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“Not leaving children of this country without music”.
This is the motto of Ma Müzik in Diyarbakır.

In Turkey, the failed coup d’état in 2016 offered an opportunity for the State to launch a wave of repression that hasn’t stopped against dissident voices. Among them, Kurdish voices in particular have been gagged and muffled. Thousands of militants and Kurdish elected members are now imprisoned. On February 14 2021, 700 of them were newly arrested and taken into custody.

In Kurdish regions, elected mayors belonging to the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party, a progressive coalition of political parties among which the pro-Kurdish DBP) were fired and generally imprisoned, only to be replaced by “kayyum”, administrators named by the State and charged with applying its politicy denying Kurdish people all rights to autonomy and their own existence, applying a colonial approach to the treatment of Kurdish regions that must meld into the mold of the Turkish nation. Besides the mayors, a number of workers in City halls were fired, including social workers, and those working in culture and education. Among those remaining, many have chosen to leave, refusing the work under State-appointed administrators.

The Aram Tigran cultural center, opened in 2010 by the municipality of the period is one of the structures targeted by the repression. This center’s mission called for the development of the teaching and the distribution of Kurdish culture in music, cinema and theater… Along with the loss of the employment, the stakes have doubled for the workers at the center. They have had to find new sources of financial subsistance for their daily survival and think out how to continue the Kurdish cultural action. Some of them have organized in order to open private structures collectively to insure the pursuit of the work done in the center.

Ma Müzik in Diyarbakır is one of these structures. Dedicated to the teaching of Kurdish music, it opened in March 2017. Arjin, violin teacher who also handles the center’s administration and Ferhat who gives Kurdish language classes and plays the kaval (an instrument in the flute family) explain Ma Müzik’s functioning and objectives. Both studied there before become teachers themselves, while pursuing their own musical apprenticeship.

How is Ma Müzik doing?

Arjin – The center will enter its fourth year of existence in March 2021. Prior to that we had the Aram Tigran cultural center with a conservatory. We were already here. We built Ma Müzik with support from the families, after the arrival of the kayyum. We did everything with the families. Built the kitchen, installed the doors, all of us together. We also work together when defining the curriculum. With the support of the families and advice we were given, activities at Ma Müzik developed. We completed our four years of study, following which each of us followed work in one’s own field. We developped the projects, the music, the stranbêji (song accompanied by instruments), dengbêji (the art of the bards, a capella songs narrating sories, sagas). Then we began classes for young children and for older ones. The students come on the advice of the families, who pass on the information through word of mouth. We develop slowly, one step at a time.

Ferhat – Had you come four years ago, we were all students. Time has passed, things have moved on despite the negative conditions. Many left, we are still here. We continued. It’s a story of resistance. When we received our diplomas, we integrated the functioning of the center. Here, decisions are taken collectively following a discussion period. If a concert is organized, first we discuss it, we exchange ideas, we make plans. From the housekeeping to the projects, this is how we operate. For daily tasks such as cleaning, meals, we have rotating schedules set up by our teachers. Finally, we take care of this place from A to Z with our friends and our teachers. You can see, this is how all this has been possible. In order to do that, you need something that carries you. We left the official buildings, they were soulless. There was no more creation going on there. I can say that in the reality of Kurdistan, that of Bakur (Northern Kurdistan within the Turkish borders), we work as an institution so that Kurdish music can reach the population. Beside us, hardly anyone does that.

Arjin – Our objective is not to leave the children of this country without music. This is our real slogan. We don’t think too much about the financial aspect. We want to teach the children their own music, their own culture. We have almost 200 students registered in the classes as well as students in the conservatory. That a child wants to learn music is essential. Whatever happens, we make sure he or she can go to the end of the training, no matter if it involves instrumental classes, stranbêji or dengbêji. We teach the child’s culture and language, no matter what. In other words, we do not impose the payment of a registration fee. Because we are more or less familiar with the situation of families in our country, and so no child will be penalized by that kind of limitation.

April 2017. Class in reading songs in kurmancî

From what social classes are the students at Ma Müzik?

Ferhat – In this neighborhood, Dicle Kent, we find mostly well-to-do people. But we are not only open to the children around here. We have students from Şehitlik, students from Bağlar (poor neighborhoods in Diyarbakır)…

When we founded this center, we told ourselves, “Her deri muzik, ji bo herkes muzik” (translation: “Music everywhere, music for everyone”). This is how we develop our project.

Only a few days ago, 700 people who are members or close to the HDP were arrested. Do you also feel pressure from the State?

Ferhat – How can I say… (laughs)

Arjin – (laughs) We can talk about it, not a problem. Finally, in our institution as elsewhere, oppression is present everywhere. In the public universities, for example. We see with Boğaziçi University, we see with Galatasaray… In their case, the oppression is enormous, imagine what it can be for us. (She laughs).

Ferhat – I can say that Ma Müzik has a different color for Diyarbakir. Because we do things outside what already exists. And this sometimes provokes reactions from other, uh, forces…

To answer this question in another way… hmm, how can I say…When we look outside, at the policies, there is an objective to erase differences… they are not accepted… And as representatives of a society, of a people, we attempt to transmit this music to future generations. This is our struggle. Of course, this will bring on negative things, reactions from the outside, but we carry on despite the existing problems, despite the existing violence.

February 2021 – A group of women rehearse in preparation for March 8.

There is also the pandemic. How do you work in the moment?

Arjin – During the pandemic, there were restrictions with the curfews, the quarantines, obviously our center had to close down. We attempted to teach online. With the lifting of the prohibitions, even if we can’t say we are back to normal, we have started offering classes again by imposing very strict rules. But as there are currently many students in the conservatory, we attempt to continue online classes, be it in Kurdish, in stranbêji or in dengbêji. For the other individual classes, the students come here and we give the classes while applying distancing rules.

Ferhat – Everyone has attempted to continue giving classes no matter what. Be it in a house, or under a tree outside. Of course, there have been delays and obstacles but our aim was to carry on with the teaching no matter what. We had to reach the children, even during the pandemic. After that, we were able to meet here again. Individual classes take place in the children’s presence, especially for the instruments.

Your project of concerts for Amida (Amid is the historical name of Diyarbakır), is part of this commitment to developing Kurdish culture. 

*Ferhat – The Amîda concerts are the voice of the past, of the past extending to our days…It was the idea of the mother of one of our students, developed following discussions and exchanges. There are little known historical sites in Diyarbakır. For example, although I’ve lived here for three years, there are still places I’m discovering. And it so happens that some people from this place have not seen them either. We are attempting to make these places from the past known so that they can live on. (Note: in 2015-2016, during the war against the towns, the Turkish army destroyed an important section of Diyarbakır’s historical center, the neighborhood of Sur).

Four concerts have been broadcast so far. We have planned a total of ten. Our objective is to put together concerts that correspond to the social fabric of the historical site in question, with a Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, Iaz content…And we have a guest artist at each concert. At first we were concerned, we wondered about the success of our project. But if we look at the enthusiastic responses, they are a success. Showing off the historical sites in this way was a beautiful idea. If we could extend this to other towns, that would be great.

Some new projects for Ma Müzik?

Ferhat – We have a project called: “Zarok Ma” for children between the ages of 2 and 5. I say 2 to 5 years, but in fact, the musical learning begins in the mother’s belly. The project is still in the planning phase. We’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. We hope to begin the classes in March, perhaps at the end of March. It is a music teaching program with parental participation. There will also be art workshops for very young children, as well as yoga classes. Children will be able to become familiar with the music of their culture already in their mother’s belly.

Arjin – As our slogan indicates, our objective is not to leave the children of this country without music. We will carry out this project one way or another, no matter what the conditions. Thus, we are launching Zarok Ma so that children aged 0-5 years can learn their own culture.

(she laughs) Even if the financing campaign fails, we will continue the teaching as best we can, everywhere, even in the street if necessary!

February 2021 – A group of women rehearse in preparation for March 8.

February 2021 – A group of women rehearse in preparation for March 8.

Generally speaking, in your opinion, what is the current situation for Kurdish music?

Arjin – There are new compositions by Kurdish artists. But not all Kurdish musics are the same, stylistically speaking…As an example in the stranbêji and dengbêji classes, the language is Kurdish and deep things are expressed but as they are “uzun hava” (a type of music with “free rhythm, having no rhythmical constraints. This generates a slow, melancolic melody), they are not listened to very much anymore. In the current musical environment, if we had children listen to them, they would cover their ears and run off.

Our objective is precisely to develop Kurdish music and to avoid being forgotten. You hear a song in a slow rhythm and all of a sudden hip-hop melodies come into play. This may be a process of modernization. Artists look at what is popular, they ask themselves how they can be heard, and so they transform the song into another very different one. A certain number of our musicians who played traditional Kurdish music have turned toward opera, toward classical music. Perhaps they tell themselves they must modernize to increase their audience…

In our songs, we talk about things experienced, that are very deep. We see that when we speak about this music, many of us Kurds do not know it, don’t listen to it but if we say opera, classical, everyone is enthusiastic. Our objective is to develop Kurdish music. But I get the feeling that some of us want to do that while others, I don’t know but, it’s as if they wanted to annihilate it. Unfortunately, it is hard joining into a common effort and this puts Kurdish music at risk of disappearing.

Ferhat – In Rojava for example, there is ongoing creation. Here, the young people have moved away from their own culture. With our classes in dengbêji which started a year ago, we see there is a renewed interest. We now have young people who come to classes, we also have children dengbêj. We must transmit this culture to the little ones also.

A final word?

Ferhat – In 2018 we organized workshops in other towns such as Adana, Mersin, Istanbul, Silvan, Silopi, Cizre. In the villages of the Mardin district also. During these workshops, we saw the children’s energy and enthusiasm, the light in their eyes. Here, we have become accustomed to children running after us calling us “mamoste, mamoste!” When we first arrived in the villages, they stayed away from us, but as soon as we talked to them in the language of their culture, we started establishing almost family-like relationships… They called us “Xalo (the uncle who is a brother of the mother), Apo” (an uncle who is the brother of the father), Mamo…” The word “mamoste” disappeared. When we think back on this kind of thing, we can’t help but see our activitiy as more than a job, but as something vital. As long as we will see that glimmer of light, we will continue as hard as we can, for the future of our culture.

Interview conducted by Loez
Answers translated by Naz Oke

You can also enjoy Ma Müzik’s creations and concerts on Youtube, support their projects on Facebook, Twitter @mamusiccenter1, Instagram @mamusicenter, and better yet, by participating in the crowdfunding campaign. And here is the center’s internet address.

Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Photo-journaliste indépendant
Loez s'intéresse depuis plusieurs années aux conséquences des États-nations sur le peuple kurde, et aux luttes de celui-ci.