Eastern Turkey's High-Volume Bards

No 60

The Kurdish people have a word—dengbêj—for a singer of epic tales of love and war, resistance and suffering. These bards belt out their songs at high volume. But for much of recent history, they have done so behind closed doors.

Turkey's longstanding crackdown on Kurdish autonomy intensified for a decade starting in 1980, following a military coup d'état. During this time in particular, dengbêj singers were subject to harassment and torture. Cassette recordings of their performances were declared illegal. In the wake of a 1991 détente, speaking and writing in Kurdish are now permitted. But ongoing tensions between Kurds and Turks make the political songs as charged as ever.

The dengbêj wasn't always as galvanizing or fraught a figure. Originally, many of these singing storytellers memorized their lyrics while driving livestock through the hills. They would seek out the patronage of feudal lords, who provided food and shelter in exchange for songs of praise. They literally sang for their supper.

The dengbêj profession's long association with poverty and dependence is one reason the socialist PKK, the embattled (and often ferocious) vanguard of Kurdish nationhood, has exhibited mixed feelings about this traditional art form. Even those pushing for cultural preservation concede that the dengbêj is now a somewhat nostalgic embodiment of Kurdish identity. Movies and pop music are more influential than their laments, and the form's rural strongholds are declining as young people move to cities. Whereas performers were once honored guests at private houses and weddings, they now sing mainly for television and tourists and folklorist recordings. Their stories are shorter these days, in accommodation to both modern audiences and their own dwindling abilities.

But the freedom and improvisation inherent in the form are still much in evidence. Singers, burdened with no set repertoire, adopt a personal style. Nor is the genre entirely backward looking. Once the exclusive domain of men—ironic, considering the assumed origins among mourning women—it is now publicly practiced by both sexes. Moreover, new stories are being belted out, whether in response to the killing of PKK activists or to the ongoing battles against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. For better or worse, struggle keeps the dengbêj voice pertinent.

Credits

  • Director - Meshakai Wolf
  • Editor - Meshakai Wolf
  • Producers - Meshakai Wolf and Greg Scarborough
  • Translator - Ergin Opengin
  • Text - Darrell Hartman

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