How the Ney Came Back

By ROLLO ROMIG

For several decades after Ataturk banned Sufi orders in 1925, dervish life in Istanbul virtually ceased—and dervish music went silent. One of the first turning points came in 1954. In a masterstroke of political savvy, Farettin Effendi, the sheikh of the Jerrahi order of dervishes, managed to reopen his tekke in the Istanbul neighborhood of Karagumruk by registering it as a foundation for musical preservation. It was a cover for resuming the order’s religious activities, but the Jerrahis took their role as musical protectors seriously. Farettin’s successor traveled across Turkey with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, gathering Sufi ilahis, or hymns, that were on the verge of being lost forever, thereby assembling Turkey’s first near-comprehensive compendium of such songs. Ironically, the ban on Sufism has increased the available repertoire of Sufi music, thanks to the flurry of preservation activities that were inspired in reaction to it.

The first glimmerings of a public resurgence in Turkish classical music could be sighted around 1975. In that year, a more relaxed government attitude toward cultural matters made possible the opening, at Istanbul Technical University, of the first school to offer a professional education in Turkish classical music since the Ottoman Empire. Niyazi Sayin taught there, as did some musicians in the generation that preceded him – teachers old enough to have gotten their own education in the Ottoman era.

The climate for Ottoman music relaxed further in the 1980s, when an Islamist prime minister named Tugrul Ozal came to power; he laid the groundwork for the creation of two state music ensembles devoted to the old tekke music, an unthinkable project in the early decades of the Republic. In 1996, under the mayoralty of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the municipality of Istanbul began offering free public courses called Ismek, mostly in traditional arts, including the ney. (Erdogan went on to become Turkey’s strongman prime minister, and while I was in Turkey he became its first elected president.) Such initiatives were both a cause and a consequence of an Ottoman cultural comeback in all its forms – as well as a political backlash.

The return of the whirling dervishes has also helped reinvigorate the role of the ney in Turkey. That started in 1956, when a delegation of American diplomats went to Konya and paid a visit the tekke at Rumi’s tomb, which by then had been converted into a state-run museum. The Americans wanted to know where they could see those whirling dervishes they’d heard so much about. The Turkish officials, eager to please, scrambled to put together a performance, and a local high school basketball team was trained to whirl in costume. In the decades since, government-run whirling dervish shows have proven to be one of Turkey’s top tourism draws.

The highest quality iterations of the show – in Konya, where the basketball players have long been replaced by whirlers who actually know what they’re doing, and at the Galata Mevlevihanesi in Istanbul – are quite lovely, even if they can’t be called authentic. Perhaps most important, these performances have reopened a venue for the Mevlevi ayin, the elaborate musical form that always accompanies the sema, giving a new generation of Turkish classical musicians the opportunity to perform it, and new audiences of listeners a chance to hear it live. And the central instrument in the Mevlevi ayin is the ney. In recent years, the ney has become a staple of spiritually tinged, Sufi-inspired Turkish pop music – most prominently in the work of a spikey-haired electronic music star named Mercan Dede.

Oddly enough, the ban on Sufism remains on the books. Aside from highly secularized, government-sponsored performances for tourists, most Sufi practices still take place underground, in unmarked tekkes or private homes. The Jerrahi tekke in Istanbul remains the only major Sufi meetinghouse in Turkey to function openly. And yet no Muslim country has more fully embraced Sufism and its music than Turkey. The Ottomania that Erdogan has encouraged is often depicted as a purely nostalgic and reactionary phenomenon, and there is that element. But this rising tide has also floated more sophisticated boats. It’s complicated.

© 2019 Rollo Romig, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016