It is thought that cymbals have been in existence in the Middle East and Asia since the first millennium BC as tiny finger cymbals. Cymbals as we know them now developed later, and were made from various metals; usually copper and tin mixed with silver, and gradually became larger and thinner using various secret processes for a more diverse range of uses and sounds. Cymbals have been used in rhythmic music when Turkish armies marched to the beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals and gongs.

A turning point in the art of cymbal making occurred 377 years ago in 1623 with the discovery of improved techniques by Turkish Armenian artisan Avedis. Avedis was an alchemist of Istanbul who discovered and developed a special processing technique for an alloy of copper, tin and silver with which he was able to make superior cymbals of extraordinary clarity and resonance. Sultans and viziers were impressed with the smooth bell-like tones and powerful resonance of his bronze cymbals, and all marveled at his precise craftsmanship. His fame quickly spread across the land and eventually he was given the name ‘Zildjian’ (cymbal smith) by the guildsmen of the time.

The alloy obtained from the traditional mixture that he prepared one day when he was alone in the foundry came out differently from other times. More resistant to the blows of the hammer, more easily shaped without breaking. That was the day the formula was discovered for cymbals which, rather than a deep gong, produce a high-pitched ‘whishing’ sound, lighter and purer than church bells. From that day onward, the technique became a trade secret, passed down from father to son and revealed to no one outside the family. The quality of the sound produced by this special alloy spread far and wide, eventually reaching the sultan. At his behest it began to be used as a ‘weapon of sound’ by the ‘Mehteran’ or Ottoman Military Band, which produced sounds like the clashing of swords and shields in war. Avedis Usta’s tiny foundry began producing cymbals for the world’s largest army. The Mehteran, which, far more than a military company employed only in wartime, play no cymbals other than those of Avedis Usta, whose fame quickly spread throughout the empire. And given the need the empire’s religious communities and musical entertainers also had for bells, the fire never died out and the pounding of the hammers never ceased day and night at Avedis Usta’s foundry.

When he died in 1865, his brother Little Kerope took over the business. His cymbals too became much sought after by the bands and orchestras of Europe. By 1927 Levon and Diran were running the family business in Istanbul. But that was the year when everything changed. Cousin Aram Zilciyan received an invitation from his relatives in America. Having no son to whom he could pass on the craft, he decided to risk the arduous journey. Meanwhile in a foundry near Yedikule, Mikael Usta, who had taken up production in the footsteps of Big Kerope, began stamping a large ‘K’ on the cymbals he made in the Great Master’s name. He went on producing extraordinary cymbals, but there was a problem. Residents of the neighborhood were disturbed by the pounding of the hammers. Bidding farewell to the quarter where the foundry had stood for over a century, the usta moved it to Bayrampasa.

The legendary ‘K. Zilciyan’ cymbals which drummers seek to find even today, continued to be sent to America until the orders ceased in 1977. A year later Mikael Usta was unable to sell any more cymbals. The day came when for the first time in centuries the sound of the hammers ceased and the fire went out in the foundry. Broken-hearted, he was forced to close it down. Within a year the last great master in Istanbul, Mikael, had also died, and the clash of cymbals was no longer heard in the city. However, three years after the master’s death Mikael Usta’s experienced assistants and boyhood friends Mehmet Tamdeger and Agop Tomurcuk established a foundry to carry on the craft. These two unique individuals, from outside the family but privy to the secret, resurrected on its home soil the traditional production of cymbals that had gone on for four centuries. Melting their secret mixtures with fire, and pounding their hammers with love, they stamped their cymbals with the 7000-year-old traditional name of these lands: Istanbul. This tradition lives on in the workshops set up separately by Mehmet Tamdeger and Agop Usta’s sons, Arman and Serkis Tomurcuk in the workshops called ‘Bosphorus,’ ‘Turkish’ and ‘Anatolia’.

How can you tell if your cymbals are one hundred percent handmade? By their sound. Each handmade cymbal has its own unique timbre, bold and powerful or quick and light, penetrating and raw or deep and dynamic. Many of the world’s top musicians, drummers and percussionists come from all over the globe to the factories in Istanbul just to find the right sound for their music. They test and play an assortment of cymbals until they find the one that produces exactly the sound they had in mind. These days’ cymbals are used for all kinds of music, from Beethoven to heavy metal, folk, opera and jazz. There is a handmade cymbal to suit everyone's taste resting in a factory in Istanbul, waiting to be claimed by its rightful owner.

Reference: Roni Askey Doran and Kagan Aybudak/Skylife

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