Sacred Music in Turkey – the “Whirling Dervishes”Tom Lloyd | March 13, 2010
I had looked forward to our planned visit to witness a Mevlevihane worship service with both eagerness and some concern. The “whirling dervishes” are one of the best known symbols of Turkish culture internationally. They represent a distinctively Turkish tradition within the broader range of Islamic traditions where music and the senses play a more restricted role. But to be fair, even among the mystical traditions of other world religions, the physicality and artistic orientation of the Sufi Mevlevihane are exceptional. The Sufi’s are very important to our study of Turkish music as well, because they have been the primary protectors of the Ottoman high art musical traditions through the transition period to the republican era in spite of periods of considerable state repression.
Not having witnessed a dhikr ritual in person before, the concern balancing my eagerness was the extent to which the presentation would be tainted by tourist trappings that would make us feel complicit in the trivializing of an ancient tradition. Along these lines, I had recently read a book by the Australian musicologist Stephen Davies on the whole issue of authenticity, looking at the issue not only from the point of view of Western historical musical periods, but looking at world music and it’s relationship to the tourist trade. In his research, Davies has found that tourism can either be a trivializing influence, or a critical element of financial and logistical support for keeping an authentic local tradition alive at a high level. A Haverford alum living now living in Turkey had in fact emailed me in advance to be sure we would be visiting an authentic dhikr ritual since there are apparently several that are in fact tourist presentations – so it would seem that Turkey might be a place where both approaches exist.
As it turned out, we needed not have feared. Our guides arranged for us to visit a Mevlevihane meeting house in Bursa, within walking distance of our hotel, though requiring a climb up some steep streets to get there. The room was a simple, wood structure, with a two level balcony on the sides, carpeted but without chairs, with the upper balcony fairly high – women on one side and men on the other. The ceremony began slowly with the entrance of one man who said some prayers and then returned to the back room. Then the musicians entered – a lead player of the Turkish Ney (a long flute-like instrument) and five assistants playing the traditional shallow, wide rimmed drums. Then there were six singers who sang mostly in unison, or in response to their leader – this is traditional classic “choral” music – unison singing of fairly complex and nuanced melodies associated with particular sacred texts.
After a long solo from the Ney player, and then a period of singing by the chorus, the dancers entered. They were young men, most looking to be in their 20′s or 30′s at most, one obviously a youth perhaps as young as 12. Their faces had an unassuming serenity about them as they slowly began their turning around, the tilting of their head to the side and their eyes to the ground, the raising of one arm to the heavens and the other to the earth. They spun both in place and in a circle around the room, which was just big enough for the six of them, with their white skirts filled the space and sending a tranquil breeze in our direction. The ceremony ended with the same simple dignity with a final call to prayer by the leader and the retreat of the brothers back into the house.
My only wish then was that there was a way we could have time to reflect on the experience with the students – and again, as with many other such moments on our trip, our guide Ilker Ersil was able to speak with one of the brothers and received an invitation to tea in the guest room of the house. We sat quietly around in a circle, taking up every square inch of the benches on each wall as we were graciously served tea. Then we were visited by one of the leaders of the group, who patiently described the ceremony and its many symbols, talked about the Sufi’s understanding of their relationship to the outside world, and took many questions from our students. Yet another instance of our being so beautifully gifted by the generous hospitality of the people of this country that is both so wonderfully ancient and modern.