It is only natural to expect to find old roots in Kurdish music, reaching down into ancient times. With clarity, the Kurdish musical heritage can be traced to medieval times, when many first-class native musicologists wrote on the modal music system of the Middle East. Two of these musicologists readily stand out: Safi al-Din Urmawi, author of Kitâb al-Adwâr and Risâla al-Sharafiya, and Muhammad al-Khatib Arbili, author of Jawâhir al-Nizâm fi Ma`rifat al Aghâni. Urmawi (d. 1294) is considered the founder of the "Systematist" school of music (Wright 1978). This school concentrates on analysis of, among other features, the intervals and scalar sequences of intervals in the modal music prevalent in the Middle East. His work is by consensus considered to be one of the most seminal, systematic works on Middle Eastern musicology. While Arbili pays some attention to Kurdish musical characteristics, Urmawi wrote nothing specifically on the Kurdish musical heritage. He concentrated on the musical school of the high society in Baghdad of the last days of the `Abbâsid caliphate. It was only after the sack of Baghdad, and his capture by the Mongol forces, that he wrote the Risâla al-Sharafiya at the appointment of the cultured Mongol grand vezir Nasir al-Din Tusi. In this work he does survey the ethnic musical heritage of the Iranic peoples (including the Kurds) and the Arabians.
Much more is found on Kurdish music in the medieval Ismâ'ili treatise, the Rasâ'il Ikhwân al-Safâ. The Rasâ'il clearly distinguishes between the Kurdish musical heritage, in terms of scales, melodies, instruments, and those of the Persians, Arabians, and a few others who are mentioned.
Several Kurdish musicians also climbed in the medieval period, among which Zeriyâb is noted for his bringing of the eastern musical tradition to Muslim Spain and training local musicians in his familiar styles. The Mawsilis, Ibrâhim and Is'hâq, two Kurdish Jewish converts to Islam, were musicians and musicologists who played prodigiously and wrote several first-rate works on the local music styles of Mesopotamia and the Iranic world.
Modern Kurdish music is the inheritor of the medieval Kurdish musical heritage which nurtured and gave rise to these artists and researchers in the field. Even though little has been written on or by Kurds on their music since these early days, Kurdish music has maintained a variety and richness that sometimes confuses even Kurdish listeners when for the first time they hear a piece coming from an opposite end of Kurdistan, or very high up in the mountains.
While no record tells how important singing was to the overall music of medieval Kurdistan, the fact that the Mawsilis and Zeriyâb were singers as well as instrumentalists may indicate the interconnection between the two. In modern Kurdish music, at any rate, adding words to the instrumental sounds is considered as essential and necessary to make music as plucking the strings of the tambura, striking the drum, or blowing into the flute. Songs are the only complete form of music.
The lyric must also have a point, must tell a story, and traverse an accepted course, just as the the melodies should have their own preludes, crescendos, and finales. As various melodies within a set mode are traversed by the music, the words must have a plot and a narrative structure. Kurdish folk songs, in short, are stories told in the company of music. In fact, even when the words are not uttered, the music associated with these songs take on a form of "silent" song to any Kurdish listener, with the music alone telling the story.
Conversely, songs can be just the singing of words without the accompanying musical instruments. In this case, the singer "plays" the music in the lulls within the lyrics by singing monosyllabic words of no meaning, like lo lo lo or le le le, to fulfill all the requirements of a "song." In southern and eastern Kurdistan these monosyllables of northern and western Kurdistan lose their consonants. In one southern style, tura khweni, "singing of sadness," which as the name implies is reserved for melancholic and sad occasions, they cease to be syllables altogether, becoming soft vowel sounds pronounced after one another in succession and in a melodic fashion, staying in full concordance with a standard mode. Occasionally, the instrument-less "musician" includes a sorrowful word or two in the tura khweni.
Kurdish story songs employ four distinct themes: heroic, amorous, religious, and now also political. The heroic songs, the Kurdish chansons de geste, traditionally glorified the valor of heroes from the past and the legends of their chivalry as true Pahlawâns (see National Character). Following the division of Kurdistan in this century, this style has been given increasingly to include political and nationalistic lyrics, aimed at arousing the nationalist feelings among the listeners. Poems of classical Kurdish lyricists with patriotic themes, seldom if ever put into songs, are now being actively dug up and fitted to songs to supplement the myriad of modern patriotic jingles, as the welcome "originals." In the former Soviet Union, the Kurds fitted such themes to the Soviet propaganda "Song of the Komsomol" and the "May Song" (Aristova 1958). These modern vulgarities have left the traditional balladeers quite unaffected. They have become the last repository of the oral heritage of their nation, in ever retreating corners of Kurdistan.
During the Parthian period (247 BC to AD 227), there was present an elaborate network of bards and popular storytellers, the gosân, in the area, among which the tradition of Mithrakân, or the Mithraic legend of world genesis, played an important role. But, the tradition of bards and balladry is present among almost all Indo-European cultures and those deeply influenced by them, such as the Turkic cultures. If there is a need to identify a beginning of this art and tradition in Kurdistan, then with due caution the arrival of the Aryans into Kurdistan may be a possible time.
A traveling Kurdish balladeer, or chargar, sings of epic heroes and their exploits on the battlefield of love as commonly as war. The epics, or chariga, they sing playing a tambura, or a kemâncha. The number of charigas a chargar can present is a point of pride for him. In fact the chargars can present many versions of the same epic story, such as the better-known epic of Mem o Zin (see Literature). Other popular stories are the tragic romance of Shirin o Ferhâd, and the heroic Ballad of Dem Dem.
If occasion requires, the balladeer engages in non-musical storytelling as well, albeit punctuated with occasional singing of the rhymed lines. Any one of the more popular "winter stories" can serve the purpose (see Popular Culture and Folklore & Folk Tales). Most, but not all, modern Kurdish singers continue to sing while playing instruments themselves. This was the traditional way, but is steadily becoming less frequent, as Kurdish music is played with orchestras arranged in a quasi or genuine Western format. In their choice of language, modern singers fall into two clear categories: those who for nationalistic or other motivations sing Kurdish only, and those who have gained fame outside Kurdistan and sing primarily non-Kurdish, but continue to sing Kurdish alongside. These two categories can loosely be used to categorize modern Kurdish painters as well. Of the first group, Temo Izzidin, Arif and Hesen Cizrewi, Arame Tigran, Shirin, and finally Shevân Perver, are the best known. Most, but not all of these singers and song writers are also socially active, and sing to further the national aspirations of the Kurds.
Of the second group, Perry Zangana, Faqih Tayrân, Shahrâm Nâziri, Husayn Alburzi, and the Kâmkâr brothers are better-known names. Among these artists, Perry Zangana, for example, is an accomplished opera singer who also has adapted Kurdish folk songs to modern instruments. She quite regularly surprises her unsuspecting audience by finishing her performances with a Kurdish song, be it a performance of a Western aria or a Persian ghazal. Feqi Teyrâ's exceptional talent and use of most common and over-looked Kurdish melodies, including the lullabies, presented with a good deal of theatrics, captivate his Turkish, Western, and Kurdish audiences all the same.
The lyric content and the nature of a song can be known by the name with which the musician/singer refers to the piece about to be presented. The song style gorâni (named after the ethnic Gurân Kurds) is often in the form of quatrains and is reserved for relatively long love songs, not too dissimilar to Western arias. Kalhuri (named after the historic Kurdish nomadic tribe of Kalhurs) is the style of singing ascribed to, and revolving around the themes pertinent to, travellers, hunters, and common workers. Bayts are single lines, made of two rhyming hemstitches, and are also dedicated to love themes. Bayts sometimes come from the works of the better-known poets of the past. Dilok is a collection of very short lines of poetry sung to dance music, while hayrân is a singing style used to relate the pains of parting and the sorrow of unfulfilled love. Qatâr is a formal singing of a standard melody with all its trimmings and properties (Schneider 1991). The bariti is sung in a chorus. It can be fit to a dance tune or a modern political propaganda anthem. The style used by the Sufi dervishes for singing their religious, mystic songs is laya, while lawk is the singing style for the heroic tales of the chargars.
The traditional instruments used varied greatly from the cities to the countryside. They still do to a certain degree. The instruments used in non-urban folk music were the zornâ (a powerful oboe), juzala (a double clarinet), tambur (tambura), pik (reed flute), dahol (a large, double-sided drum), and a tumbalak (small kettle drum). Of more localized nature is the shimshâl or shamshâl (a large reed flute).
Sâz is the name given to many different, but ordinary string instruments from one corner of the land to the other. There is no way to identify a sâz without knowing the provenance of it. To complicate this, in the Kurdish urban centers, sâz stands for the Persian sitar-like instrument Târ, or is simply a generic term for any musical instrument. Overlooking this seemingly complicated semantics and technical jargon, the joyous sound of a zornâ accompanied by a dahol or a tumbalak is the most common musical sound one should expect to hear coming from the direction of Kurdistan.
The travelling bards use only a tambur or kamâncha (a violin-type instrument, played upright like a cello). Many more instruments were used in the urban-based music, local or foreign. Like Indian music, Kurdish music explores the octave. It has a modal structure similar to the music of the Persians and most central Asians and Afghans. The term for mode is both dessga (Persian dastgâh) or maghâma (Arabic maghâm). The most common traditional mode used is the bayât-i Kurd, the Kurdish scale. This scale is utilized widely under the same name by many of Kurdish ethnic neighbors. Some have argued that this mode is the only mode that Kurdish music uses (or should be using). If one were to accept that traditional Kurdish music employed but only a single mode, it can only reflect the antiquity of the music which has survived in its pristine simplicity until today. But of the single mode this music is not. Every single lullaby sung by Kurdish mothers, for example, is in the mode of Homâyun, which immediately belies the single-mode hypothesis. The mode of bayât-i Kurd, at any rate, is the same as the Flamenco mode of the Spaniards or the Dorian mode of the ancient Greeks, with no telling the direction of the influence, if there was one. Within the mode or modes, of course, vast numbers of melodies are played out by the Kurdish musicians, who improvise freely to the delight and admiration of their listeners. Even though improvisation is the hallmark of the Kurdish musicians, they must, and do, strictly observe the standard modes and melodies. Common people may not know how to play music, but can easily tell when the accepted boundaries of the melodies are trespassed by an inexperienced musician.
The history of Kurdish music is better documented for the medieval period, than anytime before or, surprisingly, after. The Ismâ'ili treatise Risâlât Akhwân Safâ includes the tradition of Kurdish music along with Persian and Arabian among the four traditions that it explores (Wright 1978). The information the Risâlât imparts is invaluable for the study of the evolution of Kurdish music and the reach and distinct heritage it draws upon.
Kurdish music today shows great regional diversity in style and mood. This must have always been so, recognizing the far-flung expanse of the land and difficulty in communication over the rugged landscape. Northern and western Kurdistan have a definite Anatolian flavor in their music, easily reminding one of Turkish, Greek, and Balkan music. The northeastern style is rather difficult to tell apart from traditional Armenian and Caucasian music except for the words of course. The music of the areas of Kurdistan neighboring Arab lowlands, particularly in Syria and Iraq, picks up the fast and joyous tempo of the traditional Arab music of the Fertile Crescent. In southern and eastern Kurdistan, the influence of the musical style of the Iranian plateau, including the multi-modal structure, is so strong that it completely sets the Kurdish music from this area apart from the rest. This is not surprising, as the area had been part of the state of Persia/Iran since at least the 16th century. This style is the most melancholic and subtle of all Kurdish musical styles.
For a Kurd to listen to his national music is an experience not easily open to description. He has to reconcile himself that "all these are Kurdish music," even though the variations are so strong, tell of so many different sources of influence and experiences, and so many variant tracks of evolution to render him worried about the single identity of Kurdish music. But as is the story with the musical style of nations spread over long stretches of territory, neighboring different peoples, cultures, and musical styles, Kurdish music carries all these influences in their pristine form. Had Kurdistan not been effectively fragmented, and a native centralized governmental mass electronic media and school of music been available, the past 75 years would have definitely homogenized (and made dull) the exciting diversity still present in Kurdish music.
Now that Kurds from various segments of the fragmented land communicate with each other in diaspora, and as the radio and television airwaves breach the formidable state boundaries, Kurdish music should be expected to belatedly, and regrettably, start on a path to homogenization and standardization.
Source: by Prof. M.R. Izady, "The Kurds: A Concise Handbook", 1992, Reproduced with permission
Bibliography and Audio Records: The music collection at the Kurdish Library in Brooklyn, New York, is of special value. Also, Ralph Solecki, Kurdish Folk Songs and Dances (New York: Ethnic Folkways Library, Album No. FE 4469, 1955); Christian Poche and Jochen Wenzel, Musical Sources: Kurdish Music (Berlin: UNESCO Collection, Modal Music and Improvisation VI-4, n.d., a Phillips music record); T.F. Aristova, "Poyezdka k Kurdam Zakavka'ya" ("A Visit to the Kurds of Transcaucasia") Sovetskaya Etnografiya VI (Moscow, 1958); Robin Schneider, ed., Kurden im Exil: Ein Handbuch kurdischer Kultur, Politik and Wissenschaft (Berlin: Berliner Institut fur Vergleichende Sozialforschung, dem Haus der Kulturen der Welt and medico international, 1991), section 2; O. Wright, The Modal System of Arab and Persian Music: AD 1250-1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).