Recalling the musical and poetic ways of a fading Anatolian past

There’s usually a revealing – and therefore constructive – useful and interesting, story to be told in presentations of sidelined subculture groups. Light is shed on neglected, restricted, even outlawed, groups to help calm fears about the unknown, inform about what makes them different to whatever it is that is regarded as conventional, possibly bridge gaps, or, in the case of decaying groups bordering on extinction in the contemporary world, to document a delightful world of the past that is no longer. In his latest publication, «The Asiks» (Agra Press), Thomas Korovinis – a multifaceted figure with a penchant for the East, whose activities include teaching language and literature at high school level, in-depth studies comparing Greek and Turkish folk culture, resulting literary journals and books, as well as songwriting, performing, and folk song research – offers a thorough introduction and anthology of the Asiks, a wandering group of folk artists based in the Anatolia region. They spent centuries as a peripheral yet often respected and feared group but today rank as a spent yet intriguing force. Modern-day Turkey’s determination to be formally inducted into the West, along with the subsequent changing musical preferences of younger generations, have led to a wider rejection of the Asiks. For most Turks today, particularly those in urban settings, the Asiks are a relic of the past, even a reminder of the harsher ways of a country’s undeveloped past. But a modest number of artists persist along the lines of their musical forefathers, who were also renowned for their heartfelt and potent folk poetry about love and the common man’s hardship, delivered mostly with the backing of the saz, a stringed instrument. One of the revivalists, Zulfi Livaneli, a man of wealthy lineage who overcame the widespread modern-day neglect of the Asiks to immerse himself in their forgotten world, explains his attraction in Korovinis’s publication. «I went to a good school in Ankara where lessons were taught in English and students were considered to be members of a higher class. So it was strange when my father bought a saz for his son, in other words, an instrument played only by musicians of lower classes in the villages,» Livaneli says. «My fellow students looked at me scornfully, almost held their noses, but I tried to learn, alone… I then began to discover that the saz was more than just an instrument; it was a symbol of an ancient culture…» Asiks – in Turkish, «asik» means lover, one who is in love, passionate about life – hailed from various races and low classes, and began gaining social acceptance in small and large rural centers in the 18th century after spending hundreds of years as nomads. They gradually gained respect in the cities and among intellectual circles, not so much for the quality of their music but for the poetic strength of their lyrics. By the early 20th century, however, the influence of the Asiks, peace-loving idealists whose work retained elements of nomadic life, pre-Islamic shamanism and universalism, and extolled love, friendship, nature, social justice, humility and heroism, had begun to fade. Even so, both before, during and after their peak, the Asiks always bred fear among the ruling classes for their non-conventional ways. The element of social protest in their work never ceased to hound authorities in the political, religious and scholarly spheres. Korovinis’s publication on the world of the Asiks, whose traditions remind one of the drifting Gypsies, medieval troubadours, and, in many ways, authentic, early 20th century rebetika artists, offers a well-structured, thorough and concise explanation in its first part. Here, his study explores the sources, history and subject matter of Asik music and poetry. «The Asiks,» a richly illustrated volume featuring fascinating photographs, also includes a considerable number of Asik artist biographies and lyrics. The writer’s firm grasp of his folklore subject is not surprising, considering the wealth of previous efforts. Besides «The Asiks,» previous published work by Korovinis, who spent several years living in Istanbul, also includes: «Turkish Parables,» «Scandalous and Scurrilous Greek Proverbs,» «Istanbul – Literary Anthology: Turkish Poets Praise Istanbul,» as well as «Sotiria Bellou,» a volume on the late rebetika great. About the writer Born in Thessaloniki in 1953, Thomas Korovinis, a high school teacher of language and literature, spent eight years living in Istanbul as part of his studies of Greek and Turkish folk cultures. Besides publishing several volumes on the results of his studies, Korovinis has also contributed articles to many magazines and collaborated with Bosporus, an Istanbul-based Greek-Turkish ensemble led by Nikiforos Metaxas, which has focused on exploring and bridging Greek and Turkish musical traditions. Korovinis regularly performs his own work as well and has released several albums. He presented programs on state radio between 1995 and 1999, and is an avid collector of old Greek and Turkish records.