Ramadan is a time when old traditions originating from different cultures are revived in Turkey. Among these traditions are highly religious ones, such as “hatim mukabele” (the reciting of the entire Quran), while others are more cultural, as in the case of the Ramadan drummers.
Each morning during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, an hour and a half before dawn, drummers tour the streets, hammering out a repetitive beat to wake people up to have their suhoor (pre-dawn meal) before dawn, when those who are fasting must stop eating and drinking. Ramadan festivities and traditions differ around the Muslim world, but the figure of the drummer seems to be found in many countries with large Muslim populations.
This tradition dates back to the Ottoman era. In Ottoman times, when people didn’t have alarm clocks to wake them for suhoor, drummers would walk through the streets to wake people up. They would also sing a mani, a rhyming couplet -- a reflection of the popular culture. One of the popular couplets at that time was about sleep and prayers: “Why are you sleeping?/What does this sleep earn you?/Make your ablutions, perform the prayer/You will be invited to the heavens.”
There was fierce competition among drummers to sing more creative couplets. All the drummers of a district would gather at a coffeehouse and compete to be named the best couplet singer of the year. One drummer would start the competition with a rhyming couplet and his rival would respond with another. This would continue until one of the drummers failed to respond to the challenge.
At the end of Ramadan, they would go to houses in their street to ask for money for the wake-up service they provided for the neighborhood during the whole holy month. Almost all phases of the drum-beating tradition, from walking through the streets beating the drum to singing rhyming couplets and collecting money, are still alive in our day.
There is an ongoing debate over whether to ban Ramadan drummers from performing their art due to complaints that the drum causes disturbance and has become unnecessary with the widespread use of alarm clocks. Many Turks, however, seem to stand against the banning of this centuries-old tradition and say Ramadan drummers carry the spiritual aspect of old Ramadans to our day.
Local Ramadan drummers are selected in some districts through talent competitions organized by city municipalities. Candidates compete at these contests in a bid to be granted the title of Ramadan drummer.
The head of the Fatih neighborhood in northwestern city of Edirne, Ramazan Tanman, explained why they felt the need to organize a competition to select drummers: “The reason we organized this contest is our desire to have drummers who are appropriate for a European city both in their clothing and conduct. In the past, anyone who grabbed a drum got to be a Ramadan drummer. We will not allow pirate drummers to conduct this business any more,” he said.
One of the winners of such a contest in the Kayseri Municipality was Mustafa Çınar, 91, who claims to be Turkey’s oldest drummer. Çınar said he has been waking fasters in his neighborhood for suhoor for the last 30 years and intends to do so this Ramadan, as well. “I am 91 years old. I used to walk through the streets drumming to wake people for suhoor, but now I drum while on my motorcycle. In this way, I fulfill my task without getting tired,” he stated.
Hanım Polat, Turkey’s only female drummer
Forty-four-year-old Hanım Polat, Turkey’s only female drummer, wakes worshippers in the Işıkkent area of the southern city of Isparta.
Speaking to the Anatolia news agency, Polat said her husband is currently working in Russia and she has to work as a Ramadan drummer to meet her children’s needs. “I have eight children and have to beat this drum early in the morning to earn money. I walk through the streets with my eldest son to wake people up,” she explained.
Stressing that drumming is a hard job for a woman, Polat said she continues with this job because she can’t find another one. “Four of my children go to school. I have to meet their needs. I have no other job to do and am obliged to work as a Ramadan drummer,” she added.
Drum beating fading into oblivion
Drummers complain that the Ramadan drumming tradition is fading into oblivion as it cannot compete with fast-developing technologies.
“This tradition is being forgotten every passing day, as it cannot stand against technology. Our people are not very sensitive toward traditions. We were met with great sympathy in the past, but many people believe today that drum beating is unnecessary because they have alarm clocks to wake them up,” said Ebuzer Kalaycı, who has been a Ramadan drummer for 10 years.
He also complained that drummers can’t collect as much money as they did in the past. “People don’t even open their doors when we knock to collect money. They scold us, saying we are disturbing them in the middle of the night. They generally give us flour, sugar, rice, eggs or tea instead of money. However, everything was very different in the past. Children would accompany us while walking through the streets beating the drum and sing rhyming couplets with us. I would have enjoyed this job more then,” he stated.