By Joshua Bruce Allen
Psalm 150, 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 eighteenth-century Istanbul. It was he whose descendants would found the famous Zildjian cymbal company, now based in the US. But this legacy of Ottoman craftsmanship still continues in its hometown of Istanbul at the Istanbul Mehmet factory, run by former Zildjian apprentice Mehmet Tamdeğer.
It is said that Avedis’ father Kerope started his professional life as a bell maker for the Armenian Surp Kevork Church in Istanbul’s Samatya district. Avedis followed in his father’s footsteps, but in the course of this work he discovered a special mix of metals that gave a rich, vibrant sound unlike any other. The cymbals that he produced in this way drew the attention of the Ottoman mehteran, musicians who accompanied the Janissaries with patriotic songs. With their bright red robes, wailing zurnas, pounding drums, and plentiful cymbal crashes, these mehter bands sowed fear and fascination across Europe, as they were the loudest thing anyone had ever heard. Poland was the first country to import a mehter band into its military in the 1720s, while Russia, Prussia, and Austria followed shortly after. Composers from Mozart to Beethoven imitated the mehter sound in their compositions, bringing instruments such as cymbals, triangle, and bass drum into European orchestras for the first time.
As for Avedis, his new cymbal formula won him and his descendants an official title from the sultan: Zilciyan, coming from the Turkish zil (cymbal), the occupational suffix ci (maker), and the Armenian surname suffix yan (son of). Put those together and you have the name “Cymbalmakerson”. The spelling that we are familiar with today, Zildjian, was later adopted for English pronunciation when the family moved to America.
The nineteenth century was a time of modernization and upheaval in the Ottoman Empire. With Sultan Mahmud II’s disbandment of the Janissaries and their mehter bands, the Zildjian family lost its main source of employment. Winning prizes at trade fairs in world cities such as Paris, Vienna, and Chicago, the Zildjians saw that the commercial future was in the West. This influenced their move across the Atlantic, where in the 1920s America’s first musical revolution was being born: jazz. From then onward the Zildjian masters worked closely with icons such as Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams to develop new cymbals for the jazz market. But while the American factory now relies more heavily on machines, Istanbul Mehmet preserves the traditional, labor-intensive techniques that Tamdeğer learned from his master, Mikael Zildjian.
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.”
“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 by hand with small hammers. “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.”
That 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 handcraft 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.