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Local Music - Tunceli


Special thanks to Stichting Europlus Songfestival for providing the text and to Martin Greve for writing it.

The musical situation of Tunceli (known as Dersim until 1936) represents a particular case. Situated in Eastern Anatolia and surrounded by high mountains and rivers, Tunceli has very little economic significance. Today, about 90 000 people live there, in an area approximately as large as North and South Holland (6,3 million residents) combined.


In terms of politics, history and culture the old and recently revived name Dersim (Tunceli) carries a high symbolic value. Dersim (Tunceli) is the only Anatolian province with an Alevist majority. A large part of the population speaks the Iranian language Zaza, others Kurmanci (Kurdish). In 1937, a small local uprising led to a military attack by the Turkish army followed by a massacre of civilians all over Dersim (Tunceli). Until recent times, the exact course of this military operation remained taboo in Turkey. Almost all of these issues are politically highly sensitive. Consequently, folk songs from Dersim (Tunceli) hardly entered the official Turkish folk music repertoire. The knowledge about Kurdish music and in particular about music from Dersim (Tunceli) before the 1960s is still very limited.


In the 1960s, when Northern European countries recruited workers from Turkey, many people from Dersim (Tunceli) seized the opportunity to start a new life. In the European diaspora, new Dersim (Tunceli)-related associations were established  and remained active until today, offering lessons in Zaza, Alevism and organizing concerts.

While music from Dersim (Tunceli) did not form part of the Turkish folk repertoire, it thrived in the diaspora. On the one hand, many musicians far from their country of origin tried to preserve their traditions and started recording elderly people singing while they visited Turkey during the summer. Most recordings of traditional music from Dersim (Tunceli) are made by collectors living in Europe, for example by the brothers Metin and Kemal Kahraman from the German based diaspora. These recordings present archaic music, basic formulaic melodies, accompanied by a three-stringed lute. The voices are strong, sometimes with expressive vibrato, sometimes in rhythmically free recitations. The sound of the Zaza language is prominent, many of the songs tell stories of Alevism, others express tragedies the country and its people suffered.

On the other hand, many Dersim (Tunceli) musicians living in Europe developed new musical styles. The Kahraman brothers accompany songs with western instruments such as guitar, violin or flute, Ahmet Aslan studied Turkish music in Rotterdam. He also took lessons in flamenco guitar and adapted its playing techniques for ba─člama. Like many others (e.g. Ferhat Tunç, Aynur, Mikail Aslan) those musicians have become prominent in Turkey. In the singing of Ahmet Aslan in particular, the influence of the field recordings is obvious. At the end of musical phrases, he often sighs deeply, just like elderly people do having lost the power of youth. It is by no means a traditional style, but Ahmet Aslan has transformed this peculiarity of the field recordings into an artistic personal style, thus creating a contrast to his often very Western arrangements.

Special thanks to Stichting Europlus Songfestival for providing the text and to Martin Greve for writing it.