For This Tailor-Made Virtuoso, The Nays Have It
RHYTHM, MAY 2002
OMAR FARUK TEKBILEK
For this tailor-made virtuoso, the nays have it.
Story by Jim Bessman
“The real sound of the nay is [created] without pressure,” says Omar Faruk Tekbilek with a somewhat mystical air about him. An altogether appropriate demeanor for a renowned Sufi musician to assume while discussing his latest album, Alif. The Turkish-born Tekbilek, who is best known simply as Faruk, amplifies his remark with another revelation. “We must separate ourselves from the self, so that the self disappears and leaves our original breath,” he continues, then adds, poetically, “so the nay plays the breath of God.”
The word “alif,” as Faruk imparts, is both the first letter in the Arabic alphabet and the first letter for Allah, the name of God; hence the deep significance for Faruk of his album’s title. To Faruk, who once studied to be a Sufi priest, “Allah is the beginning and end of everything, and the source of everything.”
The nay, of course, is a bamboo flute, and one of many traditional Middle Eastern instruments he has mastered. Faruk is certainly among the most important Middle Eastern musicians living in the United States, and a virtuoso, too, on the double-reed oboe-like zurna, the long-necked baglama lute, and numerous percussion instruments. Faruk has employed all of these not only in performing traditional music from the Middle East but in contemporary global-fusion collaborations with the varied and storied likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ofra Haza, Simon Shaheen, Hossam Ramzy, Glen Velez, Bill Laswell, Mike Mainieri, Peter Erskine, Don Cherry, Karl Berger, Trilok Gurtu, Jai Uttal, Steve Shehan, and Ginger Baker.
Categorizing Faruk becomes particularly problematic. Ask him how to pigeonhole his music and you’ll get an all-inclusive term that is essentially synonymous with the overly broad designation of Middle Eastern.
“You should call it Mediterranean music,” he suggests, noting that it’s rooted in the music of Turkey, Arabia, Greece, Persia, and even Spain. “I grew up with an Arabic music background, because I was born in Adana, a southern city of Turkey [near Syria] that’s close to the Arabian countries. It used to be on the borderline between the Roman Empire and the Eastern world, so there’s always been a rich cultural assimilation, and Adana is very famous for musicians: If you go to a club in Istanbul and there are 10 musicians, at least seven are from Adana!”
Faruk was born there in 1951, the son of a Turkish father and an Egyptian mother. In addition to Arabic music, he grew up listening to the related sounds of his home country—both its folk and religious genres—as well as that of Greece. When he was ten, an uncle who was a music storekeeper took him in, thus signaling the commencement of the boy’s real music education. He had learned to play the small kaval folk flute when he was eight, and at 12 he was already playing professionally and studying with such Turkish musical legends as Orhan Gencebay, an Arabesque string player, and Ismet Siral, a jazz musician.
“I moved to Istanbul with all these musical influences when I was 16, and played music with my older brother in the Arabic style,” says Faruk. It was 1967, and Arabic music was flourishing in Faruk’s new hometown. “They’ve borrowed from us, and we’ve borrowed from them,” he explains, speaking of the neighboring and overlapping Arabic and Turkish cultures. “For 500 years we’ve lived together as Islamic countries, so our cultures are blended together and our music is the same thing scalewise and melodically, even though Arabic music is a little bit flatter and uses quarter-tones. But it’s very similar and not that different to the Western ear, and we use many of the same instruments. And it’s very emotional music, which is why it was very easy to blend with [Palestinian-American oud and violin maestro] Simon Shaheen when he asked me to play Ottoman-rooted music with him on Turath.”
That album had been released in 1994, long after Faruk had established himself in the United States. After his move to Istanbul, his instrumental proficiency enabled him to find work as a studio musician for the next decade. He’d first visited the U.S. as a musician in 1971. He met his wife backstage at a concert in Rochester, N.Y., home of the second largest Turkish community in the U.S. after New York City.
“It’s so big there [in Rochester] because of the tailoring company Hickey-Freeman, and Turkish people have always been skilled at tailoring,” says Faruk. “My father-in-law worked for Hickey-Freeman, and I met my wife when her family came to a concert in Rochester. Her brother was 13 and played as a drummer because we needed one. I was 19 and she was 16 and we wrote to each other for two years and she came to Turkey in 1974 and we got engaged and married the next year. I got my visa in 1976 to come here.” He settled in Rochester, and worked at Hickey-Freeman for 17 years as a steam presser and cloth cutter.
But even his most vigorous pressing could not remove the music wrinkle from the well-worn creases of his imagination. “My boss said that being a musician, I gave a very nice touch,” recalls Faruk, who worked on custom suits for the likes of Paul Newman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He played professionally, even if mainly at local weddings and community events. “Rochester is a nice, quiet city, but not much for musicians. The first year was a very tough time: I thought I could make music like I had all my life but it was tough, and I had to accept that I had to work for my family and found a job at Hickey-Freeman. But then everything came easier, and I’d come to New York City every weekend to play at belly-dance clubs.” It was a six-hour drive each way, but it paid off when he met the guitarist and producer Brian Keane, who had dropped in at Fazil’s, one of the belly-dance clubs in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Keane was in search of musicians for his soundtrack to the film Suleyman the Magnificent. On that fateful night, Faruk was playing there with his group the Sultans, and the rest is history. His work on the film score was so successful that he and Keane collaborated on another five albums for the Celestial Harmonies label.
Faruk’s ensuing recordings have since surveyed what he calls the “four corners” of his music: the Turkish classical and religious music styles that evolved out of the Ottoman-era palaces; Turkey’s folk music traditions; a romantic element; and the experimental realm of the “imagination” in which he interacts with other world-music forms in producing something new and modern.
“It gives me the chance to explore the whole depth of my spirit,” declares Faruk, who was able to return to music full-time in 1995, and has since received the U.S. Golden Belly Musician-Of-The-Year Award (1998 and 1999). For him, Alif represents “the culmination of a dream.” Produced by the esteemed percussionist Steve Shehan, the album departs a bit from Faruk’s previous ones in that he sings on several tracks when he’d sung before primarily in concert. But it’s also “a step ahead,” he says, referring to Shehan’s “Western approach” to the arrangements, which sometimes hinge on an electronic ambience, though he stresses that the organic roots of his music are still present.
So, too, is Faruk’s religious devotion, which he describes as his “main inspiration.” As he explains, “Playing has been a state of praying for me since an early age. They’re the same thing, blocking out the outside and putting me in touch with the inner self and admiration for my Creator.” All is integrated, Faruk concludes, with the breath that is at the heart of his music and musicianship, indeed, his entire being.
“The only power we have is breath, because God is inside the breath and our source of life is breath,” the master of the nay concludes. “In the yoga tradition, which I’ve practiced since I was 16, you exhale all the way to the end, where there is no more breath, and you stop. That is the real you: a beautiful state, the serenity without breath, the breath inside the breath, the realization that the breath is the truth, the knowledge of the self. This is the power, when you look at yourself and watch the breath from where the power comes.”