An Introduction to Kurdish Folk Music
“No friends but the mountains” – Kurdish Proverb
Kurdistan is the world’s largest stateless nation with a population of roughly 40 million ethnic Kurds living in a mostly mountainous region stretching nearly 75,000 square miles across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds speak several dialects of Kurdish, an Indo-Iranian language and have lived in the region of Kurdistan for thousands of years. Western allies included a plan for an independent Kurdistan as they partitioned the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Under pressure from the Turks and a general lack of understanding of the region, this was scrapped at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The Kurds have fought for their culture and identity ever since.
The Kurds have endured a great deal of discrimination with bans on their language, dress and music as well as decades of genocide and ethnic cleansing which are still actively ongoing today. Notably, when the Kurdish Peshmerga took up arms against Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, the dictator responded by bombing the Kurdish village of Halabja with chemical weapons, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians and injuring upwards of 10,000. More recently, Kurdish forces PKK, YPG and YPJ have been on the front lines in the battle against ISIS despite wavering support from the U.S. and the West.
It is worth noting that the Kurds are unique in the broader Middle East when it comes to equal rights and it was the YPJ (Women’s Defense Units) that coined the rallying cry “JIN, JIYAN, AZADÎ” meaning “Women, Life, Freedom” which has since been taken up by women’s rights movements, notably in Iran.
The most common themes in Kurdish folk music, in my estimation, are love, exile and resistance. Historically, the Dengbêj were, and still are, bards who recount local history and ancestral stories through song and storytelling. The human voice may be considered the most important musical instrument in traditional Kurdish music and illegal cassettes and CDs of singers found their way all over Kurdistan despite decades of government censorship. While there is no formal modal system, Kurdish music shares many elements with the Persian Dastgah as well as Ottoman and Arabic Makam modal systems with heavy use of partial flat microtones. Both vocal and instrumental ornamentation are heavily melismatic, wherein the primary note wavers over several notes. Dance rhythms have much in common with neighboring cultures with a number of syncopated 4/4 as well as dances in 9/8 (2223) and the 10/8 (3223) curcuna rhythm which is shared by Kurds, Armenians and Turks.
The Kurds employ traditional instruments typical of the region like the oud, various fiddles, as well as modern instruments like guitar and keyboard. That said, there are a large body of traditional Kurdish instruments that are still very popular across Kurdistan, often adding a strong statement of “Kurdishness” when employed in more modern settings. Kurdish percussion has roots in both ritual and folk traditions and the specifically Kurdish Daf is a mainstay. The Daf is a large frame drum with numerous rings inside. Other principal percussion instruments include the Darbuka (goblet drum aka Doumbek) and Dahol (large drum played with mallet & switch, aka Tupan and Davul) common across most of the eastern Mediterranean. Traditional wind instruments include the Blûr, an end blown shepherds flute (aka Kaval); the soft double reeded Mey (akin to the Armenian Duduk); and the loud double reeded Zurna common from the European Balkans in the west all the way to China in the east. Primary string instruments include the Tembûr, a short neck 2 course lute played primarily in eastern, Iranian Kurdistan with a unique upwards finger strumming technique; the Buzuq, a long neck 3 course lute played primarily in western, Syrian Kurdistan; and long necked 3 course Saz played primarily in northern, Turkish Kurdistan.
So, let’s give a listen…
Hassan Zirak – Gawhare
Hassan Zirak (1921 – 1972) was a singer songwriter from Iranian (West Azerbaijan) Kurdistan, known for his sensual lyrics.
Koma Dengê Azadî – Roj Wê Bê
Koma Dengê Azadî (Voice of Liberty) were among the first Kurdish bands to interpret Kurdish traditional music as a more modern “folk” music. Koma Dengê Azadî “Roj wê bê translates as “The Day will Come.”
Ciwan Haco – Zingil
I think of Ciwan as “The Leonard Cohen of Kurdistan.” An exiled singer songwriter and Saz player who writes almost exclusively about love and peace. Ciwan’s recordings were banned in Syria, Iraq, Iran and his native Turkey for a quarter century. On the one hand, he lives an anonymous quiet existence in a small town in Sweden and on the other hand, he is beloved by tens of millions of Kurds worldwide.
His song Zingil (The Bell) is something of an anthem.
The bell rang again and again. The voice of my country’s pain gripped the world and did not let go.
A film The Road to Diyarbekir was made about Ciwan Haco. Here is the intro to the film on the films production website:
Legendary Kurdish musician Ciwan Haco lives a double-life. An exile, eking out an existence in the small Swedish village of Gävle, he lives with his wife and children. In Gävle he is just another asylum seeker in the cold, snowy landscape. Not many people know that he is a superstar and folk hero among Kurds all over the world.
Blacklisted by the Turkish government for decades, Ciwan’s dream finally comes true. He is invited to give a concert in Diyarbekir the symbolic home for Kurds. In Diyarbekir, news of his arrival has spread and over one million people line the streets and pack the concert grounds awaiting the appearance of their great bard.
Not just a portrait of an artist, the film touches existential questions about home, strife and a refugee’s search for identity in a foreign land.
Aynur Doğan – Dar Hejîrokê
Aynur Doğan was my introduction to Kurdish music with her 2004 album Keçe Kurdan which is still in ongoing rotation. Dar Hejîrokê translates as The Fig Tree:
“You are the fig tree of the mountains. You take on our sorrow.”
I include both the flawless studio version plus a live version of this popular traditional folk song in 10/8 (3223) in which Aynur has the audience sing back “the tricky part” where the rhythmic pattern changes for a measure. Aynur fled Turkey due to ongoing death threats from right wing extremists and while she occasionally gives concerts in Turkey, the government often cancels these, last minute; a common form of harassment against Kurds and other minorities. To read more about the canceling of concerts, click here.
Danûk – Wer Wer
Contemporary Kurdish band Danûk. Initially based in Istanbul after fleeing the Syrian Civil War and now living in exile across Europe where they played the WOMAD festival in October of this year. See FolkWorks profile and review of Danûk’s new recording.
Şivan Perwer – Delale
Şivan Perwer is a popular singer and Saz player from Turkish Kurdstan. He fled to Germany in 1976. His illegal cassettes and CDs remain popular with the PKK (The Kurdish Worker’s Party) and the broader independence movement across Kurdistan. In his popular song Delale:
In the streets of a city in Europe, I met a Kurdish girl, abandoned and homeless.
Şivan Perwer – Cross Culture Festival
Wonderful live performance with Şivan and dynamic ensemble, playing a variety of his classics.
Cemil Qoçgiri – Ezî Tîme
Born of Kurdish Alevi (Sufi) parents in Germany. Cemil is a master of the Kurdish Tembûr and a wonderful singer.
Dîlan Top with Cemil Qoçgiri – Malan Barkir
Dîlan Top was born in Dêrsim in Turkish Kurdistan living in Germany and an emerging talent in contemporary Kurdish music. Dîlan is an accomplished Tembûr player and an especially sensitive singer of traditional songs. Accompanied here by Cemil Qoçgiri.
Issa Hassan – Rast Taksim
Issa’s family fled Turkish Kurdistan in the 1940s and settled in the comparative safety of Beirut, Lebanon where he grew up becoming a virtuoso on the Buzuq. Issa is better known for his very modern “world music” compositions although he did record a magnificent album of traditional Kurdish melodies in 2007; Kurdomania: Dîlana Kurdî. Here he plays an unaccompanied taksim (unmetered improvisation) in the makam/mode Rast which is essentially an untempered major/mixolydian scale with a partially flat 3rd and 7th.
Fatê – Husna
Another fantastic singer from Turkey who incorporates strong elements of rock music in her arrangements of some of the most traditional of Kurdish folk songs.
Sasa – Ero Bêzar
Contemporary Kurdish folk singer from Turkey. A poignant song, sparsely backed up by traditional Tenbûr and acoustic guitar with very modern chord voicings.
Nishtiman – Urmiye Urmiye
Ensemble Nishtiman combines seven Kurdish musicians from Iraq, Iran and Turkey in a powerhouse ensemble. How one family preserves the art of traditional Kurdish music in Tennessee.
How one family preserves the art of traditional Kurdish Music in Tennessee
Local Tennessee television station profile of an Iraqi Kurdish saz player in Nashville, home to the largest Kurdish community in the U.S.
Hope through music: Iraq’s Kurdish region holds first musical festival
Al-Jazeera profile on the first music festival held in Iraqi Kurdistan to promote unity and peace and with a focus on traditional music.
The film centers around YPJ commander Zohra in the defense of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobanê being besieged by ISIS and betrayal by the Turkish government. Based on true events.
Girls of the Sun – Trailer (full film on Amazon Prime or rent on YouTube)
Fictionalized story rooted in historic events: Girls of the Sun follows YPJ commander Bahar as she leads a unit of female militia comprised of former ISIS slaves accompanied by a French journalist.
The End Will Be Spectacular – Ji Bo Azadiye
Based on the true story of the Turkish government siege of the southern Turkish, Kurdish city of Diyabakir. The story follows student Zilan who returns home after her brother is killed by Turkish forces and joins the catastrophic struggle.
Pat Mac Swyney is a Los Angeles based musician who plays Traditional Jazz with The SWING RIOTS Quirktette; Balkan with NEVENKA and Orkestar PEČURKA; Old-Time with SAUSAGE GRINDER; and Irish+ with The DIRTY MICKEYS.