If a single instrument were to represent Turkish folk music it would have to be the baglama. There is no region, no village in Anatolia which is not familiar with this string instrument. It is descended from the kopuz, which is frequently mentioned in the sagas of Dede Korkut dating from around the 8th century. The kopuz, a generic name for several forms of string instrument, was being used by the Turkish tribes of Central Asia about two thousand years ago, and was brought to Anatolia by Turkish strolling minstrels from the 10th century onwards. The Shamanist Turks of Central Asia regarded the kopuz as sacred, and it was even said that the warrior with a kopuz at his waist was protected from injury at enemy hands in battle.
The kopuz differs from the baglama in having a leather covered body, a fingerboard without frets, and two or three strings made either of horsehair, or of sheep or wolf gut. It is played by beating with the fingers, rather than being plucked with a plectrum.
The Turkish settlement of Anatolia from the late 10th century onwards saw the introduction of a two-string descendant of the kopuz, the Turkmen dutar, which was still being played in some areas of Turkey until recent times. According to the historian Hammer, metal strings were first used on a type of kopuz with a long fingerboard known as the kolca kopuz in 15th century Anatolia. This marked the first step in the emergence of the cogur, a transitional instrument between the kopuz and the baglama. According to the 17th century writer Evliya Celebi the cogur was first made in the city of Kutahya in western Turkey. To take the strain of the metal strings the leather body was replaced by wood, the fingerboard lengthened and frets introduced. Instead of five hair strings there were now twelve metal strings arranged in four groups of three. Today the cogur is smaller than a medium sized baglama.
Meanwhile the five string kopuz is thought to have been transformed into the six string instrument known as the sestar or seshane by the 13th century mystic Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi. The word sestar is also mentioned in the poems of the 14th century poet Yunus Emre. Evliya Celebi describes the kopuz as a smaller version of the seshane.
The word baglama is first used in 18th century texts. The French traveller Jean Benjamin de Laborde, who visited Turkey during that century, recorded that "the baglama or tambura is in form exactly like the cogur but smaller". He was probably referring to the smallest of the baglama family, the cura.
Like its ancestor the kopuz, the Turkmens of Anatolia attached sacred significance to the baglama, and the religious ceremonies of the Alevi and Bektasi sects begin by kissing the baglama and touching it to the head before beginning to play the hymns which made up a large part of the ritual. Alevi and Bektasi dervishes could be regarded as itinerant poets, and because its small size made it easy to carry they usually played the cura. Dr. Covel, who visited Turkey in 1673 and 1674 described it as "a little pittifull instrument with three wire strings, which every fellow thrums ordinarily about the streets", while Jean Thevenot around the same time noted that the Turks "have several instruments of music, the most common is a little lute with three strings on which they'll play a whole day and not put it out of tune".
One of the most common types of baglama used in Turkey today is the divan, the largest of the family in terms of both body size and fingerboard length. It is generally played in a plain, unornamented style, and is used for playing at low pitch. It has seven strings in three groups.
Another is the tambura, the modern version of the dombra, a two stringed Kazakh and Kirghiz instrument. Its body is the same size as that of a baglama with a short fingerboard, but it is played like the long fingerboard baglama. Like the divan it has three groups of seven strings.
The short fingerboard baglama is that regarded as sacred by the Alevi and Bektasi sects, and with the long fingerboard baglama is the most common type in Turkey today. The long fingerboard baglama is known as the bozuk in vernacular Turkish and has more frets. Both types have seven strings in three groups.
The smallest of the baglama family, the cura, has a small body and short fingerboard. It is played like the long and short fingerboard baglama, but has only six strings in three groups.
Apart from these types there are many regional variations, most largely forgotten today. The best known among these are the three stringed baglama of the Teke region played by the famous baglama player Ramazan Gungor, and the two stringed cura (like tanbur from Iran) played by Asik Nesimi Cimen. Occasionally these instruments are used to lend colour in recordings of Turkish music.
Baglamas are tuned differently in every part of Turkey, and the structure of the folk song to be played and the strokes of the plectrum affect the tuning system.
The baglama can be played either with or without a plectrum, in the latter case by striking the strings with the fingers in the method known as selpe. Selpe has several regional variations. For example among the Turkmen communities of the Aegean, musicians bang the body of the baglama, while among the Alevis they strike with less force.
Electric baglamas began to be made in the late 1960s to increase the sound volume and enable it to be used in rock music. Structurally similar to the original instrument, these have electroguitar pickups fitted into the body.
There are still no generally accepted standards for baglama making: which wood should be used for the body, how thick the sounding board should be, and how long the fingerboard. Yet gradually a standard baglama is emerging despite these debates. Instead of carving the body out of solid mulberry wood, which is difficult to obtain today, juniper wood is glued together in strips.
Spruce is used for the sounding board, and kelebek wood for the fingerboard. The size of the body and length of the fingerboard depends on the top note desired by the musician ordering the instrument.
Baglama performed by Talip Ozkan