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Istanbul’s master musical craftsmen

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In central Istanbul master craftsmen have created musical instruments for decades, but as modernity transforms the city their traditional workshops may soon be gone for good

T he sounds of Istanbul are as compelling as its iconic, minaret-studded skyline; the regularity of the call to prayer, the ferry horns from the Bosphorus strait, the clang of cow bells belonging to the ice cream sellers. It is an urban orchestra that both competes and complements the eclectic mix of the street musicians and gypsy buskers, reflecting the city’s ethnic mosaic where cultures converge and the music never stops.

As popular as hip hop, rock and Arabesque pop are, traditional Turkish folk music continues to thrive, bridging the generational and regional divisions not least because of a small band of artisans dedicated to the craft of producing the instruments needed.

In hidden ateliers dotted around the sprawling city skilled craftsmen work devotedly, most specialising in just one instrument although a few can turn their hand to several. For the most part they are also talented musicians, a good ear as important as a steady hand.

As urban gentrification transforms Istanbul, the future of the city’s musical artisans may well be fragile.

Cengiz Sarikus

In a side street off the busy Aksaray neighbourhood, Cengiz Sarikus is busy putting the finishing touches to a violin; his work is renowned and the violin is destined for a customer in Europe. He regularly interrupts his work to debate politics with a customer sitting drinking tea. A referendum is around the corner and they disagree and debate, but also laugh and joke.

Sarikus was born in the eastern Anatolian city of Malatya and came to Istanbul to study. He started to play the stringed baglama and build his own instruments as a teenager, but it was art history in which he graduated and later went on to teach. He opened his Aksaray atelier in 1973. It is now a father and son business that turns out up to ten ouds (lute-like instruments) a month.

With the Turkish economy suffering, Sarikus expresses concern about government treatment of the arts and especially the musical nightlife. The influx of Syrian refugees, though, has though been a bonus; the shared culture means new business and Sarikus is proud his art can bridge cultures.

People get up and dance one by one, strangers connected by their culture and the music

Semo Yilmaz

Tucked away in the crooked streets that lead away from the Galata tower is the workshop of Semo Yilmaz; two small rooms, the floors covered in wood shavings and long-necked baglamas hanging from the ceiling. Frustrated at not finding the right instrument Yilmaz decided to make his own and, despite the business being relatively new, his reputation is growing. As with most of the other artisans, he makes instruments to order.

The baglama is without doubt the most popular instrument in Turkey. Musician Özgür Damlalar had his lovingly crafted by Yilmaz and performs to a lively crowd in a Taksim Türkü bar, surrounded by the smell of raki and flouted smoking laws. People, mostly young Kurds, get up and dance one by one; strangers connected by their culture and the music, holding hands or linked just by their pinky finger, stepping forwards then to the side, the baglama is as important to Turkish music as it is to regional identity.


Emin seems to be the only name in town when it comes to percussion instruments. The sound of duelling drummers can often be heard echoing from his shop at the top of Galip Dede Caddesi. Since the days of rock ’n’ roll Galip Dede street has become the musicians’ bazaar and is known simply as music street, home to shops and studios catering for every musical taste from Byzantium to the present.

Tall and dressed in black jeans and black T-shirt, Emin cuts a rock-star figure. He is a musician and also a craftsman, making some of the beautiful percussion instruments he both plays and sells.

He stretches a goatskin over a beech wood frame with dexterity, constantly tapping his fingers on the skin

With a backdrop of dried fish skins hanging from a hat stand in his Beyoglu atelier he dons a work coat and sets to work making a Turkish frame drum, the bendir – a labour of love. He stretches a goatskin over a beech wood frame with dexterity, constantly tapping his fingers on the skin.

His inventory includes tambourines made with the catfish skins hanging in the corner, and the davul, a large drum used mostly for ceremonial occasions from weddings to football matches and also for waking the fasting faithful during the holy month of Ramadan. He also makes several variations of the traditional darbuka, synonymous with the Middle East and belly dancing.

Rifat Varol

Listen to the ney said Jalaluddin Rumi, Sufi poet and original neyzan. Using the ancient reed flute as a metaphor for the human spirit, the wispy sound of the ney still accompanies the Dervish as he whirls.

In the Galata Mevlevihanesi cultural centre, the Sufi order performs the ritual dance under a balcony containing 12 musicians, each playing a ney that has been produced in the workshop of Rifat Varol.

The making of the flute is a collaboration between maker and musician, Varol has a natural instinct for the best reeds and, on occasion, will travel to the far ends of the country to gather them. They then need months to dry out, their length and girth of equal importance in relation to tone.

After selecting and trimming, a suitable reed is warmed gently over a gas flame, Varol rolling it in his fingers like a fine cigar. The reed must be perfectly straight before being hollowed out, the same gas flame used to heat a poker and bore through the interior.

There are quicker ways to do this but musician Neyzan Volkan Yilmaz prefers the traditional, time-tested way. Varol works methodically, with gentle accuracy, consulting and advising his friend as he produces the oldest of instruments. While the construction is traditional, however, an app on his phone is used for tuning.

After selecting and trimming, a suitable reed is warmed gently over a gas flame

Turkish by Mehmet Tamdeger

Almost as soon as Mesopotamian alchemists successfully combined copper and tin to make bronze they developed the art of hammering metal and began producing the cymbal. A simple metal disc it may appear, but this instrument is as complex as its long history.

The military bands of Turkey’s Janissary elite used the cymbal and drums to rally their troops and by the 17th century had inspired European military bands to follow suit. The art of cymbal making in Ottoman Turkey was by then renowned.

Fast forward to an industrial estate in the suburbs of Istanbul, where Turkish cymbal making continues in pretty much the same fashion as it always has done.

Mehmet Tamdeger’s Turkish cymbals are created in the time-honoured fashion; copper and tin are mixed, melted, heated and rolled before the instrument is hand-hammered to create a unique character, shape and tone.

Tamdeger began his apprenticeship with Armenian master cymbal makers in the 1950s aged nine. Later he formed a partnership with Agop Tomurcuk and began exporting to the US under first the Zildjian brand then the Turkish and Istanbul mark. The early cymbals have become collectors’ items and now Tamdeger’s teenage son, Murathan, is serving his apprenticeship in the foundry.

Mehmet Tamdeger’s Turkish cymbals are created in the time-honoured fashion

The brothers Kalaycioglu

Erol and Erdem Kalaycioglu work in a tiny, split-level workshop in the Tarlabasi neighbourhood. The gentrification process of the city is now at their doorstep; the building that was next door has now disappeared and the sounds of construction drown out the noise of craftsmen at work.

Erol hobbles around making tea while Erdem works a lathe, they specialise in the baglama and mardin kemençe, an instrument with three strings and distinctive round bowl known in the Arab world as the rehbab.

The neighbourhood is home to many musicians who ply their trade around the bars of Taksim and the brothers do a good trade in repairs.

A customer enquires after a baglama, the price is accepted and a credit card is produced. Unable to deal with the transaction themselves the brothers rely on a neighbour, but sadly the card is declined and the customer departs. Erol slurps his tea in disappointment.

As the urban regeneration inches closer the brothers’ atelier is facing an uncertain future. Almost half a century of artistry and tradition will no doubt be pushed into the suburbs and slip by the wayside. In a world of shopping malls and hipster coffee joints it’s a battle few are left to fight.

Words: Staff

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2017

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