A Minority within a Minority: A Mother-Daughter Apprenticeship in Kurdish-Alevi Music

ACTA - Posted on 27 October 2008

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By Kutay Derin Kugay, Program Director, San Francisco World Music Festival and producer/host of the Bay Area radio show Music of the World, Mondays on KPFA 94.1 FM

Master artist Ozden Oztoprak instructs her daughter and apprentice Berfin Ozsoy in the baglama saz, the seminal musical instrument for traditional Alevi culture.San Francisco-based artist Ozden Oztoprak is a master musician and vocalist who is participating in the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program this year with her 11-year-old daughter Berfin Ozsoy, instructing her in Kurdish Alevi songs and the baglama saz, a long necked lute, which is the seminal musical instrument for traditional Alevi culture.  This stringed instrument is used in Kurdish and Turkish music.  As a Zaza-speaking Alevi, Ozden is a minority (Kurdish) within a minority (Alevi) in her homeland.  Born in the Tunceli/Ovacik region, located in the southeastern part of Turkey, Ozden graduated from the prestigious Istanbul University Turkish Conservatory where she trained her soulful voice as well as became a skilled musician.  Ozden sings and plays the baglama, the long neck lute that is in the family of saz, (along with the cura, divan, and meydan).

She is dedicated to teaching her daughter the art and tradition of her Kurdish Alevi heritage, continuing a family lineage of musicians.  Berfin and her mother went to Turkey last summer and spent many weeks in the village where Ozden as a child got her initial infusion of Alevi culture.

Berfin Ozsoy is an extraordinarily gifted child who loves to sing and play the saz, and has already learned quite a number of Kurdish folk and Alevi songs from her mother through this apprenticeship.  Their informal lessons consist of ongoing sessions in their home.  Berfin wants to continue learning the family tradition of music.

Master artist Ozden Oztoprak on the baglama saz.I met Ozden Oztoprak and her family in 2004 and was impressed by her mastery of the Alevi traditional sung poetry.  Her outgoing daughter Berfin was a charming little talent desperately wanting to be in the limelight unlike her mother and father who are very subdued and humble.  Her father is Turkish and having a bi-national identity for Berfin does not seem to dampen her desire to sing and play the saz, which was the sacred instrument (also known as the tembur) of Alevis.  The Kurdish Zaza-speaking Alevi community in the Bay Area is very small and quite disjointed without any support mechanism for artists like Ozden.  Ozden was invited to perform in the San Francisco World Music Festival’s (SFWMF’s) Nowruz Project and she performed superbly on stage with great master artists like Hussein Omoumi, Ross Daly, Imamyar Hasanov, Chingiz Sadykhov and Pejman Hadadi.  The following year she was in the Voices of Kurdistan commissioned work and again shined with the much beloved artists like Aynur, a leading Kurdish female vocalist.  Berfin was delighted to be in the Youth for Youth showcases of the SFWMF as a soloist at the Asian Art Museum in 2005.

In order to better understand the scope of what is being transmitted through this apprenticeship, some understanding of the beliefs and history of the Alevis are crucial towards appreciating the rich inheritance that Berfin is receiving through her music lessons.  Alevi songs are inherently part of the culture that Ozden is teaching her daughter.

The Alevis constitute the second largest religious community in Turkey (following the Sunnis), and number some 25% (18 million) of the total population.  Most Alevis are ethnic and linguistic Turks, mainly of Turkmen descent from Central and Eastern Anatolia.  Some 20% of Alevis are Kurds (though most Kurds are Sunnis), and approximately 25% of 20 million Kurds in Turkey are Alevi (Kurmanji and Zaza language speakers).

A characteristic of Alevi society are the ideals of equality, justice, non-violence, and respect for all, which give Alevi women a different status than that of the majority Sunni women.  Alevi women are not required to wear the veil and are not segregated.  They take part as equals in the religious life of the community.  Alevism is presented as the religion of reason that stresses education and humanism and is known to be progressive and secular.

Apprentice Berfin Ozsoy on the baglama saz.A core tenet of the Alevi belief is the unity of the Creator and the Created, and that the circuitous nature of life that makes all living beings interconnected.  Being a mystical religion, Alevism departs from the traditional Muslim practices such as prayer (namaz), fasting during Ramadan, the compulsory giving of alms (zakat) and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).  Alevis contend that the original Quran does not demand five prayers, nor mosque attendance, nor pilgrimage.  The distortion of early Islam by omitting, misinterpreting, or changing important passages of the original Quran, especially those dealing with Ali and ritual practice, are contentious points between the dominant Moslem (Sunni) practice and Alevi practice.

Alevis have their own religious ceremonies (cem), officiated by 'holy men' (dede) belonging to a hereditary priestly caste, at which religious poems (deyiş or nefes) in Turkish are sung and men and women carry out ritual dances (semah).  Popularized in the West as dervish dancing, the ritual has a practical side to it as well because for Alevis, the ayn-i cem ceremony cannot take place unless all are at peace with each other, a condition attained by the questioning of all present to ensure reconciliation in the community.  The dede is the chairman but all can take part in the judicial procedures whose aim is reconciliation, not punishment.  Semah music is performed and the men and women dance, some dancers going into a trance.  Alevi mystical poetry commemorating the martyrs of the Alevi community is recited.  A sacrificial meal (lokma), a ritual alcoholic drink, nefes hymns accompanied by music on the saz, dance (semah), and the ritual lighting and extinguishing of candles, are elements of the celebration.

During the Alevi ceremony, Ozden explained, there are 12 responsibilities that are carried out by community members:

  1. The Mursid (murshid) represents the holy personalities of the Alevi tradition, conducts the ceremony as the leader, and occupies the highest position.
  2. Rehber is in second position and assists the Mursid.  He prepares the new people joining the community.
  3. Gozcu (goezji) keeps the order and calm during the cm, helps the Rehber, and guards the cm.
  4. Ceragci (ciragji) prepares and lights the candles, flames, and lights.
  5. Zakir/Asik (zakir/ashik) plays the saz and sings poetry and songs known as tevhid, duazde, mersiye, semah, and nevruzi.
  6. Supurgeci/Ferras (soupourgaji/ferras) is in charge of cleaning the cm area before and after the ceremony.
  7. Meydanci calls the semah dancers and arranges the seating.
  8. Niyazci prepares the sacrificial animal and distributes the meat to the community.
  9. Ibrikci carries the hand washing water container (ibrik) for the Murshid and holy individuals.
  10. Kapici watches the homes and secures the place of cem.
  11. Peyikci is responsible to announce the cem to all the participants.
  12. Sakaci serves the water, juices, milk, and all other drinks.

Persecution of the Alevis

Dersim, where Ozden and her family are from, is infamous for a revolt that took place in 1938 against injustice of extreme taxation.  The army used planes to dive bomb the villages savagely crushing the rebellion.  The massacre and atrocities that followed, as well as the forced mass migration of the survivors to different areas of the country, have been erased from official Turkish history, living on only in the memories of the survivors.

In 1978 in the city of Kahramanras in southern Turkey, local rightist Sunnis went on a rampage, slaughtering scores of leftist Alevis from the nearby villages in the worst massacre in living memory.  In the autumn of 1994 and again throughout 1995, the Turkish army carried out large-scale counter-insurgency operations in the mountainous province of Tunceli, resulting in the destruction and forced evacuation or around a third of the villages there.  The most shocking of these incidents were the firebomb attack on a leftist-cum-Alevi cultural festival in Sivas in 1993, in which 37 artists, singers, and writers were killed in the fire.

As a result of their social and religious views, Alevis have endured much persecution.  Not so long ago, they would have denied being Alevis if asked by non-Alevis.  Here I must note that there are some Alevi thinkers who disagree with the dominant views of ordinary Alevis and state that their religion has nothing to do with Islam, not now nor in the past.  They contend that the word Alevi is not derived from Ali but from “alev” which means flame in Turkish.  In this view Alevi practice is placed in a shamanistic, pre-Islamic time frame, dating back many thousands of years.

Historically, Alevism has united Turks and Kurds into one community that felt affinity towards other marginalized or persecuted Anatolian communities such as Armenians and Assyrians.

Formalizing the legacy of this rich tradition through the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program has been a blessing for Ozden and Berfin.  The young artist is eager to share her talents in public.  She will have that opportunity on November 9, 2008, in San Francisco, when she and her mother will open the San Francisco World Music Festival at 3:00 pm in the Presidio.

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