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Published: 2004/12/31
by Margot Main

Journey of the Jam- Kurdistan’s Sacred Tanbur

Sufis use music as a means of getting to a trancelike state of ecstasy to achieve mystical revelation (vision). Similarly, music for the Kurdish faith group, Ahl-e Haqq, use the string instrument called a tanbur (tunbur) as their exclusive sacred musical tool for djamm gatherings (devotional/liturgical ceremonies). Ali Akbar Moradi is of the Ahl-e Haqq group from Kurdistan, Iran and is commonly acknowledged as being the world's sacred tanbur virtuoso. He is also (probably) the only person alive who knows and mastered all 72 maqams (modes) of the Kurdish tanbur. However, over the past few decades the tanbur has found its way to play in front of secular audiences as well. Ivan Perwer (a Kurdish recording star) plays secular, modern Kurdish tanbur music to lively audiences. Although not sacred, Sivan's music is noted for contributing to the rise in popularity of Kurdish nationalist and leftist cultural/political movements of the 1970_s in Kurdistan, Turkey. To escape persecution (his and other Kurdish music became banned in Turkey) Sivan fled into exile to Germany with his tanbur in tow. Also, Kurdistan's minority faith groups, Alevi, Yezidi and Ahl-e Haqq, throughout history have been labeled devil worshippers and/or pagans; many were imprisoned (and worse) for playing their tanbur music as part of their spiritual mystic listening ceremonies.

With approximately 30 million people, Kurdistan is one of the largest non-recognized countries in the world. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the land and Kurdish people have been subjugated and annexed so now they're divided between four countries; living in the cross-section of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. A sizeable part of the population still lives within the Zargos mountain range. One constant Kurdish musical element, amidst the turbulence of ancient through modern times, is the Kurds' improvisational imprint on their music style. The inherent adaptability of the tanbur allows music creation that flows naturally from the musician's improvisational talent. Thus, Kurdish tanbur music has come to be as diverse as the variegated land of Kurdistan and as diverse as Kurdish culture.

However, even though Kurds have long mastered the instrument, the tanbur itself is not publicly credited to them. The tanbur is distinct from India's tanbura that has four open strings and is played as a drone. The tanbur is, by definition, a number of various long-necked, fretted, plucked lutes of the Middle East and Central Asia. Actually, the lute, usually discussed in European history as originating in Greece, is now thought to have originated either in Asia or the ancient land of Phoenicia (Syria). In fact, both pre-Christian and pre-Islam histories credit the lute's conception to Jubal who apparently lived in the ancient Levant neighborhoods of the middle east (Israel/Palestine/Syria). The lute moved on with time and was embraced by the Akkadian era (Iran, 3rd century B.C.) and used in pagan ligatures. The lute was loved by all who heard its sound; including the Greeks whose influence in Mesopotamia increased over time. Eventually, the lute physically morphed and acculturated to be reflective of individual areas and tastes. These changes possibly translated back to Greece and may have led to the development of the Greek instrument pandore. However, it seems those whose primary familiarity is with the lute tend to use the term lute as a catch-all to include the pandore and tanbur. The lute is characterized with an oval shaped belly and a disproportionately short neck. The pandore had a long neck and round belly (like a beta version of the sitar). The most important distinction of the tanbur was its curvaceous belly. Its long neck and few strings also classify the tanbur in the eastern family of aggaloch instruments.

Famed Turkish born philosopher/musician Al-Farabi (who ultimately made Arabian academia his education, career and home before dying around 950ce) wrote about the tanbur al-baghdadi, and tanbur al-khorasani. His translations of his reference work indicate that though both were in Syria, the al-baghdadi tanbur was common to Baghdad and the areas west and center of it; whereas, the al-khorasani tanbur belonged especially to Khurasan and the countries east and north of it.
In fact, the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental & African studies at the University of London recently cite statues unearthed in Shush (N.W. Iran) that date to 1500 B.C. as well as images unearthed in Bani Yunos and Keyvan hills in Mosul.

These discoveries underscore the antiquity of the tanbur in the ancient Mesopotamia/Iran areas. Interestingly, the legend of the al-khorasani tanbur tells of its migration from Khurasan in Persia (Iran), east into Afghanistan, over to Central Asia and on into India. The story continues with its Iraq brother, the al-baghdadi tanbur. This story describes the al-baghdadi tanbur's journey to Anatolia (Turkey), fleeing to Greece and spending its exile in Corsica until it was ultimately banned by Rome. Nonetheless, the tanbur's history consistently alludes to originating in Mesopotamia and its shape and sound developing through Persian times. Combined with the fact that tanbur artifacts have been found in an area historically populated by Kurds (and, is the same region where the Sufi affiliate, Ahl-e Haqq, faith group lives); it could very well be the tanbur was conceived with original Iranian inhabitants. Similarly, through the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic and Ottoman Empires as well as numerous ethno-religious invasions/wars that occurred concurrently with empire politics and people; the Kurdish tanbur and its music have survived. The Kurd-Iranian Ahl-e Haqq people are playing and djamm-ing in these modern times.

All the subtle sound shifts and structure changes that occurred throughout history between the various long necked lutes could be interpreted as the eternal story personifying all musicians struggle to achieve their unique identity and voice of beauty expressed through the music created with their instrument while trying to swim across the ocean of their soul without losing faith.

Despite the Kurds and the tanbur's historical turbulence, the Kurds have achieved a strong branch of cultural identity by nurturing the tanbur to be their beautiful voice. The modern Kurdish tanbur is still crafted from mulberry wood; and seems to have settled in with its belly shaped like a healthy pear. The soundboard too is made of mulberry wood and has numerous small holes to sharpen resonance. Additionally, the long neck has fourteen gut frets and three strings. The bottom two strings are made of steel and tuned in unison so when fingered together they perform as melody strings. The top string is, today, made of copper or brass and functions as the sympathetic string; sometimes it's played with the thumb. Contrast this, however, with an updated version of the al-baghdadi tanbur that has made a comeback and is currently being used predominantly by emerging Afghanistan urban-pop recording artists. This Afghanistan tanbur has six strings, a hollow neck and no pegbox. Also, while the Afghanistan tanbur musician generally plays using three or four fingers the Kurdish sacred tanbur musician uses his whole hand to produce continuous tremolo called shorr. Instead of beating and plucking the string, the Kurdish sacred tanbur musician strums and plucks them.

Like Persian music the essence of Kurdish tanbur music is modal. However, where Persian is precise; Kurdish is instinctual. The main element of Kurdish music is pentachord wrapped around a Dorian mode employing artisan use of the metabole. However, this technical description is not how Kurdish tanbur musicians approach their music. Demonstrating the ancient roots of their modern musical identity, Kurds have used and preserved, through millennia, a single mode that was allegedly described by their neighbors as kord. Some argue that this mode is actually the Dorian mode used by Spanish flamenco guitarists. However, Kurdish music was played long before the first Spanish flamenco graced the strings of the guitar and way before music dictionary terms existed. Kurdish music is as natural as humanity; its breath is improvisation.

Kurdish musicians think of improvisation in terms of working their instrument. The liner notes for the world music CD, Musique Kurde, Musics and Musicians of the World (UNESCO Collection), describe the Kurdish sense of improvisation: A musician gifted with great inspiration is spoken of as one who knows what he has to do; therein lies the journey of the jam. Additionally, in Kurdish music, instead of having a prescribed set of notes attached to a maqam (as a mode does), an ethos is imposed. A musician uses the tanbur's fourteen frets and works a range using the basic elements of the maqam in accordance with the appropriately prescribed ethos. For example, a musician could play maqam-e Leyla and it's understood Leyla inspired this individual ethos to be applied to a maqam form. The tanbur player would then use his talents to adjust the tone and melody to convey Leyla. However, even though Kurdish music is played through improvisation, its presentation is structured. The beginning will introduce the elements to be elaborated upon in the middle; and, its conclusion balances the beginning with a melodic rhythm. Thus, the level of improvisation is basically the range of deviation as determined by the fourteen frets and degree of departure from the maqam. If a musician strays to far from the range; the music is no longer considered traditional Kurdish.

In the hands of an expertly skilled Kurdish musician; the tanbur is the sacred instrument used for three forms of Kurdish music. The maqam-e kalem is alleged to be 2,000 years old. The sacred tanbur musician uses this for music during the Ahl-e Haqq prayer ceremonies. It's also employed as an acoustic solo or accompaniment for a vocalist. The maqam-e majlisi is performed with no pre-determined rhythm. This form relies on heavy improvisation so the music effectively accentuates storytelling, adds dimension to extended narratives, and highlights difficult social problems. Finally, the maqam-e majazi on the surface is party music that expresses earthly joys and fires of love; however, it can also use heavy symbolism to interpret deeper spiritual meanings.

Sufi mystics excel at symbology. As Huston Smith explains in his book, The World's Religions, symbols are to religion what numbers are to scientists. He quotes al-Ghazali's definition of symbolism as the science of the relation between multiple levels of reality. In this vein, the Kurdish sacred tanbur music notes could be considered the symbols used to reach a divine reality. On an existential plane of a parallel spiritual reality, old American mountain bluegrass would be the second cousin of traditional Kurdish tanbur music. Or, perhaps it's because of an association made through the winds of all the mountains all over the world Kurdish music grew wings strong enough to fly free. The tanbur is a joyful branch of cultural identity for Kurds. Specifically the tanbur has defined, and is being recorded by Ali Akbar Moradi, the 72 maqams that are the beautiful voice for the Kurdish Yarsan Ahl-e Haqq people nestled in the extremely remote mountain ranges of Iran before their voice becomes lost to the sands of time.

Freeing sacred Kurdish music has also helped Kurdish recording stars like Sivan Prewer weave hints of traditional tanbur maqams with an independent ethos to voice the problems Kurds face as they continue their centuries long journey to be recognized and accepted as self-determining people with their own culture, language and country; not divided between four different nations. The tanbur has been the Kurds constant companion through time; improvisation has kept the tanbur breathing. Also, perhaps now the millennia old pagan and devil worshipper labels applied to the minority Kurdish faith groups can finally be tossed away forever. Since their music has been liberated everyone is free to see Kurdish tanbur musicians tune anywhere from A to D. As Guiseppe Tartini's Devil's Trill sonata illustrates, the devil tunes in G.

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