Petra Nachtmanova
Petra Nachtmanova

“An universal instrument” – musical Journey through Eurasia

The saz, a nine stringed long necked lute – otherwise known in Turkey as the bağlama – is a “holy instrument”. Called by the Alevis, followers of the syncretic, heterodox Islamic tradition in Turkey, “our stringed Kur’an”, it also is a symbol for uprising and revolt – and before the seventies or eighties there were hardly any women who played the instrument.

Which perhaps accounts for the hype surrounding Petra Nachtmanova (31), a Polish German woman from Vienna living in Berlin, who took up the saz eight years ago, and is the subject of a documentary film called “Saz” by French director Stephan Talneau, which premiered in Berlin in April.

The film is a kind of romantic road movie which follows Nachtmanova 5,000 kilometers as she journeys from Berlin to the Balkans, Istanbul, Anatolia, Azerbaijan and finally Iran to get at the root of the instrument’s mystique.

According to Turkish musician, saz player and Berlin music teacher Adil Arslan, seventy percent of Turkish families own a saz. It is the national instrument of Turkey, deeply rooted in Anatolian identity, a symbol for a culture and way of life.

“Today there are thousands of people interested in learning the saz in various conservatories and beginning in the eighties women and girls have been increasingly eager to learn this instrument,” says Arslan.

“The saz carries a message”, says Nachtmanova. She calls it “a universal instrument” at the heart of the traditional lyric culture of the Near and Middle East and Central Asia, a realm which adheres to the confines for the former Ottoman Empire.

“I think that this is what I started enjoying so much. It is in such a huge geographical area. Like, Anatolia and beyond. There is a kind of depth to the instrument which is implicit. When you hold the saz in your hands it’s very hard to disrespect it.”

Part of the appeal Nachtmanova has for people is that she doesn’t come from any saz tradition. Her parents don’t come from Anatolia. The instrument doesn’t remind her of her childhood, her village, her grandfather. That is part of Nachtmanova’s charm, and this comes across in the film as she wins over the hearts of Turks, Alevis, Kurds, Persians and Azerbaijanis she plays in front of or accompanies in street-corner cafes or lonely mountain tops.

Nachtmanova came to Berlin from Vienna in 2009 and immediately found herself gravitating towards the Turkish community in Neukölln, where she currently lives. She quickly discovered that , far from constituting a homogenous entity, the Turks in Berlin belonged to a variety of different groups. An Alevi musician introduced Nachtmanova to the saz eight years ago. She had played the oboe and the zurna before that. “So it was all more or less by chance that I fell into this pot,” she says.

In 2010 Nachtmanova went to Istanbul for one year to learn Turkish. She lived in the Tarlabaşı district, a rapidly gentrifying Istanbul slum quarter,  matriculated at Kadir Has university, but didn’t bother attending classes because everything was in English and mostly spent her time waitressing, which was how she picked up her Turkish.

I saw Nachtmanova perform for the first time two years ago at an Israeli-organized Oriental party in Friedrichshain, where Nachtmanova shared the bill with Elektro Hafiz, a Cologne based electric saz player whose style was so different from Nachtmanova’s. “I fuck the saz,” Elektro Hafiz had told me before the gig, to explain his unconventional style, using feedback and distortion to create a fuzzy, mind-bending psychedelic sound.

Nachtmanova, on the other hand, had a classical style of playing, was straight and unadorned. On the face of it, there was nothing unique about her, aside from the fact that she was a European woman and quite beautiful.

But Nachtmanova doesn’t want to be just another pretty face.

“You get a lot of attention instantly if you are a European woman,” she says. “But it’s good to get a bit of attention when you’ve done a bit of work on it. Not just sit there with the instrument. Anyone can do that. And you will get applause because people are happy because they think that someone is interested in their culture. But you’re only interesting when you do something. Just sitting there is a bit too easy.”

A year after her appearance with Elektro Hafiz I met with Nachtmanova and filmmaker Talneau in a Prenzlauerberg French café. There she and Talneau told me about the film.

“What was clear was that in the whole of the Balkans we were following the thread of the old Ottoman Empire,” said Talneau. “It was all the bits and pieces left by this story. Albania has no problem to say the tradition came from the Turks. The Bosnian people made it their own. The Bosnian people really do the Ottoman stuff. They wear the fez. And even the traditional costumes and stuff like that.”

After playing with a Bosnian sevdah ensemble clad in fez’s headscarves and elaborately embroidered clothing, Nachtmanova moves south to Istanbul, where she meets, among other people, Murat Ertel, founder and front-man of Istanbul underground psychedelic folk-rock group Baba Zula.

Ertel plays the electric saz, and has spoken at length about the saz’s journey from rural Anatolia to urban Istanbul, where it became electrified to be heard above the urban din, thus following a similar narrative to that of the electric guitar in the hands of early American blues musicians from the American south who came to Chicago where they ratcheted up their instrument to be heard in noisy bars.

Ertel, who has a bit of an axe to grind with Sunni Islam, also talks about the pre-Islamic, shamanistic roots of the saz, and is quoted in the film touching on this point.

From Istanbul Nachtmanova now moves to Anatolia, the heart of the saz, meeting with saz legend Erkan Oğur at a hippy workshop in a village near Izmir. She then moves on to Sivas, where she picks up on the aşık culture – aşıks being wandering Anatolian troubadours, similar to minstrels in the west, many who have committed long epic poems of a left-wing socio-critical cast to memory – when they are not playing heavily improvised love songs.

In Erzurum Nachtmanova finds an epicenter of aşık culture, witnessing some epic saz battles between rival aşıks lasting hours and captivating listeners.

Dersin, Elaz and the Tunceli region Nachtmanova discovers to be a hotbed of Alivism. In the Ottoman period which existed for roughly seven hundred years, Alevis were suppressed, sometimes tortured, massacred, were allegedly victims of genocide. In order to air their laments, the Alevi aşıks needed an instrument. This they found in the saz, which they used to accompany their songs, their philosophy of life, passing them on from generation to generation orally, the idea being if you committed something to paper then the authorities could search your house and if they found a text then you were liable to face a stiff jail sentence, or even killed.

This then was the “holy instrument”. Without washing your hands you could not touch the saz. It was played, in addition to aşıks , by dedes, Alevi elders, in the cem, an Alevi mosque to the accompaniment of mystical dancing and communal singing among men as well as women. Unfortunately, Nachtmanova doesn’t manage to come to the cem, however she does go up into the mountains to play with some Alevi musicians, before moving on to Azerbaijan and Iran.

In the end Nachtmanova concedes that she has touched the mere tip of the iceberg, and if she wanted she could continue in her quest all the way to China. But it is enough for now. After 5,000 kilometers, Nachtmanova has arrived at some kind of conclusion: she has found the tradition of the saz alive and well.

This was a question that we were trying to answer for ourselves,” says Nachtmanova. “In Erzurum we found the aşık tradition is very different than in Sivas. I would say in central Anatolia, central eastern Anatolia there is not really a big aşık culture going on. Not like in Azerbaijan, where there are schools of aşıks full of kids.”

And what does Nachtmanova make of the stricture in the hadiths of the prophet Muhammad against the plying of stringed instruments?

“Sometimes the saz was seen as being a little devilish. There was also a Russian czar who had so many stringed instruments burned. But there is also a great saz song which says, ‘Where is the devil in this? Look at it. It’s just a saz.’

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