Kurdish Dengbej

Rebel Yell

Preserving Kurdish culture and identity through song in Anatolia

An old fellow wearing a button-down shirt leans forward in his chair and launches into song. His voice, a baritone with a raggedy edge, pushes an age-old tune across staccato peaks. Swallows zip overhead on the summer breeze, and the basalt walls of the courtyard resonate with hoarse melody. Each extended stanza ends in a descending ‘eyh, eyh, eeeeyh!’ in the minor key; then, with an almighty intake of breath, he surges into another verse. His companions, seated around him in a circle of chairs, offer occasional yelps of encouragement, until, his song completed, he subsides, flicking his prayer beads distractedly.

Here at the Dengbêj Evi (Dengbêj House) in the historic Sur neighbourhood of Diyarbakır in Southeast Turkey, such performances unfurl daily as locals, mostly men, gather to chat, drink tea, and – most importantly – to sing. The Dengbêj Evi, a restored konak (mansion) with a black basalt façade commonly found throughout Diyarbakır’s old town, is not a forum for airs and graces, nor the trappings and inflated egos rife in the world of pop music. Singers here, sporting neatly-trimmed moustaches, and shoes polished to a sheen sit on plastic chairs, and it is doubtful if any of them are younger than 50; yet, for decades, despite their prim appearances, these men were considered threats to society, and their songs outlawed.

Hearing government authorities label musicians as ‘subversive’ evokes stereotypical images of uptight conservatives railing against disaffected youth pumped up on punk rock nihilism; it doesn’t automatically call to mind this gaggle of seniors singing a cappella. But, in the Republic of Turkey, one thing in particular pushed these musicians into outlaw territory: the fact that they sang in Kurdish. For decades, state policy in Turkey aimed to impose cultural, linguistic, and ethnic homogeneity; Kurdish identity was to be suppressed. The Republic long insisted on denying the very existence of Kurds, referring to them in official discourses as ‘mountain Turks’. To acknowledge diversity was to imperil the integrity of the state, and accordingly, these dengbêj (‘deng’ meaning ‘voice’ in Kurdish) – bards who memorised repertoires of legends, lore, and epic tales, and served as links to venerable Kurdish culture – were seen as being especially dangerous.

Khachatur Abovian, the fabled 19th century Armenian writer, once wrote that every Kurd – man and woman – was a poet. A century later, the French Dominican priest and pioneering Kurdologist Thomas Bois quipped that every Kurd was also a singer. It seems that it has often been outsiders who have attempted to describe and categorise the Kurds; yet, it may be that the Orientalist stereotypes imposed by the likes of Bois are not without elements of truth. In the absence of a long history of written literature, poetry and song – shared and disseminated in day-to-day interactions – were central to Kurdish culture. Many see the dengbêj tradition, a distinctively Kurdish union of verse and song, as having maintained the ‘torch’ of Kurdish culture throughout times of repression and assimilation. These carriers of an oral tradition safeguarded Kurdish lore and legends, and in doing so, Kurdish identity.

Traditionally, the dengbêj performed at şevbihêrk (evening gatherings). From the 1930s onwards, the Turkish state began to restrict the use of the Kurdish language, and as the dengbêj of Diyarbakır recall, by the 1960s increasing tensions with state authorities saw their performances disappear from cities with Kurdish majorities in the Southeast. In rural areas and villages the dengbêj were able to perform with greater freedom, although they continued to gather surreptitiously in Diyarbakır until around 1980 at the café of Mehemed Hezroyê, with performances continuing on the first floor, away from prying eyes on the street below.

After the military coup of 1980, measures to suppress Kurdish language and culture intensified, and subsequently, all use of the Kurdish language was made illegal. Hezroyê’s café was closed, and the dengbêj were pushed further underground, causing many to give up the tradition, and others to fear it would be lost. The government’s anti-Kurdish measures even extended to seeking out and destroying cassettes of dengbêj performances; one Diyarbakır local recalled that being caught with a single Kurdish music cassette was enough to land him in jail.

Official unwillingness to sanction Kurdish cultural practices continued throughout the 90s, with Turkish security forces fighting an ongoing battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the military conflagration with the PKK has diminished, however, there has been a gradual acknowledgement of Kurdish identity and a loosening of restrictions on Kurdish cultural and political activity in Turkey. The official ‘mood’ shifted sufficiently such that the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, together with the Diyarbakır municipality and the encouragement of the European Union began a project to preserve the dengbêj tradition. In May 2007, the Dengbêj Evi was officially opened, and since then, it has attracted a steady stream of onlookers, aficionados, tourists, and performers.

In fact, in the face of repression and assimilation, the Kurds of Turkey have held on all the more tenaciously to their identity, culture, and traditions

The ‘routine’ at the Dengbêj Evi is decidedly casual. Visitors and singers come and go at random intervals; no one is offended when someone shuffles around the ring of chairs in the middle of a performance, and attendees are free to read their newspapers while awaiting their turn to sing, or make calls on mobile phones and share jokes amid nudges and winks. A new arrival makes a round of the chairs, shaking hands and making the salutary ‘Salaamu’ aleykum’ to all those assembled, whether they be performers or not.

Some dengbêj have also recently achieved degrees of fame. Seyidxane Boyaxci is one who has been interviewed by foreign correspondents, and has appeared in the international press. A regular at the Dengbêj Evi, he sports the usual attire of the Kurdish elder: a cloth cap, baggy shalvar trousers, and a matching waistcoat. He performs with raw intensity, his raspy voice a flurry of rolled ‘r’s and throaty Kurdish consonants. Holding the gaze of onlookers, he engages and implores, while at intervals knowing members of the audience chuckle at his clever wordplay and imagery.

It is clear that each dengbêj has his own style; some are solemn and composed, while others gesture and beckon. Each also carries his own repertoire, consisting of signature tunes they consider their own. During visits to the Dengbêj Evi, it becomes apparent that certain singers launch into renditions of the same song, day in and day out, although one can say with confidence that no two performances are ever exactly the same. Yashar Kemal, one of Turkey’s most respected and admired authors (of Kurdish descent) notes that Kurdish songs forever vary: a song sung by day differs from the same sung at night, and again differs if it is sung in the mountains or on the plains. There is no written canon, either; each dengbêj retains his repertoire in his memory, leaving each rendition open to the possibility of spontaneous improvisation and embellishment.

Improvisation happens as emotional heights are scaled – and emotional heights there most certainly are. Even without knowledge of the language, one can feel the urgency of rising adrenaline as the songs unfurl. Bois long ago recognised the strong current of sentimentality that the Kurds harbour. This is magnificently apparent in the torrid performances of the dengbêj, and is, no doubt, part of the magic for listeners; for who can resist heart-rending torch songs, or the bittersweet anguish of lovelorn ballads?

Onlookers remark that the lyrics of these songs tell of tales of blood and death, warrior heroes, saints, and unrequited love. Though all of this, one can also hear a distant echo – in the minor key melodies and lyrical themes of melancholy – of flamenco from distant Spain; this should not come as a surprise, given the links between Iranian and Spanish music. In the 9th century, a musician by the epithet of Zaryab (lit. ‘He Who Finds Gold’ in Persian) – widely believed to be of Kurdish stock – travelled to Cordoba in Andalusia, where as a courtier and polymath, he had an indelible impact on both Arabic and Spanish music.

Modern dengbêj music, however, is a world away from the princely courts of medieval Andalusia; it is an art form that has sprung from adversity. Historically, it was associated with the poorer segments of Kurdish society, with many dengbêj building their repertoires while working as shepherds, and memorising lyrics as they followed flocks of sheep across the mountainsides. For some dengbêj, singing was a way out of poverty, and a way of winning the patronage of a local ağa (a tribal leader). Such circumstances conferred kudos on those who answered their callings; to assume and maintain the tradition despite living in dire straits became a point of pride for the dengbêj; it was seen as a brave endeavour, all the more so when Turkish authorities were attempting to stamp out all manifestations of Kurdish culture. In fact, in the face of repression and assimilation, the Kurds of Turkey appear to have held on all the more tenaciously to their identity, culture, and traditions.

No doubt for the shepherd and the poverty-stricken, oppressed villager, whose very identity was denied, bursting into song was also a means of escape from the hardships of everyday life. For now, those hardships have been relegated to the background. With the difficult years of the 90s – when Diyarbakır was a flashpoint in the clash between the Turkish military and the PKK – having retreated into memory, the time of the dengbêj may finally be here. The Republic of Turkey is increasingly acknowledging that the cultural and ethnic fabric of this corner of Anatolia is much more than just Turkish; and the dengbêj – these keepers and carriers of age-old traditions – as confident and vocal as ever, are continuing to let their voices ring out into the blue Anatolian sky yet.

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