20 10 16 Bendir 14 18 0 4
Guitar/electric guitar
Keyboard/synthesizer/electric piano
Kabak kemane
Classical kemençe
Zilli def
Acoustic piano
Double bass

Fig. 3 Occurrence of instruments (number of events / instrument)

The types of lutes from the bağlama or saz family to be found are diverse. Long necked bağlama’s are as commonly used as short necked bağlama’s, mostly played with their own typical playing technique, and different sizes from cura to meydan sazı – are encountered. The choice for a particular type of instrument by a Turkish performer in Ghent depends on personal preference and in some cases on the performed music. Whichever type of bağlama is used, it is almost always amplified, either by use of external microphones, or via a built-in pickup device. The electronic version of the bağlama, the ‘elektrobağlama’ seems to be less popular in Ghent than in Turkey. The only observed event involving completely acoustic playing was a jam session, during which a handful of performers were seated around a table without any need for amplification. Naturally, acoustic playing will occur more often in private settings.

Even more ubiquitous than the bağlama is the voice. Turkish folk music is a predominantly vocal genre

and, although instrumental renderings of folk songs are becoming more and more usual practice, a purely instrumental Turkish folk music program is still hard to imagine unless it would concern a highly stylized performance. Singing and playing the bağlama are often combined by one person; this was the case in more than half of the observed events. It is a natural way of performing Turkish folk music, rooted

in the tradition of the aşık’s, the wandering bards accompanying themselves on lutes. Although the a cappella rendering of songs is the most basic way of performing Turkish folk music a practice which can still be easily observed in rural contexts in Turkey it proved hard to encounter this practice in contemporary Ghent. Probably in private contexts, this practice still occurs, but in public contexts I never

observed it. It appears that singing without any instrumental accompaniment, most often the bağlama, has become somewhat ‘odd’, as if it would sound ‘naked’ or incomplete to the modern ears of the Turks in Ghent. This is another sign of the thorough invasion of the bağlama into all registers of Turkish folk music. Instruments often combined with the bağlama are the ‘Oriental’ models of synthesizers. Another regularly appearing instrument is the guitar, which sometimes becomes a substitute for the bağlama. The percussion

instruments of davul, bendir and darbuka appeared each in one third of the observed events. It is significant that the combination davul and zurna, which is so common in Turkey, was only found in two events in Ghent (a wedding party and an open-air festival). While Ghent accommodates plenty of good bağlama players, when a zurna player is needed, he has to be sought after in other provinces.

  • 3.2.2 Performance styles and playing techniques

A single Turkish folk song or dance can be performed in plenty of ways, ranging from a traditional, ‘purist’, approach avoiding influences from other musical styles and genres, to a variety of hybrid performance styles. A number of different types of performance styles could be discerned in the attended events in Ghent. Approximately one third of the events involved only a ‘traditional’ performance style, while in other events this ‘traditional’ approach was combined with elements from Western classical

music, or influenced by the jazz idiom. More than half of the observed events involved a certain degree of influence from pop music.

  • 1. A performance style in line with the tradition is essentially monophonic, although it can involve idiomatic kinds of polyphony, namely the use of a drone or parallel fourths or fifths. It develops within the Turkish tone system built around the microtonal modi of the makam’s or ayak’s, and the flexible metrical system of Turkish folk music involving additive rhythms and changing meters. In a traditional performance style, regional motives, rhythms, ornaments and techniques are essential, summarized in the concepts of tavır and its vocal counterpart ağız

This performance style was observed during the open day and the student festival in the ‘Intercultural Centre’, during Turkish evenings in music cafés and during the cem ceremony.

  • 2. A performance style characterized by the adoption of elements from Western classical music can involve tonal harmonies, chords or chord sequences, and favor an equal temperament at the expense of the Turkish microtonal tone system. Typical procedures are the insertion of virtuoso phrases, scales and arpeggios, particular ornaments, chromaticism, and the addition of second voices or the doubling of the melody in thirds or sixths. It could also involve a more experimental musical idiom, a more abstract character, closer to contemporary Western classical music. This style does not occur often in Ghent; it seems to be rarely applied by Turkish musicians from Ghent, but I witnessed certain traits of it in performances of guest musicians from Turkey, such as Erkan Oğur, Erdal Erzincan and Musa Kurt.

  • 3. Influence from jazz can manifest itself through the use of jazz scales and harmonies, the use of equal temperament instead of microtones, the application of swing and of formal procedures from jazz (exposition of the theme improvisatory development recapitulation of the theme). This performance style was observed during the cultural festival, two café concerts and the celebration of fifty years of Turkish migration.

The last two performance styles concern hybrids of Turkish folk music and pop music. Influence from pop music can manifest itself in two degrees: as a subtle, and as an overt pop influence.

  • 4. The subtly influenced style displays vocal and instrumental timbres specific to pop music, and an increased amplification of the sound. Pop harmonizations occur, chords originating in a guitar idiom are used. Microtonal intervals are standardized or the equal temperament is used, while the rhythm is less complex and the meter usually regular. More repetition occurs and riffs are applied. A certain simplification is also manifest in the abandonment of regional characteristics and idiomatic ornamentation. This performance style occurred during Turkish/türkü evenings and during the karaoke evening.

  • 5. The overtly pop-influenced style displays a clear pop sound, involving hard beats, heavy basses, high amplification, distortion, and sound effects. Electr(on)ic instruments take over the role of acoustic instruments. Fast tempos and regular meters are typical, as are repetition and the use of riffs. In general, a higher degree of standardization and simplification of the musical material occurs. The harmony is completely compatible with the pop idiom. This performance style was observed in large-scale parties such as the benefit evening, the circumcision party and the wedding party.


The bağlama can play different roles and acquire different values, depending on the kind and function of the musical event in which it is featured, as well as on the collective and individual nature of the people involved.

  • 3.3.1 Turkish eveningsor Türkü evenings

During those kinds of events, the use of the bağlama is expected, almost obligatory, it is inherent to the events nature. In contemporary Turkey as well as in the diaspora, a singer accompanying himself on the bağlama has become the iconic image of the living tradition of Turkish folk music performance. This basic image can be enriched by extra instrumentalists or singers, which add other colours to the primary sound of saz ve söz (bağlama and voice). During Türkü evenings, typically involving a predominantly

Turkish audience, the bağlama thus fulfils its role as a carrier of cultural meanings, in this way contributing to the construction or consolidation of certain forms of cultural identity. The bağlama together with the performed music represents Turkishness and connects the people who recognize this meaning.

  • 3.3.2 Festivals

A second example is provided by the festivals, which are usually aimed at a general public of Turkish and non-Turkish people. The very nature of such festivals thus involves an intercultural function. The use of the bağlama will have different connotations for the Turkish and the non-Turkish attendees. The Turkish attendees will attach meaning and values to the instrument comparable to those of the Türkü evenings, and in general their interpretation will be more pertinent than the interpretation by the non-Turkish attendees. But for both groups, the bağlama and the performed music are a typical exponent of ‘Turkish culture’ and as such represent Turkishness. The Turkish attendees will experience a connection through common recognition of values, besides a feeling of difference and/or similarity with respect to the non-Turkish attendees. A comparable dichotomy of separation and connection will be perceived by the non-Turkish attendees.

  • 3.3.3 Wedding and circumcision parties

Also compatible with the role performed in the Türkü evenings, is the role of the bağlama during wedding and circumcision parties. These kinds of events typically bring people together who are connected through family and friendship ties. The performance of Turkish folk music and the use of the bağlama acquires ritual connotations here. It accompanies and supports the performance of a rite of passage, signifying a transition from one position in society to another. On this kind of occasions, folk music is inevitably and universally present and functions as a vehicle of important social, cultural and religious values and meanings. The position of the bağlama however is somewhat ambiguous, since this instrument is in fact not essential to the rituals of circumcision and marriage, but has been adopting that role recently. Historically, the traditional instrument combination of davul and zurna and a cappella singing are the true symbolic accompaniment of these rituals, each in their own place. But gradually, the bağlama is taking over the central position of the davul and zurna, a development clearly observable in Ghent.

  • 3.3.4 Cem

The central position of the bağlama in the alevi culture is illustrated by its denomination “telli Koran” – Koran with strings. The importance attached by the alevis to the bağlama is much higher than is witnessed in other social groups. The instrument is inextricably interwoven with their cultural, social, religious and political identity and has become a symbol of it. Therefore, playing the bağlama or listening to it is never trivial for alevis, whatever the context or kind of event may be. Alevi bağlama playing in Türkü evenings or on festivals thus adds an extra level of meaning to the event. The music performed on the bağlama during the cem ceremonies directly invokes religious feelings and ritual actions. As was the case in the previous examples, the use of the bağlama involves various symbolic connotations and other associations, and, comparable to the third example, it surpasses the cultural and social level to enter the ritual and religious level. But unique to this fourth example is the direct, performative way of functioning.



Compared to Turkey, the bağlama manifests itself in a similar way and holds an analogous position in Ghent. Yet, its omnipresence appears to be slightly larger than in Turkey, at the expense of other traditional Turkish instruments or a cappella singing. It figures less frequently in purely Turkish folk music programs and traditional performance practices than in Turkey; it rather finds its place in mixed programs involving different genres often alevi or özgün music and hybrid performance styles. On a contextual level, the instrument’s cultural meanings and symbolic values in Ghent are similar to those in contemporary Turkey, and the way it functions in different kinds of musical events is comparable. Yet, the fact that the setting is situated in a diaspora context adds an extra dimension to these meanings and functions.