by Eylül Deniz Yaşar – Diyarbakir
Dengbêjs have a significant place in Kurdish history, transmitting the pain and the joy of the Kurds over generations through their songs. Memorizing the events of their time, dengbêjs record what they have witnessed, presenting oral histories.
When there was no chance for the Kurds to write down what they had been experiencing – due to the ban over the Kurdish language – not to mention the series of massacres they endured, dengbêj songs (‘dengbêji’) became the medium of Kurdish collective memory. Each dengbêj becomes an oral historian for society and is respected as an author of Kurdish history, where testimonies are recorded in songs called ‘klam’ and ‘stran’.
Dengbêjs have, therefore, recorded events and preserved ancient memory through myth, culture and literature. They have also preserved oral histories and witness accounts that are ignored or discarded by official Turkish history. War and peace, funerals and feasts; what is sacrificial and heroic, people who were once loved or who have been killed, these are all themes and events in the Kurdish community that are addressed by dengbejs.
Dengbêj songs embody countless myths which when deciphered can reveal uncensored histories of Kurdish communities. Elderly men, who represent the last original carriers of this tradition as well as young women, who have been inspired to continue this tradition, spoke to MedyaNews.
Dengbêjs as ‘the journalists of their time’
The traces of dengbêj in Kurdish collective memory is “a deep subject which is hard to provide a summary of. The impacts and the results of conducting the dengbêj culture must be discussed. Historically, dengbêjs projected and conveyed social events melodically. They acted like journalists and were the press of their time. Most dengbêjs do not even know how to read or write, but each of their songs are filled with information which can cover pages of a newspaper”, said Celal Ekin, one of the founders of the Mesopotamia Cultural Centre (MKM).
MKM was subjected to serious state pressure and targeting until it was permanently closed, but the musicians have continued to passionately re-build and extend and transfer their cultural work to the Dicle Firat (Tigris-Euphrates) Cultural Centre. Currently a teacher (‘Mamoste’ in Kurdish) in the Dicle Firat, Celal Ekin states that: “Between the 1980s and 1990s, Kurdish music witnessed a certain progression due to the Kurdish freedom struggle. As the struggle increased, the experiences of the struggle and its significance and value to future generations were recorded through music. After the 1990s, Kurdish culture and art began to be institutionalized and supported through various means. Together with these civil institutions and academies, into the 21st century, contemporary dengbêj culture has been sustained”.
Dengbej houses: platforms that keep the culture alive
Dengbêjs in earlier times would travel through villages and share their songs with the villagers during the long winter nights, but this tradition has changed over time. “In the contemporary era, institutions like dengbêj houses have become platforms that keep this culture alive. We try to organize events in our cultural centre so that the last carriers of this tradition can meet with our people”, notes Ekin.
Ekin observes that: “The elderly dengbêjs might be lost before this decade ends. Therefore, our main concern is how to pass this tradition on to the new generations. Dengbêj culture, however, is not something you can teach in a formal way in conservatoires. From a technical point of view, of course, dengbêj singing is not easy at all, considering the tone, the rhythm, the silences and the vibration, but it is not just about learning techniques or notes. Younger generations must absorb the stories of the songs. If the younger generations do not know their mother language, first we have to teach them the language so that they can meet with the soul of the stories. Otherwise, this tradition might well die after a while”.
Dengbej performance as collective ritual
Dengbêj Sadık Yılmaz recounted the story of how he became a dengbêj after he perfomed a song he wrote about the unjust prison isolation conditions that were imposed on Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. “My uncle was a great dengbêj, known as Ape Raso. I inherited this tradition from my family. We grew up in this tradition in the houses, which were the only places where we could speak Kurdish safely. When I was a child, Kurdish was banned and we were not allowed to speak or sing in Kurdish. However, in our homes, we would come together and create ‘divans’ to sing dengbeji songs in Kurdish. Today we can perform dengbêj outside our homes, thanks to our friends, and thanks to the struggle for the freedom of our language”.
“I do not call myself a dengbêj”, says Siddiqe Farqine, “because we have immortalized names of dengbêjs, whom I cannot compare myself to. This culture was implanted in our souls since childhood by their voices”. Since dengbêj performance always forms part of a collective ritual, the lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic has hit dengbêjs hard. “The pandemic obviously had a negative impact on us. Before the pandemic”, he observes, “you could never see us perform before less then 10-15 people. Due to social distancing now, we cannot come together before crowds as before, but still we form our divan, because singing dengbêj is holy for us and occupies a vital part of our lives”.
“All the wealth I own in this world lies in my tambourine”
The Dicle-Firat (Tigris-Euphrates) Cultural Centre and Diyarbakır Municipality (when it was governed by the Peoples’ Democratic Party – the HDP) founded the Dengbêj House with the support of European Union (EU) in 2007. However, as Celal Ekin has noted, after a trustee was appointed (replacing the elected HDP officials), some dengbêjs left the Dengbêj House in protest. But some dengbêjs still perform in the Dengbêj House.
MedyaNews spoke to dengbêj Nurullah inside the Dengbêj House. He has mainly been singing hymns and eulogies since he was nine years old. “I am a dervish. My father was a dervish too. When I was a little boy, we would climb up to the roof and play the tambourine under the starry sky. We used to wander around the villages with our horses to play and sing”. Dengbej Nurullah never accepted money in return for dengbêj performances in his early years: “The villagers would listen to our music and give us wheat or oil as gifts. We would earn our bread like that. We used to say, our stomach is full today, God knows about tomorrow. We had no electricity, no television, no home, and no property. I still do not own a property. We are poor people. All the wealth I own in this world lies in my tambourine”.
Young women become dengbêjs
Among many other instrument courses and musical theory classes that are taught, Mesopotamia Music Academy’s Dengbêj Academy (Akademiya Dengbêj) provides an education for dengbêj singing for two years to a group of students varying in age from 13 to 30. Eylül Nazlıer (16) is the youngest female dengbêj student in the course. She explains her interest: “Dengbêj is at the core of our culture, which I never wish to be detached from. I would like young friends like myself, especially young women, not to sever their ties with their culture. Friends of my age are not that attached to Kurdish culture. They do not listen to dengbêjs anymore, which I am critical of. If we do not keep our culture alive, who will?”
According to Nazlıer, the idea that dengbêj can only be performed by men must be challenged by women “who are assertive and wish to sing dengbêji. I have heard women singing dengbêji, but I have never seen one. That is why I would like to sing dengbêji and show that women can sing dengbêji too, so that women can be more visible in this field. Women should and can do this in all aspects of life”.
‘The first dengbêjs were our grandmothers’
“When you come to know yourself, you come to know the dengbêj, your culture and your history. I see learning dengbêj not just as a musical education, but as a responsibility. I feel that if we quit this, this culture might go extinct”, stated Evin Dülek, a 26-year-old flute player and currently a student taking her MA in Music to become a ‘dengbêj’: “There is a strong bond. Dengbêjs are the mirrors of our history; an integral part of Kurdish culture and history. This comes from inside, from our roots. Dengbêjs say: “Listen to me, look at me, analyze me. The complete dengbêj work of Şakiro is actually history. How do you learn Kurdish history? One of the answers is Şakiro’s dengbêjs. When I listened to him, I learnt what happened to our people before, which paths we passed through”.
Criticizing the way of thinking that implies that all dengbêjs should be male, Dülek noted: “We have Ayşe Şan, Fatma İsa and so on. We have learned from these female dengbêjs. Before that, I always thought that only males can sing dengbêji. This caused us to lack self-confidence. It made us think that only men can do that. However, times have changed. We are trying to change the perception that women cannot perform dengbêji. Women can, of course, sing dengbêji. Actually, women were the first ones to sing dengbêji, as lullabies and elegies”.