They say that “where words fail, music speaks.” Seemingly humanity’s universal language, its melodic elements, traverse borders and definitions. Even if we don’t understand the words, we can still feel music; the musician’s burdens or joy defying the elements that make us falsely believe we are fundamentally different from one another.
In the Turkish language, such music that strikes one directly in the heart is called damardan, meaning that its emotional power flows directly through one’s veins. One of the main protagonists of such damardan music is most certainly the bağlama or saz, a plucked string, long-necked lute that conveys the age-old tales of not only Turkish folk songs, but also Kurdish, Armenian, Azerbaijani and Balkan, to name a few.
In the documentary Saz, the Polish and Czech musician Petra Nachtmanova journeys from Berlin to Khorasan to discover the story of this instrument that has captured her own heart. Barriers of culture and language seem to melt away as the spirit of music connects her intimately with whoever she meets along the way.
Nachtmanova listens to others play, often joining them after overcoming her initial trepidation. Her beautifully delicate voice is always welcomed. She watches as the craftsmen make the instrument with minute but perfected motions; climbs to a perch in the Munzur Valley with a female Alevi musician to feel her voice echo into the vast distance; visits the tomb of Aşık Veysel, reciting her own song within the energy of his indefatigable musical legacy; and takes respite in the untouched landscape to sit down and let the whole multifaceted tale of the bağlama really sink in.
Currently based in Berlin, the singer and researcher of folk music and poetry regularly performs, most recently at Beynel Milel, a monthly event at Rotbart Berlin co-organized by the multi-instrumentalist Ceyhun Kaya. Busy as ever, the mother and musician took some time to answer a few questions about her documentary with the French filmmaker Stephan Talneau and the power of the saz itself.
How did the bağlama (saz) enter your life and why did you decide to learn how to play it?
I moved to Berlin and was fascinated by this strangely shaped instrument (from my ignorant point of view), which I saw on the backs of school kids on Sundays in Kreuzberg. I had heard some Turkish music before through a Greek friend from Vienna and a friend from my shared flat in Berlin, who had some Aşık Veysel CDs. I thought, I need to try this out. My friends paid for the first three months of my first Bağlama course; it was my birthday present.
What are the most challenging aspects of the bağlama?
The regional variety of instrument characteristics, of playing styles and techniques, grasping the whole history behind it, understanding this kind of historical/social/political role it possesses and then playing it well. It’s all about a choice and what you want to do with it, to how much you commit. It’s like someone you owe something to, but in a beautiful way.
Music elicits emotion. What kinds of things do you feel when you’re playing these age-old Anatolian songs?
Some kind of human connection through time and space. That must sound very weird. And of course, every song brings its own emotions. Maybe my inner radar is not able to detect all of them – some of them being coded in ways I might not understand fully – but the ones I understand are very strong for me already. Empathy of the human experience maybe, with all its depths and peaks.
Who are some of the great Saz players and/or songs that have influenced you?
I adore Cengiz Özkan, Erkan Oğur, I highly respect Erdal Erzincan, Arif Sağ and I have been enchanted by the late Aşık Murat Çobanoğlu. And Talip Özkan of course, and Özay Gönlüm, and and and…
You traveled from Berlin to Khorasan for the documentary “Saz.” How did your experiences there and the musicians you met change you?
When you travel you always travel as something or someone; even if you think you are free of a category, you never are. In my case I was confronted with being a European woman. I knew this of course, but you start thinking about what this implies in how people speak to you, how they look at you. I found it to be quite a favorable position to be in. Imagine an Afghan musician traveling though Bavaria, that would be a completely different experience.
Once you get down to music and playing or learning about the instrument, this “role” thing usually fades and you become just a person sharing an interest or passion. But the first meeting is always a positioning thing. Isn’t it in every society? This made me think a bit deeper about it and about my position and what I’m actually doing. It still makes me think every day. These are very current topics for our political awareness nowadays, I’d say.
What were some of the most memorable moments from this music road trip, and what did you learn along the way?
I never manage to answer that question. The first things that come to my mind are the shared meals. I don’t know what we have done to vegetables in Europe, but they taste of nothing. Whereas throughout our trip we were spoiled with natural tastes; I hope this stays the same in future!
Every place we stopped was a little universe of its own. I learned that I need to go more into detail to do the music and the musicians justice. It’s always a challenge when you want to go for a wider connecting perspective, because you risk being too superficial. That’s something I’m questioning a lot in my head but haven’t yet managed to put into action so much. I’m not a very patient person and you need patience for detail.
They say music is a universal language. What kind of reactions do you get from your audiences when you perform?
My favorite thing is performing for mixed audiences, audiences in which some people have knowledge about the music and for others it’s completely new. Mostly I play in front of community audiences, people know the songs, sing along with me, and that’s beautiful. And when there is nobody who knows or understands, it’s a totally different experience. Then I talk more between the songs. I always talk quite a lot on stage, because even though music is a universal language, you can intensify the experience by giving some background information or sharing your own experience, especially the emotional experience.
The nuance will always be more hidden and it will be a great joy for the audience to grasp it when you have prepared the ground for it. It is naive to say that just music would make you understand everything. Some of it yes, but there is always more depth to explore. And experiencing depth collectively in a concert is always special.
What are some future projects you would love to work on as a musician?
I finally need to record an album. I’ve been planning to do this for three years now. Life circumstances and my own feeling of not being ready stood in the way. Next year I will be in Turkey on a scholarship, I will be taking lessons and finding my place in this whole story.
Explore globe-encompassing rhythms and music further with Dancing Around the World: A Conversation With Mikela Mallozzi.
Visit YouTube to watch the full SAZ – The Key of Trust documentary.