There is no need for a detailed, ingenious discussion to prove that the canto is not a native invention, but rather a foreign concept, used to describe a type of foreign music. It is obvious that the word comes from the Italian word belcanto. It is also clear that the music described is also not a local product.
This origin of the canto is enough to explain its history. Although the Ottoman community had already begun its Westernization period, no one was using the word canto. The embarkation into the Westernization period was not something that was desired by the community, but a decision made for the “betterment of society”. Of course, if anyone had asked the people, some would probably have agreed with the decision. There would probably have been a larger non-Muslim population who agreed with this decision, as they had been closely observing Western culture. However, at this point in time, the non-Muslims were in the minority. However, on the same token, it would also be wrong to say that the majority of the population was opposed to Westernization. Although most of the population probably had no idea about the West or Westernization, there were some people who were definitely opposed to the idea.
The government had been in the process of Westernization, and entered this process without conducting a survey of the people, or holding a referendum. Westernization of the Ottoman society was well under way when the music type canto appeared. However, it is possible to state that “the canto was discovered due to the process which had already begun”.
We can say that society’s reaction to the canto was indicative of the process of Westernization. However, the reaction here was not a hostile one. On the contrary, it was a reaction that mirrored what the process was bringing to the community.
What happened before the canto appeared? What had already happened to allow this type of music to become a part of Westernized Ottoman society? Let’s take a quick look.
Beyoğlu lies in the center of this discussion – Everyone who either went through the actual Westernization process, or wanted to, was in Beyoğlu. During the 19th century, there were birahane (pubs) and café-chantants. Various musicians, from different parts of Europe, came and brought with them their own, previously unknown, music. In the life there, there were more “types” and a larger “number” of women than the local people were accustomed to. Since the time of Bosco, theaters in this area had been active.
Although these events at first only occurred in Beyoğlu, by the late 19th century they had begun to spread, and appeared in the area of Şehzadebaşı-Direklerarası. The reason for the expansion was due to the fact that after hearing about what was happening in Beyoğlu, many people outside of the area wanted to join. Since social etiquette – like how to sit, how to stand, how to talk, how to order and how to dress – often came into question in Beyoglu, the canto spread into Şehzadebaşı-Direklerarası and was altered according to the audience of that area. Not enough research has been carried out to allow us to understand exactly how this all happened. What is without a question, however, is the results. Some things had even spread from Beyoğlu to the historic city – or more traditional Istanbul – even having an impact in Direklerarası and many other areas (for example, the creation of art-nouveau apartments.)
The word garde-robe came into Turkish as gar-dolap while Nescafe was pronounced Neskahve – thus “Turkifying” the foreign words to be more in line with traditional Turkish. We can see the same pattern in the evolution of the canto. The people singing there were not “Mademoiselle so-and-so” but Şamram. This was fine; in fact, it was even better.
The first productions of the canto were not very different from the songs of the era. The youth at this time was not connected with the old culture and traditions, hence when they listened to these songs, they just assumed they were songs of Dede Efendi. Although transformation is neither quick nor easy, once it begins, it follows its own path.
The canto is first and foremost about novelty. It is a product of this “novelty” and is conscious about it: both for the singer and the listener. One of its features is that it mocks itself. It never forgets that it is a little girl wearing her mother’s dress and high-heeled shoes, acting as a singer for her friends. On the other side, it laughs.
Sen Margöritö ben Arman
Fezon lamur güzelim,
Gel kırlarda gezelim,
Elimde olsun elin,
Olmazsak da çok entim,
Fezon lamur güzelim.
Whoever wrote this probably laughed at the fact that there is a fezon lamur without entim. The Americans also did something similar, as can be seen here:
Darling, je vous aime beaucoup
Je ne sait pas what to do!
However, this was the effort of an American in Paris. The songstress was aware of the fact that this situation was either fate or the condition of humanity.
The canto is more an interpretation of the life which came with the process of Westernization. As I mentioned in a previous essay,1 the canto implies new things in our lives, thus softening the trauma that is experienced during times of drastic change.
I’m near the telephone,
This was inspired by the new working conditions and new offices. A person now sits behind a strange machine called a “typewriter”, typing things and answering the phone in an “office”. Even stranger is that usually this person is a woman, and she does things that the women we knew never did.
While some people are anxious, muttering that “this will lead to doomsday!”, the canto becomes charmingly familiar. Loosely translated, there is a Turkish saying that is suitable for this situation, “The invention of the telephone didn’t bring about the end of the world.”
When on stage, the subject and the object of the performance - the giver and the receiver – came face to face. If the audience failed to laugh at what the performer assumed was witty then he changed it for the next performance, which usually took place the following day. In that sense, a wide participation mechanism was at work. It was a response to being “popular”. This mechanism turned out to be an advantage for the canto because it created a better sharing space between the producer and the consumer. In that sense, we can say that it was the product of a bottom-to-top process. In an area which requires the knowledge of an expert, such as music, the bottom-to-top process could work well. In fact, those who composed canto were generally not of the common ilk - both Refik Fersan and Sadettin Kaynak were expert musicians with a knowledge of both Eastern and Western music.
Thus, it is possible to say that the canto was a by-product of a unique era which occurred under special conditions. It was dependent on these conditions, and it was destined to be forgotten when those conditions changed. What exactly were these “conditions”? Here I’m talking about the Westernization process. The canto was not involved at the beginning of the process, but it did take its place during the maturation period. But then again, we are talking about a process, and at the end of this process, the canto evolved and became independent of the environment. This happened because of the unique mixture of “astonishment”, desire for novelty, and due to the fact that the initial fear of the canto no longer existed. People chose to dance the tango instead of listening to or watching Peruz or Amelia. Thus, the process outgrew its novelty.
In spite of this, some developments might have occurred if the canto had not lacked a foundation. I’m talking about a development such as that presented in the movie Cabaret, with Liza Minelli. This movie is set in the backdrop of 1930’s Berlin – the same time when the canto was losing ground. If an entertainment place like the “Cabaret” could be found in Berlin, then it would not have been a stretch for Istanbul. For the canto to make the transition to the “cabaret” was dependent on the audience, and would have allowed them to meet in a more sophisticated area.
Thus, the story of the canto has been left unfinished. Any efforts at revival did not produce long-term results. But, while popular the canto worked well, making people laugh and generally making them happy
1 Murat Belge, “Kantolar”, Kantolar Albümü: 1905-1945, İstanbul 1998, s.18-124 (CD-Kitapçık).