Alif – Love Supreme
Omar Faruk Tekbilek Alif – Love Supreme
With Alif, US-based Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek– would-be Sufi monk turned textile worker turned world-class master of the oud, Turkish Ney, baglama and assorted percussion instruments – breaks exciting new ground. Though previous albums already featured tantalizing hints of his nubile vocal magic, they remained focused on broadly arched instrumental compositions. Alif, also the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and symbolic reference to the Creator, is dedicated to love songs, particularly — and as the subtitle Love Supreme already indicates – to love for and of the Divine in its myriad forms. These forms are symbolically pointed at in the dizzying array of names the Arabic tradition uses to evoke different transcendental qualities. Their multitude is akin to the dazzling rainbow spectrum that hides within un-refracted white light.
I’ve always been convinced that formally or not, this monstrously gifted musician had to stand firmly in the esoteric tradition of Sufism – his music conjures up a very otherworldly ambiance, of timelessness, mystery, devotion and longing. His newly updated artist website confirms that indeed, as 16-year old, Faruk was just about to formally enter a Sufi order. While his destiny ultimately lay in becoming a celebrated musician (replete with the ubiquitous new-immigrant status of finding appropriate work and thereby testing his resolve to become established as a performing artist instead), this inner orientation and gift shines brightly in his music. It’s proof positive that real spiritual work always manifests tangibly, and wordlessly, through action and mere presence. It doesn’t require verbal proof. In fact, as Lao Tzu still reminds us, if you have to talk about it, it probably ain’t real. What’s more, Sufism has always relied heavily on music as a medium to induce trance and higher states. For Tekbilek, it was thus ultimately perhaps a more timely and effective avenue to incarnate the teaching and become a Western musician with a strong personal and cultural affinity for mystical Islam than to don the traditional garb of a regional renunciate. Even though Alif is sung entirely in foreign tongues, mental cognition of the words isn’t at all required to capture and be charged by their inner beauty – yet another reminder that heartfelt music truly is the global language.
The music here is produced and orchestrated by Steve Shehan who lends his considerable percussionist chops to all tracks. He also sits in on upright and electric bass and keyboards. Making his first appearance on any of Faruk’s albums is his brother Hadji Ahmet on baglama, the mid-sized Arabian lute of the Saz family. Rounding out the circle of instrumental collaborators are Tekbilek’s friend Hasan Isikkut on kanun who has added his immense talents to many Tekbilek releases; and José Antonino Rodriguez Munoz on flamenco guitar, replacing Adam Del Monte of One Truth where Tekbilek first merged the flamenco idiom with Middle-Eastern modalities.
The vocal contingent is no less impressive. Glykeria is a veritable superstar in her native Greece and lends her gorgeous voice to two tracks. Israel sends Zahava Ben to these cross-cultural musical Olympics, and from Persia comes Mamak Khadem. Faruk’s native Turkey contributes Suzy, and Bulgaria participates with Galina Durmushliyska. And indeed, feasting on the multi-hued palette of the Mediterranean aural vernacular — with songs from Anatolia, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt, Azerbaijan and Israel, as well as the traditional ceremonial Sufi title track and “Laundry Girl” based on a 9/8th Roma rhythm — is the obvious focus of Alif. However, just like Simon Shaheen’s equally compelling breakout album Blue Flame, Alif transcends fixed cultural boundaries. It’s a very sophisticated, densely layered, entirely organic WorldBeat affair without the synthetic Hip-Hop drum grooves much of the genre’s lesser entries marry to looped samples to conjure up superficial exotica. Alif steps out of the “ethnic” rev limiter just far enough to appeal to our Western ears that find the instrumental quartertone slurs of the Middle East out-of-tune and the timbres of the zurna strident and off-putting save for occasional color.
Likely to be one of the first tracks to gain air play because of its seductively romantic flair, “Lachin” is an Azeri love song between Faruk and Glykeria and sports a truly haunting melody, a mellow 3-based rhythm that spins seductively, tasty Flamenco guitar embellishments, the melancholy timbre of the lute, and the overall mien of an endlessly flowing river heading for its final merger with the infinite ocean.
“Don’t Cry My Love” is a spiraling duet between Faruk and Suzy atop Steve Shehan’s fractal rhythm-scapes while “Laundry Girl” features one of those counter-intuitive aggregate patterns that constantly shift between 3- and 4-based beats and create that eerily free-floating effect because your mind can’t readily lock onto an overt base beat. “Dark Eyes” with Galina as the solo vocalist is a moodily modern number shaded by the sophisticated chromatics of Faruk’s Oud and Durmushliyska’s melismatic, semi-Shamanic incantations. “Dadash” is one of Alif’s two instrumental-only tunes and a beautiful showcase for Shehan’s complex percussion mastery that recalls Geoffrey Gordon of Uttal’s Pagan Love Orchestra – deep and rock-solid groove collages that sport one superimposed layer upon another and are subtly augmented by keyboards, with other instrumental melodic snippets added merely for effect that makes the steamrolling groove powerful main attraction.
With Alif, Omar Faruk Tekbilek expands his horizons yet further. I openly applaud the producers and present fellowship of supporting musicians for dedicating one entire album to his vocal craft. It should attract new and rapt listeners outside his existing underground appeal, and beyond the obvious connoisseurship amongst the expatriate Middle-Eastern contingent in this country.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Alif was released on Narada, an established label with a built-in following of music lovers. Narada regulars purchasing Alif on label recognition alone may not quite have come across something as unique as this latest installment in Tekbilek’s growing canon of musical gems. But that’s a very good thing.
To liberally borrow from moviedom’s most famous endorsement: Two ears pricked up – waaay up (heck, you could veritably pierce yours on mine while “Lachin” is spinning in the background….)