by Adrienne E. Gusoff
RHYTHM, SEPTEMBER 1999
When Ömar Faruk Tekbilek was a child in Turkey, he would sit content-edly, for hours in his room, perfecting his technique on the flute-like ney and stringed baglama. His mother, feeling sorry that this eight year old was taking his music studies so seriously would implore him, “Go outside and play with your friends. Have some fun!”
“But, Mother,” he would answer, “I am having fun!”
Faruk’s love of making music has never diminished. The joy he takes in performing is immediately apparent as you watch him on stage. There is no ego — just pure delight in being able to share his music with others. The audience is lured in by the first haunting notes of Sufi melodies, and soon they are completely mesmerized, swaying involuntarily to the strains of the eastern instruments, or standing transfixed as Faruk wraps his luscious voice around original and traditional songs. By the end of the evening, the entire crowd is up and dancing, moving arms sinuously and spinning uninhibitedly to up-tempo middle-eastern dance tunes performed by Faruk’s international ensemble of musicians.
Faruk is proud of the multi-cultural mix of his group. Cross-cultural tolerance is a recurring theme in his work. “Music is truly the international language. In playing music, people from all cultures can come together — such as Israeli and Palestinian, Turkish and Greek, Armenian and Egyptian. We all share our belief in God, no matter what we call Him or how we worship — it’s what binds us all together as people.”
Although Faruk is a virtuoso on the ney, zurna (double-reed bamboo oboe) and lute-like baglama, his talents also extend to a variety of other instruments including darbuka, oud, jura, bandir, kavala, davul, def and synthesizer. And while most middle-eastern musicians play only one of the dozens of styles of the Turkish music, Faruk is unique in his amazing ability to play all — from classical to folk, to Arabesque to spiritual, as well as Arabic and Egyptian music — brilliantly.
He explains the differences in styles thusly, “Pure Turkish classical music is ‘court’ music. It’s what was played in the sultan’s palace. It’s very formal, with the entire orchestra playing at once; with no single, featured instruments. It has little, if any, rhythm. Turkish Arabesque style features a very upfront rhythm structure, similar to Arab music, where often one instrument will ‘talk’ and the orchestra will ‘answer’ in a classic ‘call and respond.’ Folk music is simpler and less structured, much like folk music anywhere. Sufi music is rich, both melodically and rhythmically, and spiritual in nature. Classical has its roots in Sufi music.”
Because Faruk plays and mixes so many different styles, he is difficult to classify, and at his concerts you’ll find a heterogeneous mix of fans. His early albums are among the most popular ever with belly-dancers, (he received the Golden Belly “Musician of the Year” Award in 1998,) yet it was his display of classical talents on the soundtrack to “Süleyman the Magnificent” which landed him an international recording contract. Other albums include “Beyond the Sky” and “Fire Dance,” with Brian Keane, which are an East-West impressionistic fusion, conjuring up images of ancient, exotic lands. His first solo album, “Whirling” might be categorized as “trance.” The first cut, is a classic whirling dervish song which is so physically compelling, it’s almost impossible for the body to ignore. He has played with such diverse musicians as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ofra Haza, Jai Uttal, Simon Shaheen, Ginger Baker, Don Cherry and Australian percussionist Michael Askill. After even a brief conversation with Faruk, you know that God is his greatest musical and personal inspiration. When he speaks of future plans, his conversation is punctuated with “In sha’allah” — “If Allah wills it.”
You can feel the spirituality in his music. Many of his songs are tributes to God and each time he performs one in concert, a spontaneous hush stills the audience. Though they may not understand the words, the feeling the music evokes is unmistakable. When he finishes, there is a standing ovation. Undoubtedly, his deep reverence for God is why he was invited to play at the World Festival of Sacred Music, initiated by the Dalai Lama and sponsored by Tibet House and The Foundation for Universal Responsibility. This non-political, non-religious program, running from October 1999 through April 2000, is really several different festivals on five continents, with the culmination being held in Bangalore, India. Faruk will be a featured performer in the Poetry of Peace concert, representing sacred music from the middle east.
Born in Adana, Turkey in 1951 of Turkish and Egyptian parents, Faruk was “adopted” by Aydin, the owner of local music store who gave him a job in his shop and taught him not only rhythms and scales, but how to read music. Up to then, 10 year old Faruk had no formal musical training. “This gave solid roots to my life and to my music.” Within two years, he was performing professionally and studying with some of Turkey’s greatest musicians such as Orhan Gencebay, Ismet Siral, Ahmet Sezgin (the “Turkish Elvis Presley”) and Turkish jazz musician Burhan Tonquch. Burhan introduced him to the music of American jazz greats, particularly drummer Gene Krupa, as well as to Hatha Yoga, which he still practices daily.
By sixteen, Faruk had moved to Istanbul and quickly established himself as a well-respected studio musician, despite his youth. In 1971, he toured Europe and the U.S. for three months and met his future wife, Suzan, in Rochester. Although he had to return to Turkey to complete his military duty, he and Suzan corresponded during their separation. Eventually they married and Faruk moved to Rochester, a city with the second-largest Turkish population in America. This meant, of course, starting from scratch professionally. He had few, if any, contacts in the music business and there was not a large demand for Turkish or Arab musicians outside the middle-eastern community, itself. For a while, he played with a Top 40 band, but the music didn’t suit him. So, while working as a garment industry presser to support his family, Faruk founded The Sultans. For years, the group played at parties and nightclubs, making several albums which instantly became belly-dance classics.
His big break came in 1989 when he met guitarist/producer Brian Keane at Fazil’s International on Manhattan’s west side. “It’s a place where all the belly dancers, flamenco dancers and their musicians hang out. After hours, we’d all get together and play music. Sometimes we’d go on until eight in the morning,” he recalls fondly. Keane was putting together the soundtrack for a PBS documentary on the riches of the Ottoman Empire, Süleyman the Magnificent, and thought Faruk’s mastery of Turkish music was just what the project needed.
German label owner Eckart Rahn, who knew Brian, heard the soundtrack and offered them a CD contract, at last giving Faruk the financial security to leave his job in the garment business. Together, Faruk and Brian made five albums before that contract ended. Faruk’s new album, “One Truth” is due out on the Hearts of Space label in mid-August, and he will be touring the U.S. with his group in October, beginning with the Poetry of Peace concert in L.A. on October 16.