Attentive viewers will notice that almost every foreign film set in Istanbul shows at least one street musician, usually a wrinkled old man playing a saz. This is a convenient way of illustrating the city’s “otherness” and adding color to the environment. However, Turkey’s folk music deserves more attention. There is a kaleidoscope of styles that bring to life the country’s diverse regions and ethnic groups.
The most common folk style in Anatolia is türkü, an anonymous poem sung to the accompaniment of the saz or bağlama. Like most folk music, the songs deal with subjects such as love, birth, death, war, and work. The role of the aşık (which literally translates to “lover” but refers to a musical poet), is to keep these songs alive.
Although it incorporates pop and rock elements, arabesk is rooted in Arab and Turkish folk music. After the 1938 ban on Arabic-language music, many Turks still managed to tune in to Egyptian radio. From that influence, they created a Turkish genre from Arab melodies. With lyrics typically about hardships and doomed love, this genre became popular among working-class Anatolians.
Turkey’s Black Sea region is home to many ethnic groups, from Turks to Laz, Armenians, and Pontic Greeks. The characteristic instruments of the region are the violin-like kemençe and the bagpipes-like tulum. Both accompany the lively line dance called horon.
The rembetiko style developed in the Greek neighborhoods of İzmir. These Greek-language songs incorporate Turkish forms such as the improvised intro called taksim. This culture was largely displaced to Greece after the population exchanges of the 20th century, although there are still Greek and Turkish performers in Turkey today.
Kurds are the largest minority in Turkey, concentrated mainly in the southeastern provinces. Up-tempo songs with drums and zurna are popular, often for dancing the halay line-dance. The Kurdish language was effectively banned after the 1980 coup, but over the last decade Kurdish-language music has flourished again.
There are records of a Roma community in Istanbul as early as the Byzantine Empire. Similar to their cousins in Europe, local Roma are known as professional musicians, being hired to play at weddings and other celebrations. The typical instruments are clarinet, zurna, drums, kanun, and violin, and songs range from slow laments to joyful dances.
Circassians first settled in Anatolia in the 1860s, fleeing a Russian invasion of their homeland in the Caucasus. Drums and accordion feature strongly in Circassian music, while men and women dance together in choreographed patterns. The male dancers are highly acrobatic, putting on a military-style display.
The majority of Turkey’s Jews arrived as refugees from the Spanish expulsion of 1492. Their language is Ladino, a form of Medieval Spanish that includes some Hebrew words. Ladino music is also a product of southern Spain, mixing European polyphony with the makam melodies of Middle Eastern music.