Musicians: Ashik Mahsuni Serif (baglama & vocals), Musa Eroglu (baglama & vocals), Ashik Bahattin Kader (baglama & vocals), Ashik Nuri Kiliç (baglama & vocals), Ashik Ali (baglama & vocals).

Soundtrack to Documentary Film "Ashiklar, Those Who Are In Love" by David Grabias
track title time
1 Bildiremezsin (Dervis Muhammed) click to listen 4:45
2 Dinle Sözüm (Düçari) 3:21
3 Karsida Görünen (Pir Sultan Abdal) 3:38
4 Improvisation (Serif) 4:11
5 Bir Sah Olsam (Ibreti) 3:47
6 Fidayda (a traditional tune) 8:17
7 Çesmi Siyahim (Mahsuni Serif) 3:03
8 Improvisation (Kader) 1:31
9 A folk tune from Kastamonu 4:15
10 Hizir Pasha (Pir Sultan) 4:15
11 Kul Olayim Kalem Tutan (Pir Sultan) 2:38
12 Su Kanli Zalimin Ettigi (Pir Sultan) 3:59
13 Kul Olayim Kalem Tutan (Pir Sultan) 4:02
14 Bir Güzelin Asigiyim (Pir Sultan) 2:18
15 Sefasina Cefasina (Pir Sultan) 3:00
16 Haci Bektas (Kul Himmet) 6:53
17 Durnam (Kul Hüseyin) 3:26
total    

In 1994, I set off as a filmmaker on a trip across Central Turkey, traveling through villages in search of the roots and remnants of the ashik tradition of Anatolia. This disk is one result of that voyage, giving a representative picture of the current state of the ashik tradition in Turkey and a look into the influence of the Alevi religious system on that tradition. Ranging from a toothless 70-year-old who can still improvise poetry on the fly, to a village bard who still remembers in entirety one of the long traditional epics, to an up-and-coming ashik who updates centuries-old songs with commentary on current events, this collection of recordings gives a sense of the diversity of direction and sound being achieved by ashiks alive today in Turkey.

For centuries, the spiritual and cultural identity of Anatolia has been embodied in the ashik. Ashik in Turkish literally means "one who is in love,” and ashiks are those who are consumed by an inner spiritual passion so strong that they are compelled to song. In days of old, they forsook their home to wander alone from village to village, singing of longings that found solace only in poetry and music. Ashiks play the saz, a lute-like instrument whose current form dates from the twelfth century. Their stories and poems are derived from personal, spiritual, and historical sources; always from memory, they sing of unrequited loves, of ancient heroes, of God and of man.

Ashiks performances last from a few hours to a few days, depending on the context. They perform in cafes, where they play with or against other ashiks to earn the admiration and tips of customers; at small Alevi village religious ceremonies; at social gatherings, parties, and festivals; and in homes for those who offer them hospitality. With their travels exposing them to a breadth of human experience and geographical diversity, ashiks are the villages' connection to the outside world, serving as journalists, entertainers, teachers, religious leaders, artists, and wise men. Their music and poetry are essential elements of countryside life across Turkey, with the ashik filling a vital role in traditional Anatolian society.

The roots of the tradition are interwined with the origins of the Turkish people themselves. From the 8th through the 11th century, a stream of Turkic nomadic tribes moved steadily west from Central Asia to Anatolia in search of grazing for their livestock and respite from the raids of other tribes. At the time, bards and minstrels existed as entertainers, poets, and chroniclers of a leader or tribe's conquests and history. While these tribes originally practiced a shamanistic belief system, they were heavily influenced by the emergence at the time of Islam as the region's dominant creed. Their migration also exposed them to the Christian and mystical sects that inhabited Anatolia when they arrived there.

Fusing all of these disparate religious influences, some tribes in Anatolia forged their own belief system, ostensibly Islamic but entirely unique. Known as Alevis, their basic philosophy held that the world was the manifestation of Allah. Rather than being some threatening, discrete entity, God is man and man is God. In this way, every thing and being was to be treated with the respect and tolerance afforded to God Himself. An all-encompassing humanism, respect for nature and the earth, and emphasis on love as the guiding spiritual value provided the foundations of their belief system.

Because of their focus on the figure of Ali in Islamic history, Alevis are often considered part of the Shi'a sect, but their radically different interpretation of Islam, which stems from their strong shamanistic roots, sets them apart from other Islamic groups. The most obvious examples of difference are the fact that Alevis do not pray five times a day, they do not keep the Muslim fast of Ramadan, and they refuse to worship in mosques. Instead, they gather in the village cem evi (a village house set aside as a communal space) to pray, to reaffirm their connections as a community, and to resolve any family disputes or legal matters.

Alevis have always worshipped in semi-secrecy, with no texts nor set rules or liturgy. Ashiks have sustained the culture through an oral tradition, using metaphor and music to convey history and philosophy. In the Alevi religious service, the cem, all prayers and discussion are focused around the ashik, culminating with the ashik playing and singing for the sema, a swirling dance that illuminates the world's transcendent nature. At the end of the dance, the dancers pay their respects to the ashik and the elders of the village as those through whose memories the Alevi tradition is kept alive.

As the Alevi belief system developed and grew in Anatolia, it was opposed by the central Ottoman government, who belonged to the Sunni sect and who, as overseers of the holy sites in Mecca, saw themselves as keepers of the true faith of Islam. Repressed by the Ottomans as heretical and thus as a politically dangerous minority, Alevis were forced into secrecy, compelled to shroud their mystical and unstructured beliefs from the outside world. It is during this period that the ashik tradition bloomed, becoming not only a spiritual and community-based tradition, but now also moving into the realm of protest music, decrying the attempt of the Ottomans to political subjugate the Alevis and convert them to the Sunni sect. Ashiks became figures of resistance, their poetry not only discussing love and the beauties of the world, but also describing the bloodshed and intolerance of Ottoman rule.

The Sunni and urban populations of Turkey remain generally ignorant of Alevi traditions, beliefs, and practices, partly because of the tradition's historical tendency towards secrecy (driven by fear of repression) and partly because of a disinformation campaign. This ignorance perpetuates myths that the Alevis, because of their focus on love and their worship as a group behind closed doors, engage in group sex, that they are backward and illiterate, and that they don't believe in God. During the 1960s and 70s, because of the inherent ideal of equality of Alevi beliefs and the conditions of extreme poverty found in many villages, Alevis often sympathized with leftist groups, only to be imprisoned for their political leanings, further adding to the impression that they were subversive and dangerous. In 1993, hundreds of Alevi intellectuals, ashiks, and artists gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of one of the most revered Alevi ashiks, Pir Sultan Abdal. Thirty-seven of them were burned to death in a hotel fire set by a mob incited by fundamentalist religious radicals, who spoke of Alevi ways as going against the Islamic roots of the Turkish people. It is in response to this type of violence that the ashik tradition continues to protest, drawing on its humanistic elements to call for love and brotherhood and an end to fundamentalism and exclusionary ideology. It is within the ashik tradition that the roots of Turkish culture lie, and it is in the ashik tradition that the future of Turkey as a community lies.

Nonetheless, the ashik culture that was is no more. No more do ashiks wander the countryside; instead, old men sit in cafes and tell stories of the past. More and more, their children forsake the life of the village for the promise of the city, losing touch with folk culture and the Alevi oral traditions as they dream of becoming the next pop star. As modern industry and technology change the face of village culture, and as the political and intellectual realms in Turkey slowly begin to broaden and evolve, the possibility of and the need for an oral tradition fades, leaving behind the memories of a generation about to disappear as the culture is transformed into something entirely new. Today, ashiks put out CDs, run for seats in parliament, and do television shows. In some way, however, the soul and the idea of the ashik survives, permanently woven into the fabric of Turkish society.

David Grabias, Los Angeles, 1999

Ashiklar, Those Who Are in Love is also a documentary film, directed and produced by David Grabias. Videocassettes of the film are available from Documentary Educational Resources, (800) 569-6621.


reviews

Ashiklar, Those Who Are in Love is an album with a story behind it which is as interesting as the music it presents. The audio document of a film project by David Grabias, it is a series of recordings of the Ashiks, a dying society of ecstatic poets and musicians who were part of a Shi'a Sufi sect called the Alevis. Persecuted by the Ottomans 100 years ago and by fundamentalist Muslims today, the Alevis are also threatened by the transition of the Turkish economy and population centers away from the villages and into cities. The old-time Ashiks were travelling bards of sorts, supported by donations and tips from the communities that they visited, where they would perform in homes and festivals and in small religious ceremonies. Their songs focused on spiritual and devotional themes, and later, when they began to be persecuted, the music took on protest and political themes. The music captured on this album has elements of all of these themes and documents the last few Ashiks in existence. Accompanied by the saz, a traditional Turkish lute-like instrument, the singers chant and sing relatively simple melodies with reverent tones. Soothing and hypnotic, it provides both a pleasant listening experience and a window into a vanishing culture.

Stacia Proefrock, All Music Guide

Review by
Rootsworld