The Reed Artist
A writer searches Istanbul's cafés and alleys for the king of the ney, an enigmatic — and at times, endangered — flute that has long been a mainstay of Muslim musical traditions.
By ROLLO ROMIG
I have no idea when I first heard the sound of the ney. It’s an instrument that everyone’s heard before, even if they didn’t know what it was: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Last Temptation of Christ, and countless other films have put its distinctive wail on their soundtracks as a shortcut to a mournful, vaguely exotic atmosphere. But the first time I became conscious of where that sound was coming from was in Istanbul, at an antique Sufi meetinghouse, or tekke, in the jumbled-up backstreets of a neighborhood called Karagumruk. A few hundred dervishes had gathered on a Monday in April for a late night of musical and spiritual instruction in the heart of the building, its walls covered with dark, calligraphic swirls spelling the many names of Allah. When one dervish picked up a ney and started to play, that’s when the ritual came to life.
The ney is an ancient Middle Eastern flute, one of the world’s oldest instruments in continuous use. But in Turkey it means something entirely different than it does anywhere else. There, its sound and even its shape are nearly synonymous with religious feeling—and especially with Sufism, an approach to Islam that’s difficult to define, but which is often described in shorthand as Islamic mysticism. Its appeal sits at the crux of several conundrums. The ney brings music to a religion that often discourages the use of musical instruments. It’s the simplest of flutes that in the right hands produces the most sophisticated of sounds. And in Turkey, its status tilts between trademark and contraband. By Turkish law, Sufi gatherings like the one I attended in Karagumruk are technically banned. Yet, there is perhaps no other Muslim country today where Sufism is more integrated into mainstream Islam, and the ney is its prime symbol.
Ninety-two years ago, the Turkish Republic was launched with a breathtaking attempt to erase and replace the culture of the Ottoman Empire in its entirety—from language to religion to song, the progressive along with the backward. The rift had its reasons. But it was too total, too abrupt. As the 21st century approached, the Empire struck back. One of the most potent weapons on the Ottoman side of this culture war has turned out to be the ney. In the past two decades, the instrument has experienced such a surge of popularity in Turkey that a whole industry of flute makers now flourishes where none existed before. A tip for cultural revolutionaries: in the long run, the suppression of music always seems to backfire.
I’d come to Istanbul for all the usual reasons: a love of river ferries as a mass transit option; a strong preference for street cats over street dogs; an inability to decide between Europe and Asia. As I stayed on, I kept running into the ney—its curious sound, and its curious story. It doesn’t look like much. It’s a stick with some holes in it and a hat on top. But it’s one of those instruments that gets a hold on people. Ney players are a particular breed—obsessive, tenacious, a bit skewed—and it’s not clear if they started that way or if the ney did that to them. Like many before me, I became driven to learn how it works.
I soon found myself on a mission to infiltrate one of the Middle East’s less noticed Muslim networks—a vast conspiracy of musicians. And all across Istanbul I heard the same thing: if I wanted to understand the ney, I had to meet the instrument’s master, Niyazi Sayin—an elusive, elderly artist who was legendary not only for how he played the ney, but also for how he made them.
I made my temporary home in Üsküdar, a sprawling district of Istanbul on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The vibe is part transport hub, part retirement home, a mash-up that the magic of Istanbul transmogrifies into something entirely charming. Near the waterfront neighborhood, elders sit on park benches, sipping tea, thumbing prayer beads, and smoking cigarettes, as commuters rush past them to catch a bus or a ferry or an express train (while also smoking cigarettes). Glass-faced shops and apartment blocks rule the avenues, but on the backstreets, alleycats still slink past long rows of old wooden Ottoman houses. Some of these houses are alarming in their states of disrepair, their distinctive enclosed, second-story balconies rotting onto the sidewalk; others have been recently and impeccably restored. The renovation is a double signifier: of the fashion for Ottoman nostalgia under the Erdogan administration, and of the money that’s been poured into development as the Turkish economy has grown.
When looking at Istanbul from a hilltop, the first thing you notice are hundreds of minarets sticking up like candles from an old man’s birthday cake. Their construction spreads across seven centuries. The ney resembles those minarets in more ways than one: it, too, is a tall, slender cylinder with a tapered top and ancient origins.
The face of Üsküdar is its riverside port, but its peak is Çamlıca, the highest of the seven hills that give Istanbul its special topography. When you look down on Istanbul from atop one of those hills, the first thing you notice are the hundreds of minarets, sticking up like candles from an old man’s birthday cake. From a distance they have a certain uniformity, but their construction spreads across seven centuries.
The ney resembles those minarets in more ways than one: it, too, is a tall, slender cylinder with a tapered top and ancient origins. And like the minarets, in Turkey it serves as a symbol of Islam, but it didn’t start out that way. People have played the ney for some 5,000 years—long before Muhammad—making it one of the oldest instruments in continuous use. In Iran and in the Arab world, the instrument has no religious connotation. In Turkey, the ney is used across the cultural spectrum, from Ottoman classical music to religious ceremonies to electronic pop. Ever since the 13th century, the Turkish ney has acquired an indelible association with spirituality and Sufi mysticism, and this is overwhelmingly thanks to the poet Rumi—or, as he’s known in Turkey, Mevlana.
It’s fitting that Turkey and America know this poet by two different names; the way he is viewed, the man might as well have been two different people. In the West, Rumi has come to be associated with a feel-good New Ageism that only vaguely hints at Islam. In Turkey, Rumi is an unambiguously Muslim figure, and it’s difficult to overstate the esteem in which he is held. Probably only Muhammad is quoted more often by Turkish Muslims. Born way back in 1207, in a part of Persia that is now Afghanistan, Rumi lived most of his life in what’s now Turkey, and he used the ney in his writings for a boggling number of spiritual metaphors. The ney is both poison and antidote, he wrote. Its sound is not wind, but fire.
I met my first ney maker by chance. Wandering through Üsküdar one May afternoon, I spotted a tiny storefront jammed full of long, yellow reeds—like bamboo, but bigger. When I peeked inside, I found a man with long, white-blonde hair crouched over a worktable, drilling a hole into a reed that would soon become a ney.
This was Ahmed Sahin, a former imam who’s now best known as a singer and ney player. Sahin is like the prince of the Istanbul ney scene, but only in the sense that he usually dresses entirely in purple. I asked him if he’d explain to me how to make one of these simple flutes. “First we should talk about what the ney means,” he said, and he began to recite:
Listen to the ney, how it complains…
“Ever since they tore me from my reed bed,
My plaintive notes have moved men and women to tears.
I burst my breast, striving to give vent to sighs,
And to express the pangs of my yearning for my home.”
These are from the opening verses of The Masnavi, a 50,000-line poem that was Rumi’s most important work. Shifting into imam mode, Sahin discussed at length their theological significance, a discourse that soon became highly esoteric. Suffice to say that in these lines, Rumi was introducing one of the most important themes in Sufi thought: a yearning for a lost past, which ultimately points to the pain of separation from union with God.
When Sahin finally shifted from sermon to shop talk, I asked who he considered the best ney-makers in Istanbul. “Those who learned from Niyazi Sayin,” he said. This man, he said, had invented a new way of making the ney. He’d studied the old ratios for determining where to drill the flute’s holes and found them lacking. So he shelved the system of the ancients and devised a new formula that’s become standard across Turkey.
The master Sayin, Sahin told me, is 88 years old now—long retired from both playing and making. It’s widely held that he’s the greatest ney master not just of his generation, but of the past century, if not longer. But Sahin cautioned me not to confine the man to his music. In Turkish parlance, Sayin is a hezarfen: a master of a thousand arts. He makes prayer beads. He does calligraphy and paper marbling. He collects singing birds and grows roses. He’s interested in electronics. “He’s a different man,” Sahin said, “a special man.”
That night, I looked up Niyazi Sayin on YouTube and was floored by what I heard. All ney players in the classical style use a rough, husky sound—noise is something of a virtue in Turkish classical music. But in Sayin’s playing, the husk is complicated by a kind of trembling, a strange vibrato that makes his music feel vulnerable, nimble, exhilarating. It’s music of high suspense: You never know when his dark passages of low murmuring will suddenly take flight into bursts of wild improvisation. This wasn’t like any ney playing I’d heard on a movie soundtrack. And the fact that he’d achieved these results, in part, by reinventing how this age-old instrument was built—that intrigued me the most.
I asked Sahin if he could help arrange a meeting with Sayin. “Insha’Allah,” he said, and from the way he said it, I wasn’t sure if he was agreeing to help or brushing me off.
A week passed with no good word. One evening, while sipping tea in a park along the Bosphorus, I happened to get chatting with a local journalist who’d made a documentary about the ney. I mentioned that I was hoping to meet Niyazi Sayin. “He lives right here in Üsküdar!” she said. He’s a wonderful man, she told me, and he could tell me everything I want to know. “Everyone wants to interview him,” she said. “But he won’t give an interview to anyone.” I was stunned. Here was a Turkish journalist exploring a quintessentially Turkish instrument that had apparently become inseparable from Sayin. And he’d refused to participate in her film.
The best way to get to Sayin, I figured, was meet every ney artisan who knew him. The next day I sat down with Rifat Varol, a young maker with the dark good looks of an old-school crooner. Improbably, Varol got his start making these instruments in the army. He’d been playing neys since he was 14, and when it was his time for military service, he was coincidentally assigned to the province of Hatay, in Turkey’s far southeast. Today, Hatay is infamous as a crossing point for international ISIS recruits making their way into Syria. Among ney makers, it’s prized as the best place in Turkey to obtain good reeds. “I cut reeds every day,” he told me over tea in an Üsküdar café. “I was not a very busy soldier.”
And a good thing that was. In Varol’s estimation, a good reed is one in a thousand. In a full day of tramping through muddy reed beds, he might find five or six. The ney is a reed instrument in the most literal sense: the body of the flute is the entire reed itself—hollowed out, punctured with seven holes, and capped with a buffalo-horn mouthpiece called a baspare, but otherwise looking much the same as it did when plucked from its bed of mud.
The reeds used for neys (scientific name: Arundo donax; popular name: “giant cane”) grow in segments, like bamboo. And a ney, regardless of its length, needs to have nine segments. In a typical wild reed—which is the only kind, they’re never cultivated—the different segments are of varying lengths: longer toward the root, shorter toward the top. For a ney, though, the segment lengths must be as close to uniform as possible. Reeds like that are few and far between. When Varol’s service was complete, he brought a hundred of his best reeds back to Istanbul, and he’s been making neys ever since.
“Have you ever tried to play?” Varol asked me. I hadn’t. He opened his bag and pulled out a kiz ney—the most standard, middle-range size—and explained how to approach it: hold the flute at an angle and blow into the rim of the mouthpiece, with your lips puckered like you’re going to whistle. After a minute or so of trying, I managed to produce a note.
“Mash’Allah!” my translator exclaimed.
“To find the sound is very difficult,” Varol explained. “Sometimes it takes two months.” (It was clearly beginner’s luck on my part – I was never able to produce a sound again.) In centuries past, Varol said, ney teachers used to start their students on a shah ney —one of the largest, and therefore the most difficult to make generate a sound. “They’d give them a ney with no finger holes, and tell them to come back when they’d managed to play a note,” he said. “They’d come back a year or two later.”
His answer was instant when I asked him who was the best ney maker in Istanbul: Niyazi Sayin. “It’s very important for you to meet with him,” Varol said. “He’s interested in everything. But when it comes to the ney, he’s the most important person in the world.” The best way to find him, apparently, was to search the backstreets of Üsküdar. When the weather’s nice, he told me, it’s easy to find him sitting in teashops, playing backgammon with his friends.
Now, every day as I walked past the countless cafés of Üsküdar, I studied the faces of old men, whiling away their afternoons with games and arguments and endless small glasses of sweet tea. It looked like a beautiful life. But I couldn’t find Niyazi Sayin among them.
As I talked to more and more of Sayin’s protégés—and nearly everyone in Istanbul who plays or makes the ney thinks of himself as Sayin’s protégé—I started to compile a list of all the skills at which I was told he excelled. In addition to those Sahin mentioned (calligraphy, paper marbling, bird breeding, rose cultivating), I heard that he’s an expert photographer, repairs old VCRs, plays an unbeatable game of tennis, maintains a database of old Ottoman buildings that have been destroyed, studies Sufi texts, and brews his own liquor. Oh, and that he used to play professional soccer.
In Turkish parlance, Sayin is a hezarfen: a master of a thousand arts. He makes prayer beads. He does calligraphy and paper marbling. He collects singing birds and grows roses. He’s interested in electronics. “He’s a different man,” said a local ney player.
In both Sufi and musical studies in Turkey, there is a high premium placed on reverence toward one’s master. But even by these standards, the hero worship that surrounds Sayin is eyebrow-raising. In ney workshops, framed pictures of him are ubiquitous. In fact, they appear about as frequently as portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s legendary founder, are seen everywhere else. (Some workshops have both—somewhat paradoxically, given Atatürk’s low opinion of Turkish music.) In Sufi circles, the term hodja is used to refer to a master. When a ney player says “hodja,” everyone knows he’s talking about Sayin. Three separate ney players compared him to Jesus Christ, saying that when it comes to the ney, there are two eras: before Niyazi Sayin and after Niyazi Sayin.
Everyone agrees that Sayin revolutionized the way the instrument is played. He achieved his signature vibrato sound by twitching his lip dramatically as he blew, a technique that no ney player used before him, but which nearly every one does now. His ney-making disciples also say that he transformed the way the ney is built. Some said he pioneered a new shape for the baspare mouthpiece, carving the shaft into a bowl they called the “sound chamber.” And they all extolled Sayin’s invention of the method that Ahmed Sahin first told me about: called kaydirma, which roughly translates as “repositioning,” it’s a way of measuring where to drill the tone holes that’s far superior, they said, than the classical approach.
From what I was hearing, it was not just musical talent but also a rare technical ingenuity that had enabled Sayin to coax such soulfulness out of a simple reed. What was it about him that allowed these two very different strains of genius to so fruitfully converge? I became preoccupied with trying to understand him, and equally determined to meet him.
I dug up scraps of his biography. He was born in Üsküdar in 1925, two years after Atatürk’s founding of the Turkish republic. World War II and poverty cut short his formal education. Professionally, he made his career primarily as a performer on Istanbul state radio, and as a music professor. I was told that he married once, decades ago, and for less than a year. Perhaps the obsessive attentions he pays to his many arts exclude any possibility of a family life.
The relationship that seems to have mattered most in his life is the one he had with his teacher, the great ney master Halil Dikmen, who died in 1964. More than an education, Dikmen gave him a position in a long lineage of great ney masters. His students told me that it’s this link to the past, as much as the beauty of his playing, that makes Sayin the essential figure in the field. For them, Sayin forms a rare bridge to a musical legacy that was nearly swept away during the radical transformations that turned the Ottoman Empire into Turkey. Atatürk felt that his country’s success depended on a full rift with the Ottoman past, replacing its cosmopolitan ethos with a fierce (and newly invented) national identity. To emphasize his point, he reversed the country’s Asian orientation in favor of an embrace of all things Western. The reforms he instituted were dizzying in speed and touched on all aspects of Turkish life, from language to names to hats. Music was no exception.
The low point in the new Republic’s suppression of the old music is often identified as 1934, when all Turkish music was banned from the radio for 20 months in the hope that Turks would learn to like Western music instead. But an even worse blow for traditional Turkish music was the Republic’s ban on Sufism, which Atatürk had many reasons to dislike. As he saw it, Sufi tekkes were dens of corruption; their leaders were political rivals; their beliefs were embarrassing provincial superstitions. In 1925—the year Niyazi Sayin was born—Law 677 outlawed all Sufi institutions, shuttered the tekkes where they held their meetings, and abolished their practices.
The problem was that, outside the exclusive precincts of the Ottoman palace, the tekkes constituted the sole institution that systematically taught Turkish music. Secretly, the performance of tekke music continued in private homes, but police raids and jail time remained very real threats for such gatherings. Muslims hosting private concerts would often keep a bottle of liquor on the table as a precaution; if the cops came, they said they were just having a party. A small rebel army of musicians and sheikhs quietly kept the old music alive. “It’s like they were entrusted to carry this one small but very important seed and not lose it,” the ney player Hakan Alvan told me. “But when the time was right, they put the seed back in the soil so that it could grow into what it is now.”
In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a 15th-century maze of 3,000 tiny shops, I found the ney player Omer Erdogdular manning what might be the world’s smallest jewelry store. He paused from his work to tell me what it was like to study with the master. Erdogdular started taking ney lessons from Niyazi Sayin in 1965; he and three other boys met at Sayin’s house every Sunday from 10 to 1. By this time, the ney wasn’t just officially discouraged, it was also highly unfashionable, and the twin crafts of playing and making it had nearly disappeared. Erdogdular guesses that at that time, there were only 10 active ney students in the whole of Istanbul. “Hodja told us, this ney lesson from me doesn’t have any price tag on it,” he said. “It’s free of charge. But only if you also give lessons free of charge. We would sometimes try to give him little gifts, like sugar for the tea. He would just get mad. He wouldn’t accept even sugar cubes.”
Watch “Sayin’s remarkable and influential method of mouthing the ney, a technique that’s come to be known as ‘lip vibrato'”
All of Sayin’s students told me that in order to study with him, he insisted that they learn another art form unrelated to the ney. He’d often assign their pursuits. A ney player named Bulent Ozbek said he never even touched a ney during his first six months of studying with Sayin; they mostly made pickles. Another player, Ali Tan, told me that when he was having trouble playing a particular piece of music, Sayin told him to learn photography. Tan wasn’t interested in photography, but he went out and bought a camera—you have to do what the master tells you. Under Sayin’s instruction, Tan played around with holding the camera at different angles, and then had his eureka moment: to play the piece he was stuck on, he needed to experiment with holding the ney at different angles, too.
Tan is now Turkey’s first professor of ney studies, and both his masters thesis and his doctoral dissertation were devoted to Niyazi Sayin’s contributions to the field. “Niyazi Hodja is kutbu’n-nayi,” he said—the ney master. In 100 years, one person is the kutbu’n-nayi.” I was especially interested in talking to Tan because his thesis was specifically about Sayin’s kaydirma method: He studied hundreds of old neys to find out exactly how Sayin’s measurements differed from the classical approach to measuring holes.What he discovered was that they didn’t differ very much. And where they did differ, it was often because reeds are too variable for any single system to be foolproof. Measurements are a starting point; after that, a ney maker must decide where to drill by instinct and experience. “The objective is to find the right sound,” he said, “not the right hole.” As Tan described it, the kaydirma method didn’t sound to me like much of an innovation at all. How could this be? Something had to have been lost in translation.
I first saw a ney get built in the workshop of Gökhan Özkök, which can be found in a mini-mall in the neighborhood of Küçükyalı, a one-time rural retreat that has now been swallowed by the city. Özkök looks like a man at war, partly thanks to his ensemble: shaved head, camouflage pants, army-green shirt. But it’s mostly his eyes, which stare with an aggressive intensity. When I sat down with him over Turkish coffee, the first thing he asked me was who else I’d been talking to. I mentioned Rifat Varol. “Never heard of him,” Ozkok said. “He must be amateur, not professional. If he were professional I would have heard of him.”
It was an odd assertion—Turkey’s ney-making community is a small one, and everyone knows each other. But Özkök is full of bluster. Until 1998, he had a desk job in the advertising department of Philip Morris. Now he makes neys full time, and he estimates that he’s built more than 8,000 over the course of his career. “You can’t find anyone who’s made more neys than I have, even in history,” he said. “I hold the record.” (For what it’s worth, Rifat Varol estimates that he’s made between 7,000 and 10,000.)
In his back room, Özkök showed me his cache of raw reeds: 1,500 of them, watched over by security cameras to protect his investment. After reeds are harvested, they have to dry out, gradually turning from fresh green to dead yellow, which takes at least a year. The reed is then stripped of its leaves, and straightened—wind gives most reeds a pronounced curve. Ozkok selected one from the pile, carried it over to his tabletop stove, and held each of the reed’s nodes over the flames. Then he brought it to a tall post intersected with holes of varying sizes; it looked like a cat scratching post. He then inserted the reed and bent it at each node, periodically holding it to his eye like a telescope to check his work. [For a closer look at this process, please see our photo essay, The Secrets to Making a Ney.]
“Sometimes the reed doesn’t let you make it into something,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t want to be a ney; it wants to go back to the reed bed.” And an old ney, he said, will sometimes curve back to the shape it had before the maker straightened it. “Even if the reed wants to be a ney, it’s still trying to go back.”
Giant cane is mostly empty inside, with the exception of thin membranes at the nodes between each segment, where the leaves grow. In one motion, Özkök jammed a long steel rod through the length of the reed, and whooshed away the detritus with an air gun. Then he brought it to his lips and produced a clear note. Even this early in the process, it was already a flute.
After a quick measurement and six marks with a pencil, he drilled the six finger holes in a matter of seconds, then took a couple of small strips of German silver—an alloy of copper and nickel—and fashioned them into rings with the aid of a blowtorch. These rings, called parazvane, don’t affect the sound—they keep the reed from splitting at the ends. Twelve minutes after he began, he had a ney. He played a little tune and laughed.
I was surprised. I had heard so much spiritual talk about ney-making (opening the reed, I’d been told, was akin to a supplicant opening his heart to God), and so much argument and hype about kaydirma and other proprietary techniques, that I was expecting a process much more deliberate and exacting. Suddenly, the nuances of where to drill the holes seemed hardly to matter. Özkök warned me not to be misled by his speed: each ney, he said, takes a full day to make from start to finish. The finger holes still had to be corrected and cleaned. The baspare had to be carved on a lathe. In one of the most delicate steps, the internal nodal bores had to be expanded; to tune the ney properly, the inner bores have to be wider than those at the ends, and each ney maker seems to have his own technique for achieving this. Özkök showed me his solution, a long rod of his own invention. When he pulled a switch near the handle, a set of surgical-steel knives expanded at the tip, allowing him to widen the inner bores without affecting those at the ends. He called it a “reed angio”—he liked the analogy to heart surgery.
Still, Özkök seemed to be flaunting how quickly he could toss one off. He’d been making neys since he was 19; in fact, he started after a family friend offered an introduction to Niyazi Sayin. “I was shocked,” he said. “It’s like if you’re a scuba diver and one day somebody says they’re going to introduce you to Jacques Cousteau.” Sayin accepted him as an apprentice. “He’s gentle, but he’s impossible to satisfy,” Özkök said. “If he likes something, that means it’s perfect. But you’ll never hear him tell you that it’s good.”
I was feeling more confused than ever about what separates an excellent ney from an average one. I told Özkök that I was hoping to clarify this point by talking to Niyazi Sayin myself. “He never ever gives an interview,” he said. “Even if the president comes, he won’t talk about the ney. Catching an interview with Niyazi Sayin would be an accomplishment like walking on the moon.”
Sayin is a wonderful man, a local filmmaker told me, and he could tell me everything I want to know. “Everyone wants to interview him,” she said. But no one succeeds. “Even if the president comes, he won’t talk about the ney,” a ney maker once told me. “Catching an interview with Niyazi Sayin would be an accomplishment like walking on the moon.”
The next maker I met refused to let me even set foot in his workshop. Recently, a film crew from Thailand (or was it Taiwan?) had asked if they could watch him work. Sure, he said. The price of admission is a million dollars. “You have to earn it,” he told me. “I hired my apprentice when he was a high school student, and he did all the grunt work for four or five years—he’d then earned the right to know what goes on inside the workshop.”
This was Mehmet Yucel, a professorial 61-year-old with a dramatic plume of gray-black hair. His storefront in Beşiktaş—a neighborhood covered in the red, white, and black flags of Turkey’s oldest football team, and a quick ferry ride away from Üsküdar—was the most organized, even corporate-looking, of the ney shops I entered. Yucel got his start making instruments when he was 18, mostly string instruments like ouds, tanburs, and kanun. (The first two are varieties of a lute; a kanun is a kind of zither.) He knew how to make a ney, but there wasn’t any call for it. In 1971, he said, there were maybe two or three ney players in his home city of Konya, and they all made their neys themselves.
But in 1993, he said, there was a shift: Suddenly, everyone wanted neys. “The orders increased so exponentially,” he said, “that by the year 2000, I was giving dates from three to six months ahead of time, just for ney. I had to drop everything else to keep up with the ney orders. And I’ve been dealing solely with ney ever since.” He’s assembled a stockpile of 20,000 raw reeds, and he’s buying more every year.
No two ney players gave me the same answer when I asked why the ney suddenly regained popularity. Several pointed out that it’s the least expensive of Turkish classical instruments: You can buy one that’s entirely respectable for just 150 liras, or around $75. (An oud of equivalent quality would cost around $1000.) Sandra Sinsch, a German academic and musician who teaches at the ITU conservatory, pointed out that tourism is a factor: When the state uses the whirling dervish as a symbol of Turkish culture, this points to the ney, intentionally or not. The current Islamist government has fostered a flowering of religiosity, one side effect of which has been a boom in republication of classic Sufi texts, especially the Masnavi. Take a look at the front window of any bookshop in Istanbul, and the Masnavi is likely to have its own display. “I had a lot of customers who said, ‘Our sheikh told us we should play ney, that’s why we’re here,’” Mehmet Yucel told me.
It doesn’t hurt that The Masnavi’s primary ney metaphor—the instrument as an exile, longing for its past—dovetails nicely with the students’ own feelings of longing for their lost Ottoman and Sufi birthrights. “They don’t take ney classes because they like the sound,” the ney player Hakan Alvan told me. “They want more from the ney, they want answers from the ney. I try to tell all my students: You cannot practice Sufism by playing the ney.”
When the taste for neys came surging back at the end of the 20th century, it entered a new Turkey with different financial realities. In centuries past, nearly all players made their own instruments, or were given them by teachers who had usually made them themselves. To sell a ney was virtually unthinkable. Today’s Turkish ney makers are the first generation to even consider making neys as a full-time job. Now that it is, they have to strike an awkward balance: stay true to a tradition whose origins are anti-commercial, even ascetic, and still make a living. [For a fuller treatment of the ney’s history in Turkey and Sufism—please see our sidebar, “How the Ney Came Back.”]
Salih Bilgin tries not to think of it as a business at all. He’s a bald, burly man with a dark mustache and an air of gruff irony; a casting agent might give him a role as a bookie. In actuality, he’s one of the ney’s most soulful players and most respected builders. At his workshop in Üsküdar, Bilgin and his apprentices make all manner of things: prayer beads, calligraphy tools, earrings, machine parts. And neys.
Watch “For a good visual sense of what it takes to play the ney in a sophisticated manner, here is a 45-minute performance of master ney player Kudsi Ergoner”
Bilgin began his lessons with Sayin in 1979, when he was 19. “What we have learned from Hodja is a deep curiosity,” he said. “And we’re still curious. That’s why we taught ourselves how to prune trees. And our latest curiosity is tree grafting.” As with pickling and photography, this flurry of tree-related activity has nothing directly to do with making neys. But according to the Niyazi Sayin school, it all fills the same well of inspiration. “This curiosity can have bad results, as you see from the scar on my cheek,” Bilgin said. He pointed to a thin slash that cut from the corner of his eye to the hinge of his jaw: the result of an unfortunate encounter with a long thorn on a plum tree he was pruning. “But this is not an expression of regret,” he said. “These are battle scars that we’re proud of. We’re soldiers in this holy war.”
He laughed as he recited more injuries—while making those mouthpieces, the baspare, he’s caught his hand in his lathe, he said, at least three or four times. “It couldn’t have happened any other way,” he said. “If I’d stopped when I first caught my hand, I never would have gotten this far. What constitutes a neyzen is the accumulation of these accidents, these incidents—the life itself, with no regrets.”
Bilgin has made a specialty out of baspare, which are typically made from water buffalo horns. The horns arrive in the shop gnarled and bloody and infested with insects, and when you carve them on the lathe, they kick up a powerful barnyard smell. A short while later, they’re as smooth as onyx and shaped like toadstools. Thirty years ago, Bilgin said, there were only two baspare makers in all of Turkey. Now there’s enough demand that multiple craftsman in Istanbul alone have become baspare specialists, with the resources and time to experiment with style.
Bilgin’s front room is a veritable museum of mouthpiece experiments, baspares he’s made from a gorgeous array of materials: brass, cocoa bean, tortoise shell, plexiglass, and every kind of hardwood imaginable. Most were for special orders, but once they were made, Bilgin couldn’t bear to part with them. Bilal Kabat, a former apprentice of Bilgin’s, has taken these experiments in a whole other direction, going so far as to inlay the mouthpieces with translucent white ram’s horn, which allows delightful patterns of light to shine though. “I saw this design in a dream,” he says. “But we were heavily influenced by Niyazi Sayin’s attempts to try new things.”
Sayin’s influence shines through every aspect of Bilgin’s operation. “We learned about the ney just by looking at Niyazi Hodja, because he is the neyzen,” he said. “By how he acts, how he breathes—this is studentship in our understanding. Every move of your teacher is the lesson. It’s all about being with your teacher at all times, even when he’s not around. Allah said, if three of you get together, I will be the fourth. Now we’re sitting here all together, do you think Niyazi Hodja is not here? This is endless education.”
I could see his point, but the more I talked with people like Bilgin who idolized Sayin, the more urgent it seemed that I must meet the great master. Would he live up to their praise? Or would he shrink?
Soon after, in a new university building near a highway that cuts through Üsküdar, I met Cem Behar, a professor of economics and Turkish music history who offered a decidedly grouchier perspective. Behar, who plays the ney himself, acknowledged that Sayin’s influence on playing methods is “central.” But he quickly dismissed his technical contributions. “It’s not a big deal to make a ney,” he said. “Some makers have a better reputation than others because they use good reeds. This kaydirma stuff, it’s minimal. I mean, so what? A good neyzen plays what he hears, so the hole placement is unimportant. The exact tone hole placement is irrelevant. A ney can be out of tune, but the player will put it in tune while playing.”
In order to study with him, Sayin insisted that his students learn another art form unrelated to the ney. One said he never even touched a ney during his first six months of studying with Sayin; they mostly made pickles. Another told me that when he was having trouble playing a particular piece of music, Sayin told him to learn photography.
How can someone tune an instrument while playing? The answer is rooted in the instrument’s central contradiction—complexity within simplicity. While a ney has only seven holes, a skilled player can derive two-and-a-half octaves from it, including the dozens of microtones required in Turkish classical music. To do so, a player has to feel his or her way to the pitch, with some combination of partial hole closures, lip movements, positioning, and so on, much like a cyclist can balance a misaligned bike through unconscious shifts in body weight.
Behar insisted, too, that the spiritual associations of the ney are vastly overemphasized. “After all, it’s an instrument,” he said. “It’s a piece of wood with a number of holes to produce tones. There is a discourse that says, the ney opens the door to the sky’s eye, I communicate with spirits, it’s a godly instrument. And that is bullshit.”
The next day, when I met with the ney player Hakan Alvan, he called into question the entire cult that’s arisen around Sayin. “In my opinion, Niyazi Sayin is the greatest ney player of the last 300 years,” he said. “But in the sense of Sufi maturity, he’s not on the same level as his ney. History should note this. Because his ney performance is so majestic, people naturally expect the same level of majesty from the man himself. But this is an idea of the people around him; he doesn’t make any such claim. If he declared himself a sheikh tomorrow, a thousand people would line up to follow him, no doubt. But he knows what he is, and for that I respect him deeply. I’ll be criticized by quite a lot of people for saying these things, but it’s what needs to be said. The emperor has no clothes.”
I finally found him just by rounding a corner. It happened one afternoon when I met Rifat Varol in an Üsküdar café; after a couple of hours of talking ney and drinking tea in the Turkish style—request chai, receive tiny tulip-shaped glass on red-and-white saucer plus two sugar cubes, repeat until you float away—I suggested we go looking for Sayin.
“Maybe he’s somewhere near here,” Varol said. “We can check.” I didn’t expect much. As we stepped outside, I lit a cigarette (Istanbul was a bad influence.) But when we turned onto the nearest side street, I immediately threw it down and crushed it underfoot. All I could do was gape: There, on a cobblestone alleyway lined with little tea tables, was the great Niyazi Sayin, deep in a game of backgammon.
If you didn’t know who he was, you’d take him for just another retired Turk—a big old man balanced on a small wooden stool. Sayin had a bushy white mustache and a long, complicated nose, and in his right hand he clutched a string of white prayer beads. He looked like he was having great fun.
His opponent was his best friend, a middle-aged shopkeeper with a dark mustache named Moharem. A couple of other friends stood by cracking jokes. We waited for the game to finish while the midafternoon call to prayer roared from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque.
“He’s one of the best backgammon players in Üsküdar,” my translator murmured, as we watched in careful silence.
Sayin caught the comment and smiled like a crocodile. “They’re trying to beat me by cheating, but they can’t,” he said. He had none of the aura of a genius or guru. On the backstreets of Üsküdar, he was one of countless pensioners living the life, cracking wise and killing time.
As Sayin spoke, he had none of the aura of a genius or guru. On the backstreets of Üsküdar, he was one of countless pensioners living the life, cracking wise and killing time.
As the game poked along, Varol showed around a photo on his phone of Sayin’s car: a blue 1989 Caprice Classic.
“I can rent it to you for your wedding,” Sayin offered.
“I’m already married,” Varol said. “If I take a second wife I’ll use it.”
“If you have one wife, you’re in hell,” Sayin said. “If you take a second wife, you’re in the bottom of hell.”
Varol asked Sayin if he’d be willing to meet me for an interview. Sayin gave me a kind glance and flatly refused. Moharem invited me to sit. “When he’s focused on backgammon, he doesn’t want to see anybody, not even his children,” Moharem said.
We watched another game. Sayin barely noticed us, so we wandered off. “You just saw the best ney player in Turkey,” my translator said. “That’s kismet.” No it isn’t, I thought: that’s a Mullah Nasreddin joke.
My time in Turkey was dwindling. The fasting month of Ramadan was upon us, and Istanbul was a city partly transformed. In a secular neighborhood like Cihangir, you’d never know anything had changed—from morning to night, the outdoor café life crowded every avenue, just as it did during any other summer month. In religious neighborhoods, like Fatih, the day flipped. From dawn to sunset, all teashops were shuttered, and almost no one could be seen eating, drinking, or smoking. But after dark, the sidewalk cafés were open all night long, the streets filled with cigarette haze and lively talk.
Üsküdar was somewhere in between—some observing, some not. Whenever I turned on the TV in the hour before the fast break, I’d see Rifat Varol, playing the ney at the base of Maiden’s Tower on a tiny island just off the coast of Üsküdar as part of a daily Ramadan program on state TV. (“In the month of Ramadan, all day long you imagine the sound of the ney,” Varol told me.)
Before leaving Turkey, I made a habit of dropping by the Üsküdar side street where I’d met Niyazi Sayin, but he was never there. One day I stopped to chat with his best friend, Moharem. He, too, politely declined my request to interview him—he knew it would go against Sayin’s wishes. “He doesn’t trust anyone anymore,” he said. But he invited me into his shop to look around. It was a cramped space, more corridor than storefront, and in true Niyazi Sayin style, it’s devoted to the sale of two things that seem utterly unrelated: vacuum-cleaner parts and live canaries.
Like a man possessed, I kept on meeting ney makers—sometimes late at night, after they’d had a chance to break their fasts. As I watched them at work, I noticed many little variations in the way they went about building. Rifat Varol preps his reeds in a steam boiler, a technique he picked up by watching furniture makers on YouTube, and straightens his reeds with a weird little platform of his own devising. I saw several variations on the homemade bore-expanding tool that Özkök showed me.
One Ramadan night, I met with Sadreddin Özçimi—perhaps the greatest neyzen who’s currently playing—at Âsaf Osman Efendi, a new teashop in Üsküdar that’s quickly become a popular hangout for Turkish classical musicians. Özçimi’s reputation for breath control and stamina on the ney is legendary, which is all the more remarkable given that he’s a chain smoker. After watching Özçimi make a ney, we headed back to the café with a percussionist named Enis, who’d become my guide through the world of Turkish classical music. Everyone planned to stay up all night until the fast started again.
“Just think,” Özçimi said, “Niyazi Hodja lives only 300 meters from here.”
“We’re flying close to the sun,” Enis said.
By August, I’d given up hope of ever sitting down with Sayin. Then one day Enis hatched a plan. His father happened to be friends with Sayin, and Sayin happened to be addicted to grilled meat: We’d lure him into our company by throwing a kebab party. Enis’s father vetoed the idea, but we did get Sayin’s phone number. Three days before it was time for me to leave Istanbul, I asked Enis to make one last try. He called back a few hours later. By then I had already braced myself for the inevitable disappointment. Instead, he asked me a question: “How much do you love me?” Apparently, Enis had caught Sayin in a good mood. He was expecting us at his apartment that very afternoon, at 4 p.m.
Every wall of Sayin’s apartment was obscured by piles of things: the treasures and hoardings from a lifetime of randomly assorted vocations. Hundreds of antiquarian books lined the walls, and everywhere were framed photos of old Sufi musicians and priceless specimens of Islamic calligraphy. Near the ceiling, several cages with small birds. Stacks of audio-visual gear. Thousands of CDs, cassettes, LPs, 45s, 78s. A box of medications. An old brown fez.
Armed with half a kilo of baklava, we found his featureless apartment building halfway up a small hill, not far from the Üsküdar shore. As we huffed our way up to the fourth floor, the stairs were cluttered with an increasing number of flowering plants. “They’re all his,” Enis said. The door was open; Sayin greeted us in a striped shirt and a big blue pair of shorts and invited us in. He breathed noisily, as if he were blowing into a flute with every exhale.
I couldn’t tell you what his apartment actually looked like, or even the color of the walls. Every architectural detail was obscured by piles of things: the treasures and hoardings from a lifetime of randomly assorted vocations. Hundreds of antiquarian books lined the walls, most of them related to Sufism, and everywhere were framed photos of old Sufi musicians and priceless specimens of Islamic calligraphy. There was so much stuff in the room that it took a while to digest it all. Near the ceiling, several cages with small birds. Stacks of audio-visual gear. Thousands of CDs, cassettes, LPs, 45s, 78s. A box of medications. An old brown fez. Sayin plopped down on a couch piled with books, next to which stood a tall glass case full of old cameras that had a couple of neys casually leaning against it. He produced a glass bottle and sprinkled massive amounts of lavender cologne in our palms, which we rubbed over our forearms and heads.
Smelling good, we were ready to talk. I saw that his terrace housed several small lathes. “I used to make prayer beads,” he explained, “but not for a long time. Now I cook. The household chores are now my art.” He excused himself to fetch some refreshments and came back with a homemade bottle of milky red juice. “This is kizilgik,” he said, and it was fantastically complex and delicious. He listed the ingredients: cornelian cherry, cinnamon, honey, lemon, ginger, thyme.
We chatted about American cars, his bird collection (mostly goldfinches—he’s got 50 of them) and the weather. Then Enis explained the reason for my visit. While he spoke, a brown street pigeon walked into the room, looking more curious than lost, and disappeared behind a chair. But I hardly noticed. Niyazi Sayin was ready to talk to me about the ney.
He started by debunking his own mythology. He wasn’t the one who invented the sound chamber for the baspare. Furthermore, he doesn’t think it does any good. (And he didn’t play soccer professionally—he only played for the youth league of a pro team.) He bemoaned the scarcity of good reeds, and of smart ney makers who know what to do with them. He described a lost technique for drying out reeds by burying them in horse manure. “There’s no end to this business,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement if you work hard enough. The ney is a primitive instrument, and it always comes down to chance.”
This was a surprise: Here was the great master, belittling his own instrument. What he meant, it seemed, is that a particular ney matters less than what the player does with it. “The blowing style, the fingerings, the tilt of the head, the lip movements—they’re all very important,” he said. Looking for the closest utensil with which to demonstrate his point, he unscrewed the cap of a lime cologne bottle and brought it to his mouth, blowing into it like a baspare. His hands trembled, but a clear flute tone emerged. Then he tilted his head slightly and blew again, and the note came slightly sharper.
I asked him about kaydirma, his highly acclaimed approach to measuring holes. “It’s both difficult and easy to make a ney,” he said. “When you divide the reed into equal parts—for example, three centimeters between each hole—it should function how we want it to, but it doesn’t. We don’t know why.” Kaydirma, it seems, was never meant to be a foolproof guide; it’s just a helpful nudge in the in the right direction for an instrument that’s inherently non-standardized.
It occurred to me that kaydirma had been merely a MacGuffin in my quest to understand the ney. It was my own misunderstanding that placed so much importance on it. Cem Behar was right: kaydirma is small potatoes. It does matter, but only in concert with a whole arsenal of minor techniques. To make an exceptional ney doesn’t rely on any one of them over another—it depends on a whole paradigm of tinkering. Sayin’s significance as a ney maker is that he fostered an unusual culture of experimentation—one that revered tradition, while at the same time always testing its frontiers. Sayin’s disciples revere him because his restless and omnivorous curiosity, more than his specific discoveries, revitalized the instrument at exactly the moment when the Turkish cultural revolution threatened to kill it off. His genius is to have fully seized the wonderful paradox at the heart of Turkish classical music: It’s a highly delineated tradition that thrives on openness to improvisation and innovation. (One of Salih Bilgin’s students deep-fried a ney in sunflower seed oil: the ney turned almost black, and its tone was reportedly improved.) Anything’s game, as long as the result is sublime sound.
Enis had his own theory: Precisely because the ney is such a simple instrument, made from such humble materials, the makers perhaps feel the need to complicate the process in order to live up to the tremendous depth and mystery of the music it produces. Over the course of our months among the ney makers of Istanbul, we listened to endless conversations debating the tiniest details of hole placements, tools, intonation. “But there’s such a narrow range of what you can actually do,” Enis said. “It’s like trying to find corners in a circle: It’s not gonna happen. But when you stop trying, then you stop improving.”
I’d been assured by Sayin’s many fans that his days of playing and making neys were long behind him. His hands now trembled too much to be able to do either. We’d been talking for two hours when Sayin mentioned some recent experiments he’d been making with embouchure, which is how a player positions the lips. Sayin had been studying photographs of his teacher’s teacher, the great neyzen Emin Dede, and noticed that he seemed to mouth the baspare in an unusual way, covering the top of the mouthpiece with his upper lip. “Last week I realized that that’s how Emin Dede played,” he said, excited at the discovery. “That way you get sharp sounds better, much better than the other way.”
To my surprise, he reached for a ney to demonstrate, and blew two clear notes: one with the old embouchure, one with the new. To my ears they sounded the same. Sayin furrowed his brow; he clearly wasn’t getting the sound he was looking for. He tried a few more times, then shrugged. “I need to work on it,” he said. “And I will.”