The Ramadan Drummer

In Denizli, Ramadan sounds like the banging of Ali Bozdag's drum

By / July 2015

During the month of Ramadan Muslims all over the world fast from food and drink sun up to sun down. Many westerners have heard of iftar, the evening meal when the fast is broken. Fewer have heard of suhur, the morning meal. A vital means of nourishment for the long day ahead, the suhur (Arabic for “of the dawn”) is heralded in many parts of the Muslim world by drummers, who lug their instruments through alleyways and neighborhood lanes and sound the alarm two or three hours before first light.

In Kuşpınar, a neighborhood in Denizli, Ali Bozdag keeps the morning watch. His day job is serving Turkish doner, akin to shawarma, at open-air bazaars. But during the month of fasting, when most cooks lose daytime business, Bozdag moonlights as a drummer. In the wee hours of every Ramadan morning, Bozdag straps on his drum to take part in this time-honored and clamorous tradition. I recently sat down with him to ask a few questions about his job.

When did you first begin playing the drums? How did you learn?

I learned from my dad. He was a Ramadan drummer for 55 years. I used to go out with him as a kid and listen to him play. I learned the tunes just by hearing him play over and over. When I was 14 years old I started playing, too. We were five brothers, and at one time we all played the drums during Ramadan. But now three of my brothers have stopped, so it’s just the other brother and me keeping up the tradition.

How long have you been playing in this particular neighborhood? 

I’ve been playing in the neighborhood of Kuspinar in Denizli every year since 1988. Before that I played in Istiklal, where I grew up, where my dad used to play. My grandfather was an immigrant from Thessalonica during the population exchanges after the founding of the Turkish Republic, so he settled there. There are lots of immigrants in Istiklal, and my brother still plays there.

What time do you start playing each night?

Around 2:00 am. Sometimes as early as 1:45.

How big of an area do you cover? How long does it take you to get through the neighborhood?

It’s probably about five kilometers (three miles) of distance to travel. If I walk, it takes around two and a half hours, but driving I can do it between an hour and an hour and a half. Because Ramadan is in the summer right now, and the sun rises so early, I do it from the car. That way I can start a little bit later, and people can sleep longer, but I can still make it through the whole neighborhood before the call to prayer. We just open up the back hatch and side doors of our Ford Connect, and I sit in the back and bang away.

How long have you been using your current drum? 

I’ve been using this one for 27 years. It’s old. Sometimes the head busts, but you just get a new head. I recently bought a new drum, so I have three now. I always have an extra one with me so that I can keep playing if the head splits.

Do you sing while you play?

First, I drum my way through the whole neighborhood. Then sometimes, after people have woken up, I come back and sing mani, traditional four-line poems:

Look, I’ve come to your door,
I’ve brought my greeting to you all,
If my greeting you don’t accept,
To your door I’ll come no more.

Or another one:

A big mosque needs a column,
And singing requires heart.
My stomach is full, my friend,
But it needs baklava.

I normally sing for 15 or 20 minutes after I’ve gone through the whole neighborhood to wake everyone up. But I always stop at least 10 minutes before the call to prayer.

How many drummers are there in Denizli? What about small towns and villages?

There’s a drummer in every neighborhood. Wherever there’s a muhtar (an elected neighborhood leader), there will be a drummer. There are even drummers who play in the villages. Obviously, people don’t need a drummer to wake them anymore. They can set their alarm clocks, or set an alarm on their TV or their phone. But it’s a tradition, and people enjoy it.

Do those who aren’t fasting ever get angry at you for waking them?

Not usually. Maybe one or two people. But typically, even if people aren’t fasting, they won’t complain or say anything. Most folks are respectful.

Do you always play the same rhythm? Do residents ever request specific mani?

I pretty much play the same tune all the time. You just play whatever beat best suits your hand. But sometimes people do request certain mani. They just like to hear them. And I know lots:

Watermelon, cantaloupe and cheese,
Why should I leave here?
If you don’t tip me well,
I’ll pound a hole in this drum here.

Do you get paid for being the drummer?

The neighborhood muhtar appoints me to play and gives me official permission, but I don’t get any salary or payment from him. I have to do a good job and play in a way that isn’t going to elicit complaints. I’ve even gone to a training course to certify that I’m competent for the job. But I collect tips from folks in the neighborhood. I could go as often as I want and ask for tips. But I usually just go twice, once about half-way into Ramadan, and once just a few days before the end of the month. I usually make between 1000 and 1500 Turkish Lira (around $500) each year during Ramadan.

Do you sleep after iftar and before going out to play, or do you stay awake all night?

Sometimes I sleep an hour or two, and then get up. Sometimes I just stay awake and go out to play. It just depends on how I’m feeling.

Do you ever dread your job or are you excited to play?

Of course I’m excited. You know how people feel empty from doing drugs, and they always want more? That’s kind of how I feel when it’s not Ramadan. I can’t wait for Ramadan to get here each year. It’s the most important month of the year for Muslims. I don’t get tired of it. It’s a privilege to be able to be the one to wake people up so they can eat and be ready for the day of fasting ahead.

Have you ever overslept and not gone out to play the drums?

No way. I set an alarm on my phone. But if I oversleep, Onur, my assistant, will call me. Since there are two of us, we can wake each other up.

What is your favorite thing about being a Ramadan drummer?

I love that people are waking up early so that they can fast. It’s worshipful. People hear the sound, turn on their lights and say, “Ah, my drummer’s here!” It helps stir a desire for people to fast. That desire is important. I want people to have a happy and blessed Ramadan.


Andy Owens is a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler.