Whose is this song?


We have already written a couple of times about wandering melodies, the Chechen girl of Istanbul, the Hungarian-Hasidic The rooster is crowing, the internationalist Lenin Song, the Bella ciao arching from the Po to the Black Sea, the heroic songs of the Balkans, the waltz of Leonard Cohen linking Spain with Hungary. But never about the most wandering melody, the queen of all wandering melodies. To play this tune on the guitar or on the oud is the best passport from Sarajevo to Southern India: the eyes sparkle, you are offered a coffee, you’ve got home. This melody had spread all over the Ottoman Empire, every nation adopted it, and the long story of its meanderings and transformations is intertwined with that rich, complex and forceful musical and cultural world that the late Ottoman Empire was and about which we have already written a bit. Now in this post that intends to fill this gap we cannot undertake more than to simply flash this richness of the melody, hoping that in a later post we will return to it.


The perhaps best known version of this melody is the Turkish Üsküdar'a gider iken – When going to Üsküdar, aka Katibim – My scribe. Tradition has it that the beautiful scribe to whom this love song alludes was a real person and women were crazy for him. He is the main figure of the great classic Turkish movie Katip (The scribe, 1968), played by the famous singer and actor Zeki Müren. The soundtrack of the film is of course this song. The film, set in 19th-century Istanbul, can be seen here in several parts. In Turkish only, of course, but in this charming naive folk play style, so characteristic of Turkish movie, you can understand everything without it as well. You should watch at least the first few moments of it. The second version of the song below is sung by Zeki Müren himself, while the first one by one of the brightest stars of old Turkish urban music, Safiye Ayla.

Üsküdar'a gider iken
aldı da bir yağmur
Kâtibimin setresi uzun,
eteği çamur
Kâtip uykudan uyanmış,
gözleri mahmur
Kâtip benim, ben kâtibin,
el ne karışır?
Kâtibime kolalı da gömlek
ne güzel yaraşır

Üsküdar'a gider iken
bir mendil buldum
Mendilimin içine
lokum doldurdum
Ben yarimi arar iken
yanımda buldum
Kâtip benim, ben kâtibin,
el ne karışır?
Kâtibime kolalı da gömlek
ne güzel yaraşır
When going to Üsküdar, it began to rain

long is the coat of my scribe, its sleeves get muddy.

The scribe woke up, his eyes are still sleepy.

I am of my scribe and my scribe is mine, it’s nobody’s business.

How well
the stiff shirt collar suits my scribe!


When going to Üsküdar, I found a kerchief


I filled it with lokum (Turkish sweet)

When looking for my helper, I found him on my side.

I am of my scribe and my scribe is mine, it’s nobody’s business.

How well
the stiff shirt collar suits my scribe!


In Greek the song has several versions. Today the best known is Apo xeno topo – “From a foreign place”, as it is sung below by Eustathia Grendjelou.


Aπό ξένο τόπο κι απ' αλαργινό
ήρθ' ένα κορίτσι, φως μου, δώδεκα χρονώ

Ούτε στην πόρτα βγαίνει ούτε στο στενό
ούτε στο παραθύρι φως μου, δυο λόγια να της πω

Έχει μαύρα μάτια και σγουρά μαλλιά
και στο μάγουλό του, φως μου, έχει μιαν ελιά

Δε μου τη δανείζεις δεν μου την πουλάς
την ελίτσα που 'χεις, φως μου, και με τυραννάς

Δε σου τη δανείζω, δεν σου την πουλώ
μόν' να τη χαρίσω θέλω σε κείνον π' αγαπώ
From a foreign place, a far away land
came a girl, my delight, twelve years old.

She does not come to the door, near to me
or to the window, to tell me a word or two.

Her eyes are black, her hair is curly,
and on the face she has a mole.

Won’t you give it away, won’t you sell to me
that mole, you’re only tormenting me?

I don’t give it away, I don’t sell it,
I want to give it to him whom I love.

But the earlier text is Ehasa mantili – I’ve lost my kerchief. This is how Roza Eskenazi from Istanbul, the queen of rebetiko used to sing it. Unfortunately I don’t have this recording with her. Here you are instead a nice version with Anastasia Eden, from a tavern. I think this one was the Minor Asian Greek version of the song, in most recordings enriched with recitative solos.


Έχασα μαντήλι μ' εκατό φλουριά;
κι έμαθα πως το 'χει η κόρη του παπά.
Δωσ' μου το μαντήλι, κράτα τα φλουριά
μην το μάθει η αγάπη μου και δεν με θέλει πια....
I’ve lost my kerchief with a hundred florins
they say the daughter of the priest has it
Give me back the kerchief and keep the florins
let my lover not see it and leave me.

One can also find a Greek Gypsy instrumental version with the Giorgos Koros band, whose title is the Sephardic equivalent of Apo xeno topo: En un lugar extrangero – In a foreign place. However, the Sephardic version of the song as we know it today has a completely different text which sets the love story in the formerly largest Sephardic town, Thessaloniki: Selanik entero yo lo caminí – I’ve rambled over all Saloniki for you.


But the tune is also known all over the Balkans. The Serbian text is Dva goluba (Two doves) or Ruse kose (Black hair). This is the earliest recording of Dva goluba from 1910:


Poletela dva bijela, aman goluba
pa su pali na turbeta cara Murata.
Jedan nosi britku sablju cara Murata,
drugi nosi amajliju cara Hamida.
Pitala ga (ih) vjerna ljuba cara Murata:
Oj, Boga vi, dva bijela, aman goluba,
otkud vama britka sablja cara Murata,
I zlacena amajlija cara Hamida?
Sablju dade mila majka cara Murata.
seja dade (...) naseg cara Hamida
mila seja, amajliju cara Hamida.
Two dear white doves flew away
they settled on the turban of Murat.
One brought a sharp sabre to Murat
the other an amulet to Hamid.
The true lover of Murat has asked:
Oh, for God, you two dear white doves
where is this sharp sabre for Murat
and the golden amulet for Hamid from?
Murat’s dear mother gave the sabre to him
and his sister gave it to our Hamid
his dear sister gave the amulet to Hamid.


In Serbian-speaking but Muslim Bosnia the text of Ruse kose is also preceded by a strophe beginning with Oj devojko Anadolko budi moja ti (Oh Anatolian girl, be mine), or it is sung as an Islamic religious song, Zašto suza u mom oku (Why are my eyes weeping?) Although the text of this latter is a prayer, in the Yugoslav civil war it was an Islamist war anthem. In Bulgaria it also has two texts: the Cherni ochi imash libe (Your eyes are black, my dear) is a love song, while the Yasen mesec vech izgryava nad zelenata gora (A bright moon is rising above the green mountains) was the anthem of late 19th-century anti-Turkish liberation wars. But it is also sung in Albanian in Albania, in Macedonian (if there exists a language like this at all) in Macedonia (Oj devojche – Oh, girl), in Arabic in Iraq and in Lebanon, and the Italian KlezRoym band even made a modern klezmer of it with a mixed Arabic-Sephardic-Hebrew-French-English-Italian text.


Fel shara canet betet masha
la signorina aux beaux yeux noirs
come la luna etait la sua facia
qui eclairait le boulevard

Volevo parlar shata metni
because her father was a la gare
y con su umbrella darabetni
en reponse a mon bonsoir

Perchè my dear tedrabini
kuando yo te amo kitir
and if you want tehebini
il n’y a pas lieu de nous conquerir

Totta la notte alambiki
et meme jusqu’au lever du jour
and every morning ashtanaki
pour le voue de notre amour...
The girl with beautiful black eyes
was walking on the street,
her face, like the moon
suffused the street with light.

I wanted to speak to her
because her father was at the station
but she hit me with her umbrella
as a return of my bonsoir.

Why do you hit me, my dear
when I love you so much?
Even if you want to declare love
there is no way to conquer me.

I will wait for you all the night
until the very daybreak
and every morning I’ll be there
as I’ve taken a vow for our love.


The song’s modern panorama in the Balkans is surveyed in the genial documentary of Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva, Чия е тази песен? – Whose is this song? The film was published in 2003 and won at least five prestigious awards, being even nominated as the best European documentary of the year. Nevertheless, it is almost completely inaccessible, you cannot order or download it from any place. You can only watch it on a Bulgarian site in several parts, or in the Google video below. Although it is one hour long, it is a must to watch it all.



The scenario starts in an Istanbul restaurant where the song is sung by a charming Turkish singer, and the table society coming from various Balkan countries starts to discuss where the song really comes from. Peeva is also there, and she decides to set out to travel across the Balkans to discover how it is sung in each country. We hear a lot of beautiful performances with various texts, and of course we are informed in each country that the song comes from there. Perhaps the only exceptions are the Muslim Bosnian choir director who recognize the Turkish origins of the song, and the Macedonian composer who points out that Macedonian folk music does not have such rhythm.

Under the pretext of the song’s various versions, the film offers an introduction to present day circumstances and tensions of the countries of the Balkans. It shows how the various communities use the song as a symbol of their identity, that some perceive the melody as a link to the others, while others interpret the different text and context as a wall against the others. Peeva herself gets into dangerous situations: the Serbians of Vranje want to beat her when she plays them the Bosnian version with her tape recorder, and in the Bulgarian mountain fiesta she is menaced to be hung up if she dares to say that the melody comes from Turkey.

The film is composed with independent scenes going from country to country. Peeva focuses everywhere on only one detail, one community or musician, but with a deep attention that is able to go beyond stereotypes and to grasp the complexity of every situation, the simultaneous presence of good and evil.

It is especially beautiful how Peeva in every scene emphasizes the personality, humanity and moral strength of her interlocutors. This film is not just an ethnomusicological journey, but a series of attentive and sensitive encounters. With the Istanbul filmmaker of Katip, who recalls with enthusiasm the singers of his youth. With the worker-musicians of Mytilene who are elevated above their everyday life by the common music-making in the pub. With the former opera singer of Tirana whose every gesture represent culture and ideas in a desperately eroded world. With the young Serbian priest of a Gypsy community who plays together with his congregation and who condemns the false Gypsy myth of Bregović and Kušturica. This film, which looks at the Balkans from inside, with love and on equal terms, and which, instead of focusing on the usual comic or tragic Balkan stereotypes exhibits the strength and steadfastness with which these people transcend their often tragic world, stands out high from the recent dumping of Balkan films.


This film and song has even inspired an EU project. The “Everybody’s Song – Music as a tool for the promotion of diversity and intercultural understanding” project supported in 2007 and 2008 with courses, events and concerts the collaboration of young musicians from the Balkans and the discovery of their common cultural roots. On their page they also illustrate the various versions of this song with several recordings, even from so implausible places and bands like Usbekistan, Malaysia and the Boney M.

However, neither the film nor the project offer an answer to the origins of the melody. Perhaps it is too early to do so. There are a number of conflicting theories around. Some Arabic sources attribute it to the 19th-century Iraqi composer Mullah Osman Al-Muselli, whose version is performed by Yousef Omar in the Iraqi video linked above. Others say that it was diffused in Istanbul by the Scottish military bands stationing in the city during the Crimean war of 1853-56. Again others defend its Armenian origins, saying that it was first sung in 1883 the operetta Leblemitzi Horboraga by Dihran Tsohatzian, which became highly popular all over the Ottoman Empire. This theory is perhaps also supported by the fact that the first recording of the melody was made by German musicologists in 1900 with an Armenian boy in the Eastern Anatolian Gaziantep. However, none of these hypotheses can be verified. We can only say with some probability that it is a relatively late, 19th-century urban song. This is also attested by the fact that its versions in the various provinces of the empire are still surprisingly uniform, and it has survived everywhere as an urban song, rather than a peasant folk song.

The Everybody’s Song project offers only one short musicological study on this song, with an interesting title from an interesting book: Dorit Klebe: “Das Überleben eines osmanisch-türkischen städtischen Liebesliedes seit einer frühen Dokumentation von 1902. Metamorphosen eines makam.” In: Marianne Bröcker (ed.): Das 20. Jahrhundert im Spiegel seiner Lieder. Schriften der Universitätsbibliothek Bamberg. Band 12 (2004), pp. 85-116. I have not yet managed to access it, but as soon as I will read it, I will report on it. If you know more, write us by all means.

Üsküdar around 1900. Photo of Sébah and Jouillier

6 comentarios:

Julia dijo...

Escribo esto inmediatamente después de terminar de ver el fantástico documental de Peeva y todavía bajo los efectos de la gran impresión que me produjo.
Es de esperar que pueblos que -quiéranlo o no- se han hermanado en el amor a una melodía, puedan encontrar maneras de respetarse a pesar de -o gracias a- las diferentes letras o versos con que dan materia a esa forma musical. Tarea nada sencilla como bien expresa el documental...

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, it would be great indeed. But you know the case of “British and American – separated by a common language”. Mutatis mutandis, this is also the case with the Balkans.

Sin embargo, el documental es magnífico de verdad. Demuestra la riqueza histórica y espiritual de esta región, y también la extraordinaria fuerza necesaria para mantener la identidad (y a veces la vida) de uno en este rincón bendito y maldito del mundo.

Anónimo dijo...

"in Macedonian (if there exists a language like this at all) in Macedonia (Oj devojche – Oh, girl)"

Ignorant comments like that put a dark stain on your otherwise interesting post.

You'd think that one would learn something from this documentary, but apparently not.

BTW, there are two versions in Macedonian "Oj, ti Paco Drenovcanke" and the more well known "Oj, Devojce".

Studiolum dijo...

Someone aware of the over century long history of the Macedonian question, of the dialectal dividedness of the Macedonian area, of the political background of the creation of Macedonian as an official language, and of the conflicting views on the status of Macedonian as a language would rather say “insightful” instead of “ignorant”.

Anónimo dijo...

Hi, b.mashish here.

I'd just like to add the finishing touch to the lovely post.

The "seja" mentioned in the BSC lyrics is not the hero's lover; rather, this is the lyrical endearing term for a sister ("sestra"). The antiquated term for lover (actually, "wife") is "ljuba", the etymology being self-evident.

Greetings...

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks, binmashish. Good to see you around! And thank you for the correction, I’ve included it. Check back soon!