Traditional Arts: A Window onto Northwest Louisiana's Multicultural Landscape

Songs to Make the Bride Cry: Turkish Traditional Music

By Laura Marcus Green


Growing up in Istanbul, Neslihan Hoover had ample opportunity to hear Turkish traditional music. Turkish folk music was the soundtrack for her childhood. Her father's extensive collection of folk music cassettes and CDs was always playing around the house. Neslihan's father also sang traditional songs at home, sometimes accompanying himself on the saz, a stringed instrument. As a child, Neslihan sang and danced at home, sometimes performing with a water bottle for a microphone and make-believe pillow people for an audience. From the age of around ten into her high school years, Neslihan graduated to live audiences at weddings and school assemblies, as people discovered the beauty of her voice. No doubt people were also charmed by the seeming incongruity of a young person from the city singing songs most often sung by older people from more rural backgrounds.

Neslihan Hoover at home in Bossier City. Photo: Laura Marcus Green.

Neslihan acknowledges that she is unusual in her love for the old songs that few people know anymore. She says, "I know maybe lots of old music. I don't know why, but I was listening—maybe [it was] what I was recording in my mind." Living in a predominantly Yugoslav neighborhood in Istanbul, Neslihan grew up with close friends who were Balkan. She enjoyed hearing their traditional music, which was akin to her own. Listening to the radio, Neslihan discovered that she was not alone in her passion for the old songs. Some popular singers recorded contemporary renditions of traditional folk songs. From all of these sources, Neslihan learned what she calls "old traditional music from long ago." Of this constellation of influences, she says,

The culture is giving you musical ideas. Your family and your friends or your area, your environment, all the time are giving [them to] you. Especially on my father's side, they like to enjoy [life] all the time. They are funny people. They can sing and at the same time they can play [instruments], they are these kind of people. I was growing up in this area. So maybe that was the reason.

Neslihan's aunt is an accomplished singer known for her impromptu and humorous compositions.

Her father's encouragement at home and elementary school assemblies for which teachers asked her to sing the older songs gave Neslihan a reason and context for performing them. As she developed a repertoire of traditional songs, Neslihan also became a sensation at henna parties, which are given for a bride the night before her wedding day. At the henna party, the bride and her family and friends receive henna decorations in preparation for the festivities the next day. The henna party is also an occasion for the bride to acknowledge that she is leaving her home and joining her husband's family. At the henna party, the band hired to play at the wedding or the women at the party sing sad songs to make the bride cry. The idea is that the bride is leaving her family and childhood home, never to return. Wearing a red dress, with a red scarf covering her head and face, she is supposed to cry. If she does not cry, she is considered rude. Not crying at her henna party indicates that a bride wants to leave her family.

The songs sung at a henna party are old, traditional songs. They are generally anonymous and passed down from generation to generation. Knowing her special love for the traditional songs and her talent at singing them, Neslihan's relatives often goaded her into joining the hired musicians at henna parties. The professional musicians welcomed the young singer, sometimes inviting her to come to work with them, which inevitably resulted in good-natured teasing by Neslihan's family.

One of the songs Neslihan remembers singing at henna parties is "Arda Boyları," which translates as "the narrows of the Arda River." The Arda River runs from present-day Bulgaria, through Greece, joining another river near the Turkish border. This territory was once part of the Ottoman Empire and is known as "the old area," a region where cultures have melded over time. "Arda Boyları" comes from a tradition in which people wrote songs that chronicled real-life events. When there was a death or a dramatic happening, someone composed a song about it.

"Arda Boyları" harks back to the time of arranged marriages, when brides and grooms were matched without consultation. The song relates the story of a young woman who drowned herself in the Arda River when she was on the brink of a forced marriage to a man chosen by her mother. In the song, the young woman, acting under the impression that her true love had killed himself because she was marrying someone else, took her own life. After her death, it comes to light that he didn't kill himself, as in the story of Romeo and Juliet. In the song, the young woman sings to her mother, asking her, "Why did you do this to me?"

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Audio: Neslihan Hoover sings "Arda Boyları"

Neslihan first heard the Balkan version of "Arda Boyları" when she was in primary school, at the home of her Yugoslav neighbors. She liked the song, and learned the Turkish version of it. Neslihan points out that Balkan and Turkish people share some of the same traditions. Acknowledging the different versions of the song, Neslihan said that everyone can own these songs; every culture can have its own version of the story. It's a folk song and that is part of the process.

On both sides of her family, Neslihan traces her heritage to the Black Sea region. Her father's family are Kipcak (KOOP-chuk) Turks, people of mixed Turkish and Russian descent. Her paternal grandfather moved to the Black Sea from Russia, while her mother's people had been in the area for a long time. Some of the traditional music Neslihan has learned is from this region. She refers to it as Black Sea music. "Divane Aşık" ("Crazy Lover") is a song from the Laz, a northern Turkish tribe. In this song, a man and woman are singing to each other. The woman tells the man to ask her father for her hand, so they can marry.

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Audio: Neslihan Hoover sings "Divane Aşık" ("Crazy Lover").

As Neslihan grew into her teenage years, she accompanied her family to fewer weddings in favor of spending time with friends. Although she had friends who were musicians, she no longer performed at weddings or other public places. She sang for her own pleasure and for those who wanted to listen. Ever a deep and introspective soul, she developed a new abiding passion: philosophy. After high school, Neslihan left her native Istanbul to attend Dokuz Eylul University in Ismir, where she pursued a degree in public finance. She fell in love with her new home, with its gentler seaside climate and more relaxed culture and atmosphere. Neslihan's musical influences expanded when she was in high school and college, as she listened to her friends' music, which was often British and American pop.

It was in Ismir that Neslihan met her husband, Tommy Hoover, an American serviceman stationed in Turkey. Like Neslihan, Tommy comes from a musical background. His father is a professional luthier. Tommy himself is an avid musician who plays guitar and sings his own original songs. Neslihan occasionally joins him on vocals. At their wedding, Tommy surprised Neslihan with a song he had written for her, in both English and Turkish. At her cousins' urging, Neslihan responded with "Kırmızı Gül Demet" ("A Bunch of Roses"), an anonymous folk song to which she was drawn when she first heard it on the radio. She hadn't expected to sing at her own wedding, so her choice of songs was spontaneous.

""Kırmızı Gül Demet"" is a ninni or lullaby set during the old times in Turkey. The song tells the story of a man who goes off to fulfill military service. His mother and his wife await his return for two years. The mother is sent word that her son has died during his military service. Saddened, she goes to meet his body at the train station, carrying a bunch of roses for her son. She sees her daughter-in-law at the station. Unbeknownst to the grieving mother, her son is actually still alive. He reunites with his wife and goes home with her. When the mother comes home and finds her daughter-in-law with a man, assuming he is someone else, she kills her own son and her daughter-in-law.

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Audio: Neslihan Hoover sings "Kırmızı Gül Demet"

After Neslihan and Tommy married in Istanbul, they eventually moved to Bossier City, where Tommy is doing software work for the military while pursuing a nursing degree at Northwestern State University. Neslihan is working in a law office and studying business administration at Bossier Parish Community College.

To her new life in the U.S., Neslihan has brought her repertoire of traditional songs, along with her enjoyment of contemporary musical styles. In some cases, the different musical genres merge, when current singers recast traditional Turkish music into modern arrangements. Neslihan finds this mix intriguing, when done well. She says,

The new singers, famous people, right now they are covering some old music . . . Sometimes they are putting some [old songs with] rock music, with the electric guitar style. They are covering that because the music is global and it's changing all the time, because people are changing, so . . . and it sounds good sometimes for some [of the] old music.

Neslihan's musical taste bridges oceans and centuries. While she feels a deep connection to traditional Turkish music, she is also drawn to contemporary popular songs. She sees no contradiction, finding connection between songs old and new. She observes, "Even if I like to sing the Turkish folk music, the old music, but I'm listening to Radiohead all the time. It's rock music, kind of soft rock music and the other one is Turkish folk music." Asked what she loves about the old traditional Turkish songs, Neslihan responds, "It has more emotion, maybe. And maybe that's why the band that I like to listen, [Radiohead], they have the same thinking, even if they are totally different than each other. But they have the same emotion . . . they have some meaning."

Laura Marcus Green is a folklorist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She wrote this essay as part of the New Populations Project in 2012. This was one of several articles about immigrants in the Shreveport-Bossier City area. For an overview of her fieldwork, see Traditional Arts: A Window onto Northwest Louisiana's Multicultural Landscape.