Turkish and Greek folk songs of the late Ottoman era: Popular culture and intercommunal relations through musical collections

Author: Evangelia Chaldæaki

12 April 2023

As it is widely known, various musical genres emerged during the whole timespan of the Ottoman Empire, around the city centers and at the countryside areas. These genres were connected to the several ethno-religious groups of the Ottoman Empire’s population, as well as to the different aspects of their living, like daily life, religion, etc. Of course, one of these musical genres was folk music.

In my years of studying around history, social life, civilization and music of the Ottoman Empire, I noticed that the researches and writings around religious and secular music of the Empire, meaning of all the ethno-religious groups that consisted it, are plenty enough and growing further. However, the information I could find on folk music, and popular culture in general, were not enough. This drew a special interest on me, since I gained my master in Folklore Studies and I am occupied around Greek folk music. I was beginning to wonder: what was the folk music that amused the common people of the Ottoman Empire, and accompanied them in every aspect of their life, celebration, daily life, sadness, amusement, etc.? And where could I distract more information around that?

So, I started rooting around the plenty musical collections that were published by Greek Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire, meaning Rums, during its late era, namely from the middle of the 19th century and after. These publications are written in Byzantine notation, in Greek and Karamanlidika (the Turkish language written with the Greek alphabet) and they mostly concern Ottoman Turkish music, but also Greek Ecclesiastical music and Greek secular music (mainly compositions of Phanariots). Between all these versatile musical transcriptions, I noticed that some Greek and Turkish folk songs were documented. After that I thought: did the Ottoman Turkish musicians transcribe folk music as well? By reading some of the Turkish collections created at the same time period, meaning the several mecmua, anthologies in Ottoman Turkish language, I found out that Ottoman Turkish musicians had also documented Turkish folk songs. All these introductory thoughts and research lead me in deciding to engage in my doctoral studies, which ended up with a dissertation thesis entitled “Folk music in Turkish and Greek musical collections of the late Ottoman era: Popular culture and intercommunal relations”.

Mani in Haşim Bey’s Mecmua-i Kârhâ ve Nakışhâ ve Şarkiyât (1864)

The main goal of this research was firstly to create a musical corpus of the Turkish and Greek folk songs of the late Ottoman era, by detecting them in the appropriate Turkish and Greek musical collections. A task challenging enough by itself, since in most cases these songs and instrumental pieces are not highlighted as folk… The material under examination, meaning the Turkish and Greek folk songs, was drawn from a wealth of musical collections. These were four Turkish collections, twenty Greek collections and two collections in Karamanlidika. In some of these cases the songs are entitled as mani, koşma, köçekçe, etc. (genres of Turkish folk music) in the Turkish collections, whereas in the Greek collections we find titles as μανέδες (manedes), σαρκή δαγιή (şarkı dağı) for the Turkish folk songs, and periphrastic titles for the respective Greek songs, such as Χορός τον οποίον χορεύουσι τα κοράσια της Ηπείρου (A dance that is performed by Epirus girls), Εις νεόνυμφους (For the newlyweds), and in rare cases we find local definitions for the songs, like Της νήσου Σίφνου (From the island of Sifnos). Generally, components for the origin of the songs, or the method that were documented, are not noted.

Greek folk song in Theodoros Fokaefs’s Pandora (1843)

Clearly, the motives and methods that the collections’ editors used to transcribe folk music, coincide with the procedures of Folklore Studies, but of course are not the same. That is why my supervisor and myself came up with the concept of ‘Primary Folklore’ to describe this phenomenon. In particular, the fact that the songs are not separated as folk genres in these collections, but also the absence of reference to discrete elements of this genre, like origin, conditions of performance, etc., generated appropriate conclusions but questions as well. Of course, Folklore Studies were not yet established in these regions and the collections’ editors were not familiar with the ethnographic methods. However, in the case of Ioannis Zografos Keivelis (19th century), we found out that he published an announcement asking from any person in interest to send him transcriptions of folk songs from various regions of the Ottoman Empire. Similar to these methods was also the procedure of Konstantinos A. Psachos (1869-1949), who marked the origin of the folk songs that he transcribed, but not in every case of them.

So, the purpose of this research was also to understand why the editors of the collections under examination transcribed folk music to begin with, and in fact by not separating it from the secular music that the collections contained as well. Why the interest towards the popular culture grew up at that certain time period? Was this trend common for the two ethno-religious groups of the Empire, meaning the Greek Orthodox Christians and the Muslims? What was the editors’ perception of popular culture, if there was any.

All in all, this research tries as well to showcase how musical collections can be utilized in shaping the social image of the Ottoman Empire. Primarily, it should be noted that the engagement with popular culture during the late Ottoman era is directly connected to the political and social trends of that period. Since the 19th century, the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire started rebelling with ethnic uprisings, following the European currents of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. At the same time, the Ottoman administration tried to bring out the Ottoman identity at first, which would include the whole of the Empire’s population, later on the Turkish identity, that concerned the Turkish speaking Muslims.

The elaboration of the ethnic identity can clearly be cultivated through the dissemination of folk music, both for the cases of Rum and Greeks and the one of the Ottoman Turkish people. With that in mind, songs found in the examined collections with clear ethnic signs are of special interest, like «της Βλάχας» (“Song for a female Vlach”) in the anthology Terpsichori, «Αλβανικός χορός της Ηπείρου» (“Albanian dance from Epirus”) in Keivelis’s musical collection, «Σερβικός χορός» (“Serbian dance”) in Psachos’s Music Journal, but also songs that are directly related to the Greek Revolution, like «του Μάρκου Μπότσαρη» (“Song for Markos Botsaris”), «Θοδωρή Κολοκοτρώνη» (“Song for Thodoris Kolokotronis”), and more like these in Terpsichori. Except from the definitions that folk music carries, the reason why it is utilized in means of elaborating the national identity is because this musical genre addresses to all the social sections and not only to some elite that have received musical education and employed lettered language. For the same reason, during the late Ottoman era musical theoretical and notational systems were simplified, so that these could be widely apprehensible and spreadable. The technology of music typography contributed also to a larger dissemination of music.

Some more deductions that this research tried to bring out concern the fact that since the Rums wrote down Ottoman Turkish music, how could this fact lead to assumptions on what degree intercommunal relations between the Rums and the Ottoman Muslims were developed. How can their communication be designated from their musical collections?

Turkish folk song in the Karamanlidika collection Σον βε Νατιτέ Σαρκηλάρ Μετζμουασή (Son ve Nadide Şarkılar Mecmuası) (1891)

Consequently, the data collected for this research designate that the transcriptions of Turkish songs in the Greek collections, with a reference now to both the folk and secular musical repertory, are more than the transcriptions of Greek songs. However, the most prominent conclusion that was drawn is the fact that many of the Turkish songs are repeated through the Greek musical collections, as well as through the anthologies in Greek and in Karamanlidika. An equivalent phenomenon was noticed also for the specific case of Turkish folk songs.

Furthermore, the transcriptions of Ottoman Turkish music in the Greek musical collections of the late Ottoman era concern compositions of Ottoman Muslim musicians current to the age of the collections’ editors. This of course shows that the Rum musicians were in communication with the Ottoman Turkish musicians and were directly informed of the relative musical material. Surely, in the cases of collections like Efterpi, Pandora, the editions of Keivelis and Armonia, it was noticed that many of the transcribed Turkish songs were common among all of these five publications. It is most likely that the editors draw this common musical material from the former publications, or that they were informed around that from the Rum musicians.

In particular, a certain hypothesis is expressed here, that a specific musical repertory of Ottoman Turkish music existed around the circle of Rum musicians, a repertory that was shared and performed among them. In this case, the intercommunal relations with the Muslim musicians would not be frequent. On the other hand, in each one of the musical collections we find songs and instrumental pieces added to that common ones, and not documented in the other collections. These new pieces are attributed to musicians contemporary to the age of the collections’ editors. These data lead to the conclusion that the particular repertory was popular at that time period among the Ottoman Muslim musicians, from whom the Rum musicians heard it directly and they repeated and spread it among them. Besides, this is verified in the prefaces of the Greek musical collections, where the apprenticeship around Ottoman Muslim musicians is clearly stated.

Lastly, a dedicated issue that emerges from this research are the musical transcriptions themselves. Since the Greek collections are the only ones that contain musical transcriptions, the majority of them are in Byzantine notation. For the case of the Turkish folk songs two transnotations were prepared during this research, from the Byzantine notation to the staff notation. Through these transnotations relevant comments arose, that assisted the field of comparison of the two categories of musical collections that were examined, Turkish and Greek. I should note that this is the subject of my current postdoctoral research, meaning the transnotations of Turkish, as well as Greek, folk songs found in Greek musical collection, from the Byzantine to the staff notation.

Comparison on the transcriptions and transnotation for the Turkish folk song “Ateşim yanmadan tütünüm tüter”

Citation: Evangelia Chaldæaki, Turkish and Greek folk songs of the late Ottoman era: Popular culture and intercommunal relations through musical collections, Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 12 April 2023, https://www.oiist.org/evangelia/


Ottoman Empire; Turkey; Greece; 19th/20th centuries; research project; musical collections; Greek folk songs; Turkish folk songs; intercommunal relations; OII-MUSIC