The lost Jewish music of Turkey
The Ottoman Empire essentially gave birth to the Eastern Sephardic musical tradition — a richly seasoned stew of Iberian, Turkic, southern European, Mediterranean and Romani ingredients whose appeal extended beyond Europe to the New World.
My wife, Ingrid, and I were sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Residence in Istanbul, listening to an Israeli historian named Daniel. We told Daniel that we planned to take the ferry to the nearby island of Buyukada.
“There were so many Jews there, the Turks called it ‘Yahudikada,’” Daniel said.
The Ottoman Empire essentially gave birth to the Eastern Sephardic musical tradition — a richly seasoned stew of Iberian, Turkic, southern European, Mediterranean and Romani ingredients whose appeal extended beyond Europe to the New World. Early klezmer musicians absorbed bits and pieces of it while working the southern reaches of the Empire with their Roma counterparts prior to the 20th century, and Turkish immigrants like Jack Mayresh and Victoria Hazan served it up on American 78 RPM records with lashings of Turkish, Greek, Hebrew and Ladino.
Jewish music has always borrowed from many sources, but the Turks made it into a veritable melting pot long before the English playwright Israel Zangwill popularized that particular metaphor.
Which is why I was saddened to see that so few traces of it remain, at least in Turkey itself. Saddened, but not surprised: We couldn’t find much traditional Turkish music of any kind, from classical Ottoman fasil to Romani dance music — the latter having been relocated along with its practitioners when the Turkish government razed Sulukule, one of the oldest Roma settlements in the world, in preparation for Istanbul’s turn as cultural capital of Europe in 2010. Just in case the irony was lost on the minister of culture, Ingrid, a percussionist with a soft spot for Romani rhythms, sent him an e-mail congratulating him for having destroyed a sizable chunk of his country’s cultural heritage.
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