twentieth-century music


A Staged Fright: Musical Hybridity and Religious Intolerance in Turkey, 1923–38



This article is concerned with the relationship between musical style and religious prejudice in Turkey during the early Republican period (1923–38). It focuses on a musical contest in 1932 between a Jewish cantor (hazan) and an Islamic vocalist (hafız) in the presence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the president of the Turkish Republic who instigated revolutionary reforms that affected many aspects of Turkish culture, including music. Historical accounts of this musical contest not only suggest how religious discrimination manifested itself in a competitive setting but also serve to question the parameters of religious tolerance in Turkey, a country often admired for its favourable attitude towards Jews during the twentieth century. The discussion draws on Homi Bhabha's concept of a ‘third space’ to uncover the complex relations that existed in Turkey between Jews and Muslims on the one hand and among Jews on the other. It also invokes Bhabha to show how music can be viewed as a ‘supplementary discourse’ that serves both to unify cultural interests and to perpetuate cultural differences. By challenging the accepted narrative of religious tolerance in historical sources, the article explores through music the characteristics and consequences of racism in the country during a period of growing anti-Semitism both at home and abroad.

(Online publication August 04 2011)

John Morgan O'Connell is director of ethnomusicology programmes at Cardiff University. He is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he completed his PhD on Turkish music. He has taught at Otago University and the University of Limerick, and has held a number of visiting positions, including at Queen's University Belfast and Brown University. His publications are chiefly concerned with the musical traditions of the Islamic world. He is the principal editor of the volume Music and Conflict (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and has acted as a music consultant for a number of international organizations. In 2002 he was awarded a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in association with the Aga Khan Foundation. He is currently book reviews editor of the journal Ethnomusicology.

This article reflects an ongoing interest in musical practices among minority groups in the Islamic world, drawing also on my research on Jewish culture in Turkey, completed with a grant from the Getty Foundation (2006). In this matter I am grateful to Irene Bierman for her personal support and her intellectual contribution. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of Stanford Shaw, a recently deceased authority on Jewish history in Turkey, who supervised part of my doctoral research, and Ali Jihad Racy, whose musical knowledge informs not only my work in general but also my interest in using music to advance intercultural understanding. Special thanks are due to Ruth Davis, whose friendship and perseverance made this publication possible, as well as Stephen Blum, Philip Bohlman, Leslie Hall, Maureen Jackson, Dwight Reynolds, and Edwin Seroussi for their comments on, and criticisms of, earlier versions of this article.

Where not detailed otherwise, all technical terms in this article use the modern Turkish spellings found in Redhouse, Redhouse Turkish/Ottoman–English Dictionary. The suffix (-s) is used for the plural form of non-English terms. As is usual in publications concerning the Turkish Republic (see Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, vol. 2, p. ix), the scientific transliteration of Ottoman terms is not provided. Where personal names are concerned the Turkish form is generally given, along with the non-Turkish and non-Muslim form where applicable. Here it is difficult to provide a consistent approach to personal nomenclature. With reference to the Jewish repertoire performed in ‘espa[ñ]ol’ (Turkish, ‘yahudice’) I employ the technical term Judeo-Spanish instead of Ladino.