Dengbej singers preserve their culture in Van
Veteran performers reach out to the next generation to protect an endangered legacy.
By Firat Baran for SES Türkiye in Van -- 28/12/12
As pop music spreads to every corner of the globe in the age of the internet, keepers of the Dengbej oral literary tradition are raising their voices in Van.
Dengbej singers have been central to Kurdish spoken literature for centuries. Before the advent of the written word, they kept records of Kurdish history in ballad form. Their songs kept Kurdish legends and tales alive in times when the language was forbidden, providing a foundation for much of the Kurds' written literature today.
Before there was TV, dengbej would wander from village to village, regaling their admirers with tales of uprisings, romance and daily life. But the destruction of thousands of rural settlements and ongoing fighting in the countryside mean the tradition's future is far from assured.
That's why Zeki Demir, 63, opened the Van Dengbej House with his own money two years ago. He hopes the modest centre, which pays its rent by selling tea to listeners, will keep the culture alive.
"I want to transmit this legacy left to us by our forebearers to future generations," Demir, who has been a denbej since he was 7, told SES Türkiye. "Everyone needs to work together to preserve this culture."
Halis Vural, a 75-year-old dengbej, lamented that young people in Van show little interest in the form.
"Dengbej singers aren't as valued as they used to be. When I used to ply my trade in the villages, everyone would open their doors to us and listen with great interest," he told SES Türkiye.
"Everyone wanted to be a dengbej back in those days. Young generations look at us from afar now. We must protect this tradition, which has always kept Kurdish culture, history, pain, love and joy alive."
But a dengbej revival might be in the offing as a growing number of young Kurds are taking up the form. In the past, the craft was a means of preserving history and entertaining crowds, but politicised youths increasingly see it as a matter of honoring Kurdish culture.
"Let's stand up for this treasure and keep it alive," Idris Toktas, a 25-year-old denbej, told SES Türkiye. It's the Kurds' history, tales, stories and poetry. If we lose it, we will also lose our past. A people who have no past cannot have a future. I'm going to try to teach this culture to youth and children."
Youngsters like Toktas give Demir hope that the dengbej culture has a future.
"Young denbej singers have started to come recently. This shows that the tradition will survive into future generations," Demir said. "All the famous dengbej singers have their roots in this region and will keep spreading their roots until they reach the next generation. That's our goal."
Abdullah Tasdemir, a local man who frequents the Dengbej centre, called on citizens to support the denbejs and the traditions they're standing up for.
"Just as there were famous dengbej singers in the past, like Sakiro, Zahiro, and Arif, we need to have our own famous dengbej singers. These sorts of cultural treasures aren't easy to develop," he told SES Türkiye.
"I come here and listen to them every day with great pleasure. From them I learn about my people's history, culture, pain and joys. We need to help young people appreciate this tradition so it isn't erased from history."