Band of Turkish singers keeps fading tradition alive

istanbul | A group of eight men gathers in a small office on a busy Istanbul street one recent evening. Sipping on juice and soda, they chat and catch up on each other’s lives.

But this is more than a simple social gathering.

With small talk out of the way, the men pull out folders filled with sheet music and quietly start leafing through the pages. One of the group’s members sings a short musical figure and then the rest follow suit, singing in Hebrew over a haunting Ottoman melody.

The group is singing from a collection of songs called Maftirim, Hebrew devotional poems set to intricate Turkish classical music and traditionally sung a cappella in synagogues on Shabbat.

First composed more than 300 years ago in the then-Ottoman city of Edirne, located near Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria, the Maftirim repertoire is considered one of the cultural and religious jewels of the Turkish Jewish community.

The group meeting in the office, which simply calls itself the Maftirim Chorus, has been singing together for five years. Its members, who range in age from 36 to 66 and include a dentist and a few businessmen who moonlight as cantors in Istanbul’s synagogues, say they still consider themselves novices, but there is a sense of urgency to their gathering.

Despite the deep roots Maftirim have in Turkish Jewish life, the songs appear to be a fading tradition, with few members of the current Jewish community who know how to sing them.

“What has been done until today is all that can be done. Past that, it’s not possible. There’s nobody left who can take it further, to our great sorrow,” says Yitshak Macoro, 85, who was Turkey’s chief cantor for 50 years and is considered one of the last living Maftirim masters.

Up until a few decades ago, Maftirim were still a prominent feature of religious life in Istanbul, with a large chorus singing the songs before Shabbat afternoon prayers in the city’s central synagogue, Neve Shalom.

Today no group sings regularly in any of Istanbul’s synagogues. The Maftirim Chorus sings at different synagogues only on holidays, and the group gives occasional concerts.

Turkey’s current chief cantor, David Sevi, sings Maftirim on Shabbat in the city’s Sisli synagogue, but he has no chorus backing him up.

“Somehow, the Maftirim tradition is going out,” says Karen Gerson, a musician who is director of the Istanbul-based Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center.

While the tradition is fading, Gerson’s center is trying at least to keep its memory alive. At the end of the year the center is planning to release a multi-volume CD featuring Macoro, Sevi and David Bachar, another master cantor, singing a large number of Maftirim. The trio made the recording 15 years ago, but it was only recently rediscovered.

“It has huge archival value. When we put it into the archives, then future generations will know how to sing” these historic songs, says Gerson, who plans to release the CD along with a 145-page booklet in English, Hebrew and Turkish. “There’s nothing like this in the world right now.”

Macoro says he first remembers hearing the Maftirim songs as a child in Istanbul’s old Galata neighborhood, which was the center of the city’s Jewish community until the 1960s and still is home to Neve Shalom.

On any given Shabbat, he says, the synagogue was filled with more than 200 people who came to hear the singing.

“It was both a religious and community experience. Its role was to bring people to synagogue, and it was always full,” says Macoro, who started singing as a cantor at age 17 but no longer performs. “I wish this tradition could still continue, to keep the community together and to keep people going to synagogue.”

The Maftirim tradition got its start in Edirne, less to draw people to synagogue than as an expression of the personal devotion of its composers. The Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire had brought with them from Spain a tradition of singing religious poetry and also the kabbalistic notion of using song to reach higher levels of religious devotion.

In the Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, many rabbis encountered the classical music of the sultan’s court, with some even becoming court composers themselves.

In Edirne, the city’s rabbis apparently came into contact with members of local Sufi orders, who also used music and song as part of their mystic traditions and were heavily influenced by Ottoman court music.

According to researchers and memoirs from the time, a type of cross-pollination took place in Edirne, with Jews visiting Sufi meeting houses to listen to the music and Sufis coming to the city’s synagogues to listen to rabbis singing Maftirim.

Out of this rich religious and musical environment the Maftirim developed into a musically sophisticated body containing more than 1,000 devotional poems, though only some 70 are sung today.

“You have this musicianship, this expertise in the classical repertoire, and you have this desire to express their religious feelings with unique means — not only with the daily prayers, but also with poetry and music,” says Edwin Seroussi, professor of musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It’s not folk music. It’s professional music.”

While Sephardi culture is filled with popular songs sung on holidays and at home, Maftirim are far from sing-along music. The liturgical poems are based on microtonal scales — notes on a Western scale are divided into two, while in Turkish classical music they are divided into nine — which gives the music its filigreed, snaking sound and which requires vocal training.

The Maftirim songs also allow a singer to improvise based on maqam, a system of scales that contain built-in improvisation rules. There are dozens of maqams, each identified with a different mood and even with a different occasion, and they also must be learned.

It’s music that cannot be learned simply by listening to it, which is a main reason the Maftirim are disappearing as a sung tradition. The members of the Maftirim Chorus said it’s because of this that they first started gathering, realizing that they would have to devote themselves to learning the songs if they wanted to be able to sing them properly.

“A popular song everyone can sing, but a song Pavarotti sings not everyone can sing,” says Robert Elmas, who at 65 is one of the group’s oldest singers. “This is art.”

Like any kind of art, the Maftirim require a commitment and an education. Sevi, the current chief cantor, says he is not certain future generations will be interested in taking on something like that.

“It’s very difficult. The youth are not interested in something like this. The tunes even sound foreign to them,” Sevi says.

“Maybe a young person will come along and get interested in it. If there’s someone else who’s crazy like me, then there’s hope. To learn it you need time, you need to drop other things.’