The Janissary Band Returns

The first incarnation of the Janissary Band.
Photo provided by Master Osman-Türkoglu

By Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton
Editor in Chief, PI

This story begins with a tale of inspiration. At Pennsic XXII, my third Pennsic, I turned a corner in the Pennsic marketplace and was suddenly presented with a sight out of history: a large band, including percussion and wind instruments, as well as singers, all wearing caftans in the Turkish style, with a unique marching style. Wonderstruck, I asked, “What is THAT?” “That’s the Janissary Band,” my companion told me. I missed the next two Pennsics and never saw them again. I wondered whether perhaps it was all a dream. Fast forward to earlier this year, when a call went out to re-form the Janissary Band, and I enthusiastically jumped forward. I interviewed Master Osman Türkoglu, from the Kingdom of Atlantia, to learn a little more about just what I’d signed up for.
Tell me a little about the history (real-world) of the Janissary Band. (when, where, why, etc.) What kind of instruments are played? What kind of music was performed?
The actual historic name of the Janissary Band is Mehter or Mehteran. Our group’s name is Osmanlı Mehter Takımı, which means Ottoman Mehter Team (which is proper Turkish usage). It is believed that the first “mehter” was sent to the first Ottoman Sultan, Osman I, by the Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad III, in A.D. 1300, as a present along with a letter that saluted the newly formed Ottoman state. The gift of musical instruments (drum, horn, cymbals, and horsetail standard) represented the power of the ruler. From then on, every day after the afternoon prayer “mehter” played for the Ottoman ruler. The notion of a military marching band, such as those in use even today, began to be borrowed from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. The mehteran was usually associated with the Janissary corps of the Army. The mehteran accompanied the Army in battle, inspiring the troops. There are legends of Balkan cities surrendering at the sound of the approaching Ottoman Army and mehter band. The main body of the Mehteran was historically based in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and was responsible for the performance of all official music in the palace, as well as teaching in the Palace Enderun School.
The traditional instruments of the Mehteran are: zurna (shawm), boru (brass horn), kös (kettledrums), davul (double-sided drum), nakarra (small kettledrums), Zil (cymbals), and cevgen (the human voice). Because music was not commonly notated in the Ottoman Empire until the 17th century, much of the music repertoire did not survive. Our band has a body of 14th century musical compositions by Abdulkadir Meragi. We also have a fragment of a Hungarian interpretation of a Mehteran march from the Siege of Belgrade in 1521, which we are redeveloping into a march. The sound associated with the mehteran also exercised an influence on European classical music with composers such as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig von Beethoven all writing compositions inspired by or designed to imitate the music of the mehter.
Tell me a little about the SCA history of the Band. When was it last done at Pennsic? Why bring it back?
Twenty years ago I was traveling to Turkey to study and collect traditional music. There, I was thrilled to experience the reenacted Janissary Band on their daily parade in Topkapi Palace. It inspired me to raise my own Janissary Band to parade through the marketplace of Pennsic. As the founder of the Turco-Persian band TURKU, Nomads of the Silk Road, I was already familiar with the Middle Eastern music and dance community at Pennsic. I contacted several musician friends and proposed the idea. Enough zurna players, drummers and even singers signed on that we eventually had over 20 participants who learned a song and the traditional Janissary March step. Of course, the more we performed the more interest we generated. As members came and went, we still managed to maintain our numbers. The first band performed for 3 years before the new creative urges that was TURKU captured us. Also, I don’t like something creative to get stale and expected. I want to surprise and inspire people. That’s part of the magic.
Having retired from fighting in 1994, I came to view Pennsic as a blank canvas ripe for creative expression. It has manifested in a myriad of ways by other artists, from the Chalk Horse of Uffington being laid out overnight on Mt Aislin, to the Japanese Fertility Parade, to small intimate expressions of creativity that occur every minute of every day. There is a tremendous energy at Pennsic, andit has inspired me for decades. The Janissary Band is a big collaboration with many, many artists and creative people. Even the design and creation of more authentic garb and equipment for the new group incorporated lifelong historical reenactors and museum professionals. For the past three years, I have been teaching an Ottoman Singing Class at Pennsic after Mistress Baroness Zubaida, of the Midrealm, issued a challenge for more period Middle Eastern music and dance. In December, 2017 someone in the music group mused about how neat it would be to have the Janissary Band. That was the spark that erupted into the past year’s creative obsession. We put out the call, and were overwhelmed by the response, including veterans from 20 years ago. My house has looked like a storeroom at Topkapi Palace for the past 6-months.
How does organizing it this time compare with the last time you did it? How have you recruited members? Do you have an idea of how many SCA kingdoms are represented?
Facebook has facilitated our organization tremendously. It comes with its own complications, but we can reach the entire SCA, as well as specialty groups, instantly. In the past we used mostly email and got it done. But now, we are sharing music and recordings and videos, and creating Pinterest pages with pictures of uniforms and equipment. Members are going off on their own tangents, researching their own developing interests. Members are even sharing Ottoman cooking recipes. Most members were recruited through announcements on other Facebook groups, essentially stating á la The Blues Brothers: “Hey, we’re getting the band back together.” People who participated, or even just experienced the band 20 years ago, signed up. Much like the Ottoman Empire, we are an all-inclusive multicultural group with members from a dozen kingdoms spanning the Known World, as well as interested supporters from four continents.
What have the members been doing to prepare, and how will they continue this at Pennsic?
Our members have been preparing for the past 8 months, researching and sewing 16th century Ottoman garb and accoutrements. They have been listening to and learning how to play and sing in Turkish, the song that the group will perform this year. They had to learn that while the Court spoke Ottoman Turkish, the soldiers spoke Common Turkish, and thus the language of our song. Here at “The Palace” we have been sewing Janissary uniforms and headgear, replicating historic horsetail standards and battle flags, building authentic musical instruments, and even working with our old friends at Crafty Celts to replicate 15th century Ottoman metal fittings from our collection. We have even created an Ottoman pavilion. All of this has required a tremendous amount of research, the constant growth of our Ottoman library, and learning new skills.
Where can Pennsic-goers see the band perform?
The Osmanlı Mehter Takımı will perform at Opening Ceremonies on the Battlefield on Saturday evening. We will also parade through the Marketplace on Monday, Aug 6, at 2:00 pm.
What have you gotten out of this process, both back when you started it and now?
When we first did this, 20 years ago, it was the fun and interest of indulging in this exotic Ottoman culture. Now, we are endeavoring to be even more historically correct in order to impart a more immersive experience for our audience. Mundanely, I am in the middle of working on a doctoral degree. Being able to slip off and do a little sewing or crafting has been a constructive and rejuvenating distraction. I’ve just have to manage the Pinterest searches. As stated, my library has grown, but with it, so too has my research and body of knowledge. This has brought my wife and me even closer as we actively pursue our shared interests in Seljuk and Ottoman history and culture. I have marveled at her accomplishment of new skills in the digital restoration and replication of historic textiles, so much for our purposes. And, we have made many new SCA and mundane friends with similar historic and cultural interests. I’m even learning Turkish thumb ring archery.
As for me, I’ve got my uniform ready, I’ve learned to sing in Turkish, and am greatly looking forward to “running away with a Janissary marching band,” as I have been telling all my friends. Keep an eye out for it at Opening Ceremonies and on Monday!