Kurdish singers follow in the footsteps of dengbej-singing ancestors

When you grow up with dengbej, as is the case with all Kurds who were born and raised on their ancestral lands, it will be part of you for the rest of your life. For Kurdish singers, that is even more the case.

Acclaimed Kurdish singers Şivan Perwer and Mem Ararat talked to Ahval about the influence the old Kurdish story-telling tradition has had on their art. Even when life took them far from where their cradle stood, it is the dengbej tradition that they continued to build on.

No wonder the pair has gotten behind a recently launched campaign get dengbej on the UNESCO intangible heritage list.

“As a child, when a dengbej singer started a song, it was for me like a film was starting. I could picture it before my eyes, the mountains, the river, the fighting or the love,” Perwer explains.

The UNESCO campaign was started by opera singer Pervin Çakar, another child of Kurdistan who performs all over Europe nowadays.

“Dengbej is one of the oldest cultures in Mesopotamia. Without the dengbej singers, maybe Kurdish culture would have vanished,” she says.

So far, she has launched a signature campaign, but there’s more in store

“I want to cooperate with music and cultural institutions to make this happen,” she notes.

Perwer, hands down the world’s most famous Kurdish singer of our time, grew up in a village in Sanliurfa province in the southeast of Turkey in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Kurdish was the main language at home, he explained over the phone from Germany, where he is recording new songs. Perwer’s father was a laudable shepherd flute player and dengbej singer, so the sound of songs and the stories were always a part of his life.

“Kurds have always lived with betrayal, with an occupation, with sad feelings and helplessness. You try to cry but what emerges are songs,” Perwer says while speaking of the sessions taking up to four, five hours.

He described the old, pre-Islamic art that symbolises of the strong oral tradition in Kurdish culture, as a form of crying.

Ararat, who spent the first years of his life in a town in Mardin province in southeast Turkey and is now a popular singer explains dengbej as “one of the most important carriers of Kurdish memory, maybe the most important’’.

“Dengbej is like an enormous memory. For example, I heard about ‘Mem û Zîn’, the immortal work of Ahmedê Xanî, for the first time in a dengbej song. Also the story of Şêx Sêîd I heard for the first time from dengbej singers,” Ararat wrote in an e-mail.

Mem û Zîn is often described as the Romeo and Juliet of Kurdish culture, written by 17th-century poet Ahmedê Xanî. Şêx Sêîd was the leader of a Kurdish uprising in 1925, two years after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, the uprising failed and Şêx Sêîd was hanged in Diyarbakir.


National ideology

Perwer did not always have a love affair with the art form.

He came to hate dengbej when he grew older, he admitted. It was the political dynamic that surrounded it that made him want to stay away from it.

“For my father, dengbej was a hobby, but I saw that the professional singers were working under the order of their feudal leader. And if you sang in Turkish or even in Arabic, the government would give you money. I started to have patriotic friends; they talked about Kurdistan and about resisting feudal culture. Dengbej for me became something of the past,’’ the Kurdish singer said.

The young Perwer, drawn into a revival of Kurdish consciousness that emerged in the 1970s, decided that he wanted to sing about freedom and Kurdish national ideology, about modern times. Only later did he realise that it was wrong to denounce dengbej for the social and political situation it had existed in.

“Dengbej is actually part of the richness of Kurdish culture that we need to cherish and preserve,” he explained.

He noticed later on that he couldn’t escape dengbej in his music.

“I never wanted to be a dengbej singer, but it has, of course, influenced my music. I follow in the footsteps of the dengbej singers of my youth and take their heritage to modern times,” Perwer says.

“I have lived in many places in the world, I have travelled so I am widely influenced by other cultures and musical traditions, also by Mozart and Beethoven. That was different for dengbej singers, who had seen smaller parts of the world. So our songs are part of the culture or cultures we live in,” he adds.


Barking dogs

Ararat, born in 1981, described vividly his family returning to the village in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin, after they had migrated to the west of Turkey when Mem was merely seven, eight years old.

“It was in I think November 1991 and we were on the way in a lorry. Some seasonal workers were travelling with us and we dropped them at their village. It was late in the evening, we were standing next to a mud-brick house and the driver played a cassette. A dengbej started. That song reverberated in my mind. I would swear it wasn’t coming from a tape but from the earth and the stones,’’ he recalls.

The rain from the day before had left the smell of freshness in the soil. The sound of dogs barking of as though they had gone mad was rising from the village and the chirping of night birds that plunged into these sounds came shooting like a spear from a magical eastern fairy tale,’’ he adds.

Twenty-eight years have passed since, but he still recalls the words of the song.

Dengbej is apparently connected to strong memories, as Perwer too never forgot a certain sound. As he sang some lines that he remembered from decades ago, he suddenly made a wooshing sound, like the wind, very softly and then louder, only to fade away again.

“My mother had a great voice and she would sing to me, Lori lori, delale lori, and I would fall asleep. Her sound and her tone of voice were like the wind. That sound, I use it in my songs sometimes,’’ Perwer says.

Although dengbej is mainly sung by men, there have always been female dengbej singers as well.

“The sound of my mother’s lamentations is still in my ears. But she would only sing them to herself,” Ararat explains.


Current circumstances

The UNESCO bid is in its earliest stages and the Kurdish opera singer Çakar doesn’t want to give her campaign even a hint of politics, but she knows that eventually the Turkish state will have to apply for UNESCO recognition.

Under the current circumstances, with wars against the Kurdish identity going on in both Turkey and Syria, the chance that the government would take up such a bid, seems small. But who knows, how quick times can change again.

“We will talk to officials as well,” Çakar says.

For Ararat, UNESCO recognition is crucial, but not enough to preserve the dengbej culture.

“Dengbej is a very authentic cultural heritage. For a tradition to be sustainable people have to take pride in it and see its value but besides that, state politics are needed. It doesn’t look like that’s possible currently,’’ she says.” Unfortunately, the authorities are not sensitive enough”.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.