The 400-year march of Istanbul's cymbals: Istanbul Mehmet

The 400-year march of Istanbul's cymbals: Istanbul Mehmet

Joshua Bruce Allen
June 21, 2017

One of the Psalms, composed over 2,500 years ago, says, “Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.” This splashing, crashing percussion has been making noise since the Bronze Age, as seen in stone carvings from ancient Anatolia to Egypt and Greece. But the cymbals we know today all stem from the workshop of one man, an Ottoman Armenian named Avedis, in 1623. Having moved from Trabzon to Istanbul that year, Avedis perfected a new cymbal-making formula and won the official title of Zildjian, meaning “son of the cymbal maker”. Europeans first heard these cymbals in the Ottoman mehter military bands, and composers such as Mozart incorporated them into their compositions. This legacy of Ottoman craftsmanship continues today at the Istanbul Mehmet factory, run by an old apprentice of the Zildjian family, Mehmet Tamdeğer.

Speaking at the factory in the Istanbul district of Esenyurt, Tamdeğer recalls, “I started at the Zildjian factory in 1950, and worked there up until 1978. In that time I learned everything about the production, pressing and turning alongside Mikael Zildjian. After the factory closed, naturally, we thought about what we could do. Starting out making new cymbals was quite hard in Turkey. The Zildjian factory had a history of 300 years behind it, so it took a lot of courage to start again. But going step by step with my partner, Agop Tomurcuk, we started a workshop and grew from there. When Agop passed away, I left to start my own business, Istanbul Mehmet. I’ve been doing my own manufacturing for about 20 years.”

The 1920s saw most of the Zildjian family move to America, where they continue making cymbals to this day. But while that factory now relies more heavily on machines, Istanbul Mehmet preserves the traditional, labor-intensive techniques that Tamdeğer learned from his master, Mikael Zildjian.

“A lot of people come here looking to make cymbals, wondering whether they can do it themselves. Not everyone shows their process, but I do. I’m not scared. Because the cymbals are handmade, it’s like an artist’s painting. Even if you want to make the same cymbal, you can’t. And the sound is completely different from a machine-made cymbal,” Tamdeğer explains.

A visit to the factory is like stepping into the seventeenth century when this loud tale began: the furnace used to heat the cymbals is like a giant pizza oven and the workers beat the metal with small hammers by hand. “I don’t add anything else to what I learned in Istanbul,” Tamdeğer says. “In fact, we still use a wood-burning oven, not electric. It’s like the difference between using an electric barbecue and a charcoal barbecue—there are some tricks to this trade.”

Mehmet Tamdeğer and MikhaeL Zildjian at the Samatya FactoryThat integrity has paid off for Tamdeğer, with jazz icons such as Art Blakey and Jack DeJohnette taking his handmade cymbals to the US. Despite its boutique methods, the company has become a global enterprise. “We export to around 100 countries. People have come to visit us from around 160 countries. Everyone’s very curious about how the cymbals are made by hand. Our factory has become a kind of place of pilgrimage,” he says.

Asked whether he ever tires of the cacophony, Tamdeğer replies, “I’ve been in this business for 67 years, from the age of 10 to 77. This cymbal production keeps me alive. That’s how much I love my work. It doesn’t stop even when I sleep—I’m thinking about the next day, what kind of new cymbals we’re going to make. If I were born again, I’d do the same thing.” With three sons who are drummers and trained in the family business, it seems that Tamdeğer’s legacy and the sound of Istanbul Mehmet will continue for many years to come.

Find out more about Istanbul Mehmet’s products at www.istanbulmehmet.com