Reflections on A Golden Horn – Jazz and Turkish Music


Robert Wyatt noted the similarities between the ezan or “call to prayer” and “Saeta” by Miles Davis/Gil Evans, from Sketches of Spain. His observation and his music, led me to a path of discovery.

The saeta, in flamenco music, is “the arrow of song.” It is usually sung without accompaniment during the Holy Week religious procession in Seville. It tells of the Passion of Christ and is addressed to a Deposition image or statue. As described by Gilbert Chase, “The singer, usually a woman, stands on a balcony overlooking the procession, grasping the iron railing firmly in both hands (the grip tightens as the emotion grows). The procession stops so that the image which is being addressed remains stationary while the saeta is being sung. A fanfare of trumpets gives the signal for the procession, to move on.” (from the original liner notes)

Singer Pastora Pavon reconstructed the Saeta in studio for a Spanish 78 later distributed in the USA; and Miles/Gil reconstructed the reconstruction in their own recording – without ever mentioning the original interpreters.

Flamenco singing and dancing is based on the Gypsy traditions evolved in their centuries long travel from the North of India to Spain across Europe and North Africa, and on those of the Moors whose Muslim African dynasties dominated Spain for centuries. Ziryab, a black African muslim ud player, was brought from Bagdad to Cordoba in 822 AD to establish a music school. Paco de Lucia dedicated an album to him.

Roma population was first documented in Europe in Byzantium, between 1000 and 1200 AD, where they acquired the definition Athsinganous, heretics, from which the word tzigane comes from (gypsy is a derivation of Egyptians, as Romani people often presented themselves).

Gypsy musicians provide to this day an enormous body of music in Turkey and across Europe, as well as having created a specific jazz style modeled on Django Reinhardt.

Since the XIX Century all borrowings from Eastern and/or African traditions have been downplayed – for example in the history of the Renaissance.

The very word “sarabanda” that we associate with stately Baroque dances comes from Africa via the Spanish colonies: Zarabanda, the spirit of Caribbean religion Palo Mayombe, deity of work and strength, associated with Saint Peter and Ogun.

Obscuring the sources is ideologically and financially convenient. The whole issue of colonial appropriations by Western composers, including jazz musicians, and record industry of “folk” art from countries other than Western Europe and the USA is a fascinating subject that needs urgent examination.

Many years after the “discovery” of jazz by the Turkish public, American jazz musicians began to develop a fascination for Turkish music. However, only in rare cases this led to an effort to learn about the different Turkish traditions and their impact on European and American music, the fact after 1955 qualified ethnomusicological recordings began to be available.

Among the liberating events of 1959 in jazz certainly one of the most relevant is the release of Time Out, the Dave Brubeck album aimed to show that it was possible to swing in odactuald meters like 5/4 and 9/8. Despite that “Take Five,” its most famous piece and ironically maybe the most famous jazz tune, was composed by Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist of the band. “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” a nod to the Turkish-inspired March by Mozart, was however by Brubeck, and you see above the genesis explained in a Scientific American article.

How many clichés can you count in a short phrase?

Picking something up from Turkish musicians in a concert hall would not have sounded as cool, and of course ‘to them’ it’s ‘natural’ to play in odd meters. In non-Western music there’s no theory, debate, history..

The event took place during the diplomatic tour of Europe and Asia of 1958 which led to the production of the album Jazz Impression of Eurasia, and on the back of the cover with its subtle sponsor placement there’s the explanation of the Golden Horn title.

Columbia could not find the correct spelling for “çok teşekkür ederim” in the 1960 first edition. Then in the 1991 Cd reissue things got REALLY weird.

Anyway, can you hear the figure of speech in the theme?

The problem of definition; Turkish? Anatolian? Oriental?

“Oriental music” today is an old-fashioned term in the Western marketplace, but it was popular in the past century in the cabarets of Paris and in the nightclubs of New York as well as in books by musicologists like Helmholtz, Bourgault-Ducoudray or Hemsi, indicating music from a geographical area ranging from the Aegean to Japan.

“Anatolian” seems to be the more inclusive, if it does not imply a contraposition between Istanbul music – mostly centred on the European side – and “folk” music of Anatolia.

As anything “South of the Border” – Mexican, Cuban, Argentinian, Brazilian – could be interpreted by intercambiable interpreters, anything Oriental – Greek, Gypsy, Armenian, Turkish, Egyptian, Lebanese – could be marketed through the combined suggestions of mysticism and eroticism.

Turkish music is very varied geographically and its historical layering appears in its practice and theory: the tetrachord-based makam system, based on Greek and Byzantine music theory preserved through Arabic translations, and the ornamental, melismatic delivery influenced by koranic reading and muslim prayers.

Definitions create the image of the Other in the Western mind.

Ethnomusicology is certainly not immune from “Orientalism” as discussed by Edward Said in his book.

Musicians trained in Turkish conservatories never failed to laugh or comment with astonishment when in Saeta they recognized familiar passages.
Tekbir prayer in makam Segah by Buhurizade Mustafa Itri, Ottoman composer (1640-1712), a contemporary of Bach whose sacred pieces are still sung from West Africa to Indonesia. Sung by Kani Karaca.

The call to prayer dominates the sound environment of any country with a relevant Muslim presence or majority. Koran reading, prayers and ezan/adhan are the most powerful unifying sound factors in the Muslim world, in vocal music as well as in instrumental intonation.

The most important vocal performers of the beginning of the XX Century were trained in Koran reading. Many transitioned into pop music, as it happened with trained Jewish cantors (hasan) in the USA.

The only instrument created by jazz is the drum set, the percussion section of the brass band put under the control of a single musician. There are no African percussion instruments in the drum set – in the time and place of jazz’s early development those were forbidden. The Western orchestra took its percussion from Turkish military music, or mehter. It was usually called “Turkish Music” as in this orchestra seating plan from 1810.

To this day cymbals are manufactured by Zildjian, alternative spelling of Zilciyan, a mixed Turkish-Armenian word from

  • zil (cymbal)
  • -ci (maker) and -yan (Armenian patronymic suffix).


Jazz has been frequently associated with improvisation. This is one of the aspects that struck the Western musician, since in Classical music improvisation was practically extinct. However, in Turkish music serious listeners found a Classical tradition, Centuries old, where improvisation was not only practiced but part of the formal curriculum: a kanunud or kemençe player is certainly not accomplished until he or she can create on the spot a taksim based on the same makam of the piece that the orchestra is going to play, or to contribute an improvised section within the piece. The taksim is not freely improvised, but as in many jazz forms it needs to conform to specific rules (exposing the fundamental notes of the makam, suggesting others and then coming back to the original) while being inventive and original. Taksims are not played only solo, but can be improvised together by two or more musicians.

Aka Gündüz Kutbay, the fearless improvisor on the ney who jumped into the first meetings of Turkish musicians and jazzmen, did not seem that there was much difference in the attitude. Equally, an aşık (troubadour) would normally improvise his instrumental answers to the vocal, much in the way of a blues singer.

In fact Turkish music and Jazz may well have a shared hidden link making them much closer than commonly suspected, through the blues. We need to go back to the Slave Trade times. Slave traders considered Muslim Africans rebellious and unbreakable. They could converse in Arabic with slaves from other areas, instigating revolt. In 1526, King Charles of Spain forbade the importation of “gelofes, of slaves from the Levant, and of those brought up among the Moors, even if they were of the race of Negroes from Guinea”: Spain had managed to get rid of the Moors only 30 years before – they did not want to start all over again.

From then on, the majority of Muslim slaves were traded in Protestant dominions; the others went to Cuba, to South and Central America. This divide profoundly influenced the musical traditions of the African Americans: USA has the highest percentage of people imported from Islamized areas. DNA research established a prevalence of Fulani and Wolof, especially in the Southern coastal states and in Mississippi. This seems a reasonable explanation for the fact that  a key constituent of the African-American music in the USA, the blues, is conspicuously absent from Cuban or Brazilian music – no less African or American than jazz, if not more.

Ayuba Suleyman Diallo, from a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim religious leaders was captured by invading Mandingoes and purchased in Maryland. Ayuba used to go into the woods to pray. He ran away and in prison impressed a lawyer with is ability to write in Arabic. “…he wrote a Line or two before us, and when he read it, pronounced the Words Allah and Mahommed; by which, and his refusing a Glass of Wine we offered him, we perceived he was a Mahometan, but could not imagine of what Country he was, or how he got thither…”

All early slave narratives and diary are by Muslim people enslaved.

Gerhard Kubik: “the vocal style of many blues singers using melisma, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic-Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries”. -Suleyman Diallo.

All the early slave narratives were written by Muslim slaves who knew how to write and read.

The history of jazz is full of unexplained words, beginning with the word jazz itself.

In 1924 the Scottish erudite H. G. Farmer’ proposed an etymology: “it is derived from the Arabic jaz’, a term used in the oldest Arabic works on music and prosody,” writes Farmer, “and means ‘the cutting off’, ‘the apocopation’”. In fact, you can consult any Arabic dictionary online and see in how many words the root is used.

The “ring shout” according to Samuel Floyd is one the first autonomous manifestations of a African-American culture and pride. It is a perambulation around a focal point, performed usually in the open. In 1949, African American researcher Lorenzo Turner proposed an etymology: haji, the pilgrimage to Mecca, includes a circular perambulation around the temple where the holy stone, the Kaaba, is preserved. Each circumambulation is called in Arabic sha’wt [path], a homophone of “shout” but much better suited to describe the ritual.

Ragtime is usually explained with “to rag” (tearing up) the time. The word “rag” is documented for the first time in print as “dance” in a Topeka [Kansas] newspaper in 1891, but indicates a dance:

“The ‘rags’ at Jordan Hall, held in Tennessee Town every week, are a nuisance and should be forbidden.” A simple and logical derivation suggest itself from the word raqs or raks, ubiquitous from India to Morocco to indicate dance and fashionably used to sell Oriental (belly-dance) music.


The emergence of modern jazz took place in musical meetings called jam sessions.
Jam means location and the union. Al-Jami, the one that unites, is one of the 99 names of Allah; the 62nd surah, Al Jumah, celebrates “The Congregation” on Fridays. Turkish Alevis call their rite of worship “cem” (pronounced “jam”). In a cemevi a round counterclockwise circumambulation is performed.


1- Objections are very helpful because they allow us to test the strength of a hypothesis.

2- Can linguistic and musical traditions survive for so long in a hostile environment?

  • Jazz
  • Jam
  • Rag
  • Shout

3- A possible Arabic origin of these words is impressive, but is there independent proof?


Peetie Wheatstraw, born William Bunch in Arkansas or in St. Louis, aka The Devil’s Son-in-Law or The High Sheriff of Hell, in 1936 recorded “Fairasee Woman (Memphis Woman)”:
“Now my woman is from Memphis
and she’s sure good to me
So I’m gonna keep her and make her my Fairasee”.

Paul Garon, in his excellent book about Peetie, reports that no blues singer he interviewed knew the word or its meaning. It was tried to explain the songs in Biblical terms (a Pharisee, dishonest woman – which does not make sense in the context).


Dan Pickett, born James Founty, Pike County, Alabama, August 31, 1907, was one of the best exponents of the Piedmont style blues. His post-war Gotham records are a throwback to earlier styles. In “Something’s Gone Wrong,” he sings:
“Bye Bye Roll Mister
Farewell to the state of Tennessee
If I don’t come home
on that milk train
Ooh well I’ll be on that Fairasee”.

That last word always puzzled blues historians as they tried several explanations including the Bible association, which here makes even less sense.


The inability to look outside the Western world while analyzing the culture of a population forcibly imported by the continent with the oldest civilizations on Earth continuously amazes me.

“Farasi” is a Swahili word loaned from Arabic (originally faras). In Arabic it means “mare” specifically, not “horse”, and it is part of the musical culture through the traditional “faras dance” or songs like “Faras faras”, by Hussein Al Jassmi (surely an interesting name in this context):

faras faras min hasaniha alhasan ankharas     A mare, a mare, from her beauty,
tatazaham qulub albashar biqibaliha              beauty itself became speechless
waqfat faras mushiat faras laftatan faras         In front of her a crowd of hearts

Contrary to our culture, “In general, for a female to be compared to a faras is a compliment” writes Lisa Urkevich, “as it means that she has a thin waist, a high chest and a good posture”

From Arabic it entered Swahili, the language of the Bantu family used in a wide area of East Africa by a population who converted to Islam as early as the 11th Century, as “farasi” and today retains the meaning of “horse”.

The word in these two blues is in fact used in both meanings.

  • By Wheatstraw as a compliment to a woman with a sexual innuendo – think of the many “riding” allusions in the blues.
  • By Dan Pickett in its original meaning of horse in a funny turn of events – “if I miss the train you’ll see me coming on a horse”.Both texts feature a connection to women from Memphis, Tennessee.

This proves that Arabic/Swahili words could survive in blues recorded in the XX Century, centuries after the ancestors of singers were part of any African culture or even had regular contacts with it, hinting to a world of oral transmission of language, proverbs, stories, songs.

In fact, why blues singers should speak in the King’s English and be deprived of that lingo impenetrable to the outside used by many other popular musicians of the early recording era, like tangueros in Buenos Aires (lunfardo, from Italian) and rebetes (turkish words like tekke)?

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