In Turkey, Kurdish Singers Keep Traditional Music Alive : Parallels For centuries, dengbej songs served as news bulletin, history lesson and evening's entertainment all in one. Master singers continue to perform. But efforts to preserve Kurdish culture have suffered.
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In Turkey, Kurdish Singers Keep Traditional Music Alive

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In Turkey, Kurdish Singers Keep Traditional Music Alive

In Turkey, Kurdish Singers Keep Traditional Music Alive

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's go to Turkey now. These have been very difficult times for that country's Kurdish minority. Military operations against outlawed Kurdish militants have devastated neighborhoods, and Kurdish politicians have been jailed. These tensions have also hindered efforts to preserve Kurdish culture, including traditional singing. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A late March snow is falling on a modest farmhouse in the Anatolian town of Bozuyuk. Inside, an oil stove hisses away, boiling water for endless small glasses of strong tea. Mistefa Satilvala (ph), a heavyset man with a thick black mustache, sets down his glass, takes a breath and fills the room with an impassioned cry.

MISTEFA SATILVALA: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: An evening of traditional Kurdish dengbej singing is underway.

M. SATILVALA: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: This is an old song about the adventures of a Kurdish fugitive on the run from the Turks. Dengbej songs can be about many things - heroic deeds in war or in peacetime or tales of young lovers. These songs once served as a combination news bulletin, history lesson and an evening's entertainment. Researcher Argun Cakir with the University of Bristol says there are parallels, though not exact, in Western culture.

ARGUN CAKIR: Well, remember the troubadours, performers who were traveling. And they would perform historically themed and also love-themed oral traditions.

KENYON: So it was with dengbej singers.

M. SATILVALA: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: Both Mistefa and his son, Sakir, are originally from Van province in southeast Turkey.

M. SATILVALA: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Mistefa says his dengbej songs are about Van. He even wrote one about the deadly earthquake that hit the city in 2011. Ethnomusicologist Robert Reigle came to record this performance. His fascination is with the vocal techniques, especially variations in timbre. That's basically the color of a tone, separate from its pitch.

ROBERT REIGLE: One of the unique things about this style of music is that the singer sustains one pitch and then does a melody of timbres, so he changes the vowels into a sequence of, like, four or five different tone colors.

M. SATILVALA: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: Son Sakir also has a strong dengbej voice, different from his father's.

SAKIR SATILVALA: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: This performance tradition largely died out in the 20th century. Modern communications made such storytelling impractical. There were also Turkish laws banning the public use of the Kurdish language. And a more than 30-year conflict between the military and Kurdish militants turned some Turks against Kurds and their traditions. Then, in 2012, a little breathing room - the government opened reconciliation talks, and a house of dengbej opened in the city of Diyarbakir. But fighting resumed in 2015, and the house of dengbej is now destroyed.

These days, Mistefa mainly sings at weddings and sighs that young people just aren't interested in learning these long, complicated songs. But then his eyes light up as his 1-year-old grandson, Mirhat, enters the room.

M. SATILVALA: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: "My grandson could be another Evdale," he says, naming a famous dengbej master. "When I was young, I'd do anything to hear a dengbej singer. I'd climb on the roof to listen at the chimney. See my grandson, how he nods his head and dances when we're singing," Mistefa says with pride, "someday he'll be better than I am, God willing."

M. SATILVALA: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: It's true. The grandson is mimicking the singing and bobbing forward and back in a relative's arms as the song goes on. These days, modern Kurdish singers are incorporating elements of dengbej technique into their music. But if the tradition is to survive, it will need more Mirhats in more Kurdish homes, learning firsthand from a dwindling number of master singers. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Bozuyuk, Turkey.

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