In the Presence of Atatürk


It was Atatürk’s first visit to Istanbul. It was July 1927.

Mr.Ahmet Rasim, one of the famous authors of that period, had taken Tanbura player Osman Pehlivan and me to Dolmabahçe palace. I was a young man in those times. I had came to Istanbul for education. Ahmet Rasim Bey knew me by the Kadıköy Şark Musiki Cemiyeti (the society of Oriental Music). He knew that I played Bağlama (folkloric stringed instrument) and wished to have Atatürk listen to me.

There was not anything by the way of folk music in those times. There was a comprehensive folklore life only in the villages.

Tanbura player Osman Pehlivan and I were only the folk music representatives within the radio programs, which had just been established and broadcasting mainly classical Turkish Music on the upper floor of the post office.

In those times, the broadcasts either might have been listened to by Atatürk or he might have heard something about it from listeners, Atatürk would have wanted to listen to me and Osman Pehlivan with whom he had been acquainted before.

That night, I was extremely excitedas it was an exceptional meeting and in the presence of Atatürk. I greeted Atatürk sitting at the head of the long dining table, he replied by nodding his head.

He invited Ahmet Rasim with a polite smile.

- Please sit down Mr.Ahmet Rasim.

We had been set at a small table.

One of the waiters with his jacket, black trousers, bow tie, quietly elegant and interesting for an Anatolian young man came to me and asked what we would drink. Osman Pehlivan asked for raki. After a time he brought a small carafe of raki and set lavishly the table with appetisers on small plates and put the raki into the glass and went away.

I did not touch the glass because I was not used to drinking alcohol. Osman Pehlivan drank the raki at once. And, being a gourmet, he ate all the appetisers on the small plates.

I was looking at Atatürk with elusive glances.

He was talking with vivid face movements and I could understand what he was talking about because of the distance between us.

He caught sight of us after a while, stood up and came towards us. We stood up and greeted him with respect.

Talked to Osman Pehlivan, whom knew him before, in a Rumelia accent.

- Do you still play the tambura?.

He replied in the same accent.

- Not always My Pasha.

Atatürk understood the situation while regarding the empty plates, then signalled the waiter to set the table once again, more lavishly.

Mr.Ahmet Rasim introduced me.

- Sir he plays Bağlama. He is a talented young man.

Atatürk held out his hand with a little smile. I kissed his hand with respect. He sat on a comfortable chair a small distance away. After Tanbura player Osman Pehlivan playing and singing a few Rumelian songs. I played a song on Ahmet Rasim’s signal. After I had finished Atatürk stood up and came to us and told me:

- You are play well. Where did you learn this instrument?

- In Safranbolu Sir.

- Are you from there?

- Yes sir.

- Why did you come to Istanbul?

- For education sir.

- What will you study?

- I entered the dentist school. In the meantime I’m studying in Turcology and at the conservatory.

- That's nice. It has been useful to art and knowledge together.

- Can you do a Taksim (partition) with this instrument? He asked.

- Let me play a “bozlak”.

- What does it mean?

- It is a kind of “uzunhava”. (Folk dance rhythm)

- Is what you call “uzunhava” similar to “gazel.”

- There are some differences.

-Such as?

I had become quite relaxed. That great person has got a soft airsand is easy going on his environment. Obviously he was testing me. He probably enjoyed my answers because he was listening to me with a little smile.

- I tried not to stammer and to explain the differences of gazel and uzunhava and their own styles.

- What does “Irlama” mean?

- The Turkish people living in the high plateau called singing folksongs in a high voice “Irlama”, I replied.

- Let’s listen then, he said

Atatürk’s interest in the subject and his enjoying my playing the instrument had encouraged me and I played a “Bozlak" than changed to “oyunhavası” (folk dancing rhythm”

After I had finished, he wanted me to hand him the instrument to him and he touched the strings once or twice, then spoke those words that I shall never be able to forget.

“I thank my young partner, he brought the nice atmosphere of Anatolia. Sirs this is a Turkish instrument. A culture of a nation is talking from the breast of this little instrument. We must not forget to adjust the level of culture and art activities of the nation to the civilised world itself. I am glad to say so, by the way. The melodies coming from this instrument must be improved and implemented in this direction. Implementation and improvement of the melodies coming from this instrument should be emphasized.

However, as I noted own later on, I explained Atatürk’s words as the necessity of the Turkish music drawing on folk music sources. And I admired Atatürk’s broad vision with respect to the national culture of music beside his qualifications as a great state man and an ingeniuos man of the military.