English Interviews

Kanun finds new life in the hands of skilled craftsmans

One of the unique characteristics of Kenan Özten’s signature kanuns is that every piece is made by him and his apprentice Zafer Kibar. 

The kanun, an oriental zither, is a music instrument unique to Turkish music and is painstakingly difficult to manufacture as it requires long labor and great expertise, says a veteran kanun-maker. Kenan Özten, one of the finest kanun-makers alive, explained that “while the kanun has been a traditional musical instrument in Turkey, we have started to see a great interest lately especially among our youth.”What makes the kanun unique, he said, is the instrument is strung with nylon strings in contrast to a similar instrument that is played in the Alpine countries. Interestingly the bridge does not stand on a wooden soundboard but on a parchment (drum skin), similar to the banjo. This results in a characteristic tone.

“The kanun has started to appeal to young musicians, not just in Turkey but in other countries, too, as they started to adapt the kanun to diverse forms of modern music rhythms,” he said. According to Özten, the most fascinating feature of kanun lies in the creation of harmony wherever it is introduced. “It naturally finds a place for itself in many different types of music. It fits perfectly in whichever style is played; from classic music to jazz, from large orchestra to solo,” Özten said.

The Internet has provided an avenue for the kanun to gain popularity in places that have traditionally been indifferent to foreign cultures. “The kanun’s beauty and importance is becoming known by the world to which it was once a stranger,” Özten said. Not every country is foreigner when it comes to the kanun; it is widely used in Arab cultures. But Özten said the best kanuns are crafted in Turkey.

This 73-year-old  kanun-maker still makes instruments in his small workshop in Aksaray, İstanbul. He has devoted almost his entire life to making and perfecting kanuns and has developed his own designs. His work is in demand around the world — the US, Europe, Australia, Israel and the Arab countries.

Making a kanun is not an easy job and requires great expertise and dedication. It is a tradition passed through generations from master to apprentice. Kanun-makers, or “lutiyes” as they were called in the old times, have been perfecting the instrument since its introduction. Özten says he learned how to play the kanun from Ahmet Yatman, his master.

Özten also has had encounters with the record business. His story started with the Türkofon record company, the first Turkish record business in Germany. He helped established it with Yılmaz Asöcal in 1964. By the time he left the country, the company had produced 486 records. He kept the same line of business when he returned to Turkey and set up AS Record Co. in Sirkeci, İstanbul, and then moved it to the Unkapanı district, famous with music record companies. He was the one who first brought the record business to Turkey.

Notwithstanding with his involvement in the record industry, Özten never gave up his interest in the kanun. Once he did away with the record business, he dedicated himself to kanun making by opening a small workshop. “My biggest improvement,” he said, “was solving the problem with the special latches called ‘mandals.'” He set the mandals in a plastic bed, which makes the sound better and makes the kanun more durable. Instrument players found the improvement beneficial, he said.

The kanun can be manufactured using different types of wood. Cedar and plane are used for the sound box; linden for the pegboard and backboard; ebony, boxwood, and rosewood for the pegs; and hornbeam for the exterior and for the board to which the strings are attached. There are 26 courses of strings, with three strings per course. The strings are stretched over a single bridge on the right of the instrument with tuning pegs on the left. The instrument has special tuning devices, or mandals, for each string. It is played by plucking the strings with tortoiseshell picks fixed to metal rings worn on the musician’s fingers. It also has a tuning peg.

“Today no one can make mandals that way,” Özten said. “To be able to make such improvement requires technical knowledge, talent in furniture-making and having an ear for music,” Özten said. He was interested in music at an early age, and he studied furniture-making in art school. He also accompanied well-known musicians of the period, such as Adnan Pekak, Sevim Çağlayan, and Safiye Ayla. His closeness with the well-known Turkish music artists continued while he was in the record business. In 1968, he produced the album “Artık Sevmeyeceğim” (“I Won’t Love Anymore”) with Neşe Karaböcek, and it had far-reaching influence in Turkey. He also made records of famous singers Muazzez Abacı, Ahmet Sezgin, and Alaattin Şensoy.

“The kanun’s tone system is similar to the tone system of the piano. But while in piano a sound is divided into three parts, it is nine in the kanun. Dividing one whole sound into nine parts makes the instrument very rich and able to perform all types of world music,” Özten said.

But it is not easy to play the kanun, he said. When asked who the best kanun players are today, Özten mentioned only handful names, such as Halil Karaduman, Ahmet Meter, Göksel Baktagir, Savaş Özkök, and Hakan Güngör.

One thing Özten misses about the past is that in the old days, almost every family whether rich or poor used to have an instrument on their walls. Either mother or father or both could have played the instrument during family gatherings. “Not anymore,” he said. “The practice has lost its popularity.” He has high hopes, however, because he saw increasing interest in the kanun from the younger generation.

The kanun’s story also reflects the rich tradition of the multi-culture and multi-religious structure of Turkish society. “We used to play instruments and create music together with our non-Muslim friends in music houses,” he recalled. “Some were Greek, some were Armenian, but we were getting along just fine under the spirit of music.”

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