Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1933: Mahmure Handan Hanım


This week I'm thinking about Turkish singer Mahmure Handan Hanım's haunting tango "Karşıyakalı," recorded circa 1933.

We've heard 1930s tango here before, first from its homeland Argentina, and more recently as internationalist pop in expatriate Russia — but Turkey's adoption of tango was perhaps the most thoroughgoing and well-integrated into local musical traditions of any nation throughout the interwar period. Only the subtle rhythm connects it to transatlantic tango; otherwise it is wholly Anatolian, from the cafe-amam violin to Handan's yearning vocal.

Mahmure Handan (Hanım is an honorific, the Turkish female equivalent of the Central Asian Khan, which was often applied to renowned female entertainers in the period) was one of the most recognizable performers of modern Turkish popular music, often generalized as "kanto" from the Italian for song, during the liberalizing Atatürk era (1923-1938), in which the Republic of Turkey emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and established itself as a secular, modern nation. She became a notable character actor in Turkish cinema following World War II, but never developed the sort of independent fame, which would allow her to be more than a representation of a bygone era, that peers like Roza Eskenazi in Greece or Édith Piaf in France achieved.

Partly this is because interwar Turkish popular music, like most Middle Eastern popular music of the era, has largely been ignored by Western researchers and anthologists in favor of either later popular music (fuzz guitar and arabesque strings changed everything) or traditional classical and folk recordings that allegedly connect the listener to a deeper, more otherworldly, non-Westernized past. The urban syncretic music of the young Republic has been left to a fading generation of local nostalgists, few of whom have the resources to conduct extensive research. My own investigations largely consist of stumbling in the dark on streaming services, even with the assistance of machine translation: I have been able to find almost no discographical information on the period available in Turkish, let alone English.

I have managed to work out that "Karşıyakalı" means "woman of Karşıyaka," which is a wealthy district across the bay from the Aegean port city of İzmir (previously known as Smyrna, the center of Anatolian Greek culture before 1923), and the song seems to be a reverie about a fashionably well-dressed figure whom the singer both mocks and loves; it might even be a self-portrait. Attributed to oudist Cemal Bey on the label, about whom I can find nothing, it's the sort of melody that gets stuck in your head even without access to the language, and is deeply satisfying to return to after time away.