When Istanbul was at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, it was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in history; Rebetiko was one of many cultural and musical variations. However, after the founding of Turkey in the early 20th century, most of the city’s minorities slowly disappeared and were gradually replaced by Kurds and other economic migrants from Anatolia. Turkey had begun its transformation itself from an agricultural to an industrial economy; a change that would become more prominent from the 1950s onwards.
But all these groups had already left their indelible cultural mark on a country where musical influences come from Greece, the Balkans, Egypt, Iraq, Armenia, Spain, medieval European romance, seventeenth century Islamic chant – as well as traditional Ottoman folk music, the western classical tradition and contemporary pop music.
Nearly all these ethnic groups are now gone.
Ethnic Greeks descended from the Byzantine Christians (known as Rûm under Ottoman rule) left in the 1923 population exchange and 1955 riots – but not before Rebetiko, a kind of Greek blues, had become hugely popular. The Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had fled fifteenth century Spain, gradually emigrated to Israel – but had kept its Ladino language and music alive and its Andalusian, Gypsy, Balkan and Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms were hugely popular in Turkey.
Attaturk banned traditional Ottoman music in 1934 so Turks tuned to Arabic radio, leading to the rise of Arabesque music in the 1970s; and there are still prolific and popular Arabesque musicians in Istanbul today. The Armenian composer Komitas was once compared to Bartok and impressed Claude Debussy. He was traumatised by the ethnic cleansing of the First World War but had already collected and transcribed over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music and published the very first collection of Kurdish folk song.