Three Strings for a Song

In the Taurus Mountains, a folk musician refuses to be silenced

By / October 2015

Hayri Dev’s father forbade him to play music. Song was antithetical to the old man’s version of Islam. Still, Dev’s desire to play the three-stringed bağlama, an instrument native to southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, could not be quenched. Despite his father’s protests, he had learned to play from his grandfather and uncles by the time he was fifteen. “I’ve taken a lot of beatings because of this instrument,” Dev recalls. Today, nearly seventy years later, after a lifetime spent strumming the bağlama, he says those first lessons remain. “They stayed inside me.”

The music that Dev imbibed from his ancestors harkens back hundreds of years. Before migrating to Anatolia, Turkic bards used to pluck the primitive kopuz, a leather-covered instrument with three strings that was made of animal intestines or hair. The modern saz, a family of Turkish stringed instruments, is wooden and has seven metal strings. The kopuz has no frets. The saz has between fifteen and twenty-two.

Somewhere between the two came Dev’s version of the bağlama. Just under three feet long, it has a deep round back carved from juniper wood with nine frets. The instrument’s name comes from the Turkish word meaning to tie because the frets are added by wrapping a thin wire tightly around the short neck. But the small instrument’s most distinctive and primitive feature is the fact that it only has three strings. Very few know how to play Dev’s three-stringed bağlama. Fewer still can make those three strings talk like he can.

Within five minutes of sitting down on Dev’s back porch in Gökçeyaka, a village in the Taurus Mountains, he stands to reach for his bağlama. At the first break in conversation, he begins strumming his three strings and telling his musical stories.

Although he knew shoemaking, tailoring, and carpentry, Dev preferred his father’s profession, shepherding. For Dev, it was ideal because it was the one job that never required him to put down the bağlama. He also lived for the shepherds’ secret meetings on the mountains. “All the shepherds carried a mirror in their bags,” he reminisces. “We would use them to communicate with each other and plan our next meeting at the dancing stone.”

Photograph by Josh Hinton Hayri Dev, on his porch in Gökçeyaka. Photograph by Josh Hinton

Dev and his contemporaries referred to these secret meetings as yarenlik, or friendly chats. But these spontaneous concerts also included elements of youthful love, drawing the ire of elders including Dev’s father. “Once there was a beautiful girl whose skin was so fair that if she ate a red grape, you could see it going down her throat,” Dev recalls. “I wrote this song for her,” he says, and begins playing:

She’s got red roses on her cheeks,

The stars collided on her cheeks,

Let the beautiful girls come to me.

At the meetings, the girls would put cymbals and hand bells on their fingers. The guys would decorate their instruments with tassels and beads. “Then,” Dev adds, “we’d play and dance until all the sheep got away.”

These clandestine merry-making sessions also account for Dev’s unique ability on the reed pipe. The shepherds would blow a small pipe both to soothe their sheep and amuse themselves. At one end of the burnt-out flute would be a mouthpiece, also made of reed. But the shrill and boisterous sound travelled too far for their secretive meetings.

Dev quickly discovered that during spring months a fresh pine branch about the width of a man’s finger, and a little longer, could remedy the problem. After cutting the new-growth branch from a tree, he would cut two rings around the branch just as deep as the bark, tap on the wood with the handle of his knife, then spin the bark to snap it loose from the soft wood inside. With the now-hollow and still-wet bark as a new mouthpiece, this “secret pipe,” as Dev calls it, produced a deeper, mellower sound.

“That way,” he proudly explains, “we could play behind one forest, and people behind the next forest wouldn’t know that all the young shepherds had gathered for a yarenlik.”

Dev’s first love was a neighbor’s daughter, Birgül. Lovesick while grazing animals on the mountains, he wrote his first songs longing for her. But, to Dev’s chagrin, Birgul’s parents betrothed her to someone else. Heartbroken, he turned to music for mourning. “I took up my bağlama for her and never stopped,” he says.

Along with Hasan Yildirim, his local fiddle-playing counterpart, Dev began to build a reputation. Before long, he and Yildirim became standard fare at local weddings. “They would always call us. The bride’s family wouldn’t let her leave until the groom’s family had called us,” he remembers. Dev says he played at pretty much every wedding in the area. Except Birgül’s.

Dev did later marry. Days turned into decades. Dev and Yildirim played for shepherds and at weddings, anywhere people would gather to listen. “Wherever we’d go for a yarenlik, we’d start in the evening and play until morning,” he says. “We’d wear the rugs out in those houses in one night.”

Dev has spent most of his 83 years in obscurity and seclusion from the world beneath him. Gökçeyaka is 50 miles north and 5,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. He never attended school. And it might have remained that way if not for an unlikely encounter with a curious French musicologist.

Jerome Cler was entranced by the sounds of Turkey’s rural folk music that he encountered in Talip Ozkan, a well-known musician living in France. In the early 1990’s, Cler set out to find the source of that music. He heard a chance cassette recording of Hayri Dev playing at a wedding. Then he found the man. After preparing a doctoral thesis and being accepted onto the faculty at Sorbonne University, Cler returned in 1993 with a film crew and produced an award-winning French-language documentary about Dev’s life and music titled Behind the Forest, a reference to the secrecy of Dev’s early years.

The film’s success led to invitations from Europe. Dev made nine trips. He and his friends awed crowds in music halls. They swept prizes at ethnic music festivals in France, Germany, and Belgium. Radio France published three albums featuring Dev’s compositions. Cler even arranged for Dev, a completely uneducated man, to spend a week teaching music at Sorbonne University. At age 70, Dev found his name on UNESCO’s list of Living Human Treasures as a “bearer of intangible cultural heritage.”

Cler still comes to Gökçeyaka nearly every year. He brings students with him. Because of his success in Europe, Dev now appears on television programs and at national musical events in his own country. When he plays, parliamentarians and governors come to listen. He still sings the same humble tunes he used to play on the mountainside as a lonely shepherd. “I’ve cut watermelon,” he sings, “but there’s no one to eat. I’ve come to play, but there’s no one to listen.”

Dev has congestive heart failure. His doctor has forbidden him from blowing his secret pipe anymore. He says he’s not supposed to sing either. “But the doctor said it’s this mountain air and music that have made me live this long,” he says. It has been two hours since he began telling me his musical stories. His son asks if he needs to rest. Dev smiles with his eyes. He calls the music his food. “I got some food,” he says. “I got some food.”


Andy Owens is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.