Brass Bands, Jewish Youth, and the Sonorities of a Global Perspective

Maureen Jackson

Izmir Sanayi Mektebi Bandosu - Emre ARACI Archive. The school band of the Islahhane (or Sanayi Mektebi) of Izmir, c. 1909–10. Reproduced by permission from the personal collection of Emre Aracı.
Izmir Sanayi Mektebi Bandosu - Emre ARACI Archive. The school band of the Islahhane (or Sanayi Mektebi) of Izmir, c. 1909–10. Reproduced by permission from the personal collection of Emre Aracı.
In 1859 the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid visited the Aegean port of Salonica on a multicity tour of the realm. Brass bands, imperial guards, girls with bouquets, and children from all local religious communities lined an avenue to perform for him. A group of seventy young Jewish men reportedly sang as the sultan passed by, while local musician Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi presented his compositions in Hebrew and Ladino for the occasion, as well as conducted a Jewish children's chorus and parade. Nearly forty years later, in 1897, the Ottoman state under Sultan Abdülhamid II, celebrating a rare military victory in a war over Crete, commissioned a spate of patriotic compositions. These included the march Cenge Giderken (Going into battle), with music by Santo Sikar (d. 1920), a renowned Jewish musician from Izmir, and lyrics by Mehmet Emin Yurdakul (1869–1944), a poet remembered for his nationalist verse in simple Turkish. With no record of its performance history, the march was likely played by young players in military-style bands and choruses ubiquitous in Ottoman cities at the time. Soon after, in 1900 Kâmil Pasa, the governor of the Aegean province of Aydın, commemorated the arrival of the British navy in the bay of Izmir by organizing a banquet and ball in the government's quarters. The student band of the Société Musicales Israélites entertained guests with marches, and three Jewish master musicians, Avram Karakas, Hayim Alazraki, and Isak Algazi, provided intimate Ottoman art music.

What ties together these accounts of late Ottoman Jewish music making, given their distinct periods, locales, and musical particularities? They not only detail active Jewish involvement in multiethnic imperial ceremonials as well as versatility in the areas of language (Hebrew, Ladino, Ottoman, and spoken Turkish) and musical genres (Ottoman art music and European-style marches). Youth brass bands and choruses also weave through each historical sketch, placing Jewish children with their Ottoman compatriots at the heart of public patriotic music making. By showcasing Ottoman youth as guardians of the future, the bands sought to bolster the imperial message of marches and poems, while the entertainment value and colloquial language of the pieces would have increased receptivity in a diverse public. The music aimed to forge military-state-society relations through rousing open-air performance, especially during Sultan Abdülhamid II's administration (1876–1909), when centralizing and modernizing efforts grew in the context of territorial losses and European economic and military ascendancy. Performative media such as music and theatre arguably exceeded the impact of other means of communication, such as print media, on imperializing or nationalizing efforts in the Middle East, even as they interacted with published texts. The brass bands and choruses featured in the above descriptions exemplify such media in an imperial context. By participating in a broader politicization of Ottoman urban space through youth bands and choruses, Jewish communities extended their own patriotic image in the context of nineteenth-century reforms toward multiethnic citizenship, even if strategic silence on other occasions broadcast loyalty as loudly as a trumpet or a drum.

Let us focus primarily on brass bands and secondarily on choruses to explore a musical slice of Jewish patriotic activity in the late Ottoman Empire. Loud and typically marching outdoors, Ottoman brass bands announced patriotic space within wide-ranging earshot, as they performed a range of music from military commemoratives and sultanic panegyrics to popular European art music. Children typically filled the ranks of the bands, as they did patriotic choruses, becoming educated into imperial spirit by learning and producing the music. It is a global perspective on brass bands that furthers our understanding of how children—often homeless or destitute— became an integral part of this phenomenon worldwide and by extension within the empire and its multiethnic communities. Typically understood in elite terms as Italian-led reformation of Ottoman military music at court, or in Jewish terms as French infusions into Paris-sponsored Alliance Israélite schools of the empire, brass bands and military marches in fact enjoyed far-reaching concentric circles of migration—from an intensifying movement in Victorian England to Europe and its colonies, Asia, and the Americas. These circles more fully account for the growth of bands outside the imperial palace and its professional performers to become a popular amateur youth activity in Ottoman urban centers across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Early public schools in the empire— Islahhanes (reformatories), which were first established in the Balkans to address the refugee crisis after the Crimean War (1853– 56)—instituted bands to "uplift" orphaned children by offering them a marketable skill while provisioning the state with working bands for civic and state ceremonies. Musical models in the form of an amateur brass band movement had developed in Britain by the mid-nineteenth century in the context of European discourses about the unsupervised "dangerous child" and Victorian notions of "rational recreation." Introduced into British, European, and American reform schools and factories to rehabilitate destitute or laboring youth, brass bands showcased easy-to-learn instruments, soldiering-style uniforms, and marching formations that facilitated the aim of instilling virtue rather than vice in vagrant youth and industrial workers. Extending to other regions of the world through musical tours, world exhibitions, and colonial activity, amateur brass bands rapidly became an integral part of Ottoman reformatories and an expanding public school network under Abdülhamid II, and developed in multireligious communal institutions and missionary schools as well. By cultivating discipline, productivity, and patriotism in often impoverished youth, the bands sought to fulfill needs for urban renewal, youth rehabilitation, and civic performance across Ottoman urban centers, benefiting from the often unpaid services of working pupils.

Did Jewish orphans or child workers, like their counterparts elsewhere, fill the ranks of Ottoman Jewish bands? Possibly. Destitute Jewish locals and refugees from late Ottoman wars, especially from the Balkans to port cities like Salonica, Istanbul, Izmir, and environs, would have provided ample numbers of child performers. Whether dispossessed or not, however, Jewish students were trained for brass bands and children's choruses in state and missionary schools, to which Jewish and Christian families, albeit a minority, sent their children. These public schools, moreover, sometimes employed Jewish music teachers: for example, the composer Santo Sikar was on the faculty of the Islahhane reform school in Izmir between 1888 and 1893, teaching Ottoman aspects of his Euro-Ottoman musical expertise and working alongside band conductors. In a trend shared with Greek, Turkish, and Armenian communities, Ottoman Jewish communities established their own bands, like the Société Musicales Israélites founded in 1891 in Izmir. Directed by Maestro Moroni, the band was composed of about forty students and, active intermittently for two decades, was employed to perform at a variety of civic events in Izmir, including official commemorations, benefit concerts, provincial balls, and banquets. Like the Islahhane bands, this association at times provided avenues to musically inclined students for further training: in 1913–14 it funded Albert Hemsi (1898–1975), who eventually became a prominent music collector, conductor, and scholar, to attend the Conservatory of Music in Milan and return to conduct the band until 1923.

Ottoman youth bands as a whole showcased modernly schooled children as the voice of a sovereign and progressive empire, while the bands employed rhythmic marches to educate children into imperial patriots and heighten patriotic emotion in audiences. Youth choruses singing colloquial lyrics like "Cenge Giderken," moreover, extended the impact of printed poetry by broadcasting their accessible language in open-air space and entertaining the economically and ethnically diverse crowds at official public occasions. Just as such performative media enlarged state imperializing efforts, Ottoman Jewish participation enabled their communities to widely broadcast—and cultivate—their own political allegiances, when, by contrast, on specifically Jewish commemoratives leaders might encourage a low-decibel profile to present a decorous image of its citizenry. As official occasions cleared salutary space for high-volume patriotic display, child performers in Jewish bands and choruses projected the patriotic upbringing and potential of an entire future generation of Ottoman Jews in a way that elder career musicians would not. Even as political winds shifted across the Second Constitutional period (beginning in 1908–09), the Balkan Wars (1912–13), and the lead-up to World War I (1914–18)—as panegyrics to sultans gave way to pan-Turkish cultural motifs set to march tunes—young Jewish performers and conscripts could still find themselves in the poetry through the ethnicity-bending term "Turk," glossed as "Ottoman," and continue to display communal patriotism with their non-Jewish peers, now representing vanguards of change breaking with a "benighted" ancien régime. In the aftermath of the devastating war a veritable cult of youth would be constructed in the early Turkish Republic, while brass band musicians there and elsewhere would progressively adapt their trumpets and drums to jazz combos. Popular musical tastes, wearied of war and militaristic marches, were shifting, and the Istanbul press of the 1920s would debate the sensuality and morality of the new musical and danceable fad. Until then, however, the case of Jewish youth bands and choruses in late empire sheds light on performative avenues open to the leadership of a non-Muslim community, often seeking a low profile, to expand its patriotic image and shape its members' loyalties through the relatively loud, accessible, and entertaining public soundscapes of a broader imperializing enterprise.

​The author credits Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein for the report of Sultan Abdülmecid’s visit to Salonica (A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi, 2012); Julia Phillips Cohen for communal debates around public late Ottoman Jewish commemoratives (Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, 2014); and Carole G. Woodall for jazz commentary in the early republican press ("'Awakening a Horrible Monster': Negotiating the Jazz Public in 1920s Istanbul," 2010).