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Turkish Music's Veteran Musical Instrument

Tanbur and Luthier Elif Kızılhan

Interview by Emel Sönmez


Tanbur’s history dates back to 2000 BC. The first traces of Tanbur were seen in the historical remains belonging to Uighurs and Sumerians. There is information about the introduction of  the word  tanbur from the  Sumerian word "pantur”. The Arabs say that the word was derived from "dumba-i bara", meaning "the tail of the lamb".  The word was later used in Iran and Central Asia as the name of long-stemmed instruments with a pear-shaped body, looking like bağlama (instrument with three double strings). In particular, European travelers (eg, Charles Fonton and Toderini) wrote that tanbur visibly reflects the sound system of Turkish music due to the fret ties (perde bağları) in its stem.

The harmony of tanbur, with which Turkish Art Music can be performed rightfully, with instruments such as kemancha, ney and qanun is very nice.

Evliya Çelebi said that there were 500 tanburis (tanbur player) in Istanbul in the 17th century. The tanbur used today was first seen in Kantemiroğlu; and Dimitri Kantemir used  tanbur for the expression of the  sound system of Turkish music. It was Tanburi Cemil Bey who introduced virtuosity to tanbur which has been a  popular instrument in Turkish music for many years. The new style of performance he  developed became an alternative to the classic style of tanbur and opened a new era.

Tanburi Büyük Osman Bey, Tanburi İzak, Tanburi Cemil Bey, Kadı Fuat Efendi, Mesut Cemil, Refik Fersan, İzzettin Ökte, Ercüment Batanay, Necdet Yaşar, Murat Salim Tokaç, Özer Özel, Abdi Coşkun, Murat Aydemir, Özata Ayan and Birol Yayla are some of the tanburis who set an example for others with their style.

Elif Kızılhan is one of the very valuable luthiers who gave life to this elegant instrument and let it meet the art at the hands of the performers. We talked with her about the journey of tanbur.