We’ve all been there. The unremitting pulse of a ten thousand-strong crowd. A throbbing bassline so deep it’s like walking through jelly. A wall of speakers screaming louder than a passenger jet on take-off. And a cacophonous crash of cymbals that could wake the dead.
But that’s nothing. It’s child’s play. For such a sound most probably originated on the factory floor of Istanbul Agop, one of the world’s most respected cymbal manufacturers. The factory is a Dantean world of smashing, bashing, grinding and crashing. Wheels of steel are bundled into ovens hotter than hell itself. Giant tongs pull out raw metal discs that burn red like the setting sun.
The atmosphere was even more loaded when Istanbul Agop set up shop in 1978. A year previously, master cymbalsmith Agop Tomurcuk had lost his job, as Turkey’s only cymbal manufacturer closed down for good. After purchasing his old factory’s redundant equipment, Agop threw everything he had into a tiny workshop in Istanbul’s Bakırköy area. Manpower was limited. Conditions were extreme. After one especially long evening, his cousin carried an exhausted Agop home on his back.
The hard work soon paid off. Agop’s friend Mehmet Tamdeğer became a business partner in 1980. Worldwide acclaim grew. By 1982 the company was exporting products to North America. Upon hearing the unique sound of hand-hammered Turkish cymbals, legendary American jazz drummer Mel Lewis declared: ‘They’re back!’
Agop’s two sons, Sarkis and Arman, joined the company a few years later. But Tomurcuk senior was a hard taskmaster. ‘My father always forced Arman and I to work much more than anybody else,’ explains Sarkis Tomurcuk, now company co-president. That’s not all. Three decades ago Agop Istanbul used charcoal heaters to melt the metal for production. ‘I had to carry a 55 to 60 kilogramme bronze-filled melting pot between my legs, then pour the melted alloy into pans.’
The temperature of the liquid metal inside those casting pots would frequently exceed 1,000 degrees celsius. Young Sarkis would dampen his trousers with cold water to avoid burning. ‘My pants would become dry from the heat before I even began to pour the alloy,’ remembers Sarkis. ‘This is how we cast every single cymbal at the time.’
Production has upped its tempo considerably since then. The reputation of the world’s only handmade cymbal manufacturer has grown with each passing year. World-renowned artists like Tom Meadows and longtime Lenny Kravitz collaborator Cindy Blackman Santana all adore the product, as do the drummers behind Deerhunter and The Flaming Lips.
Arman explains that, ‘Turk-Armenians [like himself] are well known for their handcrafting skills.’ A fact that is evident on any visit to the veritable baptism of fire at the Istanbul Agop factory. Molten metal discs are hauled out of scorching ovens like unholy pizzas. After being pressed, the rudimentary cymbals are beaten out by hand. ‘These different hammerings result in different sounding cymbals,’ asserts Arman. ‘Each cymbal has a different character and you can’t find any other cymbal that sounds exactly the same. This gives musicians the opportunity to sound unique.’
These battered circles are then marked with chalk for finishing. Individual rounds are placed on a lathe. Each cymbal is then precisely, painstakingly, deafeningly finished by hand. As the product nears completion it spins above a far larger pile of ribboned metal below. The genesis of raw rock ’n’ roll is thus distilled into a single metal disc.
In an anteroom, the polished goods sparkle like a thousand gold records. Millions of dollars of merchandise are made up of cymbals like the Sizzle Bell, Brilliant Splash, ION Crash, Sultan China, 20″ Gong and Turkish Ride. We challenge any passing visitor with a drumstick in hand not to belt the life out of every one of them.
Such success doesn’t come overnight. As Arman explains, ‘In the cymbal making business, we teach and train our skilled workers.’ Such bespoke talent simply isn’t found on the shelf. To train one skilled cymbal maker, let alone a master cymbalsmith, takes years.
Istanbul Agop’s location at the world’s trading crossroads certainly helps to spur the business forward. ‘[Turkey offers] advantages compared to some other European countries as production and labour costs are less,’ continues Arman. Their factory is in a part of industrial Istanbul that few tourists see. This allows the Tomurcuk brothers to source raw materials, before the cymbals are hand-finished and flown around Europe, the US and the Middle East.
But it isn’t all plain sailing. According to Arman, ‘The biggest challenges we see in the future for cymbal production concern raw material price increases.’ Although Istanbul Agop’s metal cymbal recipe is a company secret, it involves boatloads of copper, a commodity that rose from $1 per pound in 2004 to $4.50 less than a decade later. Recent fluctuations in the Turkish lira make it cheaper for tourists to visit – but much more expensive to import materials from abroad.
Not only that. Sarkis adds, ‘New cymbal manufacturers are joining the game to grab a market share.’ But Istanbul Agop has a secret weapon. The company leads the market in terms of sound and prestige, and doesn’t mind boasting about it. ‘Social media and webpages are great tools to keep your customers up to date,’ continues Sarkis, whose company blog is a lesson in inspirational persuasion.
Alas, the most effective way for Sarkis and Arman to further the family business is by artist endorsement. If Istanbul Agop cymbals are seen by 12 million potential customers (the current number of views for the Lenny Kravitz video ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’), it’s the best marketing in the world.
‘An artist’s talent, skills, publicity and visibility are very inspiring to other musicians and younger generations,’ confirms Sarkis. If rock stars from past and present could see the passion on Istanbul Agop’s factory floor, they’d doubtless be even more proud of their truly handmade and essential piece of kit.
This article appears in the issue45Buy Now