In December, a highly-acclaimed virtuoso of the saz, a long-necked stringed instrument similar to a guitar, was welcomed to Istanbul. Petra Nachtmanova, the daughter of a Polish father and Czech mother, stars in the documentary Saz which was shown at the 2nd International Amity Short Film Festival.
Nachtmanova set off on her journey with the slogan, “From Berlin to Khorasan in pursuit of the secrets of the saz”. Her 13-week trip began in Berlin, went through hidden Balkan villages to Istanbul, and from there she continued to Anatolia, where she crossed the Caucasus Mountains to reach some Azeri minstrels. She then went on to Khorasan in Iran, believed to be the birthplace of the instrument. She travelled through the region playing, singing, talking, and recording everything. These recordings came together for the short documentary film Saz. Nachtmanova first encountered the saz in Berlin-Kreuzberg and set off to find the roots of this legendary instrument, passing through Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran and stopping along the way to meet other saz masters. “The saz is the key to the heart,” says Nachtmanova, adding that she formed profound bonds with the people she met, touching their hearts through the saz.
Nachtmanova was born in Austria. Her mother tongues are Polish, Czech, and German, and along with Turkish, she speaks a total of eight languages. She studied history in Britain and Central Asian Culture at Humboldt University in Berlin. In the neighbourhood known as the Turkish Quarter in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, she first encountered the saz at a cemevi, the place of worship for Alevis, and her life completely changed. Nachtmanova studied classical music as a child and had planned to direct her energies towards Baroque music, but at that moment, she became captivated by folk music. She took up the saz 11 years ago, and has not stopped playing since.
Enchanted by the magic of the saz, Nachtmanova also fell in love with Alevi folk music. Six years ago, she went to the lands where the saz was first played. She says she was under the spell of this instrument and set her mind to learning more about it. After six years of learning and practice, she had realised her dream. Together with her friends, director Stephan Talneau and soundman Florent Chaintiou, Nachtmanova left Berlin. What began with confused scepticism was soon replaced by admiration and finally, a deep trust.
“The saz film shows the power of music,” she says. “It’s a road story that pushes the world’s boundaries and at the same time, it’s about a breath-taking journey between Europe and Asia to discover the meaning of life. Despite people’s everyday troubles, the story of the saz is the special thing that holds them together.”
Her travels took her to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and Bulgaria, and from there to Istanbul, Sivas, Tunceli, Diyarbakır, and Erzurum in Turkey. Nachtmanova talks about the saz masters she met and the local and more famous artists she played beside and sang songs with. But this was not enough for her, so she climbed the rugged and snowy Caucasus Mountains, where she played her saz and learned new songs.
It was at the cemevi in Berlin that she first took a saz course, and she mentions the synergy of the saz and words. “I learned Turkish so I could better understand Turkish folk music and ballads and really get into the soul of the instrument,” she says. The young musician speaks excellent Turkish, and her language sounds pure when she sings the folk songs. On her journey with her saz, she talked with people at almost every stop along the way. “I spoke with some people in Turkish, and with others I just communicated through the saz.”
As someone who feels music deeply, Nachtmanova adds that after she found the saz, she became passionately bound to the instrument, which is now indispensable for her. “People who d onot play the saz just think of it as an instrument. But when you start playing it, you start to see it is something beyond that. Above all, it is so sincere. It is a reflection of you and society. That’s why I call it the instrument of the people.”
“First of all, the road teaches you patience. The people you meet and the places you see inspire you. But on this trip, I mostly learned to feel at home. It is interesting that I learned to feel at home on the road this way. Whatever different geography I am in, the sense of sincerity and unity from the saz have to be the source of my emotions. And of course when you feel at home, you find peace with yourself. You find tranquillity and wholeness.”
Nachtmanova explains that in the documentary, there are two women who are virtuosos of the saz. Although they interviewed many women, they decided to include just these two in order to better reflect reality.
“In the cities, there are more women who play the saz, but in general, there are very few compared to the number of men who play,” she says.
“As you see in the documentary, there are also very few women, but the ones you see are hugely influential, like Ayşe Sewaqi and Aşık Nargile.”
In the film, Ayşe Sewaqi says she was not welcomed as a saz player within the Kurdish community, but later, as she got better and became more famous, she earned people’s love and respect. It was the same for Aşık Nargile, who lives in Georgia. We see her in Nachtmanova’ documentary at an Azeri wedding receiving a great deal of interest and respect.
Nachtmanova points out that there are female saz masters but emphasises that more women need to be encouraged to play. “Saz classes are mostly made up of girls and in the beginning, they are more successful than the boys. But then they quit playing. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some of them lack confidence—that’s been my experience. Girls need to feel more motivation to play.”
Twelve different languages are spoken in the film. “Our adventure in looking for the roots of the saz started in Berlin and stretched all the way to Khorasan. The saz is the key to the heart. This film is a compelling tale that explores the road and the power of music. I think it’s a refreshing story about the special things that hold us all together.”
Nachtmanova explains their goal was to bring out different melodies and unwritten legends. The film’s symbolic meaning emerges through the musicians who live in the cities they passed through, through what they feel and the stories they tell. This talented musician played together with a Bosnian saz master. She went to the mountains with a group of musicians wearing their suits. She met the Turkmens who are the likely inventors of Blues Rock. She asked just one thing of everyone she encountered: “Play me a song I can take home with me.”