I’ve been away for the past month in a village on the Aras River in Igdir Province, volunteering for a wildlife NGO and trying to improve my Turkish. Internet access was blissfully nonexistent, and I didn’t get a chance to post about a story I wrote before I went away about the Kurdish singing tradition known as dengbej. You can read my article for Eurasianet here.
Dengbej is an oral tradition in which a vast canon of stories, legends and historical events have been passed down from singer to singer for generations, a kind of cultural transmission now increasingly rare due to the influence of modern media and recording techniques.
In March I spent several days visiting Diyarbakir’s ‘Dengbej Evi’, an old house with a traditional courtyard that has been set up by the city’s municipality as a place where the mainly elderly singers gather and perform.
Often illiterate and from poor backgrounds, dengbej are capable of astounding feats of memory. Most singers and enthusiasts I spoke to recall diwans (recitals held in homes), where a single dengbej would perform through the night, plucking songs from his head one after another.
The subject that predominates is, inevitably, love: young lovers, doomed lovers, happy lovers, jilted lovers, jealous lovers, and all the rest. After love – and sometimes as a result of it – comes bloodshed, both ancient and painfully recent. Many of the songs tell of old family feuds, warring agas and doomed rebellions. They have been passed down sometimes for centuries in the memories of singers without once being committed to paper, making dengbej a crucial but fragile vessel in which Kurds’ sense of their history and identity has been transmitted.
Despite the past attempts of the Turkish state to suppress it, and the ongoing corrosive impact of mass media, dengbejremains alive today. Often singers will compose new ballads about the current and recent struggles of Kurds in Turkey, singing of assassinated or imprisoned journalists, or sneaking modern political references into old songs to elicit a laugh.
But it’s hard to see that in an age in which music can so easily be recorded and replayed, dengbej singers will retain their elephantine memories. On the other hand, the songs are now reaching a wider audience than ever before, with recent performances being held in Istanbul and other areas of the country far from the remote southeastern villages that were its heartland.
In that spirit, here’s a song by perhaps the most revered of recent dengbej singers, Sakiro. Now, who’ll supply some subtitles?