Nostalgia and the female oud player

By Cihat Arınç, Christian Moser and Martin Stokes

What roles have women played in the history of the oud?

According to Turkish journalist Daim Oruçlu writing in 1950, women were strongly associated with the oud in Ottoman times. Much more so than men. But why did he think that? And was he right?

In this Oudmigrations post ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes situates Oruçlu’s arguments in the context that he wrote them – Istanbul of 1950; oud player and researcher Christian Moser reflects on what Oruçlu suggests about shifts in broader trends of oud playing: and writer, film critic and researcher Cihat Arınç compares Oruçlu’s claims with literary works and film. Cihat Arınç also provides the English translation below.

Landscapes from Old Istanbul: Oud, Oud Masters and Oud Makers’
By Daim Oruçlu
Gece Postası, 25 August 1950

In old Istanbul the oud had exceptional significance. If someone mentioned a musical instrument the first that came to mind would be the oud. If a family was somewhat well-off financially, the most prior thing for them would be to find a Master who could teach their adolescent daughter to play the oud. They’d say: ‘The girl has really grown, and will marry soon, we should find a teacher who will train her to play the oud…’ Then there would be asking around, searching, and within a short time an arrangement with a Master; and after the first scales, the lesson would have begun with a Rast Peşrev.ut-ustalari
In earlier times, around 70% of girls of marrying age played oud. There were only a few kanun and tanbur players. And the violin was not played by girls. There were sayings about the violin such as ‘Aman, Heaven forbid! Violin playing causes tuberculosis’. Such things were believed. When matchmakers visit their house, it was habitual for parents to tell first about their daughter: ‘She plays oud extremely well.’ Not playing oud was simply regarded as a flaw in prospective brides.
Oud players who made a name in the music scene were, among others, Penik, Şamlı Selim, Arşak, Udi Şekerci Cemil, and then Mısırlı İbrahim and Udi Fahri Kopuz. Later still the daughter of Monsieur Koço, Eliza, was recognized [Monsieur Koço was a herbalist and also the proprietor of a famous restaurant in Kadıköy]. She also taught Western music and piano. In old Istanbul it was possible anywhere, in every quarter and at any time of day, to hear Peşrevs, Saz Semais, Taksims, Şarkıs, Longas, Bestes and other pieces. Sometimes, the crystal-clear, but sensitive, melancholic and yearning voices of young women were heard mixed with songs [see below for details].
Naturally there were also male oud players, but men found more favour on violin, while some played kanun, tanbur or ney as well. Acquiring an oud for oneself was also an issue. Usually one would buy an instrument on the recommendation of the teacher, or the latter would simply resource one. Wealthy people preferred ouds made by the famous Manol. The most regarded and beautiful sounding instruments came from his workshop. In second place followed instruments by Kirkor (Kahyayan) and then from the ‘drinker’ Mustafa. Ouds by Şamlı Selim and Kudmanî İskender, who had their workshop in the Beyazıt quarter, were also very popular.
Our late friend Zeynelabidin, inventor of the cümbüş, also made beautiful wooden ouds. But after inventing the cümbüş he gave up making ouds. Kadıköylü Murat made good instruments as well. And there were instruments from Damascus decorated with ivory and mother-of-pearl, although these were not very popular.Today the oud counts as the most banal and ordinary instrument. It is neither in demand, nor are there such (fine-quality) instruments around anymore.

Martin Stokes

Turkey was set to change dramatically after the election of Adnan Menderes as Prime Minister in May 1950. The state-reformed tradition, and much of its secularism, would be rolled back. The call to prayer would be restored to its original Arabic. Turkey would be open to international trade and investment; Marshall Plan aid would push people from villages to the city; and women, out and about in town, would come to signify the new consumerism. This was to be the decade of nightclub crooner Zeki Müren, the golden age of the gazino, of radio and movie musicals.

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Writing in 1950, Daim Oruçlu is in nostalgic mode, clearly sensing change in the air. Not that long ago, he suggests, oud skills were de riguer in the Istanbul marriage market. Without them a woman was not much of a catch as a bride. If the oud was an instrument for women, the tanbur, the kanun, and especially the violin were thought of as instruments for men. A stroll around neighborhood back streets in those days would reveal a soundscape of female domestic music making: peşrev-s, taksim-s, scales, melancholic songs. The female-directed market in oud manufacturing and teaching had clearly been thriving. But it was already changing, it would seem. Zeynelâbidîn, who once made great ouds, was by then concentrating on making cümbüş-s. (The cümbüş was a mass-produced banjo-like version of the instrument designed for popular use; it had already been adopted by Roma for use at weddings, bars and parties.) In 1950, the oud had become, according to our author, one of the ‘commonest’ (‘en âdî’) instruments – ‘common’ in the sense of having no particular distinction.

It is hard to say what is wistful nostalgia and what is clear-headed analysis here. Looking back, it would seem that this 1950 moment marked some kind of a shift from women as domestic music producers to consumers. The gendered division of musical labour described here is also definitely a thing of the past. But exactly when and how that particular change took place is harder to say. The article can be read as a lament for aspects of broader social change in the post-Ottoman period.

Hamiyet Yuceses (1915-1996), celebrated Turkish nightclub singer who was classically trained, and who also played oud

Christian Moser

Oruçlu’s article confirms suspicions I have harboured for a long time. When tracing antique ouds I have often been told: ‘the instrument belonged to an old lady’. I understood this as a lazy explanation or a veiling of facts, but the statement now appears in another light. It may even be hypothesized that the oud, which around the end of the 19th century came back into popularity in Ottoman music having withdrawn from public spaces, had survived in the hands of women and had continued to be played by them.


Daim Oruçlu was no ethnomusicologist, but a journalist with a particular interest in old Istanbul and in music. So he intuitively grasped events rather well, albeit through some romantic haze. A number of his comments must be understood from the point of view of an educated urban upper class (elite) and nostalgic reminiscence of old Istanbul. The violin adapted from the West, for example, was played by girls, but it had a different social and romantic standing from the oud. Together with the clarinet the violin was used frequently in light and popular music, played in casinos, meyhanes and at weddings. Both instruments were favoured particularly by Roma musicians. This is the case today as well.

The article leaves us in no doubt about the variety of oud types in Istanbul: instruments from the Ottoman Greek and Armenian communities (Manol and Kirkor respectively), the Turkish Mustafa and Murat, and the Syrian brothers Kutmani, were all on the market. Those described as being ‘decorated with mother-of-pearl and ivory’ were surely from the workshop of the Nahat brothers in Damascus.

So the article is one more beautiful picture of the vivacity, cultural diversity and rich music scene of old Istanbul…

Mary Goshtigian, singer and oud player from the Ottoman Armenian community of Istanbul.

Cihat Arınç

Daim Oruçlu makes a number of intriguing claims about Ottoman Istanbul in this article, ranging from the high numbers of marriageable girls who played the oud, to the desirability of playing the oud in the period of potential courting, and the rarity of male oud players. To the best of my knowledge, no historically verifiable counter-evidence is available to refute Oruçlu’s gender-focused claims. But it would be interesting to consider whether his assertions are supported by any visual/textual evidence in Turkish literature and Turkish cinema.

Ottoman Turkish novelist, essayist, and women’s rights activist Fatma Aliye Hanım’s second novel Udi (The Oud Player), published in 1898, is probably the most remarkable work on oud-playing in Turkish literature.

The title page of Fatma Aliye Hanım’s novel Udi (The Oud Player, Istanbul, 1898).

The novel is based on the true life story of Bedia, a female oud player whom Fatma Aliye met in Aleppo. In this novel, Bedia is depicted as a woman who uses her oud as a means of resistance against the hell of patriarchy as well as the storms and great hardships of life. After the death of her father and the divorce from her unfaithful husband, her oud becomes her “most loyal and reliable friend.”

The first pages of Fatma Aliye Hanım’s novel Udi (The Oud Player, Istanbul, 1898).

On the other hand, in Peyami Safa’s novel Fatih-Harbiye, published in 1931, we are presented another oud-playing lady, Neriman, who attended classes at Dârülelhân (the first Musical Conservatory in Turkey). At some point in the novel, Neriman faces a deep identity crisis connected to the (late) Ottoman Empire, and begins to hate her own “Eastern” culture and everything that is attached to it. Within this framework, her oud becomes a symbol of “Eastern” Muslim culture and its backwardness.

Oud-playing women also appear in other literary works: Vuslat in Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem’s play Vuslat (literally, “The Lovers’ Reunion,” 1874), Dilber in Sami Paşazade Sezai’s novel Sergüzeşt (Adventure, 1888), Meliha in Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil’s story “Bir Yazın Tarihi” (“The History of a Summer,” 1900), Müzehher in Saffet Nezihi’s novel Zavallı Necdet (Poor Necdet, 1902), İsmet in Refik Halid Karay’s novel İstanbul’un Bir Yüzü (One Face of Istanbul, 1920), and Zeynep in Halide Edip Adıvar’s story “Zeyneb’im, Zeyneb’im” (“My Zeynep, My Zeynep”), which is included in the author’s book Dağa Çıkan Kurt (The Wolf Who Climbed the Mountain, 1922). The contents of all these literary works seem to be in agreement with Oruçlu’s argument.

In addition to these examples, we also find some female oud-playing characters in Turkish historical films such as Kanlı Nigâr (The Bloody Nigâr, Memduh Ün, 1981), Haremde Dört Kadın (Four Women in the Harem, Halit Refiğ, 1965) and Tosun Paşa (Tosun Pasha, Kartal Tibet, 1976), all set in the 19th century.

The official film poster for the 19th-century period comedy Kanlı Nigâr (The Bloody Nigâr, Memduh Ün, Turkey, 1981).

In one of the scenes in Atıf Yılmaz’s 19th-century period comedy Yedi Kocalı Hürmüz (Seven Husbands for Hürmüz, 1971), we see a band consisting exclusively of female characters playing classical Turkish musical instruments. In another scene, Hürmüz says that she “can play the oud masterfully,” but then for an unknown reason a caricaturised figure of the qadi takes her oud and begins playing it. Hürmüz and other female characters immediately join him by singing and dancing joyfully. But all of these scenes are too short, too sketchy, and inadequate to support Oruçlu’s claims. Although Oruçlu asserts that the oud was a musical instrument “peculiar to ladies”, it is not female but male characters who are shown playing the oud in most period films, including Gönülden Gönüle (Heart to Heart, Süha Doğan, 1961), Süt Kardeşler (The Foster Brothers, Ertem Eğilmez, 1976) and Gramofon Avrat (Gramophone Woman, Yusuf Kurçenli, 1987).

In contrast to Turkish literary works, it would not be inaccurate to say that the abovementioned cinematic works, and Turkish historical films in general, provide little visual/textual data to support Daim Oruçlu’s bold claims. Taken together, these various literary and cinematic findings provide an alternative perspective to enhance and enrich our understanding of Oruçlu’s essay.


Songs mentioned by Daim Oruçlu, translated literally by Cihat Arınç, who also provided musical and historical detail:
Kanatan sînemi ağyâr elidir,
Yâr elinden yüreğim yârelidir.
[It was the enemy’s hand that made my chest bleed,

But my heart was wounded by the beloved’s hand.]
Composition: Bimen Şen (1873–1943)
Lyrics: Unknown
Maqam: Kürdîli Hicazkâr
Usûl: Ağır Aksak
In original lyrics: ‘Koparan sînemi ağyâr elidir [It was the enemy’s hand that splitted my chest in two]/ Dost elinden yüreğim yârelidir [But my heart was wounded by the friend’s hand].’
Gösterip ağyâre lûtfun, bizlere bîgânesin,
Bîvefâ, görmek ne mümkün, âşıka cânânesin,
Böyle üzmek şânına lâyık mıdır, dîvânesin,
Bîvefâ, ammâ cihanda sevdiğim bir tânesin.
[You show your grace and kindness to others but you’re indifferent to us,

Oh, disloyal! It’s almost impossible to see you! You’re the (cruel) beloved of this (devoted) lover,
Does grieving your lover befit your dignity? You’re insane!
Oh, my beloved! You’re disloyal but still, you’re my most precious in the world.]
Composition: Hacı Ârif Bey (1831–1885)
Lyrics: Unknown
Maqam: Mâhur
Usûl: Müsemmen
In original lyrics: ‘Bîvefâ, görmek ne müşkil, âşıka cânânesin [Oh, disloyal! How difficult to see you! You’re the (cruel) beloved of this (devoted) lover].’
Göz göz oldu ciğerim gözlerinin derdinden.
[Once I became troubled by the beauty of your eyes, my lung was riddled with holes.] 
Composition: Şekerci Cemil Bey (1867–1958)
Lyrics: Recâizâde Mahmud Ekrem (1847–1914)
Maqam: Hicaz
Usûl: Ağır Aksak
In original lyrics: ‘Göz göz oldu yüreğim gözlerinin derdinden [Once I became troubled by the beauty of your eyes, my heart was riddled with holes].’
Bir açık yâreye, doktor, vurulur mu neşter?
[Isn’t it wrong, Doctor, to hit an open sore with a scalpel?]

Composition: Selânikli Ahmed Bey (1870–1928)
Lyrics: Unknown
Maqam: Kürdîli Hicazkâr
Usûl: Ağır Aksak

Published with grateful thanks to Christian Moser

for suggesting that Oudmigrations might present Oruçlu’s article.






One Comment Add yours

  1. Bobo says:

    Valuable historical information and context. Thank you.

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