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  • UNESCO Collection Week 27: Deeply Emotive Music of Turkey and Hong Kong

    This week, we celebrate Turkey’s Republic Day (October 29) with the UNESCO album Turkey: Bektashi Music – Ashik Songs. Hong Kong: Instrumental Music complements the emotional lyrical content found on Ashik Songs with expressiveness through instruments rather than the human voice.


    by Keith Hadad

    Both Turkey: Bektashi Music – Ashik Songs and Hong Kong: Instrumental Music are collections of deeply emotive songs. Even though the history and cultures of Hong Kong and Turkey are inherently different, these recordings indicate that both countries find great expression through music.

    Turkey: Bektashi Music – Ashik Songs
    Turkey: Bektashi Music – Ashik Songs is comprised of recordings by wandering musical poets of the Bektashi, a specific and secretive sect of Sufism, called the ashik (or The Lovers). The ashik perform with a saz, a lute with varying sizes, number of strings, and varieties of tunings. The use of the saz within the songs of the ashik is secondary to the lyrics, which—according to the liner notes—are the most important aspect of their music. Instead, the melody that is strummed and nimbly plucked is purely used to sustain the words, punctuate certain phrases, and even weave connections from one line to another.  

    Traditionally, each nefe (song) is completely improvised in each performance. As commentators Bernard Mauguin and Kudsi Erguner state in the liner notes: “the themes of the nefes are always related to the ephemeral world, eternity, the love of God, submission to the divine order, love for the family of the Prophet, abandonment of all pretension and vanity, and the acquiring of patience, gratitude and faithfulness.” Both the themes and the improvisational construction come across through each song even if the listener does not understand the language. One can easily hear the intense focus in the ashik’s vocal tone. His near trance-like singing is further revealed by the unpredictable, intricate strumming on the saz.

    Hong Kong: Instrumental Music
    Hong Kong: Instrumental Music is a compilation of both traditional and contemporary compositions. These compositions feature solo instrumentalists or small ensembles, which as annotator Dale A. Craig attests, are more characteristic of this type of music than the larger orchestras found around the modern world. Only eight instruments are featured: the p’i-p’a (lute), ch’in (seven stringed zither), yang-ch’in (butterfly zither), êrh-hu (two-stringed violin), shêng (mouth organ), chêng (harp-like zither), and two types of flutes (hsiao and ti). The emphasis in each composition is on the melody, which is used to tell tales, paint a vivid picture of a scene, and create a distinctive mood.

    These instrumentals are striking, poignant examples of composers creating music as a mode of expression. For example, “I Ku Jèn” (Thinking of an old friend) wordlessly describes the mournful feeling of missing a displaced loved one. The entire seven and a half minutes of the track just ache in melancholy tones that shuffle at a slow, woeful pace all with a glassy, wet texture, bringing to mind rain pattering upon a windowpane. Or, as the album’s booklet describes: “it expresses how one misses one’s old friends when one is alone. The sorrow should be deep, but gentle.”

    Similarly, the ashik express deep emotions through their nefes. For example, the lyrics of “Yolumuz Gurbete Dusdu” are about the depressed and painful feeling the singer experiences over the loss of a better time in his life. The words of the song translate: “Our way lies through the land of nostalgia. There the heart sighs, full of unhappiness. Faced with this separation, it weeps; full of anxiety…My heart weeps for melancholy.”1 The ashik expresses the feelings and thoughts passing through his mind as he improvises, allowing the music to be his form of expression. Much like “I Ku Jèn,” the song perfectly communicates the emotion of the writer to the audience.

    Though Hong Kong and Turkey are separated by nearly 4,500 miles of land, these albums show that musicians from each location can create songs equally expressionistic, artistic, and reflective of the composer. When one considers this fact, it can make the earth feel just a little bit smaller.

    Keith Hadad is a young writer located in North New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Elmore Magazine, Optical Sounds Magazine and He also maintains a music blog at

    1 Kudsi Erguner, liner notes to Turkey: Bektashi Music- Ashik Songs, UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1996, compact disc

    UNESCO Collection Week 27: Deeply Emotive Music of Turkey and Hong Kong | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings