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Music of the Muezzin

I’m just back from a short visit to Istanbul. With over 15 million people and over 3,000 mosques the contrast with Benbecula, with its 1500 people and 2 churches, could scarcely be starker – you might think. But there again, the waterfronts and ferry traffic, while on a completely different scale, provided at least one familiar point of reference.

It was a pleasure to cross the Bosphorus between Asia and Europe (for 2 Turkish Lira..) and wander down streets, through bazaars, and past mosques and museums. And what a tram service! (Also 2 Turkish Lira, flat rate.) Edinburgh, eat your heart out…

I snapped away with the iPhone, but the strongest impression made was not visual but auditory. Given there are over 3,000 of them in the city it seems like you’re never far from a mosque when the call to prayer goes out, and I made a few recordings. This one was at 4.30 in the morning on my last day – no need to worry if I’d set the alarm properly to get me to the airport on time…

Back home and googling “muezzin” I found some interesting links. While I had no complaints, the BBC reported some time ago that the musicality of some in Istanbul had been called into question, leading to extra training being delivered. And Sun Myung Moon’s Wikipedia-style “New World Encyclopedia” makes a link between Muslim Muezzin, Jewish Hazzan, and Christian Precentor. Being an adherent of none of these faiths, I’m happy to leave comparative theology in others’ hands – but a possible musical link does interest me. And I’m evidently not alone, judging from the comments section on this YouTube video showing some fine examples of the precentor’s melismatic role in leading traditional Gaelic psalmody. (I’m indebted to The Croft for bringing this clip to my attention, where further discussion of the local singing tradition can be found.)

So, perhaps the link from Byzantium to Benbecula, while attenuated in space and time, may not be as thin as first appearances may suggest…

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