Home 9 In-depth 9 Ottoman influences on Balkan music

by Crispijn Ooomes

Ottoman musical influences

Ottoman culture has had many influences on the music of the Balkan. Musical elements that we call Turkish or Arabic actually have their roots in Ancient Greece and medieval Europe.

What is the attraction of Balkan music?

Many lovers of pop and disco music, first got to know Balkan music through the genre ‘Balkan Beat’, which guarantees a good time and is highly danceable. Balkan Beat has elements of Balkan folk music, Turkish music, but also of gipsy music, klezmer, funk and American swing. Well-known groups that have emerged from this trend, are among others, the Dutch Amsterdam Klezmer Band and the Austrian gipsy collective Fatima Spar und die Freedom Fries.

The 2007 Balkan mania was precedented and possibly inspired by a hype from the nineties: the gipsy bands from Serbia and Northern-Macedonia, the so-called Bleh-muzika (pronounciation: Blech-muzika). A genre that got known through the music from the films of Emir Kusturica, like Time of the Gypsies, Underground and Black Cat/White Cat. Famous Bleh-bands are Kočani Orkestar (Northern-Macedonia) and Fanfare Kadrievi, but also the Romanian Fanfare Ciocărlia and Fanfare din Zece Prezini.

What makes Balkan music so attractive? What is it that many people are touched by Balkan music? Weblog ‘Artemisia’ writes this:

“The Balkan represents a unique area in Europe, it makes a connection between the East and the West and is influenced from all sides; oriental and Arabic, Slavic, Roman and Mediterranean. It transcends the taboos of the rules of classical music, of all music we know. Modern arrangements are interwoven with traditional folk-music (…) The tastes of slivovic, garlic sausages and peppers spice the sound of the voice, that is once a chittering staccato, then like swelling and receding waves rolling over the audience. This music is softly challenging and lovely, from whispering to cheerful but also modest and resigned. It adds a soundtrack to living with nature and the inescapable reality of life. They sing about harvest, life and death. (…) The soul of the Balkan may be heard through these voices which sound like splashing streams, laughter over the rooftops of the villages, calling one another from mountaintop to mountaintop.”

I quote this atmospheric image in an effort to find out why so many people are fascinated by this Balkan music. You often hear the term ‘melancholic’. In general Western music sounds cheerful. Eastern-European music sounds melancholic, which attracts many people. The oriental nature of the music triggers people. The Eastern musical scales mark a distinct border between Western and Balkan music. In the eyes of Westerners Balkan people tend to expose their soul both in speech and with strings than us sober Dutch people.

Although Balkan music is heavily influenced by the music of gypsies and Jews, in this article I will mainly focus on the role of the Turks. The matter of the Turkish (Ottoman) influence on Balkan music is interesting because the East is intriguing and romanticizes. The Balkan smells like the fairy tales of 1001 nights.

As a musician, I became in contact with Northern-Macedonian folk-music in 1967 through Wouter Swets, musician and etno-musicologist. I was intrigued by the music due to its odd musical scales and stange rhythms. Soon I was allowed to play along as violin player in Wouter Smets’ Čalgija orchestra. I remained for fourteen years and subsequently played in other Balkan orchestras. Both Čalgija and Swets provided a wonderful learning experience: perhaps music is one of the most intriguing and fascinating ways to learn other cultures. Like a sponge I sucked in the music and spend hundreds of hours copying music from records, making transcriptions (up to now Balkan music is hardly ever written down) and learning Balkan melodies.

Now, many years later, after much self-study and reflection, I will try to analyse what makes Balkan music so fascinating to me and many others and what is the role of these Eastern influences.

Numerous songs by heart

In a narrow sense, the word ‘Balkan’ refers to the Balkan mountains or Stara Planina, Bulgaria’s central mountain chain. In a wider sense, it refers to the area of former Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria. According to some Romania is also part of it, following the notion that ‘The Balkan is where there are regular power cuts’ or ‘there were the tarmac ends’. The broadest definition lets the Balkan start in Moravia (the eastern part of the Czech Republic) and ends in Greece or European Turkey. In the following analysis, I will use this broadest definition. The remarks about electricity and tarmac illustrate something about the emotional and adventurous connotation of the word Balkan. To many people, it is an area that distinguishes itself in every respect from neatly arranged and structured Western-Europe where everything is completed and predictable (and where music is dominated by the US). The Balkan is ragged, unpredictable, oriental and ancient. Quite often you will feel to be taken go back in time for 100 or 200 years.

Among the Balkanese I will count Moravians, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Bessarabiars, Moldavians, Romanians, Hungarians, Jews (sefarden and azkenaces), gipsies, Slovenians, Croats, Bosniaks, Serbians, Albanians, Northern Macedonians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Turks. Jointly forming a mixed salad and often setting the stage for ethnic conflicts ignited by changing Western coalitions.

Within these people, one can distinguish subgroups, dialect groups, provinces and districts. Suppose every dialect group or province has its own folk music then the Balkan has hundreds of different musical styles, not only in folk music but also in the amusement- and pop music. Folk music allows for further refinement: one can distinguish musical and dance styles per district or even per village. That way the Balkan knows thousands of different musical styles and of course all kinds of mutual influencing and cross-overs.

Many inhabitants of the Balkan have been raised with music and know numerous songs by heart. If someone, at a night among friends, starts singing it may happen that they continue all through the night. Much music is danceable and if the mood is right no one will remain seated. There is room for violent, sometimes impulsive emotions which may lead to men shooting their rifles in the air (an Arabic custom), to invigorate their emotions. On the Balkan, folk-music is still an important element of social life. Moreover, folk-music often underlines the identity of people and is part of the national or regional pride.

Although one can distinguish thousands of types of folk-music types on the Balkan, with just as many influences from both inside and outside, the influence of the Ottoman culture is the most apparent and intriguing. No wonder. After all, major parts of the Balkan have been occupied for many centuries by the Ottoman Turks.

Ottoman influence: mixed salad or melting pot?

When it comes to the Balkan should we speak of a melting pot or a mixed salad? ‘Mixed salad’ means that you can still identify the different ethnicities. Whereas ‘melting pot’ refers to cross-overs and new forms, that have come about from different influences. On the Balkan, we will find both. The mixed salad we find in the countryside and the mountains. In cities, you will come across melting pots, more often. Generally, you will find more Eastern influences there than in the countryside. By the way, it is not that easy to pinpoint what is ‘authentic Balkan’ and what are traces is of Ottoman influencing.

During the ninth and tenth century, the Turks were nomadic people originating from Central-Asia. They were good horsemen, good fighters and therefore were recruited as soldiers in the Arab Empire. Gradually the Turkish generals gained more power and they almost stealthily took over the power. The first Ottoman pashas (from 1300 onwards) spoke Arabic, wrote Arabic and adopted much of the Arabic culture. Until 1919 the Turkish language was written in the Arabic alphabet.

Before the rise of the Arabic empire, the Balkan was controlled by the Eastern-Roman or Byzantine Empire, named after it’s capital Byzantium (Constantinople). In the Middle Ages Constantinople was considered the most important and most modern capital in Europe: a multicultural city. When the Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire they took over much of the Byzantine culture while the Byzantine Empire itself was a continuation of the ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that thanks to the Arabs much of the scientific knowledge of the (European) Antiquity have been preserved. Why should that be different when it comes to music?

It is a widespread misconception that the (barbaric) Turks destroyed the dominant Christian culture. On the contrary, when the Ottoman conquered Constantinople (1453) they were extremely proud to live in this worldly city and they preserved much of the Byzantine culture and even adopted much of it. This applies to architecture, music, science and many other forms of civilization. In other words in the Ottoman culture, and therefore in Ottoman music, many Arabic, Byzantine, Ancient-Greek and Roman elements have been incorporated. So when we are talking about Ottoman influences in the Balkan, this includes Arabic, Greek and Roman (so European) elements.

Ottoman music limps and whines

The Ottoman influences on Balkan music may be recognized by Eastern rhythms, Eastern musical scales (makams), and the use of quarter tones.

When you listen to Balkan music, you will notice the odd meter. Lots of skewed (limping) meters originate from the East. The 7/8 meter has come from India. Both Armenia and Iran produced the beautiful 10/8 meter. In Western-Turkey, Greece and Egypt the 9/8 meter is widespread. In classical art music, we will often find the 9/4 and 10/4 meter. The Turks have spread all these meters across the Balkan. However, in Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Northern-Macedonia they take it even further. There you may come across: 5/8, 11/16, 13/16, 15/16, 18/16, 25/16 and even 28/16 meters. It sounds more unlikely than it actually is. Local musicians and singers use these meters quite often, they are like pants that exactly fit and the local peasant population has no trouble dancing to these tunes without any problem. Exactly because these very odd meter types may be found in remote mountain areas in Bulgaria and Greece and not in Turkey, we should assume that these oddest meter types are authentic to the Balkan.

Because we do not have any written musical sources from the period before 1300, it is not easy to determine which rhythms come from the East and which do not. However, when we take the old rhythmic poetic rules as a base (for instance Homer), one can observe that during the Greek Antiquity limping meters were already in use. Therefore it is very plausible that many of the skewed meters do have a European origin.

Eastern musical scales (makams)

There is one musical scale most oriental, which is the ‘hidjaz’: D-Es-Fis-G-A-Bes-C-D. It can be heard in Greek music, in klezmer, flamenco and of course in Balkan music. It is often referred to as the ‘gipsy musical scale’. Through this scale, people are introduced to a fling of eastern romance and melancholy. It is known from the Jewish song ‘Hava, nagila hava’. And of course, this musical scale is also incorporated in western songs that need an easterly touch.

These Eastern musical scales are only the tip of the iceberg, the keyhole that allows us to peek into an infinite, large, oriental, musical world, the world of the makam. Makams belong to Turkish and Arab music and are used from Morocco to Tajikistan and from Bosnia to Egypt. But also the Jewish Sefardic (by origin old-Spanish) music is heavily influenced by the Arabic world and follows the laws of the makams.

A makam is not just a musical scale but also regulates how a melody should work out. (Example: “Keep hanging in the upper half of the musical scale, consequently circulate around the ‘dominant’ – rest halfway down the stairs – and only then slowly descend into the lower segment; afterwards circulate around and end with a basic tone that has been agreed upon beforehand” ). A makam is not just a regulation for composers, but for anyone making improvised music (very common in the East and in the Balkan). In the West, we know two musical scales, major and minor scale, and everyone knows that major gives a happy and minor a sad emotion. The Orient knows 150 different makams and an almost equal number of different musical scales. Each of them represents a different connotation or provokes a different feeling. According to alternative healers, every makam affects a different organ or chakra.

The Orient knows 150 different makams and an almost equal number of different musical scales.

During the Middle Ages, many more musical scales were known in western Europe. They are known as the ‘seven church musical scales’. What is striking is that these seven musical scales have an eastern equivalent in the makams. Who is to say that the musical scales travelled from East to West or the other way round? In this respect, there is also a chance that elements that we qualify as typically oriental may partially have a Western origin.

Quarter tones

Very characteristic for the East is the use of ‘odd’ tones: quarter tones. Many people call these out-of-tun and therefore find Turkish or Arab music whining, like crying. But quarter tones open the door to an immeasurable world: the world of microtones. On the piano, the octave consists of twelve tones (seven white keys and five black ones). When you play the violin an octave has an unlimited number of tones. You may move your finger along a string and create every tone imaginable. Lots of makams use one or two of these microtones: that is the very reason that so many makams exist. A much-used musical scale is ‘ussak’: D-Emin-F-G-A-Bmin-C-D. It looks like our dorian church musical scale (the ré-scale), but it contains two micro-intervals, instead of one. The deviant tones are E-minus en B-minus. They are fractionally lower than E and B, but not half a tone lower. The E-minus is situated somewhere between Es and E, but not just anywhere between these two. The right place is exactly prescribed and may vary from region to region, by ethnic group and by fashion.

How Eastern are the microtones?

It is precisely these microtones that put an unmistakable mark on Balkan music. Once again we have to ask ourselves whether the microtones are the sole possession of the East. And what do we find? Everywhere in old European folk-music – in Sweden, Scotland, France, Spain and Romania – microtones pop up. The microtones are never written (our notes system has no signs for these tones), but have had a rich life in the Middle Ages and long thereafter. Subsequently, they were completely erased from Western-Europe since the seventeenth century under the influence of harmonies.

Microtones flourished in a culture of single-voiced music. Everywhere these special scales exist: in Africa (balafon) and Indonesia (gamelan). In the Balkan, the use of microtones is attributed to Ottoman influences, but the Turks and Arabs, apparently are not the only ones responsible for this. This misconception has had political consequences. After the Greek drama of 1922 (when all the Greeks had to leave Turkey and all the Turks had to leave Greece), the Greeks got rid of their microtones which were probably as old as the Greek Antiquity. Greek music needed to be ‘purified’ from ‘Eastern stains’. Only in the past decade, Greek (folk) musicians retrace their steps. This is not easy, because microtones do not go together well with ‘equal floating moderate’ instruments like the piano, keyboard, the accordion and the guitar.

There are also cross-overs with religious music. Which seems more different, the singer reciting the Koran in Istanbul, calling for prayer from the minaret or the roman-catholic gregorian singing in the church of Solêmes (France)? These differences are not as large as we might think. In his study, Wouter Swets has discovered remarkable mutual influences between the Islamic religious singing (the ilahiler) and the Gregorian hymns. He has found examples that are identical (the same makam, the same melody, etc.). This is clearly illustrated on Al Farabi’s CD: Sabâ kâr-i nâtik, ilâhîler.

Music of the city and the countryside

Finally, I want to say something about the difference between the city and the countryside. During the five hundred years of Ottoman occupation of the Balkan, the Turkish armies and administrators mainly stayed in the cities and hardly lived in villages. That is why Turkish culture (clothing, trade, professions, language, music, literature, religion, education) has rooted much more in the cities than in the countryside. This is also the reason why Bulgarian, Northern-Macedonian, Albanian and Greek folk-music in the more remote and inaccessible areas is much more authentic and less ‘Turkish’ than the music from the cities.

A proof fort his is, among others, the pentatonic musical scale (five tones in one octave) which is much older than most makams. For instance the music of Epirus (Northern-Greece and Southern-Albania). There we come across very old, unique musical styles, without any oriental influence. A 5/8 meter, pentatonic meter and endless slow improvisations on laments without meter (miroloi). The most remarkable music from this area is polyphonous, improvised singing, almost nowhere else in the world to be found. Residents of these areas are proud of their roots and call their music ‘Byzantine’. According to them, the music relates to elements from the Classical Antiquity.

During the Ottoman rule in the Balkan cities like in Skopje and Thessaloniki, so-called ‘alla turca’ orchestras emerged. They were composed partly of Balkaninstruments, like the bagpipe and the kaval (a shepherd’s flute) and partly of Turkish city music instruments, like the ud (a kind of lute) and the kanun (zither). These types of orchestras are called Čalgija.
The Ottoman influence on Balkan music has worked out differently for the countryside than for the urban culture. As a result, urban music has become more of a melting pot and music from the countryside has developed more into a mixed salad. Beautiful examples of the ultimate melting pot (Istanbul) ware shown in the music film Crossing the Bridge, The Sound of Istanbul by Fatih Akin (2005).

Originally published in “Donau magazine over Midden- en Zuidoost Europa”‘, as Een musicologische analyse van Osmaanse invloeden op Balkanmuziek, Donau, 25 October 2007. (republished with the permission of the author).

Translated by Arjan Schuiling, February 2020

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