Turkish Mehter Bands Influence on the West

I waited to post the June blog until close to the end of the month, as we’re coming up on the Fourth of July Celebration here in the U.S. The Fourth brings picnics, fireworks, and parades with plenty of marching bands performing patriotic music.

So, what’s the connection to the Turkish Mehter Bands of the Ottoman Empire? Read on!

Ottoman Mehter Band

 

For centuries, music has been used in battle to bolster the troop morale and intimidate the enemy. Think skirling Scottish Bagpipes at the Battle of Culloden Moor, or ‘Dixie’ being played during the American Civil War.  Did you know that modern marching bands have been traced to the Turkish Military Mehter Bands?

The Mehter Bands (aka Mehteran) rallied Turkish soldiers and citizens, and performed for most all official Ottoman events decreed by the reigning Sultan; however from the European perspective, they were first made fun of as a joke – until Europeans saw how effective the music was and they adopted the style.

What Instruments Did They Play?

The Mehteran were composed of different sections of music, much like modern-day bands are.  There was a reed section (the zurna) which often played the melody; a male chorus of singers; trumpets (boru); small dual drums (nekkare), larger bass drums (davul), and cymbals (zills).  Additionally, there were cevgan (pronounced chev-gahn), which became known as ‘jingling johnnies’ in England – they were comprised of a tall staff with strands of bells with horsetails suspended from them, and the staff was tapped on the ground in time to the music.  Each section, similar to modern marching or concert bands, would have between seven and nine musicians, which greatly amplified the impact.

The most conspicuous instrument were the huge tympani drums, the kos drums, which were large enough to be suspended from the backs of elephants or camels when played.

Kos Drums

 

There were many different Mehter Bands serving various functions throughout Turkish society and the Ottoman Court.  While the most visible Mehter band may have been the one that spurred the Janissaries, the elite Turkish warriors, onto victory they also performed ceremonial functions, civic festivals, and in welcoming dignitaries to Constantinople.


 

Can I still See Mehter Bands Today?

 Thankfully, the answer is YES!  

I’ve been fortunate enough to see them on my second trip to Istanbul; and being a percussionist/marching band/concert band drummer I was thrilled to the core!

The Military Museum in Istanbul (Askeri Muzesi) is located just about half a mile north of Taksim Square, across The Golden Horn from Topkapi Palace.  Even if you’re not a military buff, the museum has historical treasures beyond just military hardware, some which stretch back to the Byzantine era when Istanbul was called Byzantium in the 1400s.

You can take a virtual tour of the museum here, learn more about the Mehter Band here, and if the links are problematic, there is always YouTube.

To Recap

The Mehter/Mehteran, Turkish Ottoman military bands, are believed to be the oldest variety of military marching bands in the world, some records indicate as early as the 8th century.  Used for military purposes as well as state functions, the sound of the Mehteran influenced European classical composers such as Haydin, Mozart, and Beethoven by encompassing percussion instruments and cymbals into their compositions.  Today, their music is ceremonial, and it is considered a rousing example of national pride and a reminder of Turkey’s historical past.

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