Kanto by Cemal Ünlü
Italian theater and opera has had a profound effect on Turkish culture in the past century. Like the terminology ofseamanship, the terminology of music and theater derived from Italian. In the argot of the improvisational theater of Istanbul the stage was called "sahano", backstage was referred to as "koyuntu", backdrops depicting countryside were "bosko", the appiause was "furi" and the songs sung between the acts and plays were called "kanto".
The improvised pieces were stage adaptations of the Karagöz (shadow puppet) and Ortaoyunu (traditional form of Turkish theatre performed in the open) traditions, aithough in much more simplifled form. The themes explored in these traditional theater arts as well as their stock characterizations and stereotypes were used as the framework tor the new extemporaneus performances of the tuluat (improvised) theater.
As with their Italian counterparts the Turkish troupes employed songs and music before the show and between the acts to peak people's interest and draw in customers.
Kanto: songs sung between the acts as solos or duets, based on traditional eastern makam (modes) but performed on western instruments.
Kanto: "first the introduction, then the lyrics, shake your shoulders to a violin, solo, cock your head and shimmy in oriental dance style, leap around like a partridge, then slowly disappear behind the curtain."
Kanto: the irreplaceable unifying feature of ali Turkish tuluat theater.
We can divide kanto into two periods. The division, particulariy in terms of musical structure, is very clear between the early kanto and the kanto of the Post-Republic perlod. It is further possible to identify two styles within the early period. Galata and Direklerarası (both neighbourhoods of Old Istanbul).
Kanto first took root in the musical the aters of Galata, a part of town frequented by sailors, rowdies and roustabouts. Ahmet Rasim Bey paints a vivid picture of the Galata theaters in his novel Fuhs-i Akit (An Old Whore).
"Everyone thought Peruz was the most flirtatious, most skillful and the most provocative. The seats closest to the stage were always crammed full... They said of Peruz, 'she is a trollop who has ensnared the heart of many a young man and has made herself the enemy of many. 'Her songs would hardly be finished when chairs, flowers, bouquets and beribboned letters. Come flying from the boxseats. It seemed the building would be shaken to the ground."
Direklerarası was a littie off the beaten track and İn comparison to Galata was a more refined center of entertainment. Direklerarası was said to be quite lively at night during the month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) and certainly once its attractions was its family atmosphere. It was here that the troupes of Kel Hasan and Abdi Efendi and later that of Neshid enjoyed a great popularity. It was under the influence of these masters that kanto experienced its golden years.
The troupes orchestra would be made up ofsuch instruments as the trumpet, trombone, violin, and trap drum and cymbals. The orchestra would start to play popular songs of the day and marches in front of the theatre about and hour before the show to drum up interest. This intermission or Antrak music ended up with the well known Izmir March, a sign that the show time was approaching. The play began as the musicians went in and took their places at the side of the stage.
The kanto singers of the period were also composers. Set to extraordinarily simple melodies which were the fashion of the day, the lyrics relied heavily of tensions between men and women as well as reflecting topical events. The compositions were in such fundamental makams as Rast, Hüzzam, Hicaz, Hüseyni and Nihavent. Kanto songs are remember both by the names of their interpreters and by their creators, artists such as Peruz, Shamran, Kamelya, Eleni. Küçük and Büyük Amelya, Mari Ferha and Virjin. That kanto brought an erotic element to the stage performance was an important aspect and one that should not be overlooked or separated out.
Art and cultural life gained new dimensions with the changes brought about by the 1923 formation of the Turkish Republic. It was a period of rapid transformation and its effect were widespread. Turkish women had finally won the freedom to appear on the stage, breaking the monopoly previously held by Rum (Istanbul Greek) and Armenian women who performed in musical and non-musical theatre. Institutions like Darulbedayi (Istanbul City Theatre) and Darulelhan (Istanbul Conservatory of Music) had long been turning out trained artists.
Western lifestyles and western style art put pressure on the traditional Turkish formats and these were swept off to the side. The operetta, the tango then later the Charleston and the fox-trot overshadowed kanto. Kanto's popoularity began to fade, the citys centers of entertained shifted and the theaters of Galata and Direklerarası were closed down. Turkish female artists were unreceptive to kanto's inherent ribairy and chose to keep their distance from it.
But there came a change agah in the 1935's, there was a revival of interest in the kanto form. Aithough rather far from its fundamental principles a new type of kanto was önce again popular.
It is important to point out that kanto had now moved from the stage to the recording studio. While the subjects dealt with in the lyrics were stili the same old quarreis between men and woman, mixed in with satirical takes on fashion and current events. the songs were being written with the 78 rpm phonograph in mind. So much so that every record label hired their own kanto composers-and rather famous ones at that! With Columbia at the fore, record labels commissioned kanto from Kaptanzade Ali Rıza Bey, Refik Fersan, Dramalı Hasan, Sadettin Kaynak, Cümbüş Mehmet and Mildan Niyazi Bey. The makams were the same but the instrumentation had changed. Kanto were now accompanied by cümbüş (a fretlees banjo like instrument) the ud (a fretless) lute, and calpara (castenets). Foxtrot, Charleston and rumba rhythms dominated. The tunes were being written and sung more tor listening than tor dancing. Female soloists include Makbule Enver, Mahmure, and Neriman; Beşiktaşlı Kemal Senman was the most sought after male singer tor duets.
Among the topics explored by the new kantocu (singer or composer of kanto) perhaps the most frequent subjert of satire was the new role of women brought about by the formation of the Republic. Songs like Sarhoş Kızlar (Drunken Girls) or Şoför Kadınlar (Women Drivers) were sung seemingly in revenge tor ali the suffering they had endured at the hands of men in the past. Other topical songs include Daktilo (The Typewriter) whic brought to mind the newly formed Secretaires 7 Society. Songs such as Bereli Kız (The Girl with the Beret) and Kadın Asker Olursa (Women Were Soldiers) were full of mockery and ridicule.
The early period kanto were largely nurished by Istanbul culture. It was much the same in the Post-Republican period. The city's large and diverse population provided both the characters and the events that were the mainstay of kanto. Kanto was heavily influenced by musical theatre. Roman (gypsy) music and culture. which was itself of the subject of satire, left its mark on kanto form. Another major influence was Rum music. The importance of the Istanbul Rum, who were so fond of entertainment and of singing and playing, must not be underestimated. It is a natural and inevitable resuit of cultural exchange. As it was, almost all the kanto singers were either Rum or Armenian, artist like Pepron, Karakas, Haim, Samran and Peruz who performed during the period following 1903.
Eventually kanto became more of a definition, a generalized genre than a musical term. Any tune that was outside of the days musical conventions, anything light that appealed to current trends and tastes was labeled kanto. Any music played with different instruments that was free rhythmic or somehow novel was labeled kanto, it was the product of a middie class urban culture, of urban Istanbul.
This music, kanto, from the beginning of this century has been accepted as the forerunner oftoday's pop culture and it succeeded in remaining popular tor close to halt a century.