Handmade Turkish Cymbals Tradition – An Inside Perspective
“Bringing the highly laborious and demanding art form of “Handmade Turkish cymbal-making” back, was the beginning of a success story that would make a tremendous impact all over the world.”
Agop Tomurcuk was born in Samatya-Istanbul-Turkey in 1941. There was a small house where he lived in their neighborhood of Samatya, in the area where Aga Hamam is today, next to Surp Kevork Armenian Church. There was a small workshop owned by K. Zildjian right across from it. Agop Tomurcuk started to work there as an apprentice cymbal-smith in 1950 when he was at the age of 9. This was how his adventure of cymbal making had started, which would last about 28 years.
Agop Tomurcuk’s life, dedicated to making cymbals, started to take shape when he became an apprentice cymbal-smith there at a very early age. K. Zildjian’s workshop, managed by Mikael Zildjian at the time, was like a big family where Agop Tomurcuk’s older brothers Garbis and Oksant Tomurcuk and their cousins Erem Arzat and Garbis Arzat also worked alongside him.
Agop Tomurcuk learned and later helped refine every aspect of cymbal making in this workshop, becoming a master at every process of cymbal making where his brother rose to being the chief cymbal-smith of the company. He excelled rapidly due to his disciplined nature and talent.
This workshop, which was the only cymbal factory in Turkey in those days, moved from Samatya to Bayrampaşa-Topçular area in Istanbul in the end of the 1960’s. In these years, Agop Tomurcuk became the chief cymbal-smith of the company and continued to produce cymbals with passion until the workshop ceased production of their cymbals in Turkey in 1977.
When the workshop closed in 1977, some tools and equipments like the lathing machine, rolling machine, bell-pressing machine, hammers, etc. were sold; and Mikael Zildjian’s passing in 1978 marked the temporary closing down of the only cymbal factory in Turkey. Following the closure of the factory, the rest of the Zildjian family left Turkey for the U.S. within a couple of years.
Agop Tomurcuk, who dedicated his life to making cymbals, expressed what he felt when the workshop was closed with these words in the interviews he has given since then:
“I felt like a fish out of water!”
After working in various different jobs between 77-79, In 79, Agop Tomurcuk decided to continue the tradition of Turkish handmade cymbal making on his own. After a little search, he was able to find most of the equipment sold after the closing of the previous company and bought them back. He started to produce and experiment with some cymbals again in a small workshop he rented in Bakırköy – Kartaltepe area in Istanbul. Many of these equipment, such as the rolling machine, the bell pressing machine, and similar are still currently being used at the Istanbul Agop Cymbals factory.
Agop Tomurcuk managed to start producing cymbals again by overcoming many obstacles, thanks to his patient, stubborn and adamant character. His younger son, Arman Tomurcuk shares a memory of his, explaining how hard it was back then: “I was about 9- 10 years old back then so I can’t remember exactly, but my mother ‘Uskui Tomurcuk’ still talks about how dearly she helped my father who was struggling to do casting due to limited resources and manpower in Kartaltepe with the help of only a couple of workers or even alone sometimes. I remember my father coming home very tired, because it was a very heavy-duty job. My father’s cousin once brought him home from the workshop by carrying him on his back.”
After setting up a small, but functional factory and manufacturing some cymbals, Agop Tomurcuk began selling cymbals locally to some music stores in Istanbul’s Tünel area, but the prospects of this were limited. Mehmet Tamdeğer who was a former co-worker, learned of this new venture and offered to become partners; and in 1980 together they founded “Zilciler Kollektif Şirketi” (In English: Cymbal Maker Collective Company), the beginning of the Istanbul Cymbals brand. The first cymbals produced were branded under “Zilciler” name. The “Zilciler” logo on the cymbals were stenciled using spray paints.
Right after Zilciler Kollektif Şirketi (Cymbal Maker Collective Company) was founded, Agop Tomurcuk asked his brother Oksant Tomurcuk to work together again, and he joined the company as chief cymbal-smith. The brand name was soon changed to “ISTANBUL” after 1.5-2 years of its establishment. Back then, Istanbul Cymbals’ logos were printed using the same stencil-spray paint method like “Zilciler” logo in the first couple of years. By 1982, Istanbul Cymbals Company was exporting cymbals to the United States. That same year, Istanbul Cymbals made their first debut at the NAMM Show, known and accepted as the most important musical instruments fair in the world. Legendary Jazz drummer Mel Lewis declared “They are back!” after trying out the cymbals at the show, referring to the sound of his beloved hand-hammered vintage Turkish cymbals.
This quote then became a very important statement and took its place as a source of pride in Istanbul Agop Cymbals’ history. In the following years, Istanbul Cymbals made their debut at Musikmesse International fair in Germany, which is known as Europe’s biggest fair for the music industry. Agop Tomurcuk’s eldest son and now Co-President of Istanbul Agop Cymbals, Sarkis Tomurcuk started working officially at the company in 1984 when he was 19 years old, followed by his younger son Arman Tomurcuk, who is now also Co-President of Istanbul Agop Cymbals, in 1986 when he was 16 years old.
Agop Tomurcuk’s two sons worked very hard at the workshop. His disciplined character made both of the brothers stay and work overtime even after the working hours were over. The hard, detailed and nuanced nature of cymbal making and the growing demand for the cymbals made the need for this kind of discipline inevitable.
Sarkis Tomurcuk summarizes how hard they were working with one of his memories: “At the time, there were 9 or 10 employees in the workshop. The production process, in those days was much more difficult. We used to work with charcoal heaters to melt the alloy for casting and the temperature would easily exceed 1000 C. I would first soak my pants with cold water, in order to stand very high temperature levels and avoid burning myself while we were doing casting. My pants would fully dry within the first 5-6 seconds that took for us to carry the pot filled with molten bronze near the pans using a special device that we had fabricated. This is how we cast every single cymbal at the time. Due to the heavy nature of what we were doing, it was almost impossible to work all day anyways. When I think about it now I can’t believe how we managed.” Arman Tomurcuk shares: “I remember it well, one day a close friend of mine came to visit me in the workshop. I was covered heavily in soot due to charcoal smoke and heat. As I finished casting and got out of the casting room, he approached me and asked ‘Where is Arman, is he still inside?’ He couldn’t even recognize me.”
In 1992, Agop Tomurcuk’s younger son Arman Tomurcuk left for England to complete his studies. He attended the Musikmesse International trade show in Germany with Istanbul Cymbals Company following his return in 1993. After his success of helping the company expand its distribution to thirty countries worldwide, Arman Tomurcuk took his place in company management, following his older brother Sarkis Tomurcuk who became the chief cymbal-smith of the company after Oksant’s retirement. Agop Tomurcuk was convinced that both of his sons have fully learnt his precious handcraft and business, so he decided to hand over his business to them, including his secret formula. Arman Tomurcuk shares this memory about the secret formula: “It was many years ago… I believe I was about 9 years old. I think it was before my father decided to start making cymbals again… He made me and my brother sit down at the table in our house in Bakırköy – Istanbul and started telling us the details of the whole cymbal making process. He was taking down notes as he was speaking. He must have been worried about his health because he had some health issues when he was younger. I think he wanted to pass on this knowledge to us as soon as possible in case something happened to him. This knowledge is so valuable that I remember my father burning the papers he took notes on after he was done explaining the whole process. I will never forget that day. Today, there are other cymbal manufacturers in Turkey, but we are the only one who continue making cymbals using my father’s secret formula which took him a lifetime to learn and develop”.
Istanbul Cymbals started with a handful of distributors, but continued to grow considerably, gained the recognition and admiration of many acclaimed musicians, and lived its golden years between 86-96. The company had extended its distributors to more than 30 countries worldwide. It had become like a sacred place for all musicians.
Visiting Istanbul Cymbals to buy cymbals became almost a pilgrimage for musicians all over the world. Many legendary drummers such as Billy Hart, Billy Higgins, Art Blakey, Jeff Hamilton, Danny Gottlieb, Mel Lewis, Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones and many others played Istanbul Cymbals at that time. Arman Tomurcuk shares a story from that period:
“Elvin Jones came to Istanbul for a concert. I don’t remember the name of the venue now, it was somewhere in Taksim. My father was invited to the concert because Jones was playing Istanbul’s and they were good friends. He took me to listen to Elvin and I have to admit it was a great concert!. I was 14 but I remember well, I was wearing an Istanbul T-shirt. Elvin invited my father to the backstage after the concert. When Elvin saw me wearing that shirt, he came right over to me with his huge smile, took a pen and autographed my t-shirt. I was already mesmerized by his playing, the autograph became the icing on the cake. I still keep that precious present from Elvin. The next day, he visited our workshop. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Istanbul Cymbals attended NAMM Show officially for the first time in 1994. Business went extremely well and upwards for the company until Agop Tomurcuk’s untimely death in 1996. Their father’s death caused the two brothers to quit the old factory where they had worked for 16 years and continue their path as a different company under a different brand name.
In 1997, the new, young and dynamic company started its life in Istanbul – Bayrampaşa with the “Istanbul Zilciler” name and further distinguished themselves with the “Istanbul Agop” brand name. Istanbul Agop Cymbals had a much accelerated projectile after their establishment even compared to the Istanbul brand. After Sarkis Tomurcuk’s son Rudi Tomurcuk’s participation in this dynamic team in 2015, the company continued to increase its success in the following years.
Istanbul Agop brought a more modern and progressive approach toward sounds and designs, while staying true to the tradition of handmade cymbal making in Turkey. This approach to sounds and design combined with our high quality craftsmanship, allowed Istanbul Agop to produce the first brilliant finish handmade cymbals that came out of Turkey – Alchemy Series, special models such as Agop Signature and the 30th Anniversary models which were expressions of our ongoing commitment to traditional cymbal making following Agop Tomurcuk’s footsteps, the first semi machine-semi handmade cymbal came out of Turkey – Xist Series, the unique sound designs like Clapstack and Xist Dry Dark Series and many more. (For more information about Istanbul Agop cymbals series, visit www.istanbulcymbals.com). Today, Istanbul Agop still keeps on experimenting with new sounds and designs by pushing the limits of traditional cymbal making, while staying true to the ancient tradition.
“We have witnessed the happiness and joy on the faces of many valuable musicians from all over the world countless times which was created by the sound of the handmade cymbals produced by our father, and then by us in his footsteps. Watching all these musicians transforming into a kid in a candy store and seeing their happiness and joy while playing our cymbals at our factory or at our booth at music fairs, has always been the biggest motivation for my brother and I to continue making cymbals with passion and it will continue to be so. If our father Agop Tomurcuk hadn’t decided to continue the tradition of Turkish handmade cymbal making many years ago, no one would have had the chance to experience the sound and feel of these unique and genuinely musical instruments today.”
Sarkis & Arman Tomurcuk – Esenyurt, ISTANBUL 2021
All the photos in the article, excluding the cover photo, are credited to Istanbul Agop Family Archives. All rights reserved. Cover Photo Credit: Bruce Milpied