classical music
doctoral research

Türkü and Halay Between Ghent and Turkey. An Ethnographic Study of Turkish Folk Music in a Transnational Context

  • Onderzoekers: Liselotte Sels
  • Promotoren: Geert Dhondt (School of Arts), Francis Maes (Ghent University, dept. Art, Music and Theatre Studies)

2008 – 2014

Aim and method
This project aims at the exploration, description and interpretation of the ways in which Turkish folk music manifests itself musically, contextually and functionally in the transnational context of contemporary Turkey and the Turkish diaspora in Ghent. Furthermore, it seeks to identify the interrelations between the different aspects and between the two larger research contexts. The city of Ghent provides a rich case, with a Turkish migration history of fifty years and a Turkish population of approximately eight to ten per cent of the total population.
The main data collection method consists of ethnographic fieldwork: the ethnography of forty-six musical events in different sociocultural contexts in Turkey and in Ghent, involving participant observation and interviews. The data are interpreted through qualitative inductive (bottom-up) analysis and confronted with the literature. The ethnographic analysis is complemented by integrated musical transcription and analysis.

Outline of the chapters
Chapter 1 establishes a  scholarly frame of reference by giving an overview of the relevant literature, highlighting themes such as folk music in the 20th and 21st century; uses and functions of music or art; 20th- and 21st-century musical developments; cultural or musical production  in  the  diaspora; and the application of these themes to the Turkish (or Belgian) case. The methodology is presented in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 provides an account of the state of the art regarding the theory and practice of Turkish folk music in Turkey, discussing relevant musical and contextual aspects. In Chapter 4 the focus shifts towards the Turkish diaspora in Ghent, of which the general-demographic and folk music-related characteristics are described. Chapter 5 presents an overview of the observed musical events and an ethnographic description and analysis of paradigmatic events in a comparative transnational framework. Chapter 6 analyses the ways in which Turkish folk music manifests itself contextually, musically and functionally in Turkey and Ghent.

Turkish folk music in the 20th and 21st century
The concept of ‘folk music’ (halk müziği) is highly ideologically and politically charged in Turkey, since it has been put forward by Atatürk as the only musical repertoire capable of representing Turkish identity and thus the Turkish nation. The state-coordinated folk music collection project and the constitution of a folk music archive (consisting of recordings and scores) have been determinative factors in defining what is considered as the folk music of Turkey. The so-called ‘TRT repertoire’ has become the canon upon which almost all urban folk music practice and discourse is based in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora. It concerns a selection of pieces, belonging to rural and urban repertoires (in some cases influenced by art music), being either anonymous or authored (in some cases deliberately ‘anonymised’), and either old or recent (in some cases influenced by popular music), and in some cases being of non-Turkish origin. Additionally, the selected pieces have been subjected to further processing in order to be transcribed. As a result, a ‘modern’ concept of folk music has emerged, which is canonised and standardised, not orally transmitted, not embedded in a rural context, and without primary function. Furthermore, boundaries between the tradition-grounded folk music repertoire and pieces which could be denominated as ‘contemporary folk music’ are becoming increasingly blurred. Nevertheless, in spite of the importance of the TRT repertoire, a separate ‘living tradition’ of folk music, grounded in rural cultural practices of Anatolia, is still existing and further developing.
Whichever definition of Turkish folk music is employed, the genre still occupies an important position in contemporary Turkey and its diaspora. In Turkey, its presence and significance currently permeates not only the state system and its institutions, but civil society and private life as well. In the diaspora, the sociocultural embeddedness is absent.

Turkish folk music in Ghent
The history of Turkish music in Ghent can be characterised as a complex development on different – sometimes seemingly contradictory – tracks, involving progressing integration and growing  connectedness  with  the  Belgian societal context on the one hand, and a higher degree of self-sufficiency and a more independent position towards the same society on the other hand. These developments are accompanied by increasing and intensifying interaction with the country of origin. These trends connect to a general picture of gradual expansion involving a rising quantity and quality of musicians, a growing variety of genres, styles and sounds, and an overall increase in hybridity.
The current Turkish folk music network in Ghent consists of diverse actors adopting the (often interchangeable) roles of commissioners, performers, listeners and educators. Commissioners can be private or institutional (authorities or sociocultural organisations), individuals or groups, and acting formally or informally. The role of performer is adopted by amateurs or (semi-)professionals, individuals or ensembles, and local, supralocal or international musicians with intra- or transcultural orientation and local or translocal resonance. Consumers of Turkish folk music can be characterised as belonging to a formal or informal, specific or general, Turkish or mixed audience. Although formalised Turkish folk music education exists in Ghent, non-formal and informal education in smaller sociocultural organisations or private locations are more common.

Contemporary contexts, functions and musical characteristics
The kinds of events and occasions involving Turkish folk music in present-day Turkey and Ghent display a broad range. Many typical traditional occasions have persisted until present in Turkey, albeit sometimes in a modified form, and complemented by contemporary occasions. Other musical events take place without a specific occasion. Many occasions and kinds of events are maintained in the diaspora, although sometimes on a less frequent basis or in an altered form. Certain kinds of events are bound to either a diaspora context or a motherland context. Many similarities in the roles of commissioner, listener and performer can be discerned in the motherland and diaspora contexts. The traditional societal groups performing folk music (e.g. Roma and Alevi abdals) still play an important musical role in contemporary Turkey as well as in the diaspora. In Turkey, the folk music field has been thoroughly professionalised, a development not paralleled in the diaspora.
The performance of Turkish folk music has been constantly acquiring new functions, in connection to changing uses, contexts and settings, and in relation to the diverging sociocultural contexts of the motherland and the diaspora. Original functions are often replaced by new functions anchored  in the fundamental social changes occurring in the 20th and 21st century. The observed functions of Turkish folk music in the early 21st century are largely similar in the motherland and in the diaspora. They cover a broad spectrum and can be grouped into more or less distinct but interlinked fields of functioning: a personal, social, cultural, philosophical-spiritual, and ritual field, and the personal-social and social-cultural intersections. In many cases musical performance adopts a culture-independent role. Although the articulation of identity is a typical musical function, it is not the only one and a broad range of functions is not identity-related.
The way in which Turkish folk music is embedded in musical events displays many similarities in the motherland and the diaspora. The much-promoted, standardised  bağlama (long-necked lute), its (semi-)electric variant, and  the ‘oriental’ synthesizer are the preferred instruments to accompany the (largely vocal) Turkish folk music. The use of electr(on)ic instruments affects the general musical idiom and belongs to lightly and heavily popularised poly-cultural performance styles. Other poly-cultural performance styles  involve the adoption of elements from Western classical, jazz or world  music. Purely mono-cultural (rural-traditional or urban-standardised) performance styles are more common in Turkey than in the diaspora. The 20th- and 21st- century musical evolutions of Turkish folk fit into larger global-glocal musical developments.

The creation and moulding of a context for musical production and consumption within the given circumstances of their new environment, has been a constant undertaking during the fifty-year history of the Turkish (post-)migrants in Ghent. The Turkish diaspora in Ghent and Belgium mirrors the motherland ‘model’ in many respects. This imitative tendency is situated on diverse levels and involves structures of musical events, intra-musical aspects, behaviour and social relations of the involved people, place- and time-related contextual aspects, etc. Other aspects are involuntarily or deliberately transformed into a diasporic variant. Larger music-related sociocultural developments occurring in Turkey during the past fifty years, such as a more positive assessment of music making in general (by common people and women), and of the music of ethnic-cultural minorities, have been paralleled in the diaspora. Observable differences between indigenous and diasporic manifestations of Turkish folk music reflect the social-societal, cultural, political, demographic, geographical and even climatological conditions of the respective contexts. In the context of the transnational relation between  the Turkish diaspora in Ghent and the motherland, bidirectional musician mobility and exchange is a significant factor. Multi-sited and multi-layered translocal and transnational networks are being created, and the concepts of ‘global homes’ and ‘networks of homes’ are being realised.
Transcultural reach is less aimed for by Turkish musicians in Ghent than translocal or transnational reach. This points to the ‘ethnic boundary’ which exists between the Turkish and mainstream populations. The Turkish as well as non-Turkish individual actors and organisations are challenged to take an option in response to ‘othering’ tendencies. These choices determine the ways in which Turkish folk music is integrated into the musical landscape of the city, and have resulted in the coexistence of the varied spectrum of musical events examined in this dissertation. The decisions made  by  the  Turkish  actors  are  manifestations of the strategic and reflexive character of the ways in which diasporic identities are created. Diasporic musicians are challenged to find a position for themselves (and their groups) in a complex multilevel diasporic field of tension. Identification is always multiple, possibly contradictory, and in  constant  transformation,  whether  in  an  indigenous  or  a  diasporic  context.
Turkish folk music in its broadest sense has the potential to become a powerful medium for sociocultural incorporation and emancipation. But only when the basic level of emancipation of the Turkish population as a whole will be achieved in Belgium, room will be created for more nuanced individual and subgroup-related identity expression, and the ‘transcultural capital’ of the Turkish musicians in Belgium will be fully put into action. Only under these conditions, the richness and diversity of the Turkish folk music repertoire – be it traditionally performed or interpreted in new and hybridising ways – will be fully revealed, and openings towards artistic development and experiment will be created.

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