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The Cultural Identity of Turkey

The issue of ethnic minorities seems to have played a significant role in the history of the Turkish Republic. Amy Mills characterizes the Turkish nation as ethnically Turkish and religiously Muslim while mentioning many minorities that play a significant role in defining the identity of Turkey. According to Mills, even Greek, Jewish and Armenian minorities are historically relevant in Turkey. The diverse population and history of Turkey makes it difficult to define the cultural identity in a few words. “Who we are?” continues to be one of the most questioned topics in Turkey (Mills 459)

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Koray Degirmenci mentions the role of Romanness characterizing the Turkish identity and culture. According to Degirmenci, the notion of Romanness (Gypsyness) usually leads one to imagine the popular images that generally associated with Gypsies and their peculiar lifestyle and music traditions. However, the identity of Romans is often interconnected with questions concerning authenticity, nationalism and modernity in Turkey. Degirmency examines these questions by using examples of Turkish culture; particularly focusing on the development of Roman music in particular.

The demand of the world music industry and dominant cultural norms shape what is referred to as ethnic music. There is a wide range of cultural associations with different groups of Romans. For example, alayli is well-known for a virtuosic playing girnata. It is believed that even with an academic education of music this skill would be impossible to gain. In fact, the author considers this skill to be an inherent talent that is passed on from one generation to another. There are many other features of Roman music including higher improvisational capabilities, a flexible repertoire, sincerity and anti-commercialism which testify to its authenticity. The notion of sincerity and being true to one’s own originality demonstrates the work of the musician as a pure expression of originality and creativity. The music becomes, in this case, alive rather than the product of the popular music industry. The best example of sincerity is the Turkish band Taksim Trio, which pursues the creation of ‘real’ music rather than ‘productions in the ‘factory of hits’ (Degirmenci 120).

Roman musicians Selim Sesler and Husnu Senlendirici are popular due to their ethnicity. Selim Sesler’s Romanness is considered to be ‘local’ while Husnu Senlendirici is on the threshold between the local and global music scenes. Both musicians played crucial roles in the popularization of girnata. Although Sercan Cagri is not indeed Roman, he is referred to as a Roman musician. He tries to ‘academize’ girnata and incorporate Roman music forms into the tradition of classical Turkish music. However, Cagri seems to have fallen short within the Roman community where being Roman is the key to success and popularity. The artistry of Gypsy musicians is opposed to applying scholarly perspectives in Turkish music. It should also be noted that the appeal of selling these cultural commodities for a profit is not appealing in Turkey.

According to the Turkish musicologist Ragip Gazimihal, Gypsies, in general, are not able to be artists in the world arena of music due to their lack of discipline and their lack of desire to obtain an education (Degirmenci 99). In fact, it is argued that there is no authentic Roman music because the Gypsy musicians adapt every musical form to their own manner.

Amy Mills considers Gypsies or Romans to be one of the ethnic minorities in Turkey that defines the cultural identity of the country. Cultural identity is constituted through connections to other places and through the history of the country. The gentrification of Kuzguncuk and French Street are examples that are a testament to the European identity that exists at the core of culture in Turkey; its capital, Istanbul. Both projects aimed at the preservation of minorities and European history. The creation of a culturally aware space that claims to recall values of tolerance and multiculturalism is the main principle of cosmopolitanism (Mills 456). The popularity of Turkish music is another factor that allows us to conclude that Turkey is a modern European country with a European identity. Nevertheless, most Turkish people do face the past and want to preserve the cultural image of their country with its historical traditions. As a result, there is a dual struggle; on the one hand, minority spaces in the city symbolize Turkey’s connection to Europe and its history; on the other hand, there is the struggle over ownership of that history. Alison Blunt defines the minority history of Istanbul with the notion of “productive nostalgia” (Mills 458). Although ‘productive nostalgia’ is connected with the past, it is oriented towards the present and the future. In fact, productive nostalgia is not voluntary, as far as it obscures the tensions that would force a true reexamination of history. It should be pointed out, that it is the only way to preserve a real tolerance in the future. The nostalgia for ‘old Istanbul’ has been ‘lost’ or ‘destroyed’ (Mills 458).

Mills’ research on the minority history of Istanbul contests the fact that the nation is purely Muslim and Turkish. She connects the city’s history with Europe as far as minorities and gentrification represent modernity and Europeanism. According to Mills, the main goal of the Turkish government is to become a modern European country. On the contrary, Koray Degirmenci’s research touches upon the importance of authenticity and ethnic identity as it is discussed from the perspective of Romans in Turkey. The example of Roman music development in the world demonstrates the importance of belonging to a particular ethnic group. Degirmenci points out the importance of surviving the Turkish history and ethnic traditions on the contrary to Mills who stresses the significance of Europeanism to the Turkish culture.

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Works Cited

Degirmenci, Koray. “Local Music from out There: Roman (Gypsy) Music as World Music in Turkey”. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 2011.

Mills, Amy. “Narratives in City Landscapes: Cultural Identity in Istanbul. Geographical Review, 2005.

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