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An Istanbul instrument: CÜMBÜŞ

In front of me is a photograph by Ara Güler, whose fame as a photographer goes far beyond Turkey’s boundaries. I cannot decide whether this photograph was taken in the 1940s or 1950s. On a narrow dimly lit stage are seven or eight musicians and singers. The stage and clothing of the musicians makes it certain that this must be a nightclub in Beyoğlu, or somewhere around that area of Istanbul. Are they playing in the Suzinak mode or Kürdilihicazkâr perhaps? And possibly there is a touch of rebetiko there. The male musicians and women singers are all very elegantly dressed, and the guests at their tables are clearly entranced by the music and thoroughly enjoying a memorable evening. The instruments are a tambur (classical long-necked string instrument), violin, darbuka (drum made of baked clay) and right at the back on the left a cümbüş. That is the corner of the photograph that we will now zoom in on.The cümbüş is an instrument unique to Istanbul, sometimes as lively and sometimes as dignified as the city to which it belongs. This mixture of banjo, lute and guitar has a rotund aluminium body with a leather membrane, and a long neck without frets. When the strings are plucked it produces a cheerful sound, and its festive mood is infectious. It has become an instrument associated particularly with the gypsy musicians of Istanbul.

This intriguing instrument is the modern invention of Zeynel Abidin Cümbüş, a man as colourful as his instrument. Combining his musical knowledge, design skills and imagination, he created this new instrument and later commemorated it in his own surname. The instrument was named by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.Zeynel Abidin Bey was born in Thessalonika in 1881, and as a child moved with his family to İzmir and then to Istanbul. He joined the army, and as a young officer was in charge of arms and ammunition manufacture, so following in the footsteps of his father, a gunsmith. However, his passion for music and musical instruments drew him irresistibly into the world of music. He opened a music shop in Beyazıt, Istanbul, selling imported pianos, violins, mandolins and other instruments, while at the same time singing and playing the ‘ut’ (pronounced ‘oot’), a type of lute. He became interested in instrument making, and his curiosity and spirit of enquiry prompted him to invent a new instrument for playing classical Turkish music. He sought a variation on the ut, one of the mainstays of Turkish classical music ensembles, which would have a sound that was more powerful and resonant than that of the ut.
For this purpose he designed an instrument with a metal body and leather soundboard like a banjo, and a fretless wooden neck. The instrument could be dismantled and put together easily.

Atatürk listened to Zeynel Abidin Bey playing his new instrument on 24 Janury 1930, and inspired by its exuberant sound dubbed it cümbüş, a word meaning revelry. The cümbüş was widely admired and Zeynel Abidin Bey applied for a patent, which was issued after inspection by the Presidential Orchestra Office. So Zeynel Abidin Bey began to produce his new instrument for other musicians.

After the Surname Act of 1934, under which every Turkish citizen had to take a family name, Zeynel Abidin Bey chose Cümbüş. He went on to invent other instruments, but none of these achieved the success of the first. In his book entitled Cümbüş, written in 1931, Zeynel Abidin records that he won several medals for his work on musical instruments. In 1934, he visited Teheran and presented a cümbüş to the shah, who gave him an award. He registered his invention in Iran and obtained permission to set up an agency to sell the cümbüş.The popularity of the cümbüş as an instrument of classical Turkish music continued until thirty or forty years ago, but today it is rarely played in cities. However, it continues to be heard in villages and small towns, at weddings, engagement and circumcision ceremonies, played often by gypsy musicians, alongside the violin, darbuka and other instruments. 

Musician and researcher Salih Nazım Peker says of the cümbüş: In almost every corner of Turkey, whether in the taverns, in the gatherings of Urfa and Bademli, or accompanying the folk songs of Elazığ, the cümbüş is played together with the kanun [a type of zither]. Today three groups of musicians favour the cümbüş. The first are inhabitants of the area where the ud is played, which includes Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Armenians and Turks, or among emigrant communities of these peoples in western countries; the second are ensembles playing ethnic music, like Ali Farka Toure, Radio-Taifa and Salamat; and finally, American musicians like Taj Mahal and Ray Cooder use the cümbüş with strings arranged similarly to the guitar or mandolin for playing blues and folk music. The Cümbüş company is the sole producer of these instruments. In Greece, musicians have their own variation consisting of a lute neck attached to a cümbüş body. They call this instrument a tambura, and it is the principal instrument of amanades music. Naci Cümbüş and his sons now run the family firm established by their great grandfather Zeynel Abidin, and continue to make instruments which are played at weddings, musical gatherings, in bars, nightclubs, and radio and television studios. The agreeable, exhilarating sound of the cümbüş keeps alive the memory of its inventor, Zeynel Abidin Cümbüş.
Source: Skylife, 08/2000
By Turgay TUNA