Contemporary Female Âşıklar in Âşık Music Tradition of Turkey

şıklar reflect and carry ahead the points of view, artistic tastes, living practices and traditions of the society in which they live, and thus, play an important part in transmitting folk art to future generations.  For a long period of time, âşık art has found opportunity to live, be represented, transmitted, learned, and taught, both visually and aurally, in environments such as âşık cafés, semai cafés (where a specific style of folk music is performed), village centers, weddings, and fairs. Âşıklar are the ultimate representatives of the âşık art, which holds an important place within the culture of the people, both male and female.

In order to understand the position of female âşıklar in Turkish society we must look at what the âşık tradition consists of and note how the overall role of the âşık has changed in the second half of the twentieth century. In order to understand this tradition, we will first answer the question of “Who is Âşık?”, “What is Âşık Style?”, “What are the features of Âşık Music?”, “What are the main features in Âşık Tradition?”.

Who is Âşık?


There are numerous features embodied by Âşıklar in different combinations. There are artists who:

  1. play saz (stringed instrument),
  2. compose and perform poems spontaneously,
  3. are able to compete in spontaneous song dueling,
  4. receive training in a master-apprentice relationship,
  5. drink bâde,
  6. are travelers,
  7. play saz and sing in public in âşık cafés{1} or festivals{2}, weddings, special gatherings,
  8. tell folk stories,
  9. have a tradition of mainly oral literature,
  10. reflect world views, concepts of art, ways of life and the tradition of his/her native society,
  11. are sometimes entertainers, and sometimes forceful social critics,
  12. are craftsmen with a key role of passing on folk literature and music,
  13. attach more importance to poems than music,
  14. are not only âşıklar but also make their living as farmers, stock breeders, etc. Generally, they don’t make their living completely from being âşıklar,
  15. are professional musicians,
  16. are specialist musicians,
  17. have well trained memories, by which they tell stories, perform their masters’ compositions, etc. (Çınar, 2008, p.18).


Local âşıklar spend most of their daytime in the coffee house playing cards or backgammon, and hoping to arrange some business for the weekend. People from the surrounding villages and districts, needing a musician for a wedding or circumcision feast, will come to the coffee house to meet and bargain with the âşıklar (Erdener, 1995, p. 35). At night, any âşık gatherings organized are mainly attended by the local community. Hereby, the coffee house owner earns money by selling tea or coffee and âşıklar earn money by receiving tips from the audience.


These festivals are organized in different places in Turkey such as Sivas (where the first âşıklar festival took place in 1931), Kars, Erzurum, Konya, etc. Âşıklar are invited to the festival to compete in different categories of performance including, “the best seven poems of the year, güzelleme (poetry of praise), composition of poetry without the saz, recitation of poetry, and dudakdeğmez (a tradition in which one’s lips cannot meet while reciting spontaneously composed poetry, accomplished by consciously leaving out certain letters of the alphabet), folk songs, folk songs with a hikâye, improvised folk songs, heroic songs and songs of other âşıklar, quatrain (koşma), which is the most commonly used form in âşık poetry, song dueling, etc. For more information, see Erdener’s book (Erdener, 1995, p. 113, 168-188).

What is Âşık style?

Âşık style, which started in Anatolia during either the XVI or XVII century and continues in the XXI century, is a poetic style unique to saz poets. This style, which has specific rules associated with a specific worldview, has carried many compositions and literary traditions from the past into present times. It has also been spread from urban and country towns to villages and between tribes; from palaces to dervish lodges, cafés, barracks, etc. and has an assured listener community. In addition, Âşık style is not only both literary and musical, but has combined various artistic elements to develop a new character peculiar to itself (Köprülü, 1962, p. 29).


What are the features of Âşık Music?

While often the poetry is of ultimate importance, the music is also central to âşık art.  Indeed, some âşıklar feel that they can’t create anything without their instrument. When they describe their music they often use the technical terms “makam” (maqam) and “ayak”. According to them, the âşık’s musical knowledge is related to his/her knowledge of makam/ayak. Although some âşıklar claim to know many makams, some researchers claim that the forms they speak of cannot be defined as makams. For instance, Nida Tüfekçi listened to a makam sample, which is variously called “hava” (air), “ağız” (dialect), and “ayak” by different âşıklar cited in his field-work. The âşıklar performed differing melodic-rhythmic forms from each other, although they used the same name for the makam. Therefore we can’t illustrate these melodies with Classical Turkish Music makam definitions (Tüfekçi, 2000, p. 232). And again considering his research, while âşıklar perform their own poems, they don’t compose new melodic compositions. Holding on to their regional musical legacy, they set their poems to traditional regional compositions. In other words, they lay down their poems over old melodies that have been known for many years in their region. These kinds of melodic forms have different names in different places, such as makam, ayak, hava etc. (Tüfekçi, 2000, p. 242).

Saz poets (saz şairleri) who are called “âşıklar”, use their masters’ compositions (usta malı) in not only their poems but in their music as well. The apprentice learns from his master not only a style of utterance but also to connect words with melody. The master’s melody patterns include various scales. The melody patterns of âşık music will also contain different rhythmic features. For example, it may be uzun hava[1] or kırık hava[2] or both of them.

The main structure of âşık music is based on poetic forms performed in syllabic meter; the melodic structure compliments and underscores the poetic form. The important genres and forms of âşık music nowadays include: Ağıt, Baş-Ayak, Destan, Divan, Lebdeğmez, Duvak Kapma, Geraylı, Güzelleme, Hicv, Herbe Zorba, Hurufat, Kalenderi, Kıt’a, Koçaklama, Koşma, Muamma, Mühemmes [Muhammes], Satranç, Selis, Semai, Tekellüm [Tekerleme], Taşlama, Tecnis, Üstadnâme, Varsağı, Vezn-i Aher, Vücutnâme, Yanıltma, Yıldız (Şenel, 1991, p. 553–556).

Âşıklar generally compose their poetry by using rhymes at the end of each line. For instance, according to the koşma (quatrain) rhyme pattern, (a b c b), the second and fourth lines of the first quatrain have to rhyme with each other. The first three lines of the following quatrains must rhyme with each other while the fourth line of each stanza has to rhyme with the fourth line of the first stanza. Thus, the rhyme scheme of a koşma (quatrain) looks like: abcb/xxxb/yyyb/zzzb etc. (Erdener, 1995, p. 174).

In its melodic form, âşık music is mainly “inici seyir”[3] (descending melodic contour) with the interlude performed as a refrain. We can give an example again via koşma (quatrain), in which the melodic form is generally: aaab/refrain/cccb, or, abcb/refrain/bb. In addition, in some parts of the composition they will recite their poetry.

Âşıklar use a variety of different tunings for their instruments, such as bozuk düzeni, bağlama düzeni, misket düzeni, fidayda düzeni, müstezat düzeni, etc. Bozuk düzeni[4] (broken tuning) is the primary tuning for the long neck saz. This tuning is also known as “kara düzen”i (black tuning), a name that is also used to refer to the long neck saz itself. The long neck saz has 24 frets, three string courses and is tuned in A, which is the pitch of the first (bottom) course, D being the second (middle) course, and G as the third (upper) course. “Bağlama düzeni” is a primary tuning for the short neck saz. Another name for this tuning is “kısa sap” a name, which is also used to refer to the short neck saz, which has 19 frets and three string courses. It is tuned in D, which is the pitch of the first (bottom) course, G being the second (middle) course, and A as the third (upper) course.

What are the main features in Âşık Tradition?

1.Bâde and Drinking Bâde in Âşık Tradition    

The literal meaning of bâde is “drinking” or “wine”. However, in aşık tradition it is understood as a liquid, which is drunk in a dream. The person who drinks bâde attains an artistic identity, that is to say, she or he becomes an âşık. To fall in love with someone in a dream can also be described as bâde (Artun, 2005, p. 223).

When we examine dream patterns that have an important role in the transition from plain identity to artistic identity in the âşık tradition, some common examples, constituting cultural samples, present themselves. A person who has a dream may come across a holy person or his/her beloved or the beloved’s picture. She/he may obtain information from spiritual leaders, called “Pir” in Turkey, perhaps meeting them in a holy place. These spiritual leaders may also give him/her a mahlas[5] and want to sing and play for the dreamer, or the dreamer may drink bâde given to him/her by the Pir’s hand (Günay, 1992, p. 94–98). In the case of a male âşık, the holy person also introduces him to a beautiful maiden, telling him her name, her father’s name, and sometimes the town in which they live. The future âşık immediately falls in love with the girl. Occasionally they make love. When he awakens he is extremely upset, may cry, and immediately wants to begin searching for the girl of destiny (Erdener, 1995, p. 53-54).

2.Karşılaşma[6] in the Âşık Tradition

Karşılaşma is a kind of debate, discussion, dueling, conversation or chatting between âşıklar, which is performed spontaneously. The common name for this was “münazara” (debate) in generations past, a term with Arabic roots (Bali, 1975, p. 7432–7435). This activity, which is also referred to as karşı-beri, deyişme, atışma, taşlama, tekellüm, and ilişme-takılmaca, can showcase the literary and musical diversity among âşıklar based on their regional styles. Different lyrical styles may present themselves and engage each other, such as Muamma, Lûgaz, Mâni, Baş Ayak, Dil dönmez, Noktasız, etc., as may different musical styles, such as Divani havalar, Güzelleme, Üstadnâme, etc. (Şenel, 2007, p. 40–41).

These types of musical conversations may be organized during “Âşıklar Bayramı” (Âşıklar Feast), “Âşıklar Gecesi” (Âşıklar Night) or when an âşık visits his/her colleagues in different cities.

Particularly during a dueling assembly with a crowded audience, the audience gets involved, taking sides and creating an atmosphere of excitement. Sometimes there is a referee in these events who has a command of âşık tradition and who tries to prevent partiality (Özer, 1985, p. 15–17).

3.Master-Apprentice Relationship in the Âşık Tradition

There are many steps one must take to become an âşık. In order to obtain an understanding concerning the practice of âşık tradition the âşık candidate must receive training from a master as an apprentice. Having a master as a guide who passes on his or her vast knowledge and experience is irreplaceable in the learning process of an âşık candidate. Becoming an apprentice of a master âşık is not easy. If an âşık candidate wants to receive training, she/he struggles to find favor in the eyes of a master, and if she/he has difficulty finding a master, the candidate may travel from place to place in search of one (Çınar, 2013, p.182).

Certain abilities are expected from an âşık candidate to perform this art, such as having a sensitive ear for pitch, rhythmic sense, etc. In short, when a master discovers talent in a person who wants to become an âşık, the master takes him/her as an apprentice in order to give training. In this process they attend various âşık fasıl[1] together, and hereby the apprentice starts to learn to tell stories, âşık makamlar (makqam-s), to compose poems spontaneously, to play bağlama, to compete in the dueling (karşılaşma), to sing the master’s compositions, etc. In the process the apprentice gets to travel from place to place with his/her master, being introduced to new colleagues, etc. This process can take a long time or short time depending on the apprentice’s talent and progress. If the master believes the apprentice’s education is sufficient, he/she gives him/her a mahlas and dismisses the apprentice to carry on his/her tradition at âşık gatherings without the master. After that, the apprentice performs not only his/her compositions but also his/her master’s compositions so that his/her master’s name stays alive, carrying on in his/her master’s wake (Artun, 2005, p. 55–57; Başgöz, 1968, p. 8–14).

Âşık Identity from the Second Half of the Twentieth Century to the Present

Which âşık features continue in this century?  How do contemporary, living âşıklar represent âşık tradition in Turkey, and what do they think about their situation in this century?  What kinds of conditions have appeared in the midst of the political-economic problems, technological progress, rapid urbanization, and related social problems, which have developed in the country? That is, how do contemporary âşıklar view their position amid the overall social circumstances which have developed over the last six decades?

If we look back to the nature of the âşık’s identity, some new considerations must be made. For instance, when we examine their expectations in this century, we understand that they want to record their work on albums, CDs, they want to be known to a wider population in Turkey, and they want to have other, popular folk singers sing their compositions. They prefer to sing on television instead of traveling from place to place. In terms of audience, we understand that expectations have changed in terms of reciprocity. For example, the audience’s sphere of interest has changed; those who might have made up a live audience have started mainly watching TV instead of going to âşık cafés[2]. At the same time, not only the audience but also âşıklar have started to form new artistic identities on television. Accordingly, their occupational viewpoint has changed, reflected in the preference to sing on television, the desire to make music videos, etc.

In addition, because of commercial concerns, some âşıklar producing commercial recordings have started to hire professional musicians to play bağlama for their albums. Although playing bağlama virtuosically is not important in âşık tradition, this kind of implementation has changed ideas about bağlama performance among âşıklar.

Some âşıklar are not only âşıklar but also farmers, stock breeders, etc. In other words, they earn money not only by playing but also by farming. However, because of problems in the agricultural economy they have started to move from their villages to cities to work in textile factories, stores, etc. At the same time, their viewpoint regarding their value in relation to an audience has started to change. They want to be famous not only in various villages but also to a wider population in Turkey. Meanwhile, the subjects of their compositions have also changed. For instance, in addition to writing about pastoral subjects, they have also written about city life, and of course they have written about being separated from and missing their villages. Moreover, and related to the last fact, a change in their accents or village dialects can often be noted.

Female Âşıklar

Mother Yeter says “I married you – that’s why I had loved you
You didn’t have a nail to hang your hat, I provided everything
Each child I gave you was more beautiful than the last
Tell me truthfully, do you have any soft words


In Turkey, Âşık art has a gender, and this gender is male. Âşık art is practiced in, and defined by, male dominant surroundings. These are environments for communication, entertainment, and chatting between men only. Hence, women face fundamental social and cultural challenges to merely exist within the male dominant social realm of Âşık tradition. With this context in mind, we ask what kinds of identities these women portray and how they have reflected these identities in their art.

As in many societies, it is prevalent in many Turkish communities for women to be defined as mothers, child bearers, and housewives. Their existence is limited to these accepted roles and there are little or no opportunities for women to develop or show their abilities outside of these definitions. Naturally, it follows from such circumstances that many women who have the ability to play instruments and to produce their music are ignored in the field of music.

The socially determined role of women in Turkish culture has a huge influence on the position of female âşıklar within the tradition, and the problems female âşıklar face are necessarily reflected in their work. When trying to elaborate upon the reasons for the neglect of female âşıklar, one must examine the specific conflicts that arise due to their social roles as women and how these conflicts influence their art. As such, female âşıklar’s identities, their lifestyles, the literary and musical works they have created, and the traditional and modern presentation methods of these works qualify as documents of the problem under consideration.

Before discussing the prevalence of female âşıklar, female gender identities in the âşık sphere, and the expressions of discomfort to be found in the compositions of female âşıklar, we will mention a relevant theoretical framework that is of great use in examining our subject. Timothy Rice (Rice, 2003, p. 163-167) writes about ways metaphor can be used to explain what is happening in music and culture.  Rice uses four metaphors – first, a metaphor of music as art; second, of music as social behavior; third, of music as symbolic system; and forth, of music as commodity. Metaphors help us create language; they help us go beyond to look at the whole culture and how the cultural system and musical system are living together. For instance, in response to the contention that âşık music can only be played by men, we must ask: How does the significance of playing music differ when women are the players rather than men? It is significant for our investigation to look at what metaphors are at work in this situation. In order for us to understand the dynamics within a culture, and specifically in order for us to understand ethnic music, we must try to understand what metaphors are manifest.

At this point we would do well to try to understand why a woman might want to be an âşık. Of those I interviewed three women wanted to become âşıklar because they received a dream, or we can say that they attained artistic identities by drinking bâde. Three other women wanted to become âşıklar because relatives who played bağlama or âşıklar who visited their villages impressed them and they fell in love with âşık music. And then there were three women who wanted to become âşıklar because they grew up within Alevi culture, in which bağlama is performed in ritual and communal gatherings, and so they have often had the chance to listen to the sound of the bağlama.

All of these women, with their various reasons for wanting to become âşıklar, have their own stories. However, here we will encounter one woman’s story from each of those categories. Each of their stories illuminate the conflicts faced by female âşıklar in the areas of training, performance, and indeed, simply playing âşık music. Their stories also reveal creative alternate measures taken in pursuit of their art, and in refusal to accept the limits of the socially prescribed roles of their gender identity.

With our next article, we will start to get to know these special women closely and even listen to their folk songs.


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