Altin Gün’s visual style telegraphs their devotion to ’70s psychedelic folk music as much as their music does. Band members are, clockwise from left to right: Gino Groeneveld (percussion), Nic Mauskovic (drums), Jasper Verhulst (bass), Merve Dasdemir (vocals), Erdinc Ecevit Yildiz (vocals/ keys/saz), and Ben Rider (guitar). Photo by Sanja Marusic
A Turkish Folk Music PrimerAltin Gün’s music is a ’70s-psychedelic take on Turkish folk music. Similar to Ottoman classical styles and Sufi devotional music, Turkish folk music has been around for hundreds of years. It’s based on strong, long-standing traditions, and has an established approach to rhythm, timbre, and pitch.
A Turkish time signature, or meter, is called an usul—but that doesn’t mean a time signature in the Western sense. Rather, an usul also spells out specific subdivisions plus larger time divisions. “For example, a simple usul would be 9/8,” according to Gabriel Marin, guitarist in the Middle Eastern fusion band Consider the Source. He’s been performing with a Sufi order for more than 10 years. “But it wouldn’t just be 9/8. It would be specifically 2+2+2+3—an usul that is very common in folk music. In Ottoman classical music, the usul is much longer—it could be 28 or 54—but that doesn’t necessarily mean 54/4. Rather, it’s all these smaller subdivisions and the places where you put a strong beat and a weak beat. The composer Béla Bartók did a lot of transcriptions of Hungarian, Balkan, and Turkish folk music. Sometimes he would write “7/8,” but then in parentheses he would write “2+2+3,” because that’s very different. A folk dance in 5 that is 2+3 is different from one that’s 3+2, because the dance step is a different dance step.”
A scale in Turkish music is called a makam. But similar to an usul, a makam contains a lot more information than a typical scale in the Western sense. A makam also indicates direction (as in descending or ascending), strong or weak notes, rules for modulating to a different makam, and the notes and microtones in that makam.
“A makam is often just four or five notes, and not a full eight notes,” Marin says. “But it’s not like a pentatonic scale—it wouldn’t be a 5-note scale spread out over a full octave. To play a full octave, sometimes you’ll have two pentachords on top of each other. It will be one makam starting on C and then another makam starting on G. That will be your one octave of the scale.”
Turkish music is microtonal—that is, it uses notes that land between the keys of a piano. “The octave and fifth are almost universal, because that’s based on a mathematical concept,” Marin adds. “But the second, third, sixth, and seventh—those could be altered, or normal, or close to the tempered [scale]. Sometimes you’ll have a makam that is almost identical to the minor scale. Others are like the minor scale, but the second is lowered—not a flat second, but a microtonally lowered second. Turkish music is very microtonal. For example, my saz has 17 frets in the octave instead of 12.”
As Jasper Verhulst notes, Turkish musicians sometimes play over a drone—although, unlike in Indian music, drones are not a central feature of Turkish music. “A makam is not like a raga,” Marin says. “You don’t have a drone, because makams modulate a lot. In Indian music you have a drone, but in makam-based music, technically, there’s never a drone. If there is a drone, it is played on an instrument that can change pitch so they will be able to modulate with it.”