I’ve played stringed musical instruments since I was old enough to hold a guitar. Almost everyone in my family studied music theory, piano, and at least one other stringed instrument. When we moved to the Middle East in 1998, I took a few of my favourite instruments with me. (Note from Editor (Lara): six freaking guitars!!!)
The music of the Middle East changed my outlook on music fundamentally. The sounds and scales were so different to Western music and the instruments so foreign to me that I felt immediately challenged. And it was wonderful! When I picked up the oud (the Arabic lute), I found playing a fretless instrument tricky at first – not to mention mastering the scales – but after I got the hang of it, I rarely picked up a guitar again.
When we first travelled around Turkey many years ago, I heard a guy playing a long, thin instrument at a bus station. It had three courses (rows) of strings on its elegant long neck and a body that was a beautiful, teardrop-shaped wooden bowl, made out of one piece of wood. The guy was playing it through an amplifier and it had a seductive, open-string drone. I was hooked. I asked him the name of instrument. “Saz,” he replied.
Back in Istanbul, I went to the street where everyone said the best instruments were sold, Galip Dede Caddesi. Walking around the city then (and now), I noticed that every third or fourth person was carrying a musical instrument of some persuasion, and this street appeared to be where everyone went to browse and buy.
Istanbul has some of the best live music in the world in my opinion – from jazz to saz (see our guide to the live music scene here) – and in those days, almost every shop on Galip Dede Caddesi was a musical instrument store, from Tünel square to halfway down the steep lane near Galata Tower. I found a shop on the street where the owner was busy finishing a saz, also known as a bağlama, and that’s where I bought my first saz/bağlama.
While both ‘saz’ and ‘bağlama’ are commonly-used terms in Turkey, ‘saz’ is actually a Persian word, and the instrument is played in Iran, as well as Turkey and other countries in the Middle East region. You’ll generally see three different sizes of the instrument, although there are about seven different sizes in total. Back then, I chose the most common ‘mid-length’ one, often specifically called – rather confusingly – the bağlama, the same name that defines the whole range of instruments under the one classification. Even more confusingly, there are long and short bağlamas.
With its roots in folk music rather than Turkish Classical music, the bağlama is a simple instrument to get a decent tone from if you already guitar player. It’s far easier to learn than the oud for someone used to instruments with frets, as the oud has none and has a very short neck, making the notes much closer together than a guitar. To be a good bağlama player, however, requires a different technique to guitar, the subtleties of which is best left to discovering after you’ve purchased one.
Once we returned to Dubai, where we were based at the time, I realized that every time I wanted to just enjoy myself playing an instrument, I picked up the bağlama, and every time I wanted to really challenge myself, I picked up the oud.
When we arrived in Istanbul two weeks ago, we were ten months into our yearlong grand tour and I’d been missing making music. Our holiday rental in Cape Town had a piano which I played daily, but that was a rarity. I was determined to pick up an instrument for the last couple of months of the trip. Or go insane.
So, the moment we arrived in Istanbul, I returned to Galip Dede Caddesi. Sadly, the street had become more gentrified, with more cafes and souvenir shops, and far fewer music stores (although there are still dozens), and far fewer craftsmen in them actually working on instruments.
I went into one shop which had a lot of bağlamas and the owner was nice enough to tune and play it for me, however, I noticed that the teardrop-shaped bowl or body of the bağlama was made of strips of wood rather than carved from a single piece of wood, and the finish of the instrument overall was rather sloppy. I asked him who the maker of the instrument was and he replied “Mohammed”. “Mohammed who?” I asked. “Just Mohammed,” he responded. Not a good sign. It seemed I had some research to do…
So here’s the dilemma. If you want a ‘tourist’ bağlama to hang on a wall, the really cheap ones are not that attractive – they’re very plain, and the pretty ones cost a fortune. If you’re a musician looking to buy a bağlama, the cheap tourist bağlamas that you’ll find in most of the shops on Galip Dede Caddesi are virtually unplayable. The bağlama I tried was most definitely a very playable instrument, but the fit and finish and anonymous lineage didn’t really inspire me. So I changed my approach to see if I could get a bağlama made my a known maker for around the same price as what I was quoted for the one on Galip Dede Caddesi.
As I had interviewed an oud maker in Turkey before, I knew that some oud-makers or luthiers also made the bağlama. Most luthiers see the bağlama as a more rudimentary instrument than the oud, but I knew that the highly regarded Dr. Cengiz Sarikus was a bağlama player and maker before he became highly regarded as a master luthier.
We went to the Doctor’s store and workshop (always a good sign when they’re in the one building) near Fatih and found the maestro and several gentlemen sitting around a table discussing designs for a custom oud, with their sketches laid out in front of them. Most oud players don’t buy off the shelf, which is why if you want to buy a good musical instrument in this region, it’s actually better to order it a couple of months before and pick it up when you arrive.
The maestro had a couple of bağlamas in a display cabinet that were finished: a simple one with a lovely bowl made from a beautiful piece of old mulberry wood, and a very ornate one that didn’t suit my needs or budget. He quickly tuned the first bağlama and played a song, singing along to his fluid playing. It was a classic folk song and soon all the other gents at the table joined in singing. Best sales pitch ever.
The bowl and top were of excellent quality, but the finish of the bağlama wasn’t. However, the sound and pitch were absolutely perfect. And soon, after a little bargaining, so was the price. After an hour of conversation, about bağlamas, the Doctor’s magnificent collection of instruments, mutual acquaintances made over music forums, and friends and relatives he had back in Australia that he thought we might know, I walked out with an additional piece of luggage, one that would make me (Editor’s note: and the Editor!) very happy during our last two months on the road.
There are other places in Istanbul where you can pick up a bağlama, including Unkapani IMC Blok 6, off Ataturk Bulvari, which has been recommended, but visiting Dr. Cengiz Sarikus at his workshop and store, Veysel Müzik Evi, and seeing his collection of classic instruments (many dating to the 1800s) made the purchase worth it, as was the satisfaction in seeing instruments still made by hand with wood aged on the premises. It’s pretty hard to beat.
Veysel Müzik Evi
Sefai Efendi Sok. 21, off Millet Cad.
(Sunay Oteli Yani) Haseki
0212 631 86 86