Fasıl: The classical music of Ramadan

Fasıl: The classical music of Ramadan

NIKI GAMM ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Fasıl: The classical music of Ramadan

The instruments used in a fasıl performance are generally the saz, a string instrument played by plucking; ney, a reed flute; tambourine with cymbals, tanbur.

The iftar meal with which one breaks a day’s fast during the month of Ramadan is very frequently accompanied by what is known as fasıl music. Restaurants, whether or not they’re in hotels, often boast of providing live fasıl music. It is most often compared with the chants of the medieval Roman Catholic Church although the latter seem far less complicated.

The oldest known song written in cuneiform has been dated to Ur, 4,000 years ago. Music though occurs in all societies whether written or not. When music first appeared among the Turkish tribes of Central Asia is unknown although music was definitely a part of their lives. There has been debate in the past as to whether music is allowable in Islam or not and the general consensus is that it is all right if it isn’t used for sinful purposes.

As the Turks settled in Anatolia and carved out the Ottoman Empire, music of various kinds developed among the urban ruling class and in particular in the palace and its surrounds and in the mansions of the upper class. This tradition was based on two foundations – elitist or divan literature which mostly consisted of poetry and the mystic orders of Islam in the 16th century.

Music was passed down from one master to another as there was no system of notation until the beginning of the 18th century. Musicians learned by heart and master musicians passed it along to their pupils. Today we are fortunate in having some 350 pieces of Turkish music, thanks to the efforts of Prince Dimitrie Cantemir of Moldavia, who lived in Istanbul between 1687 and 1710. What we term Turkish classical music today comes from the work he and others who followed him carried out.

By far the best known of the classical musical forms is what is termed fasıl which means “section or part” in Turkish. The word is originally from Arabic and when applied to music, it refers to the playing and singing of pieces in a specific order. This is sometimes translated as “suite” in English.

There are four different instrumental forms and three vocal forms, led by one person using a tambourine with cymbals, and during the vocal compositions there may be instrumental improvisations.
A fasıl’s sequence is as follows: taksim (an instrumental improvisation); peşrev (usually of four parts, with long rhythmic patterns); kar (the first piece sung after the peşrev); first beste (a vocal composition consisting of four verses each followed by the same melodic passage); second beste (another vocal composition consisting of four verses followed by the same melodic passage); ağir semai (a rhythmic pattern of 10 beats); yürük semai (a rhythmic pattern of six beats and form of vocal music sung just before the instrumental piece at the end of the fasıl); and saz semaisi (the final instrumental form in four movements).

Throughout its performance, fasıl remains in the same makam, which is the melodic creation that determines tonal relations, tessitura (the most musically acceptable and comfortable range for a given singer or musical instrument), starting tone, reciting tone and finales. It also indicates the contour and pattern of the melody. Its closest counterpart in Western music is the medieval concept of mode.

The instruments used in a fasıl performance are generally the saz, a string instrument played by plucking; ney, a reed flute; tambourine with cymbals; tanbur, a plucked lute with a long neck; ud, a plucked lute with a short neck; kanun, a plucked zither; and kemence, a bowed fiddle.

Some of the songs go back to the 14th century while others date to the late 19th century when songwriter Haci Arif Bey was very popular. The late Dr. Amil Çelebioğlu added considerably to what is known about the songs by analyzing a collection of fasıl from 1826 in the Ramazanname. Although the songs were strongly influenced by Ottoman poetry, there were ways in which they differed considerably. For instance, the last lines of poems usually contained the name of the poet but out of 1,500 songs, only one in the collection examined by Çelebioğlu contained a name and that was related to the janissaries, the Ottoman military corps disbanded in 1826.

According to Çelebioğlu, many of the songs in the Ramazanname that he edited contain place names that are located in Istanbul such as the Ayazma Mosque and the building of the lighthouse between Ahırkapı and Çatladıkapı. As a result he places the date of the collection in the latter half of the 18th century. He also cites religious, historical and social examples to back up his chosen date.

The songs traditionally were four lines long with eight syllables per line. The first, second and fourth lines rhymed but translating them into English precludes poeticizing them since that would distort the meaning. There were two types of subject matter in these earlier times. The first deals with religious items such as the night before the start of the month of Ramadan.


The moon of my Ramadan
My soul is happy and pleased
May your honored Ramadan
Be blessed, my Sultan

Listen to the happiness tonight
Bid hello tonight
Oh statesman mine
They saw the moon tonight

Tonight they saw the moon
They prostrated themselves on the ground
They decked themselves out with candles
The mosques were adorned

The other dealt with more mundane subjects like the “Song of the Cats and the Rats” or the sultan’s bribing the janissaries.

This evening is number 16
As the month of Ramadan goes
Today the Janissaries got
Baklava from the Padisah

Fasıl music in the palace began to be taught by the practice system from the time when Topkapi Palace was built. It was called “huzur fasli” or “harem fasli” when it was performed in the presence of the sultan with the participation of music experts from outside the palace. When it was performed in public places and in the audience halls of the palaces with the participation of lots of singers and saz players, it was termed “meydan faslı” or “kume (mass) faslı.”

Many of the fasıl songs are indeed still popular and well known as this writer can attest when an entire ferryboat load of Turks on their way to Marmara Island from Istanbul sang the lyrics to fasıl melodies played by a saz musician who happened to be on the boat. The “performance” showed to what extent the vocal parts had gained in importance over the instrumental sections and have remained in popular memory.