Cymbals produced in Anatolia 300 years ago were accepted by Europe, but will the instrument makers of today be able to compete in the instrument market dominated by giant brands?
Zildjian and Istanbul are the most important brands of cymbals used by many drummers and percussion artists of various genres from all over the world today… These two brands were born in Istanbul and their fame spread to the world from this city. The question we will try to answer in this article series is whether Anatolian instrument makers can survive in the music instrument market dominated by big companies and manage to produce their own brand?
The history of cymbals goes back to the most ancient eras, however; it owes its use in music to the Ottoman military band, the “Mehter Takımı”. This marching band used impressive instruments in the battlefield to scare away the enemies and they naturally utilized Istanbul-made cymbals. Ultimately, European military formations started to imitate the Janissary music in the beginning of the 18th century and the faith of the cymbals took a new turn…
These cymbals transitioned from being utilized only in battlefields to finding their place in concert halls, becoming favourite instruments of the opera. Even though we hear the cymbals in the Scythian choir during the 1st act, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” (1779) opera, the most famous example to their use in opera is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1782 work “The Abduction from the Seraglio”. Cymbals were effectively used as a permanent addition to the percussion instruments in the last 30 years of the 19th century by Ludwig van Beethoven (The 9th Symphony), Georges Bizet (Carmen), Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner.
We see brands such as Zildjian, İstanbul Agop, and İstanbul Mehmet on the shelves of prominent retailers of Europe like Andertons and Thomann. The story of Zildjian which was born in Istanbul and ended up being produced in America is very interesting.
“Avedis” was an Armenian ironsmith living in Istanbul, who produced cymbals for the military band. Sultan Osman the 3rd was very impressed by these cymbals and gave Avedis the name ‘Zilciyan’ which means “the mastersmith of cymbals”. Avedis shared the recipe for the cymbal alloy only with his son and hid it from his assistants in the workshop. However, his assistants Agop and Mehmet eventually learned this formula and the tradition of making cymbals continued. (You can read this story in Burak Ersöz’s article: “Handmade Turkish Cymbals Tradition An Inside Perspective“)
There are many different instruments being produced in Anatolia today in addition to cymbals, such as violin, darbuka (goblet drum), guitar, and clarinet. There are even university-level schools available for those who wish to study instrument making.
Emre Okulmuş is one of those students who wanted to study at a conservatory, but chose to study in the instrument making department with the temptation of the smell of the wood. However, he did not only choose this occupation for the smell of woodworking, but also with the motivation to produce music instruments to facilitate the emergence and development of new musicians.
Okulmuş received a 4-year music education that was based more on practice rather than music theory at the prestigious Ege University in Izmir, accompanied by many other students from various different places in Anatolia. He learnt how to make a guitar from scratch in workshop classes. His education was very detailed and included learning how to make luthier knives used in the production process, the cutting equipment, technical drawing in order to work on project development, organic chemistry to become an expert in making polish, instrument classes due to the department being a part of the conservatory, reading Turkish and Western music and theorem classes.
Emre Okulmuş graduated in 2020 and is aware that he will have to compete with many brands and local producers as he is preparing to open his own workshop. His advantage is the fact that he is making custom classical, flamenco, and fretless guitars. He makes the guitars according to the musicians’ wishes and expectations while considering the physiological structure of the musicians’ fingers as well as measuring the elasticity of the woods used in every level, making his guitars fundamentally different than factory-made ones.
The polish he uses is very special as well. Emre Okulmuş uses Shellac polish produced with the fluid left by an insect called Lacciferlacca that can be found on trees in countries like Thailand and India. He uses the French Polish method while applying this substance on the guitar, which protects the musician from being exposed to harmful chemicals used in factory-made guitars.
There are 40 conservatories in Turkey as of now. This many students naturally have a sizeable need and demand for instruments. Instrument making departments are scarce compared to this number. As a newly graduated craftsman who joined the Anatolian instrument makers, Emre Okulmuş dreams of continuing his beloved occupation for many years and gaining international recognition similar to the master luthiers such as Greg Smallman, Matthias Damman, and Manuel Adalid.
Özay Gönlüm is a folk music artist with a unique attitude who sings folk songs hailing from the cities located in the Aegean Region of Turkey, which includes Izmir. The string instrument he calls “Yaren”, which translates as “close friend” is very famous in Anatolia. This instrument, which is a combination of local strings called bağlama, cura and tambura, is crafted by Cafer Açın who has a special place among Anatolian instrument makers.
This esteemed man of science, who has documentaries dedicated to him, is an organology expert, which is a discipline that focuses on instrument types, histories, and modes of production. Opening his first miniature instrument exhibition at the young age of 11, Cafer Açın had already chosen his path of developing and promoting the art of instrument making in Turkey and raising hundreds of students. Açın’s students are now located all around Anatolia.
This vase, dating back to 17th century BC, got both archaeologists and musicologists excited when it was found in the city of Çankırı in Turkey. “İnandık Vazosu”, named after the village it was excavated in, is adorned with depictions of not only the wedding ceremonies of the gods, but also the musicians in such ceremonies and their instruments.
Many questions arose upon the finding of this vase: “Who were these musicians, when and why were they making music, how were they positioned within society?”
It isn’t hard to find sources on Anatolian history in public libraries in Turkey, and it’s even easier to access them online. You can easily buy both the Turkish version of Sedat Alp’s reference book on the first Anatolian civilization of the Hittites titled “Song, Music and Dance of Hittites” and its translation in English. This brings the question; how was the musical world of the Anatolian civilizations, especially the Hittites?
It is unknown how much the music performed during this special concert by Bengi Bağlama Trio, a band which represents Anatolian culture and music through the stringed instrument called bağlama, can teach us about the music of the Hittites, but we at least know that the instruments they use were also utilised in this civilization.
Türk Müzik Evi is the most important institution that gives us this information. Founded in 1993, this institution aims to shed light on a wide variety of hand-made instruments ranging from Central Asia to palace instruments in the Ottoman Empire. Their work is not only important for understanding Anatolian culture, but also for the collective global musical memory.
The history of Anatolia dates back to the Neolithic Era (10000-6000 BC). However, we want to tell the stories that start with 1600 BC and the Hittites, whose sources we can access thanks to scientists who are anonymous, but have made incredibly valuable contributions which allow us to see and hear the instruments of these master instrument makers even today. We will be starting to share their stories in the upcoming articles.