From the Ottoman military to the Balkan Roma
July 19, 2008 10:44 AM   Subscribe

The Mehterhane or Mehter, as they are often known, are thought to be the oldest military marching band in the world. Starting around the 13th century, the band accompanied the Ottoman empire troops (Janissaries, or yeniçeri, roughly meaning "new troops" and were comprised mostly of young men from the Balkans) into battle, spreading their music along the way and influencing western classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven.

Mehter also seems to have influenced the style of music and dance known among Serbian Roma as čoček (Macedonian chochek or чочек; Bulgarian kyuchek or kyutchek--кючек).

Čoček as a dance is related to the Karşılama ("face-to-face") style of dance. The rhythm of traditional čoček music is 9/16, but has been modified into 4/4 and 7/8 as well. Here are some examples in costume and in the street.

The music is brass heavy as played by modern bands like Kocani (or Kochani) Orkestar, Boban Marcovic, Fanfare Ciocarlia, or Goran Bregovic's compositions for movies like Underground and Time of the Gypsies (here's an interesting article on the use of Balkan as a metaphor, utilizing Time of the Gypsies). The music can be stripped down to guitar and flute or violins and clarinet, and has been utilized by American groups like A Hawk and a Hacksaw (featuring Neutral Milk alum Jeremy Barnes on accordion/drums/bell hat). Due to proximity of origin, the music shares some traits with klezmer as well (but that's a whole other research topic).

Interestingly, the terms čoček and кючек seemed to have derived from the Ottomans as well. The word köçek (related to küçük meaning "little or small," but, as one very nice language loving mefite pointed out to me, also means "foal [of a camel]" and by most accounts seems a direct antecedent to the Bulgarian term кючек) was used for men and boy dancers dressed as women. There are arguments as to whether the köçekler were seen as sexualized beings (music plays on first link) or just burlesque, but the practice continues into modern times.
posted by sleepy pete (14 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Now that's a post! Well done, sleepy pete! Thanks; this is something I wouldn't have thought to look for in my musical interests.
posted by pjern at 11:29 AM on July 19, 2008

Thanks for posting this. I knew that there was a connection between Turkish music and what Mozart and Beethoven had done, and vaguely had an awareness of the connection to western military bands. I spent (mostly happy) years in high school, college, and Army bands, and it's part of my being.

And I only discovered Boban last year and think Serbian brass music is amazing. I intend to go to the festival there while I am still young enough to travel. Too bad I blew out my embrochure 30 years ago.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 12:14 PM on July 19, 2008

wow. i've been into this stuff for years. listening to fanfare ciocarlia at work just a bit ago here at work. this stuff thoroughly inspired me and my buddies to create a marching band for the anti-wto fracas in seattle in 1999. i was just mentioning the fanfare in response to the babies on a tv tower poster from earlier this morning! psychic psychic psychic metafilter strikes again!
posted by artof.mulata at 12:16 PM on July 19, 2008

Wow. Cocek, in its many forms, is my favorite rhythm to play, and you've linked to some of my favorite brass bands. Thank you for the rich information in this post.
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 12:39 PM on July 19, 2008

What a fantastic post! Thank you so much!
posted by jokeefe at 2:00 PM on July 19, 2008

And I just flagged this as "fantastic" too.
posted by jokeefe at 2:01 PM on July 19, 2008

Very cool. Can't wait to get to Istanbul.
posted by suelange at 2:23 PM on July 19, 2008

If you get a chance to see A Hawk & A Hacksaw, they're a great show and perhaps one of the loudest things you'll ever hear.
posted by scruss at 2:29 PM on July 19, 2008

Thanks, everyone. This all started with the discovery of the link between čoček and the Turkish dancers and went from there. I think there's a lot of similarities between this stuff and Mexican brass bands as well, but that's for another time (and could just be that they're brass bands, you know). I really love čoček brass bands and the rhythms involved, especially the Kocani Orkestar stuff. While in grad school in a very small town in the midwest, one of the students there my last year was the son of a Roma tribal leader in the Balkans (a lot of Eastern Europeans went to school there, strangely) and I discovered this music after seeing Underground in the 90s upon his suggestion.

I agree with scruss that A Hawk & A Hacksaw is amazing. My wife and I saw them open for that other čoček-loving indie band Beirut. It was just Barnes and Heather Trost, but it was wonderful. Unfortunately, we had a few BHEs (bad hipster experiences) and ended up leaving before Beirut played, but we heard they were wonderful as well.
posted by sleepy pete at 3:08 PM on July 19, 2008

oh, and artof.mulata, that band's pretty damn cool. Thanks for posting that.
posted by sleepy pete at 3:22 PM on July 19, 2008

Fantastic post.

posted by JaredSeth at 5:42 PM on July 19, 2008

...Starting around the 13th century...

Well, safe to say then, they've been through more drummers than Spinal Tap.

Great post, sleepy pete. I'd heard a little of this Turkish military band stuff here and there, but never really explored it. Thanks for compiling this set of links.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:43 PM on July 19, 2008

There were a lot of Greek and Armenian jannisarries too.
posted by k8t at 10:37 PM on July 19, 2008

Men dressed as women dancing cocek is still popular in Kastamonu province in Turkey. But I dare you to call these cross dressing turkish truck drivers "gay."
posted by zaelic at 2:34 AM on July 22, 2008

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