The Singing of Tales: The Role of Music in the Performance of Oral Epics in Turkey and Central Asia

When Albert Lord published his ground-breaking study of South Slavic oral epic poetry in 1960, he entitled his book The Singer of Tales: the singer of tales, not the narrator of tales. With this title Lord acknowledged the fact that the South Slavic pjevač is literally a singer, who accompanies his song—appropriately termed pjesma—with a musical instrument. Although music is not discussed in Lord’s book, he was, of course, aware of the importance of the musical aspect of performance. In the first volume of Serbocroation Heroic Songs, he included Béla Bartók’s transcription of one of the songs (The Captivity of Đulić Ibrahim). [1] Lord collaborated with Béla Bartók on their Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs [2] and encouraged Stephen Erdely to transcribe more songs from the Parry collection, a collaborative effort that resulted in the full transcription of three South Slavic epics from the Bihać region of Bosnia. [3] As the epics are sung in performance, the analysis of music can be helpful for a correct transcription, at least when the texts are transcribed from the recordings rather than taken down from the singer’s dictation. Lord notes this in his preface to the first volume of Serbocroatian Heroic Songs:
The musical transcriptions in this volume were done by the eminent musicologist, composer, and pianist, the late Béla Bartók. In 1941 Professor George Herzog, then of Columbia University and now of Indiana University, yielded his position as musicologist for the Parry Collection to Professor Bartók, who had been his teacher in Budapest. As these scholars worked on the music, they made valuable suggestions about the text, and for both their musical skill and their linguistic sense I am indebted to them. [4]
When we look at editions and translations of oral epics world-wide, we find that even if the importance of music is acknowledged, it is generally ignored in practice. This is so even in cases where a living tradition furnishes material for a study of the music. Lauri Honko, who edited, together with his native collaborators Chinnappa Gowda and Viveka Rai, the Tulu epic of Siri, [5] gives some information on the differences between the dictated and the sung versions of the epic in the accompanying textualization volume, [6] as well as on the singing of the epic in the paddyfields. [7] In Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo Mateene’s edition and translation of the Banyanga Mwindo epic (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) the performance of the epic is characterized as “music, rhythm, song, dance, movement, dramatic entertainment,” [8] but the music is neither discussed nor illustrated. In some cases the musical aspect is somewhat better described. John Smith’s edition, translation and study of the Rajasthani epic of Pābūjī contains a section on “The words and music of Pābūjī’s epic.” [9] Similarly Gordon Innes’ edition and translation of three Mandinka versions of the epic of Sunjata gives some information on music, also with some musical examples. [10] The volumes in the excellent Russian series Èpos narodov SSSR (Epics of the Peoples of the Soviet Union), now entitled Èpos narodov Evrazii (Epics of the Peoples of Eurasia), generally have an appendix on the music of the epics edited and translated, often with musical notations. Only rarely do editions and translations of epics contain musical illustrations in sound. A notable exception are the volumes of the series Pamyatniki fol’klora narodov Sibiri i Dal’nego Vostoka (Monuments of the Folklore of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East), published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk. In the early volumes small records, and in later publications CDs, are added to the various editions and translations. The second edition of Lord’s Singer of Tales, prepared by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy (2000), did just that: added a CD with a video-clip and all the examples of the book as audio-files. In my edition of the Karakalpak epic of Edige in the Finnish Folklore Fellows Communications series I have followed this practice by including a CD with audio and video clips. [11]
The widespread use of the internet has changed this picture in recent years. A number of epic performances, at least in snippets, can be watched on YouTube. A particularly rich mine is the Unesco Intangible Heritage site. Audio-files are also available for a number of epics in the Parry collection; the e-text version of John Foley’s edition and translation of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey from the Parry collection (2004) has links to these audio-files. [12]
This is not to say that the music of epic is not discussed, but these discussions are generally restricted to musicological audiences and only occasionally found in works aimed at a non-specialist readership. Some examples of works on the music of oral epic are Ruth Stone’s books on the epic performances of the Kpelle of Liberia, [13] the in-depth study of Persian and Turkmen epic singers in Iranian Khorassan by Ameneh Youssefzadeh, with illustrations on a CD, [14] and a collection of articles on the performance and music of oral epics edited by me. [15] Although scholars are aware of the importance of music, in particular when they concentrate on oral epics in performance, in their discussions and interpretations musical analysis is clearly accorded a minor role, if found at all. [16] Understandably, scholars equipped to work on the texts of oral epics will only rarely also be specialists for the study of their music, while for ethnomusicologists the necessity to deal with sometimes sizable texts might be a reason for preferring to study instrumental music and the music of songs rather than the music of epics. As the example of Lord and Bartók shows, however, cooperation across disciplines is possible and desirable.
It is typical of a great number of epic traditions that the melodies to which an epic is sung are both repetitive and of a fairly simple structure. This creates an effect of monotony, certainly on the listener who is not familiar with the musical culture of the epic tradition in question. A certain monotony will probably be the first impression also of the music of South Slavic oral epics. Looking at the transcriptions Bartók provided, one can see, however, that the melodies are anything but simple. The sung melodic line is incessantly varied as the singer is reciting the epic, it is enriched by melismas and entertains a subtle dialogue with the music of the accompanying instrument. It has been repeatedly stated that the music of the recitation of oral epics is simple—“unbelievably simple” in the words of the ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs—and hence a sign of “the domination of poetry over music.” [17] Whether this view is justifiable is a question difficult to answer. Performance traditions whose music is composed along the lines of repetitive, ‘stichic’ melodies, with a fairly restricted ambitus and small intervals, would have to be studied in detail before a conclusion regarding the position of music vis-à-vis the text can be reached. My own observations with regard to this type of melodic and musical structuring in the recitation of the Karakalpak singer (jıraw) Jumabay Bazarov has led me to think that even the simplest type of recitation has a musical significance of its own in addition to being a vehicle for the projection of the singer’s voice. [18]
There are, however, also epic traditions where music is clearly in the foreground. In The Korean Singer of Tales, a title modeled on Lord’s seminal study, Marshall R. Pihl explains:

The Korean singer of tales is called a kwangdae. His oral narrative is known as p’ansori, a long form of vocal music in which he sings a work of narrative literature with appropriate dramatic gesture. […] the four essential characteristics of p’ansori [are]: it is a solo oral technique, it is dramatic, it is musical, and it is in verse. [19]
When one listens to p’ansori narratives or watches the video of various p’ansori performances on Unesco’s Intangible Heritage website, one is certainly struck by the theatrical dimensions of this type of epic performance, where both singing and acting seem to play an important part.
It would be a worthwhile task to study the role of music in various types of epic performance and to develop some kind of taxonomy. Clearly, this is the subject of a book-length study. In the present context a choice has to be made. Given that Âşık Şeref Taşlıova, one of the singers performing at the conference on “Singers and Tales in the 21st Century: The Legacies of Milman Parry and Albert Lord,” came from a tradition where music is an important element of epic, I will focus on this type of epic. My examples will come from the world of the Turks, from both Turkey and, due to my own research, the Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia. Linking the oral epic tradition of Turkey with those of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, or Karakalpakistan is done in a spirit of comparative analysis and not, I would like to emphasize, from a pan-Turkic stance. As in other language-families, the speakers of these (on the whole fairly closely) related languages share first of all a linguistic heritage. This heritage does, however, extend into the cultural realm, and a case can be made for interpreting some of the common features in their oral traditions as inherited. This, however, is not the goal of the remarks that follow. It should also be noted that these traditions are geographically contiguous and that they share traits with other oral traditions of the area, most notably with that of the Iranian Tajiks. [20]

Prosimetrum: The form of hikâye and dāstān

Albert Lord entitled his book the singer of tales, not of epics. This is helpful when it comes to Turkic traditions. Much Turkic oral epic poetry conforms to the genre expectations of ‘epic’, which, as is well known, are based on the Homeric epics and the later European tradition, from Virgil to Milton and beyond. Oral works like the Kirghiz Manas or the Kazakh Qoblandı are narratives in verse, of heroic nature, of epic proportions (some versions of Manas are considerably longer than the Iliad), and also, in style and narrative structure, of ‘epic grandeur.’ But there are also other kinds of oral narrative. Some of these are heroic in nature and differ from epics like Manas or Qoblandı only by their form: they are composed in a mixture of verse and prose. Prosimetrum, as the mixture of verse and prose is termed in literary criticism, is known from many traditions. It is characterized in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics as “[a] text composed in alternating segments of prose and verse. The prosimetrum is widely attested in both Western and Eastern lit[erature]s and apparently appears worldwide. Typically, the verse portions serve as lyric, emotive, or personal insets within a philosophical or narrative frame, often with connectives between prose and verse sections …” [21] As a rule the verse portions predominate, while the prose portions serve as narrative links between them. This implies that these narratives can be viewed as epics in verse with interspersed prose (rather than prose narratives with interspersed verse). While some Turkic traditions favor verse epics, others prefer prosimetric oral narratives. Sometimes the same epic might be sung by one singer in verse only, by another in a mixture of verse and prose. To give only one example, the various Uzbek versions of the epic of Alpamish are in a mixture of verse and prose, while most Kazakh versions of the same epic are in verse; among the Karakalpaks versions both in verse and in prosimetrum are found. [22]
In addition to heroic epics there is also a different type of orally performed narrative among the traditions discussed here. These narratives are also composed in a mixture of verse and prose and their reciters are, as in the case of the heroic epic, singers of tales, sometimes the same singers who recite heroic epics. However, these narratives differ from the heroic epic in content and style: their plot centers on adventure and love, and the verse portions in these prosimetric narratives are often monologues and dialogues of the protagonists, typically lovers whose love has been thwarted by some misfortune and who express their feelings in lyrical songs. As with the heroic epics, the prose is recited, while the verse portions are sung. On account of their orientation and style, it seems appropriate to call these oral narratives ‘romances’. There is no space here for a discussion of genre; suffice it to say that the distinction between ‘epic’ and ‘romance’ which W. P. Ker (1908) has drawn with regard to medieval literature, can also be applied to these two types of oral narratives of the Turkic world, heroic epics (in verse or in a mixture of verse and prose) on the one hand and (generally prosimetric) ‘lyrical epics’ on the other. [23]
In native terminology, the tales the epic singers perform are called dāstān in many Central Asian Turkic traditions and hikâye in Turkey. Both terms are loan-words (from Persian and Arabic, respectively) and they are overgeneralized insofar as they comprise heroic songs, adventure narratives, and love tales, in other words, both ‘epic’ and ‘romance’. Other terms are also used; in Kazakh heroic epics are generally denoted by the word jır, but the terms dāstān and qissa (from Arabic) are also used and not always clearly distinguished. [24] The singers’ repertoire might comprise representatives of different genres. Not in all traditions are generic borders drawn identically; in some a singer’s repertoire might be more specialised with respect to genre (or subgenre). Prosimetric romances are found in a wide area of Eurasia: in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Karakalpakistan (a part of Uzbekistan), Kazakhstan, and in Northwestern China among the Uighurs. Not only the genre, but also specific romances are shared by all these Turkic peoples. To give an example, Ashıq Gharib and Shah-Sanam is one of these ‘lyrical epics’. It is the story of a young man, Gharib, and a young woman, Sanam, who were promised to one another when they were born, but who became separated through the evil intentions of the girl’s father. When the girl, Sanam, is about to be married to another man, Gharib, who had become a love-sick singer (âşık) appears in disguise. In most versions, he comes just in time and Sanam, who had remained faithful to him, can become his wife. The plot will sound familiar: this romance is one of the most widely disseminated representatives of the motif of the ‘Return of the Husband in Disguise’. [25] There are Turkish, Azerbaijanian, Turkmen, Crimean Tatar, Uzbek, Karakalpak, and Uighur versions of this romance. In Turkey the romance is also found as a ‘folk book’ (chap book, halk kitabı).

Turkish âşık and Central Asian bakhshi

The singer of tales is in most of the traditions I have enumerated called bakhshi, a word which in Old Uighur means ‘teacher’ and was later used to denote the shaman. Although the latter meaning persists in a number of Turkic languages, the modern Uzbek , Turkmen, or Uighur bakhshi is an epic singer only. [26] In Turkey the word âşık (Azeri aşıq) is used for the singer of tales and the traditional folk singer. This word, an Arabic loan, seems to have come into use at the beginning of the sixteenth century; it literally means ‘lover’ and, according to P. N. Boratav, expresses the belief that a singer received his poetic gift in a dream, when a pir (saint) made him drink from the aşk bâdesi, the cup of love. [27] M. Fuad Köprülü and others have shown that there is also an intimate connection between some Turkish âşıks and dervish monasteries. [28] As with the term bakhshi, the term âşık has various shades of meaning, which depend on place and time, on local tradition and milieu. Although the very general idea of an âşık as a performer of ‘folk’ lyrics to the accompaniment of the saz (a plucked instrument of the lute family) finds wide acceptance among speakers of Turkish, the precise form of the poetry (and music) performed and the role of the performer as composer can be meaningfully discussed only when one focuses on individual singers or more narrowly defined traditions. [29]
Âşık Şeref Taşlıova was one of the last Turkish folk singers who acquired his repertoire in the traditional way and who still, as of 2010, performed hikâyes. [30] He was born in 1938 in a village in the vicinity of Kars in northeastern Turkey (Çıldır province). His ancestors on his father’s side came from the Caucasus, from a Turkic ethnic group called Karapapak or Terekeme, a group closely related to other Oghuz Turks, i.e. the Turks of Turkey, the Azerbaijanians and the Turkmens. Like other folk-singers, Şeref Taşlıova started to learn and sing songs early. As a youngster of fifteen he became apprenticed to Âşık Kasım, the son of a famous singer, Âşık Şenlik (1850–1913). He stayed with Âşık Kasım for a year and then went to learn with two other singers, Âşık Gülistan (1900–1972) and Âşık Müdâmî (1914–1968). From these three singers Şeref Taşlıova learned to play the saz, to sing songs, and to narrate hikâyes. In addition he was in contact with many other singers, some as his masters in younger years, and many as his colleagues and competitors in various singer festivals and competitions. He in turn had five pupils, who have become masters on their own (Şah İsmail, Korkmaz İkan, Nuri Şahinoğlu, Hikmet Arifi Ataman, Sadrettin Ulu). Âşık Şeref Taşlıova performed in many countries and on many occasions. I met Âşık Şeref first in Turkmenistan in 2006 on the occasion of the celebration of the four hundredth birthday of the 17th-century folk singer Karacaoğlan. In 2009 the Turkish âşıklık (minstrelsy) tradition, of which Âşık Şeref was an important representative, was inscribed on Unesco’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.’ In June 2010, Ardahan University awarded him an honorary doctorate. [31]
Âşık Şeref Taşlıova’s œuvre was fairly large. A comprehensive edition of his poems or songs has recently (2010) been published, prepared by his son Muammar Mete Taşlıova, lecturer of Turkish Folklore at Hitit University in Çorum (on the Black Sea). The book contains ca. 450 poems, classified as eight-syllable, eleven-syllable, and divan(i)-poems (fifteen-syllable verse lines, modeled on the aruz (quantitative) metre of classical poetry). The folksong genres represented are koşma (four-line stanzas, with an identical rhyme in the fourth line), türkü (folksong), and destan (narrative songs). [32] In addition there are almost 50 contest poems (karşılaşmalar), comparable to the medieval tenso/ tenzone or, nearer home to Turkish poetry, the Kazakh aytıs.
Some of his epic repertoire has also been published. [33] The singer distinguished four kinds of narrative: (1) hikâyes of tradition, which he learned from other singers (usta malı hikâyerler); (2) hikâyes of his own composition (kendi tasnifi hikâyeler); (3) traditional short narratives, often of an anecdotal character (usta malı serencamlar); (4) short narratives of his own composition (kendi tasnifi serencamlar). [34] The first category comprises fourteen hikâyes, of which six have been edited (among them Kirman Şah and a branch from the Köroğlu cycle). The second category comprises six hikâyes, all of which are included in the recent edition. Of the third and fourth categories, comprising ten and two narratives, respectively, eight of category (3) and all two of category (4) are found in the edition of 2008.
To give an idea of the proportions of these tales, I will briefly describe one of the traditional hikâyes and one of his own composition. Kirman Şah Hikâyesi is a traditional hikâye and like all of the singer’s narratives composed in a mixture of verse and prose. In print it comprises 55 pages; there is no indication of how long the original performance was. Judging from other texts in the collection where the performance time is given, it must have taken the singer at least four hours, probably longer, to tell and sing the tale. Kirman Şah Hikâyesi has about 30 verse passages, ranging from one to six four-line stanzas; in most cases the verse passages have three four-line strophes (amounting to a total of 364 lines). The plot of this hikâye conforms to the adventure and love tale pattern of Turkish romance. The shah of Horasan, Ahmet Şah, marries the beautiful Mahbup Hanım. On false grounds he banishes his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth to a son, Kirman, in far-away Tiflis. When grown into a young man, Kirman is given a love-potion by three dervishes in his dream. He departs to find “the girl of his dreams,” Mahperî, but before he can marry her, he must first deliver her from the clutches of an ogre (dev). After the wedding, Kirman is betrayed and wounded by his two step-brothers, the sons of his father’s second marriage. He reaches Tiflis and is finally healed and reunited with his wife by the help of his faithful horse Karakaytaz, but also his faithful friend the mighty Reyhan Arap (a figure from the Köroğlu-cycle). The narrative pace is swift. Moments of rest are the songs interspersed into the tale. Âşık Şeref’s style is characterized by lively dialogue, narrator’s comments on words and expressions, manners and customs, appeals to the audience, and formulas of narrative transition. One of these is actually taken from the fourteenth-century Book of Dede Korkut (“At ayağı külüng olur, âşık dili yürük olur” demiş eski üstatlarımız). [35]
The second hikâye I would like to briefly summarize is of his own composition and was performed by Âşık Şeref at the conference in 2010. It is entitled Bağdat Hanım ile Hafız Hikâyesi (The Tale of Lady Bağdat and Hafız). [36] In the vicinity of Kars, on the western shore of Lake Çıldır, are the ruins of the town of Kalaça. In former times a person by the name of Reşit Bey lived in Kalaça. He had a beautiful daughter, called Bağdat. On the eastern shore of Lake Çıldır, in a place named Albız, lived at the same time Mahmut Ağa; he had a son by the name of Hafız as well as two daughters. One night three dervishes appear in Bağdat’s dream and give her a love-potion to drink. They also serve Hafız a love-potion in his dream. The young people fall in love with one another, their “366 veins and 144 bones burn with the fire of love.” Hafız has a rival, but his courtship is in the end successful and Bağdat’s father is ready to consent to his daughter’s marriage to him. Bağdat lights an oil-lamp every night on a tower-balcony of her house. The unsuccessful suitor’s family, however, hasn’t given up and engages a wily crone to break the engagement. She suspects that the light is there to help Hafız swim across the lake every night to see his beloved. On the seventh night Hafız does indeed cross the lake, but it is the night his foes have managed to extinguish the light. Hafız drowns. When Bağdat hears what has happened she dies of grief. The two lovers are buried side by side.
This hikâye comprises eleven pages in print. The version printed took three hours to record (in 1998); it contains a total of 220 verse lines, generally arranged in four-line stanzas, including an introductory poem of 32 lines (called döşeme). Looking at the printed edition it might seem that the prose predominates; in actual performance, however, the singing of the lyric insertions fills most of the time. [37] The singer took the plot of his hikâye from a legend, which he published under the title “Çıldır Gölü Efsaneleri” (Legends of Lake Çıldır) in a local journal (Kars Eli) in 1966–1967. [38] What is interesting about this hikâye is, of course, that it is a modern version of a very old tale, the story of Hero and Leander, a story which has been re-told in innumerable versions, from Ovid and Musaeus to Franz Grillparzer. [39]
Âşık Şeref was a creative artist and at the same time a traditional singer. Among his songs, there are many topical lyrics, which express his ideas about contemporary events and social values. In his artistic expression he was both individual and traditional, individual in his views, traditional in his style. He was a representative of Turkish folk music and âşık art; but he was also a representative of a type of art which is found in a wider area. There are many parallels between the way Âşık Şeref acquired his repertoire, transmitted the epic heritage of his culture, and composed within the traditional mould of Turkish folk poetry, and the way Uzbek, Turkmen, or Uighur bakhshis become epic singers and performers, transmit traditional poetry, and shape their native verbal and musical art with their own compositions. Central Asian epic singers have generally learned their art from a master singer, sometimes their father or uncle. From the affiliations of a singer to his master or masters and a master to his pupils, ‘genealogies’ of singers can be plotted; groups of singers ‘descending’ from a common ‘ancestor’ have been called ‘singer schools’ (Uzbek bakhshi maktablari). Local centers of such singer schools have been identified, in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other areas. By their training the singers acquire a repertoire of dāstāns. At the same time they learn shorter poems (Uzbek terma) and begin to compose poems of their own (on topical subjects or on their lives). The first Uzbek bakhshi I recorded (in 1981), Chāri Shāir Egamberdi, sang in addition to excerpts from various dāstāns (Rawshan, Goroghli, Alpāmish, Avazkhān, Rustamkhān), terma on the following topics: “My dombra” (the singer’s musical instrument), “On the Party,” “On the Party Congress,” “On Tashkent,” “On Boka” (the name of the place where his collective farm was), “On Lenin,” and “On Our Newspaper.” In these songs general reflections were mixed with reminiscences of autobiographical events. The terma are traditional in style, but at the same time individual compositions. Among the Kazakhs the favorite improvised genre of the singers (called aqıns rather than bakhshis) is the aytıs, a contest poem. [40] Sometimes real contests with other poets take place—such as the contest festivals in which Âşık Şeref often took part in Turkey—and sometimes a singer performs the songs exchanged in a contest between famous singers as one-dialogue poem. The singer’s song is then, as it were, a re-enactment of a past aytıs.

The role of music in hikâye and dāstān

The verse parts of prosimetric epics and romances are sung by the singers to the accompaniment of a string instrument, often a plucked lute (dombra, dutar, rabab, saz), sometimes also a bowed lute (qobuz). In Turkey the saz is used, which comes in different sizes (divan sazı, meydan sazı, bağlama, cura). In some traditions there is an additional musician accompanying the singer, as for instance a ghijjak (or ghirjek) player among the Turkmens and the Karakalpaks (the ghijjak is a type of spike fiddle). In Khorezm in Uzbekistan (Urgench, Khiva), the singer is accompanied by a small ensemble. There are various words to designate the melodies used to accompany the sung portions of dāstān and hikâye, such as navā (Uzbek), nama (Karakalpak), hava (Azeri, Turkish), and makam (Turkish). The latter is the term favored by Turkish âşıks. This is a somewhat confusing use of the word makam, as in Turkish classical music a makam is, on the one hand, a scale with a specific sequence of intervals and, on the other, a set of ‘melodic formulas’ typical of each makam (somewhat similar to a mode in Gregorian chant). This is a legacy from Arab music (Arabic maqām); Turkish music theorists distinguish more than 300 makams in classical music. [41] In the music of the âşıks, however, the term makam is basically equivalent to hava. In the Kars region of Turkey, i.e. the region from which Âşık Şeref came, over 150 makams are in use among âşıks. For the performance of the verse passages in the hikâyes Âşık Şeref used a total of 60 makams. A similarly rich corpus of melodies is found in other traditions. One of the last traditional Karakalpak bakhshis (Karakalpak baqsı), Genjebay Tilewmuratov (1929–1997), used, according to his own information, about 80 nama. He learned the art of performance from his father Tilewmurat-baqsı Atamurat-ulı. He began playing the dutar at the age of seven and by the age of twelve had mastered three epics, Yusup and Akhmet, Sayatkhan and Həmra and Qırman-dəli (of the Göroghli cycle). [42] He worked as a teacher and later as an artist on local radio and television stations. [43]
There are a number of tasks and problems that await solution in connection with the musical aspects of an âşık’s or bakhshi’s performance. Some are of a technical, others of an interpretative nature. It is an unfortunate fact that most editions of Turkic heroic epics and romances are without musical illustrations either in sound or in notated form. This is also true of Âşık Şeref’s œuvre. The transcription of non-Western music is a general problem of ethnomusicological research and need not be discussed here. The problem is also familiar from the various transcriptions of South Slavic epic melodies (Béla Bartók, Stephen Erdely, George Herzog, and others). [44] Then there is the problem of analyzing the music, of finding a descriptive framework that does justice to the subtlety of the music and yet is accessible to a wider musically interested readership. Some of these problems have been discussed with regard to the Turkish âşık tradition by Ursula Reinhard and Tiago de Oliveira Pinto, [45] often, incidentally, citing Âşık Şeref as their informant. Reinhard and de Oliveira Pinto distinguish eight types of makam from the region of Kars according to a number of criteria: (1) makams associated with a particular singer as their composer (i.e. Şeref makamı); (2) makams referring to ethnic origin (e.g. Türkmen makamı); (3) makams typical of a particular epic (e.g. Köroğlu makamı); (4) praise poetry makams (Güzelleme makamı); (5) makams with a special type of singing mode (e.g. hoş dımak ‘with a sweet voice’); (6) makams classified according to musical criteria; (7) makams for religious and meditative poetry; (8) divan makams, which they explain as follows: “According to Âşık Şeref there are twenty-one divani. They are often sung in Bektaşi monasteries. Their topics are the transitoriness of the world, the powerlessness of man, God’s might and the burden of human existence.” [46] Clearly these are very diverse criteria, which are only marginally helpful for a better understanding of the musical quality and structure of these melodies. Musical analysis is, however, possible, and Reinhard and de Oliveira Pinto do in fact provide a number of suggestions for a musical characterization of these makams.
Although there is variation in the use of melodies among different âşıks and bakhshis, there is yet a traditionally prescribed relationship between particular verse-parts of a dāstān or hikâye and its music. The various melodies a singer masters have names, and these names are associated with specific verse passages. In a study of the way Azerbaijanian aşıqs sing the epic of Köroğlu, Tariel’ Mamedov distinguishes and illustrates various melodies, such as Deli Köroğlu, Meydan Köroğlu, Misri Köroğlu, Jangi Köroğlu. [47] Ferruh Arsunar, in her edition of a Turkish version of Köroğlu, adds musical notations to the various verse passages, with names such as Cengi meydan havası, Nikâh havası, Göç havası, and Hasret havası. [48] The Turkish âşık Orhan Bahçıvan maintains that there are 40 Köroğlu melodies, among them Deli Köroğlu makamı, Meydan Köroğlu, Misri (kılıç) havası, and Cengi makamı. [49] In his performance of The Tale of Lady Bağdat and Hafız at Harvard University in 2010, Âşık Şeref sang three songs as part of the tale; in the first song Bağdat tells her mother about the visit of the dervishes in her dream; in the second Hafız tells his mother that he had seen a beautiful girl “whose eyes are like those of a gazelle” (Ana, ben bir güzel gördüm, / Gözleri ceylana benzer); in the third Bağdat begs her parents not to separate her from her lover (Ana [Baba], beni sevdiğimden ayırma). According to the singer’s information, he sang the first song in the Local Praise-Poem melody (Yerli Güzellemesi havası), the second in the Köroğlu Praise-Poem melody (Köroğlu Güzellemesi), and the third in the Erzurum-Hasankale regional melody (Erzurum-Hasankale ağzı). None of the songs the âşık sang on that occasion is found in the edited text; but there are poems (with different words) in the places where the singer sang the first and the third song. [50]
What has been said about lyrical epics, also applies to heroic epics. In 1956 excerpts from the epic Alpamysh (Alpamıs) in the Karakalpak version of the singer (jıraw) Qıyas Qayratdinov (1903–1974) were tape-recorded and in 1999 edited with their melodies. This edition contains 30 melodies with descriptive names such as Alpamıs naması, Noghaylı naması or Ullı ziban naması. [51] In addition to such descriptive names there are, both for Turkish and Central Asian oral epics, also names referring to various types of song or poem, such as Köroğlu koşması or Deyiş in Turkish and, in Karakalpak, Kelte tolghaw naması. [52] Some of the verse passages are more closely linked to particular melodies than others. In the Karakalpak versions of Ashıq Gharib and Shah-Sanam, for instance, the melody Aruwkhan (Beauty) is used for a famous passage at the end of the dāstān, when Sanam at the sight of her lover, who is standing below her balcony, is ready to throw herself into his arms. Some of these songs have also been transmitted separately and can be heard performed by singers who are unable to tell a tale.
There is no space here for musical analysis. Nevertheless I would like to give one musical example to illustrate the way a poem can be musically shaped in the performance of a hikâye or dastan. My example comes from a dastan Qırman-dәli from the cycle of adventure romances linked to their central hero Köroğlu or Göroghlı. This was one of the dastans in Genjebay Tilewmuratov’s repertoire, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, his version has not been recorded. In 1995, I was able to record a complete version of this dastan from a Turkmen singer in Törtkul, southern Karakalpakistan, Gulum-bakhshi Ilmetop (1939–1999). In Turkmen the dastan is called Kharman-dәli (Crazy Kharman). This is the name of the main heroine: she announces that she will give her hand in marriage only to the man who will defeat her in a wrestling match and in a singing-contest. Göroghlı (Göroglı) also enters the lists, but is not successful. In the end only Ashıq Aydın, the patron saint of singers, is able to defeat Kharman-dәli in the singing contest. The dastan begins with Kharman-dәli sending an old woman—called mama-jan ‘dear granny’ by her—to Göroghlı to invite him to the contest. The following is the first song: [53]

Chandıbile geler yarım ey-jan-ey Göroglıga,
Bar mama-jan, ey-vaey, khabarıng ber,
Bar mama-jan, ey, khabarıng ber!
Aslı gerchek beg oglın(a)-ey,
Bar mama-jan-ey, khabarıng ber!

Dilegim, yar-ey dad-ey, bersin alla,
Chünki ıgtıkadım, valley,
Chünki ıgtıkadım, valley!
Akh, Yene berey yüz müng tılla!
Bar, mama-jan-ey, khabarıng ber!

Göroglı beg, yar-ey, gelip görsün!
Mama-jan, ey-vaey, ömür bersin,
Mama sang(a)-ey ömür bersin!
A, Mening bilen-ey dövran sürsin!
Bar mama-jan-ey, khabarıng ber!

Kharman-dәli, yar-ey, diyirler manga,
Igtıyarım diydim sang(a)-.
Ey, Igtıyarym diydim sang(a)-,
Bar, mama-jan-ey, khabarıng ber.

To Göroglı in Chandıbel
Go, mama-jan, deliver your message,
Go, mama-jan, deliver your message!
To the brave son of a beg
Go, mama-jan, deliver your message!

May God grant my wish,
Because of my faith, by God,
Because of my faith, by God!
I will give another hundred thousand pieces of gold.
Go, mama-jan, deliver your message!

May Göroglı-beg come and see,
May he give his life, mama-jan,
May he give you his life!
May he live in happiness with me!
Go, mama-jan, deliver your message!

I am called Kharman-dәli,
I have given you my permission (to leave),
I have given you my permission.
Go, mama-jan, deliver your message!

The poem is in stanzas of five or four lines. The text of this poem in other Turkmen versions, as far as they are published, is very similar to Gulum-bakhshi’s text. They are, however, all in stanzas of four lines. The five-line stanza results from a repetition of the second line; in the fourth stanza, however, a line seems to be missing (when compared to other versions). [54] The poem is composed in octosyllabic verse-lines; in singing the lines, the bakhshi frequently inserts extra syllables, some meaningless (ey), some meaningful words (yar ‘beloved’). These extra syllables are printed in italics. In addition to extra syllables in the line, there are also extra syllables between the lines and between stanzas (as shown in the musical transcription below). In some words the case ending –a (dative) is elided when an ey is added.
Like the Karakalpak baqsıs, Türkmen singers of the Tashauz (Dashoguz) tradition, to which Gulum-bakhshi belongs, play the dutar and are accompanied by a ghijjak-player. In the following notation of this song, only the voice and the dutar accompaniment is given. The ghijjak adds a further melodic line, which embroiders the dutar part and supports the voice. The transcription of words and music has been prepared by Djamilya Qurbanova and Murad Qurbanov of the Turkmen National Conservatory in Ashkhabad.

This example shows that the poem as text and the poem as song are almost entirely different entities. The poem is fairly simple; its content is straightforward: Kharman-dәli asks the old woman to take an invitation asking Göroghlı to come to her. There is little embroidering on this, and, unlike some of the lyrical passages later in the dastan, the poem is in a fairly plain style, without images or metaphors. The rhyme-words are also simple; there are no poetic words or onomatopoetic words, as often in these songs. The musical performance, on the other hand, is highly dramatic, full of energy, varied, ornamental, and skillful.
The drama of the musical performance is further enhanced by the use of different melodies for different verse passages. This offers the singer the possibility of expressing different moods in music. This is particularly noticeable in lyrical epics or love romances. The adaptation of the music to the content is, however, also found in heroic epics which are traditionally performed with a comparatively small set of melodies. In these epics wedding songs (yār-yār), contest songs (aytıs), or elegies (armān) can be inserted, such as the wedding songs in Alpamysh or “Qanıkey’s lament” in Manas. While there is a traditional link between verse-passage and music, the singer is also free to adapt his performance to the situation. No two performances are identical, either textually or musically. Ameneh Youssefzadeh translates a Persian-speaking bakhshi’s answer to the question of which melody he uses as follows:

[…] The performer has hundreds of maqâms at his disposal. Depending on the mood of the audience and the choice of poems he can choose cheerful (shâd), burning (suznâk), martial (razmi) or melancholy (hoznâvar) tunes. In the dastans, however, melancholy melodies are preferred, since they treat of distant love. [55]
These observations make it clear, I think, that music plays an important role in the performance of Turkic oral epics, in particular in the case of lyric epics. They further suggest that there is a relationship between words and music that is conventional and, with all individual variation, of a traditionally prescribed kind. From an aesthetic point of view, we would like to know more about this relationship. When we read an oral epic as a text only, is this like reading the libretto of an opera? In other words, are we missing the really important part? No doubt, some literary works are legitimately appreciated in their own right and not only when set to music. Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro is a successful play, as is Synge’s Riders to the Sea; the one does not need Mozart’s music nor the other Vaughan Williams’ setting. Mozart’s opera buffa and Vaughan Williams’ music-drama exist in addition not in place of their libretti. For other operatic works, however, the text is more truly a libretto only, a collection of words set to music. We can read the text of Fidelio, but what we appreciate aesthetically is Beethoven’s opera, the dramatization and setting to music of the text.
Or is reading the text of an oral epic like reading the text of a folksong or a ballad? We know that folksongs and ballads are sung, and depending on our traditional knowledge we might even ‘hear’ the sound of a folksong or ballad while reading it. On the other hand, we can analyse and interpret the literary qualities of folksongs and ballads independently of their music; in fact this is what most non-musicological studies do. It seems to me that with lyrical epics the situation lies somewhere between opera and folksong or ballad. For the audience the performer is both narrator and musician, and the impression of a performance is not unlike that of a singspiel (without the acting on stage): the narrative alternates between spoken prose and sung verse, it progresses from aria to aria with spoken passages in between. It is a musico-poetic entity, which is appreciated as a whole, as a unity of telling, reciting, singing, and playing.
Saying that music is an indispensable part of an epic performance does not say anything about the specific relationship between words and music. Ballads can have a fairly loose relationship to the tunes to which they are sung. The idea that music ‘expresses’ the meaning of a text is of comparatively modern date and is a misleading concept when looking at a traditional song. However charming and however ‘right’ one might find the melody of a folksong or ballad, the relationship between words and music has not the same intensity as for instance in a Romantic lied. Composers like Schumann or Schubert strove to translate the meaning and mood of a poem into the language of music with a conscious attention to poetic and musical detail, which is quite uncharacteristic of traditional song, however rich the musical and poetic texture. ‘Expression’ in the music of oral epics is couched in terms of the traditional music of the local culture. There are some programmatic elements in the music of âşıks and bakhshis—as for instance an imitation of a horse’s gallop by the strokes of the dombra—but on the whole the relationship between words and music can be seen as dependent on the musical system. In the course of singing a verse passage, the Uzbek bakhshi progresses from lower voice registers to higher registers till he reaches a culmination point. There is a great amount of tension in his musical performance. This musical progression (also found in other traditions; it is very marked in the performance of Turkmen bakhshis) is part of the system of Uzbek (or Turkmen) music, in this case linked to the ascent to a culmination point (Uzbek awj) in classical maqām music. Such musical structuring is appreciated by the audience. It is system-dependent and can only be understood from within, just as modulation from a major to a minor key in the development of a sonata movement only makes ‘sense’ in the context of Western classical music.
The world of the Turkic-speaking peoples is vast and variegated. In their oral traditions, a rich heritage of tales, poetry, and music have been transmitted and cultivated. Just looking at the repertoire of a single singer of tales, we find poetry of many different genres and subgenres. Âşık Şeref’s œuvre comprises a surprising variety of songs and prosimetric tales, and he mastered a wide range of makams and âşık melodies. To do justice to his poetic and musical art, a detailed study would be necessary, which would have to enter also into the minutiae of musical analysis. The same can be said of the epic singers from Central Asia. Given this variety and diversity, no generally true characterization of the role of music in the performance of oral epics in Turkey and Central Asia can be made, except one: that music is an integral part of the singers’ performance and that a disregard for this aspect of their art reduces their works—perhaps not to libretti but certainly to ‘Words without Song’.


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[ back ] 1. Parry and Lord 1954:437–467.
[ back ] 2. Bartók and Lord 1951.
[ back ] 3. Erdely 1995.
[ back ] 4. Parry and Lord 1954:xiv–xv.
[ back ] 5. Honko 1998b.
[ back ] 6. 1998a:81–88, 276–321.
[ back ] 7. Ibid. 548–557.
[ back ] 8. Biebuyck and Mateene 1969:14.
[ back ] 9. Smith 1991:14–53, with musical notations.
[ back ] 10. Innes 1974:17–24.
[ back ] 11. Reichl 2007.
[ back ] 12. Unesco:; Parry Collection:; Foley’s edition:
[ back ] 13. Stone 1982, 1988.
[ back ] 14. Youssefzadeh 2002.
[ back ] 15. Reichl 2000.
[ back ] 16. On the music of epic, see also the collection of articles edited by Zemtsovskiy 1989 and the entries on epic in the two major music encyclopedias, The New Grove (Pegg and Porter 2001) and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Suppan 1979).
[ back ] 17. Sachs 1962:8.
[ back ] 18. See Reichl 2007:163-178.
[ back ] 19. Pihl 1994:3.
[ back ] 20. For a general survey of Turkic oral epics, see Boratav 1964a; Chadwick and Zhirmunsky 1969; Reichl 1992. In the following discussion, words in Turkish and Azeri are written according to the current Latin orthography used in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Uzbek, Karakalpak, and Turkmen are today written in Latin script, but according to different rules and with different conventions. In order to avoid too much heterogeneity, for the transliteration of the Turkic languages other than Turkish and Azeri a system adapted from the recommendations of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies for the transliteration of Persian has been used: sh = Turkish ş, ch = Turkish ç, j = Turkish c, gh = Turkish ğ, q = velar k; ā, ō, ū for long vowels; I have retained Turkish ö and ü for umlauts and ı for the unrounded velar i-sound. Open e I have noted by the phonetic schwa-sign as in the Azeri script (ə). Arabic loan-words are written as in the respective Turkic language (hikâye instead of ḥikāya etc.).
[ back ] 21. Greene et al. 2012:1115–1116, at 1115. For a survey of prosimetric narrative in world literature, see Harris and Reichl 1997; in this volume, there is also a chapter on the mixture of verse and prose in Turkic oral epic poetry (pp. 321–348).
[ back ] 22. On Alpamish as a heroic epic (with close parallels to the return of Odysseus), see Chadwick and Zhirmunsky 1968:292–296; Reichl 1992:160–170; West 2012; Levaniouk, in this volume.
[ back ] 23. There is also a further type of oral epic among the Turkic-speaking peoples, which might be called ‘shamanistic’. It is found for instance among the Altaians and the Yakuts; Bowra explicitly excluded this type of epic from his Heroic Poetry (1952:5–9). All these types have, of course, subtypes and overlapping subgenres. On genre, see Reichl 1992:119–141.
[ back ] 24. The basic meaning of Persian dāstān is ‘tale, story’; on the meaning of this term in Turkish, see Elçin 1962. The Arabic noun ḥikāya, ‘tale, story’, is derived from the verb ḥakā ‘to speak, narrate’; the noun qiṣṣa, meaning both ‘cut’ and ‘tale’, is derived from the verb qaṣṣa ‘to cut’.
[ back ] 25. Holzapfel 1990.
[ back ] 26. On the term bakhshi, see Köprülü 1966:145–164 (originally published in the Turkish version of the Encyclopedia of Islam, 1942).
[ back ] 27. Boratav 1964c:129–131.
[ back ] 28. See Köprülü 1966:184–187; see also Reinhard, de Oliveira Pinto 1989:64–82 (on the relationship of the âşıks to different religious groups).
[ back ] 29. On the various terms for singers (including the denotations jıraw, aqın, jomoqchu, manaschı and others), see Reichl 1992:57–91. On the Turkish âşık and his epic repertoire, see Çobanoğlu 2000, Başgöz 2008. For a discussion of the Azerbaijanian aşıq, see Blum 1972, Èldarova 1984, Oldfield 2008 (on women aşıqs with a predominantly lyric repertoire).
[ back ] 30. Âşık Şeref Taşlıova died in 2014, four years after the conference.
[ back ] 31. For his biography, see Taşlıova 2010:4–45.
[ back ] 32. On the genres of folk poetry, see Boratav 1964b. Turkish destan denotes a genre of folksong, while Uzbek (Uighur, Karakalpak etc.) dāstān denotes the oral epic (heroic epic and romance).
[ back ] 33. Türkmen, Taşlıova, and Tan 2008.
[ back ] 34. The word serencam means ‘a noteworthy event’.
[ back ] 35. Türkmen, Taşlıova and Tan 2008:20. (“The horse’s leg is fast, the âşık’s tongue presses forward,” said our old masters.)—In the Book of Dede Korkut the formula is At ayağı külüg ozan dili çevük olur (The horse’s leg is fast, the ozan’s tongue is swift); for an English translation of the Book, see Sümer, Uysal, and Walker 1972.
[ back ] 36. Türkmen, Taşlıova, and Tan 2008:245–275.
[ back ] 37. When Âşık Şeref performed at the conference he was asked to shorten the hikâye. He understood this as telling the whole story and leaving out some of the lyric passages. This led to a predominance of the spoken over the sung word.
[ back ] 38. Türkmen, Taşlıova, and Tan 2008:275.
[ back ] 39. For a detailed discussion of the ‘Hero-and-Leander’ story in folklore and medieval literature, see Reichl 2015.
[ back ] 40. See Winner 1958:29–34; compare Erdener 1995. Two types of aytıs are generally distinguished: aytıs between singers/poets and aytıs between jigit (young man) and qız (young woman). This kind of contest poetry is also found in other traditions, as for instance among the Kirghiz and Karakalpaks.
[ back ] 41. See Reinhard and Stokes 2001.
[ back ] 42. Turkish and Azeri Köroğlu corresponds to Uzbek and Uyghur Göroghli, Türkmen Göroglı and Karakalpak Görughlı.
[ back ] 43. On this singer, see Maqsetov 1983:188–196. Some of his music is edited in Allanazarov 2002.
[ back ] 44. On musical transcription, see the survey by Ellingson 1992.
[ back ] 45. Reinhard and de Oliveira Pinto 1989.
[ back ] 46. Reinhard and de Oliveira Pinto 1989:89, my translation.
[ back ] 47. Crazy (or brave) Köroğlu, Köroğlu on the battle-field, Köroğlu with his Egyptian sabre, Köroğlu’s fight. See Mamedov 1984.
[ back ] 48. Melody of the battlefield, wedding melody, (nomadic) migration melody, nostalgic melody. See Arsunar 1963.
[ back ] 49. See
[ back ] 50. See <>.
[ back ] 51. Alpamysh melody, Noghay melody, Long speech melody. See Karāmatli and Mirza 1999.
[ back ] 52. Koşma, deyiş and tolghaw (Short tolghaw melody) are types of song.
[ back ] 53. Transcribed here according to the transliteration system used in this article; note that the transcribers of the music prefer the older Cyrillic orthography of Turkmen.
[ back ] 54. It is the line Enem, yashıng yetsin yüze (My mother, may our life reach a hundred years!) in Pelwan-baxshi’s version; Karryev 1983:324.
[ back ] 55. Youssefzadeh 2002:198 (my translation).