The bağlama

Bearing traces of the great migrations and the cultural accretions of millennia, the stringed ‘bağlama’ is Anatolia’s most common folk instrument, giving life to its folk music.

The ‘stem cell’ of folk music and repository of the cultural memory of the minstrel tradition, the bağlama is our fingerprint, our ancestral log. One of the most authentic motifs of Anatolia and its most widely used folk instrument, an historic instrument whose musical code is wired into our social genes. And the ‘kopuz’, a lute-like instrument and generic name for several Turkish string instruments of Asian origin that are regarded as sacred and used in shamanistic rituals.

Bearing witness to the great westward migrations of the Turkic peoples to Anatolia, cradle of civilizations, it flowed, along with the raiders, itinerant musicians and Sufi mystics, like a river to the sea. During those migration years it was reshaped under the influence of the several cultures with which it came into contact until it finally embraced the rich cultural tradition of Anatolia. Ever developing and changing, it was spread from the Caucasus and the Balkans first by the Great Seljuks and then by the Ottomans, spawning new varieties at every step along the way. The traditional Greek ‘bouzouki’, for example, is said to derive from the ‘bozuk’ saz
(a generic term for string instruments harking back to the so-called ‘Bozok’ Turkmens), according to Bozhidar Abrashev and Vladimir Gadjev’s ‘The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical instruments’ and a work entitled ‘Tuning and Position of the Bağlama’ by İrfan Kurt, a faculty member at the Istanbul Technical University State Conservatory of Turkish Music.
The evolution of the kopuz had acquired significant momentum by the 14th century when its physical properties, tone, timbre and playing technique underwent radical changes. With the attachment of frets to the fingerboard of the previously unfretted kopuz, a new instrument called the ‘bağlama’ (literally, ‘attaching’) began to take shape in Anatolia, initially two- but eventually three-stringed. Not only the number but also the quality of the strings changed as metal came to replace horse hair, animal gut, and silk, and the finger plucking technique was gradually abandoned in favor of a plectrum or pick. Meanwhile the leather body was also replaced by wood to take the strain of the metal strings. The instrument in turn became larger and its fingerboard longer, which simultaneously enriched its possibilities of tuning. This evolution in the instrument’s harmonic structure enabled it to play ever more varied melodies as it also acquired ‘local characteristics’. The use of the term ‘saz’ to refer to the various types of kopuz dates to the 15th century. Meanwhile the bağlama, which bears traces of the great migrations and the accretions of millennia, would later become the generic name for this class of similar string instruments.

The members of the rather large bağlama family are known by a wide variety of names depending on their structure, size, number of strings and frets, ways of tuning and of playing, and the areas and regions in which, as well as the clans and tribes by which, they are played. Indeed they are even distinguished by the ways of singing that they accompany. All this extensive nomenclature—close to forty different names are known—serves to demonstrate the variety, diversity and prevalence of this instrument among the Turkic peoples. The ‘kolca kopuz’, and the ‘cura’, perhaps the earliest phase of the instrument’s evolution in Anatolia, is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the family. Meanwhile the ‘meydan saz’ is the largest and lowest-pitched version. In addition to the bass bağlama, which has come into use recently for primarily bass parts, the electric bağlama is also becoming more widespread with its powerful and unusual sound.
The bağlama consists of three parts: the body (or bowl), neck and fingerboard, to which the frets are attached with gut. The kopuz is known to have originated as an unfretted, pentatonic instrument. The number of strings and tones increased with the spread of local ways of tuning and its use in ensembles, and the 24 sounds of the so-called ‘komalı’ system used today in Turkish music began to be used on the bağlama as well.
Today’s bağlama is usually seven-stringed with a bridge, or ‘eşik’, for attaching the strings under high tension from the body, and tuning pegs, known as ‘burgu’. The strings, which are attached in ‘courses’ of two and three each, allow the instrument to be tuned to the desired ‘order’ or way of tuning. There are some twenty different ‘orders’ used in different regions under different names. The main orders, which also have several subgroups, are four and are directly related to the tones and scales of their localities.

Let us turn now to the construction of the bağlama, which is made either of laminated wood or carved from a single piece of solid wood. Hardwoods of high specific gravity are preferable. Carefully chosen for their ability to produce a good sound, they are dried in a natural environment and then the skeleton of the instrument is created. Woods such as mulberry, juniper, chestnut, poplar, walnut, hornbeam, spruce, beech, mahogany, boxwood, cedar, ebony and linden can be used for the body, neck, fingerboard, bridge and tuning pegs of the bağlama. Master builders of the instrument however employ woods with similar properties even for the different parts of the same instrument—a practice whose importance they express by saying that the woods must be compatible, literally that they must ‘love each other’. In other words, love enters not only into the heart of the instrument but into its body as well, and this love is the passion of the folk songs that have been sung down the centuries.
To cut a long story short, the folk songs that embody our social narratives are our cultural banners waved by the bağlama. Engaging in modern, scholarly research about them is a universal endeavor. Both the bağlama and the folk songs are the common cultural heritage not only of the Turkish people but of the whole world. And as long as life continues on this earth, human emotions such as love, hope, happiness, lament, rebellion, pain, sadness and joy will continue to be the air and water of this instrument, and the songs to flow straight into our hearts.

We are grateful to Kemal Eroğlu and the Kopuz Saz Evi for allowing us to take the photographs.