Kurdish Dengbej, the tradition of oral narrative and singing, has been kept alive for centuries. Ozgur Ogret reports for Southeast European Times in Istanbul.
Dengbej, best described as a poetic style in verbal narrative and song, passed down through generations through oral tradition, tells the tale of the Kurdish people. It is sung in the Kurdish language only.
Dengbejing -- as the narrative style is called -- is found in areas where Kurds predominantly live, in eastern Turkey. The history of this poetry and narrative goes back as far as the records of the Kurdish culture and history go, some 600 to 650 years.
Fırat Sayan is the executive director and lecturer at the Istanbul Kurdish Institute.
"Unfortunately, written literature is not much developed among the Kurds. Dengbejing, at the same time, tells us of the difficulties, agonies, wars, even clashes between families, clans that the Kurds have experienced in a way we call oral literature."
Dengbejs are musical bards who narrate life experience in a specific musical form, traditionally, the oldest musical form -- the human voice, with no musical accompaniment.
Zana Farquini, top executive and researcher at the Istanbul Kurdish Institute explains the dengbej bard.
"Dengbejing is actually unique to Kurdish music. It is possible to define dengbejing in Turkish, but through a comparison -- a dengbej is a musician much like a folk singer in the Turkish tradition."
Recently, however, dengbej performance started to be accompanied with instruments, Sayan explains how this happened.
"There are no instruments with the original dengbejing; especially not in the Serhat dengbejing area. It is a musical style without instruments; one that people have sung by placing their left or right hand to the ear and creating a tone by placing fingers in the ear. …When one says dengbej among the Kurds, we think of men. Generally, men perform the art of dengbejing in the evening when the people do not go out much for six or seven months (in the winter) and when fairy tales and dengbejs are told."
Sebri Agiri, a Dengbej performer, comes from a family of dengbejs, hence his interest in this specific musical-narrative form.
"I lived in a village in a dengbej family, so I come from the culture of dengbejing. I went to prep school in the village. We had radio and cassette players in our time, but dengbejing was important. Our [village] had 60 houses, there were 20 dengbejs [living] in those 60 houses. My father was a dengbej too. Dengbejs sung at the weddings and such, in front of everybody. Say, there is a wedding procession. Dengbej would get on his horse, put his hand to his ear; sing in that high tone. Everybody listened when he sung… I was interested in it since my childhood and it lasts to this day."
Agiri says the modern-day use of instruments in dengbejing is controversial, as he questions if a musical style should remain traditional or catch up with the times.
Dengbej houses, where this tradition is kept alive, were banned for a time. Sayan explains.
"The banned years, the years of the marshal law...In those years, everything, related to Kurds was banned. So was dengbejing, the core of the Kurdish culture…Therefore, dengbej houses were banned alongside all Kurdish culture houses. The dengbej houses had their share of this. But recently, dengbej houses in Van and Diyarbakır are back on their feet. Dengbej and dengbejing are in progress there. Of course, this makes one happy, the keeping of the dengbej culture."
Sayan, however, says that the audience and the market for dengbej Kurdish folk singing slowly is disappearing, especially under the weight of popular culture.
"When you produce something, it definitely needs a market. In the end, dengbejing addresses a certain crowd. If you cannot find that crowd, you cannot address that something… Unfortunately, the eagerness in the people sing the dengbej is slowly starting to disappear... Dengbej and the culture of dengbejing will definitely not die, but it is clear that its market has shrunk and the popular culture is oppressing the dengbej and the dengbejing culture."