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Zildjian Cymbals (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Here is a sound with roots in sixteenth century Constantinople. That's the sound of a Zildjian cymbal.

It began in 1618 when Mustafa the First, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, ordered an Armenian metalsmith named Avedis to create cymbals. The Sultan wanted the for his for elite guard, which used them to spur themselves in battle, and to strike terror in their enemies.

Avedis made his cymbals from bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Its made by melting the two metals together, although if not mixed correctly the metals will separate within the cymbal, creating patches of copper and patches of tin. If this happens the cymbal won't ring because the sound can't reverberate.

The key to Avedis' success though wasn't the bronze - for centuries cymbals and bells had been made from copper and tin - the secret was in his special way of mixing the two metals. It yielded bronze that held its strength when hammered to unimaginable thinness.

The resulting cymbals so pleased the Sultan that he gave Avedis eighty gold pieces, and changed his surname to Zildjian - Z-I-L-D-J-I-A-N. "Zil" is Turkish for cymbal, "dj" for maker, and "ian" means son of. So, Zildjian means "Son of cymbal maker."

With his new status, Avedis refined his cymbals, expanding into Greek and Armenian Churches where cymbals were used to accentuate the hymns and chants.

Many other cymbal makers coveted Avedis' secret methods. To keep it out of their hands, he passed the special mixing process orally to his eldest son. By keeping this secret for centuries, the Zildjian family kept at the forefront of cymbal making, responding to new markets.

By mid-19th century Opera, with its many themes rooted in ancient myths, adopted the Turkish cymbal.

After three centuries of manufacture in Turkey, the secret Zildjian cymbal formula passed on, in 1929, to the the oldest living Zidjian male heir: An American immigrant also named Avedis Zildjian.

Just like his predecessor Avedis responded to market need. This Zildjian introduced the cymbal to Jazz.

Partnering with Gene Krupa, the great drummer from the 1920s, he produced a cymbal called the "Paper Thin." Its brightness and quick decay livened up jazz, and became the instrument drummers used to keep rhythm.

Zildjians are now the cymbal for popular music. Ringo Starr is said to have used the Zildjian line on all the classic Beatles recordings. And they're favored by Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Ginger Baker of Cream and Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix's drummer.

Today the Zildjian cymbal still sets the standard, but the latest Zildjian patriarch has deviated from the traditional of passing trade secrets to the oldest son.

Armand Zildjian, who died recently, shared the formula for mixing the metal with his daughter. She's the first women to know this since the company's beginnings in 17th century Constantinople.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises