Oudmigrations launch concert


By Rachel Beckles Willson

Oudmigrations was launched on 13 April, 2016 with a concert in one of London’s most beautiful salons, Music at Mansfield Street. Our programme began with some of the earliest Ottoman pieces of all, a number of which are associated with Persian musicians at the court of Selim I (1512-1520). We made a move into the 19th century to trace the Ottoman tradition as it developed in the Egyptian Nahda (Renaissance). We also presented early 20th-century Egyptian settings of Andalusian poetry, along with a range of more recent music from Turkey, Armenia and Iraq. The two ouds played were made by Garabet der Bedrossian, an Armenian based in Damascus (1959); and Faruk Türünz, a Turkish luthier living in Istanbul (2013).

Performers: Rachel Beckles Willson (oud), Nilufar Habibian (qanun), Erdem Özdemir (bağlama), Karim Othman Hassan (ney and kemancheh), Michel Moushabeck (percussion), Yara Salahiddeen (voice), Ahmad AlSalhi (violin).

2 ouds baglama

Osman Pașa – Küçük muhammes (hüseyni)
Eyyübli Mehmed Çelebi – unnamed piece (arazbar)

Something remarkable happened at the Ottoman court during the 17th century. Whereas music there had long paralleled the (Persian) Timurid court at Herât and was probably less sophisticated, by 1700 a set of ensembles and repertoires had emerged that were particular to the Ottomans. Oud players, who had enjoyed the highest status of instrumentalists in the 16th-century Ottoman court ensemble, were increasingly sidelined. By 1650 the oud was no longer part of the official ensemble, presumably because it was too redolent of broader Perso/Islamic musical practices to support the expressly ‘Ottoman’ tradition under development.

Our first two pieces framed this shift. They survive in notations made by Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), a Polish slave-musician and translator who converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki; and Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), the Moldavian Prince, musician and man of letters who lived in exile in Constantinople from 1687 to 1710. Osman Pașa’s Küçük muhammes is archaic in style, indebted to the peşrev form developed by Persian musicians at the court in the 16th century, although composed by an Ottoman Turk. Çelebi’s piece in the makam arazbar probably dates from the 18th century, as Çelebi was one of the musicians who helped Cantemir with his Notations.

Unnamed Persian (?) composer – unnamed piece (eviç)
Unnamed Persian (?) composer – Gülistān (Rose Garden, pençgah)

The Ottoman court repertoire seems to have recovered from a stagnant period in the 16th century thanks to the arrival of Persians musicians, some captured during Sultan Selim I’s conquests, and others arriving as trained professionals. In this period court musicians were a very mixed team, apparently with relatively few Turkish Ottomans among them. Their origins included the Crimea, Persia and India.

This multiplicity continued later, and also involved Armenians, Jews and a growing number of Turks, but increasingly all were understood as contributing to, and were schooled in, a tradition rooted in Istanbul. The Persians were never fully assimilated in historical thinking, probably because they had provided such a distinct contribution as a group. Our notated sources identify açemler compositions (the word used for ‘Persian’ that came to mean a more general ‘foreigner’) as such, without naming composers. These two pieces are examples.

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Gazi Giray Han  – Bashraf (ajam ashiran), Cairo style, 1906
Sayyīd Darwish  – Zuruni

Musicians leaving Istanbul spread its urban music well beyond the city, whether through networks of Sufi meeting houses, coffee houses, or other organizations and channels. And outside the rarefied court centre the oud was widely played, particularly in the Arab regions of Empire. Beirut, Aleppo, Damascus and later Cairo, came in the 19th century to nurture their own secular traditions of music even while considered to be provinces by the powers in Istanbul. These regional centres developed repertoire drawing both on the music of Istanbul and on more local musics and styles. It was frequently played in small ensembles known as takht, typically involving oud, qanun, ney, violin and percussion (or a selection of these) and often accompanying a singer. In the last section before the interval we introduce this era, with its very different flavour.

Our first piece (‘bashraf’ is the Arab word for the Iranian ‘pîshrow’ and Turkish ‘peşrev’ genre) was originally written by a Tatar Khan who was from the Crimea but settled in Istanbul in the 16th century. Given that so many of his pieces survive in Ottoman notations, we can assume he became a highly respected composer. For our performance we studied a 1906 recording of Han’s piece that was made by the celebrated Egyptian violinist Sami al-Shawwa (1889-1965), in order to present something of his style.

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One of the most important Arab composers of the early 20th century was Sayyīd Darwish (1892-1923), with whose song Zuruni we ended the first half.  After spending time in Damascus within a theatre troupe and struggling to be a performer, Darwish returned to his native Egypt to become a key figure in Cairo’s newly emerging theatre, film and music movements. Posthumously he gained the title ‘father of Egyptian popular music’, and songs such as Zuruni are well known throughout the Arab world because they were taken up by celebrated singers such as the Lebanese Fairouz.



Çinuçen Tanrıkorur – Koyde Sabah 
Dasht (dulab)
Yurdal Tokçan – Irmak
Nubar Nubar

Courtly music in Istanbul had benefited consistently from immigrants and from people captured at the Empire’s distant edges, and in the 1860s the oud found its way back in, as a result of new movement between Istanbul, Cairo, and Damascus. The fresh arrival of Arab ouds and oud-builders in Istanbul in the late 1800s led eventually to the development of new 20th-century traditions including the so-called ‘Turkish oud’ (the earliest were made by Armenian and Greek makers in Istanbul) and ‘Turkish oud school’ which has been increasingly European, or even American, in outlook. In a remarkable twist, it had a significant impact in Iraq after the 1930s.

The 19th-century cult of (virtuoso) soloist that developed in the Europe and North America was attractive to a number of oud players in the 20th century. So the oud has become a vehicle for solo display, and a new range of techniques have been developed in both oud playing and making to enhance that new role. The two pairs of pieces in this set are indebted to this shift.

Tanrıkorur (1938-2000) was an oud player, singer and composer, whose legacy bridges the solo, accompaniment and also Sufi-ensemble roles for the oud. His Koyde Sabah, which means ‘Morning in the village’ combines the classical samai form with an exploration of rural idiom. Tokçan (b.1966) is Turkey’s most celebrated oud player today. His Irmak (‘River’) is written in the idiom of melody from rural Anatolia.

We follow each of these compositions directly with pieces accompanied by bendir.’Dasht’ is an Iraqi composition played in the 19th century as an introduction to song, but popularised as a tune in its own right by the first oud soloist to achieve international fame, Munir Bashir (1930-1997). Nubar Nubar is a traditional Armenian song recorded by the New York-born oud player John Berberian (b.1941). They share a rhythmic pattern called curcuna (pronounced like ‘Georgina’).

Traditional – Yağcilar Zeybeği
Kadı Fuat Efendi – Hicâzkâr Sirto
Composer unknown – Çirit havası

In this medley we brought the oud into a repertoire more often played by instruments associated with rural traditions. The first piece is a zeybek (traditionally a dance for men), this particular example is from the periphery of Izmir. The second piece is composed in the style of a sirto, a folk dance from Greece adopted by the Ottoman classical tradition (in much the way that gavottes and were absorbed into European court repertoires); the composer was based in Istanbul. We end with a composition inspired by the jeered, or çirit, an equestrian sport brought in the 11th century to Anatolia by Turkic people from central Asia. Pairs of men on horseback chase one another while casting blunt javelins at their opponents with the aim of striking them on the back. You may hear the galloping, if not the sticks.

Misirli Ibrahim Effendi  – Samai bayati
Biladi Askara
Kemençeci Nikolaki (d.1915) – Mahur semaisi
Sayyīd Darwish – Sejtu Wahdan
Sayyīd Darwish – Ya Shadi l-ahlan

In this group of pieces we returned to historical repertoire. The two instrumental compositions are in the genre of samai (Arabic) or saz semaisi (Turkish). The first is referred to as the ‘Arab’ saz semaisi in Turkey, but the composer was a Jew from Aleppo who lived in Cairo, before moving to Istanbul. The composer of the second one was a composer of Greek origin who lived in Istanbul. We play each of these pieces in Arab style, as introductions to songs known as muwāshshaḥāt in reference to their classical Arab poetry. The earliest muwāshshaḥāt texts date from the 9th century, but the melodies came much later. Some were copied from 19th-century Turkish popular songs known as sarkı, others were written by composers such as Darwish.

karim Ahmad Rachel

Tamburi Jamil Bey – Nikriz sirto

Turkish musicians today working in the classical tradition consider the composer Tambur Cemil Bey (‘Mr Jamil the tanbur player’, 1873-1916) to be the ultimate point of reference. It is helped by the fact that he played so many instruments (tanbur, bowed tanbur, violin, lavta) and bequeathed a substantial legacy of recordings. The piece with which we closed our programme is based on the sirto dance.

oudmigrations group 2

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