3. Ciguli: “Everyman” Roman as Embodiment of Ambiguity, Comedy and Social Reversal
The “çingene” as loveable everyman was highlighted with the mainstream commercial music success of singer/accordionist Ahmet “Ciguli” Popov in 1997, with his hit single “Binnaz”, video popularity and cassette sales. Ciguli’s success opened up possibilities for new forms of successful Roman cultural performances to mainstream audiences. However, to music and culture critics, Ciguli’s success was indicative of moral decay and cultural poverty. Ciguli’s mainstream popularity was due in large part to the publicity handling of Ciguli’s image as an ambiguous everyman who could be Roman-but-not-too-Roman. This case study is thus illuminating for commercial as well as social negotiations of meanings around “çingene” and “Roman” signifiers. Despite ambiguous contextualizing, the composite characteristics within Ciguli’s presentation drew upon a wealth of “çingene” signifiers, supported by the insider’s knowledge that Ciguli was indeed Roman, albeit from Bulgaria. The shift in cultural references used by Ciguli prior to his popular success narrate the negotiations between in-group practices and mainstream views of “çingene”. When I first met Ciguli prior to his commercial success, he played every evening at a restaurant in the entertainment district of Kumkapı, and also performed at Roman weddings. He had a repertoire of songs that used rhythmic patterns and melodic figures typical of wedding music from Western Turkish Roman communities, with some admixtures of Bulgarian wedding music, which had informed his professional life in Bulgaria.
The cultivation of Ciguli as a popular hit singer was effected by his recording company and managers, Dost Music, which signed him in 1997 and carefully groomed Ciguli’s presentation as well as a new set of musical materials. Among these materials were two songs selected for video treatment in the Turkish popular music video channel, Kral (“King”). One of these songs, “Binnaz”, is interesting for the stereotypic treatment of “çingene” attributes, which were presented alongside a careful media choreography that attempted to mask Ciguli’s identity. Binnaz is both a woman’s name that is also a condensation of Turkish bin naz, literally meaning “a thousand caprices.” The name itself can be viewed as embodying the ambiguity signaled by this commercial media event. The song opens with a free-meter vocal introduction that sets the tone for the story of frustrated relationship between husband and wife. Delivered in a style that resembles vocal production of Indian music films that formed part of Ciguli’s aural history, the singer calls out to his wife for an explanation for her capricious moods. Through textual references and language use, Ciguli treads a fine and ambiguous line between Roman indicators, references to Rumeli (Southeastern European Turkish) communities and to elements that reference the general Turkish population. As the song progresses, the singer clarifies that his wife’s state of arousal is typical of other wives, naming the wives of musicians, gamblers, tradesmen (esnaf, considered to be respectable and responsible workers and craftsmen). While on the one hand Ciguli’s song indicates commonality among wives from professional groups that potentially cross cut ethnic distinctions, the use of language and the associations with these professions are strong Roman indicators. For one, the use of the term “karı” (old woman, spouse) instead of hanım (lady) is associated with lower class, particularly Roman communities, and is roughly equivalent to calling one’s spouse “broad” or “old lady” in American English. The professions listed in the song such as that of musician is also a Roman indicator, as many professional musicians in Western Turkey are Roman. “Esnaf” or tradesman is a category of quality among Roman, and can also signify musician or other entertainer. There are also several in-community Roman songs that reference gamblers and the problems of gambling within the community. The song is underpinned by a rhythmic pattern known among Roman as “Anadolu” (a type of syncopated 2/4), and is a common dance rhythm used in Western Turkish Roman weddings. Rumeli or Southeastern European Turkish-language communities are signaled in Ciguli’s use of “mare” (“hey!” used as a feminine vocative) in the opening. In this way, the song can be read as presenting Ciguli as a spokesperson for every frustrated male, while also providing insider language and references decipherable to Roman and Rumeli communities.
Ciguli Forte. Dost Müzik. KB 99-34-Ü-1560-011
Words and music by Ciguli.
Translation by Sonia Seeman
[instrumental introduction in slow 2/4 "Anadolu" dance rhythm]
[return to 2/4 “Anadolu” dance rhythm]
The video presentation of this song was aired in 1997, and rapidly climbed the video chart on the Turkish music channel, Kral TV. Several aspects of the visual elaboration play on Roman caricatures that represent inversions of social norms, while also softening direct references to Roman identity. The video opens with Ciguli under his marriage bed, calling out to his wife for an explanation of what is going on. The camera pans to a woman who is larger and taller than Ciguli (who in real life is somewhat small in stature at around 5’4”), and a crowd of ten children who rub sleep from their eyes. The indication is that Ciguli’s wife’s sexual appetite has led to this large brood, and Ciguli needs a break. The comic aspect of this derives from the understanding of cultural norms regarding gender: sexual appetite and aggressiveness is believed to be normative of the male realm, as well as relatively larger stature. Women are expected to be passive, physically less aggressive, and smaller than their partners. The video continues with the saga of the besieged Ciguli, who hides out in the men’s coffeehouse (kahve) in the neighborhood, playing cards with his male friends. Normally a preserve of male activity, the video shows his wife marching down the street to pull him out of the coffeehouse - another breech of gender norms in which women are expected to stay away from male public spaces.
Dance movements are also iconic representations of inverted gender norms. In his continued attempts to stave off his wife and yet appease her, he comes outside and dances for her - yet another inversion in non-Roman communities in which women are expected to entice men through dancing, and male dancing is expected to be carefully prepared and circumscribed. Ciguli’s restrained dance steps involve supplicating movements, which results in getting her to dance, as well as inspires neighborhood onlookers to join. Here as well Ciguli plays on gender norms for comedic effect: he does a side step movement parodied from Charlie Chaplin to get her to dance and to diffuse tension. While executing this ethnically neutral movement, he and some of his audience members also use a particular kind of head movement in which the head shifts from side to side away from the shoulder. This is associated with female dancing, and signifies coquettishness, being derived from theatrical and kanto (early music hall) dance acts that have been incorporated into (solo, improvisatory) female professional dance glossed in the US as “belly dance.” This movement thus signifies “çingene”, as the members who comprise the ethnic groups marked as “çingene” are generally thought to form the majority of professional dancers. But it also signifies the feminine, as it is associated exclusively with female professional dancers. The wife then performs a modified, sedate solo çiftetelli, again associated with Roman in-community dancing.
Several of these caricature features such as comedic reversal of gender norms, and association with music and dance combine with an interesting ambiguity: Roman but not just Roman; Roman but also an ethnically-neutral everyman. In conversations with Ciguli’s producers prior to the airing of his subsequent television series, they discussed their intention of staging the neighborhood as a generic “immigrant” (göçmen) space that could stand for Rumeli (Turkish-speaking communities from the former Ottoman provinces in Southeastern Europe) or even from the Turkish Black Sea region (Karadeniz).
As a commercial hit, the press and intelligentsia responded negatively, which indicated how this kind of recognition could challenge norms maintained by journalists, the intellectual elite, and other spokespeople for state cultural discourses. In fact, some of the arguments reiterated contentious points raised in the 1980s in response to the growing popularity of arabesk, an Arabic-inflected musical and film genre that drew upon elements from the Turkish Southeast, Kurdish ethnic groups, and referenced the larger Arab musical world.  Such reiteration of cultural pollution was indicated by the provocative title of a newspaper article,  On Sunday June 27, 1999, Sabah newspaper’s front-page headline shouted, “What’s Happened to Us?” ["Bize ne oldu?"]. The article continued: "Turkey is in a fine state (hal). Tastelessness and poor standards are prized more and more with each passing day. Here's the latest example: ‘Ciguli.’”  What is interesting here are the ways in which critics responded to Ciguli’s popularity as an indicator of cultural erosion.
One could argue, however, that these media discussions were more of a “managed” controversy - a debate without the heat of the 1980s arabesk debates (cf. Stokes 1989; Stokes 1992; Özbek 1991). The lack of heated political debate may be due to the relative lack of political danger represented by Roman communities, and, after their original presentation, by the company’s increasingly ambiguous portrayal of Ciguli as an immigrant everyman, from the Balkans, from “Rumeli”, the valued territories of the former Ottoman Empire. Albeit strategic from a marketing perspective, such presentations also perpetuate the cultural presentation of “gypsy” as interloper through the representation of a social outsider. Such condensations of meaning are similarly part of a long tradition of Ottoman Karagöz (shadow puppet theatre), orta oyunu (improvised street theatre) and staged kanto theatrical songs.  These genres brought to performance an embodied critique on social and political issues through the presentation of stereotyped social representations. By portraying Ciguli through such ambiguity, his managers are also drawing on an older tradition by which Roman identity is schematized into a few basic characteristics and played out in a cultural stage populated by a range of ethnic and occupational types.
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