Murad Demir brings a new breath to Kurdish music

Murad Demir is no ordinary dengbêj singer. Although he sings about historical Kurdish events, myths and folk songs, he also accompanies them with Western classical instruments in addition to traditional ones.

Murad Demir is a young Kurdish musician from Hakkari (Colemêrg) in Northern Kurdistan, who has dedicated himself to the tradition of Dengbêj, i.e. the Kurdish bards, poets and storytellers who perform historical events and myths, fairy-tale stories, lamentations, prayer hymns or even folk songs in a style of recitative specific to the art of Dengbêj. The Kurdish Dengbêj traditionally perform their songs without instrumental accompaniment. But not Demir, who also mixes Western classical instruments with his melodies and touches them with his voice. Something new, something that has long been withheld from new generations. But his sound and the unique mixture does not only inspire Kurdish music listeners. Dîlan Karacadağ from the daily newspaper Yeni Özgür Politika spoke to Murad Demir as part of their interview series with young artists.

To what extent did your hometown influence you and your music?

It made me turn to myself. Hakkari is the answer to my search for what I wanted in music. And crucial to my decision to devote myself to Kurdish music. My father always wanted me to study. That's why he wasn't really enthusiastic when I dropped out of university after two attempts. But because he appreciates my music, he respected my decision.

The city of Hakkari and its culture really have a big influence on my musical life. I think that my father was the reason why I love this area so much. He is a great musician, whom I looked up to with great admiration. The fact that he is Dengbêj was my luck. The appreciative approach to his pieces had reflections on me. He gave me my absolute respect for music.

Are you also in Hakkari in times of Corona?

Yes, my family and I live here under the same roof.  However, whenever possible we do not stay in the same room.  I want to protect both them and myself.

How did your career as a professional musician begin?  What instrument did you start with?

As a child I imitated my father's singing style, and twelve years ago I started playing the saz under professional supervision. Later on, the kaval (end-blown flute) was added. After a long time, a friend of mine approached me and asked why I didn't play the guitar. So my time as an instrumentalist and soloist began. But in this way I could not make the music I wanted. I wasn't as idealistic then as I am now. I had to earn my living somehow, so my stage repertoire consisted mostly of Turkish jazz and rock music. But this life could not enrich me musically.  However, from the context of the music I make today, our possibilities were very limited.

After my decision to break radically with everything and to dedicate myself exclusively to Kurdish music, I soon realized that it was the best decision I had made in my life so far. I had just completed four semesters of music studies to become a teacher, when I realized that this was not what I wanted. Somehow it didn't fit anymore. I broke off my studies and focused on my own musical path. I started with ‘Hoy Nermê’. Every person lives for his ideals. My ideal is to introduce the Kurdish music to the world, to find a new sound without breaking with tradition. Therefore I will persistently continue my way.

Speaking of Hoy Nermê; many people were enthusiastic, the feedback was great.

That is true. The positive feedback exceeded our expectations, which is a great compliment. I think it's the combination. Traditionally, it's rather older people who make this kind of music. I belong to the younger generation and mix it with folkloric elements. Recently my second single ‘Rez’ was released. The lyrics were written by my father. The feedback was similar.

I appreciate that. It's similar with positive reviews from artists whose music I have been passionately addicted to since childhood. That gives me the motivation to continue in the same way. I hope I deserve the attention that is given to me and my music.

You said that Rez is a piece of your father's music.

This song is very special to me. The lyrics were written by my father. I wanted to express my attachment to him, after all he is my biggest supporter. He is a dengbêj, that is, someone who keeps our historical events and myths in his memory like a treasure, thus enabling our cultural heritage to be passed on from generation to generation. Rez may therefore have a similar sound to Hoy Nermê, but it always depends on which instrument the piece requires in the Dengbêj tradition.

In the past, the album was the format of choice for artists to present their music. In the meantime many musicians have turned away from this concept and instead release singles on certain internet platforms. Are albums no longer contemporary? Or does it simplify your work as Kurdish artists?

This phenomenon does not only concern us or the Middle East, but can be observed around the globe. Individual single releases seem to be better received by the listener than the complete works. I myself stand in the tradition of longer compilations. As soon as I have the means, I will fulfil my dream of an album.

More and more young Kurdish artists are musically inspired by Kurdish folklore, especially by regional folklore elements. How do you see that as a musician who also belongs to this generation? 

Of course it is a positive development for me that Kurds are turning to Kurdish folklore not only in music but in many areas of art. My main goal is to mix traditional songs that are threatening to disappear and a new sound. Now I have the power to do this and experiment with this style. What comes tomorrow? Who knows what the future will bring us. Maybe I will then address my audience with modern music. 

Hakkari, for example, offers us a bottomless archive of Kilam, the traditional folk songs; Payîzok, the autumn songs of the storytellers and nomads, which tell of their experiences and encounters during their trains to the summer pastures and their later return; the Lawjê, elegies from the Hakkari region, which are sung with vibrato singing; and the folk songs of the Dengbêj, known as Stran. They all represent an unimaginable wealth for Kurdish culture.

And who besides your father is among the musicians that are important to you?

That's hard to answer, there are so many. But the first thing that comes to mind is Mihemed Arif Cizrawî, Hesen Şerîf and Tehsîn Taha.

*The word dengbêj, composed of deng (voice) and bêj (say, speak), defines a person who is able to pronounce the written word in a harmonious way. Usually these Kurdish bards wander the country and earn their living by singing. In a way, they are also historians and important representatives of oral culture, who have contributed to the fact that the oral literature of the Kurds could be passed on despite the suppression of the Kurdish language.