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Aural Pleasures: Breathing God

From Turkey to Rochester:
Omar Faruk Tekbilek
Spreads the divine
by: Th. Metzger

Rochester’s alternative newsweekly
December 8-14, 1999

Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s dual citizenship is as much about his passion as his passport.  He is both a Turk and an American.  But his dual nature shows up in far more important places.
He’s a world-class musician, flying around the globe to perform and record.  Yet he lives in a modest house in the shadow of the Genesee Brewing Company.  He’s deeply immersed in the folk musics of the Middle East and the complexities of Turkish court or classical music.  Still, he worked for 17 years at Hickey-Freeman Company on a steam presser and cloth-cutting machine.

On one hand he takes great delight in the practicalities of daily life.  Sitting in his living room, he let loose a delightful, satisfied “ahhhh!” describing the texture of a new drum head.  Telling how he cuts reeds for his zurna, or uses a special knot to change the frets on his long-necked lute, he clearly takes pleasure in the things of this world.  On the other hand he’s a mystic, working in the 1,000-year-old tradition of Sufism.  For a Sufi, the only thing that’s real is the oneness of God.  All else is a veil of illusion.
“Looking at the world through the eyes of Sufi,” he says, “you see the Creator, not the Creation.  Wherever a Sufi looks, he sees God’s manifestations.  Love, as it appears in the lyrics of Sufi music, is not materialistic love.  It is divine love.  This relates to what Sufism is fundamentally about: the oneness of everything.”  No vaporous New Age platitude for Omar Faruk, this is centuries-old tradition confirmed by genuine personal experience.

For him, music and prayer are barely distinguishable.  He tells of playing the flute in a smoky club, where people were drinking and yelling and fighting.  With each inhalation, each out-pouring of breath and music, he felt the divine moving in and out of him.  “What are we, but breath? The breath is the divine.”  Many mystical traditions share this belief.  “Take a deep breath, and everything opens up,” he says.  In some Semitic languages, the word for breath is the same as the word for soul.  In Yoga, which Omar Faruk practices, the breath too is more than oxygen and carbon dioxide.  It is a spiritual essence.

It’s perfect then (and the word “prefect” appears often in Omar Faruk’s conversation) that his first instrument was a small folk flute, kaval.  With no mouthpiece, because Near Eastern flutes are typically edge-blown, and no complex keys for the fingers, just a short row of holes, the kaval is barely more than a 10-inch length of pipe.  But when Omar Faruk’s breath pours through it, it is possible to hear echoes of the divine voice.

He learned to play the kaval at age eight, in Adana, in Southern Turkey.  Even there, the kaval was often dismissed as a crude and primitive instrument.  But with instruction by his older brother and an uncle who owned a music store, Omar Faruk was soon good enough to play professionally.  Fellow musicians would at times smuggle him into nightclubs, where he’d play short sets before the club owner discovered his age and chased him away.

Turning 16 in 1967, he moved to Istanbul, where he and his brother spent the next decade as very-much-in-demand session players.  He developed expertise on not only the kaval and ney flutes, but the piercing double-reed zurna, the classical lute of Persia, baglama, bendir, and various hourglass drums.
At a concert at Kilbourn Hall this summer, accompanied by his son  Murat, Omar Faruk played a drum duet that left me, and most audience astounded.  I’ve heard dozens of excellent concerts in Kilbourn, but never experienced such pyrotechnic power.  With his fingers seeming to barely move, he struck from the darbuka ringing, heart-rattling, explosions of sound.  Polyrhythms, lightning blasts of percussion power, dead-stops and complex interweaving of folk and classical patterns: the duet was one of the finest musical performances I’ve ever heard.

On his seventh CD, One Truth, Omar Faruk displays mastery of not only the darbuka and flutes, but a whole battery of Near Eastern instruments.  His singing voice too is striking: dark and plangent.  The new CD incorporates some western instruments (electric guitar and keyboards, violin and cello) but still, all the compositions grow out of rich traditional soil.  Omar Faruk explains that he likes to build his performances with “four corners.”  In one is the Turkish classical style, which developed in palaces and courts.  In another corner is the “folk-lyric”: older, traditional music exemplified by his wailing, siren-shrill zurna.  In a third corner is what he calls “romantic” style.  And the fourth is the “imagination.”  By this he means innovation, playing with new forms and styles.

With one foot firmly planted in tradition, he has the security to experiment with the music of other cultures.  He’s played with renowned jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, recorded with Mitzie Collins and local steel-drummer Alfred St. John, and is flying soon to Israel to do a CD with John McLaughlin and Moroccan Jewish musicians.  Unlike many practitioners of so-called World Music, who take a nibble of this style and a dab of that, like tourists buying musical souvenirs, Omar Faruk’s experimentation is built on a firm foundation.  His performances never stray very far from centuries-old practice.

As a boy, he says “I studied to be a Muslim priest.”  His family was eager that he join the ranks of the Imams.  “My father was a very religious man. But,” he adds quickly, “not the dark side.”  It took me a moment to understand what he meant by this.  But having lived in the US since 1976, Omar Faruk has certainly seen how Americans view Islam, especially Muslims who take their faith seriously.  The idea of a deeply religious Muslim is equal for most Americans to a hateful and violent despot.  But this is a gross perversion of the truth.  There are almost one-billion Muslims in the world today, and for most of them, Islam is a matter of faith and assurance, not rage and vengeance.
“I believe there is only one religion.  Sufism emphasizes this.  The religion of God is one,” Omar Faruk says.  “All my life I search for God.  I search for my Creator.”  His faith is inclusive, not exclusive.  His faith is driven by joy, not fear.  “Nothing is wrong.  Everything is perfect.  Our minds make it crooked.  Because we don’t have the ability to see the real reality.  But actuality is perfect.”  This is the rock-bottom of Sufi belief: the oneness and goodness of being.

This shows up most obviously in the lyrics to some of his compositions, such as “Sufi” and “One Truth” on the new CD.  More subtle, but perhaps more important, is the way his world view shapes his performance.  There’s a generosity, an emotional openness, to his work that is surely colored by his beliefs.  “It’s my personality,” he says, when asked how Sufism shapes his work, “my personal approach to music.”

That personal approach shows up in conversation too.  He moves from abstruse theological ideas to homey comparisons, recollections of his contact with a Whirling Dervishes in Turkey to Gene Krupa references.  I’d never met anyone before Omar Faruk who can blend back and forth so comfortably from discussing Mohammed to Benny Goodman’s drummer.

It’s obvious too that the course of Omar Faruk’s life has not been straight and predictable.  With his talent and early successes, he might have stayed in Turkey and had an admirable career.  But at age 20 he came to Rochester with a touring group.  Here, he met his future wife.  He returned to Turkey; they corresponded and five years later he came to the US for good.  And even though Rochester has, according to Omar Faruk, the second largest Turkish population of any city in the US, it wasn’t possible at first to make a living doing the music as he had in Istanbul.  He played for a while in an American top 40 band, but his main source of income for 17 years was working at pressing and cutting machines at Hickey-Freeman.

Jumping in his car on Friday afternoons, he’s race to NY to play in clubs there.  But Monday mornings he was back on his production line.  He showed me with a smile, and a shrug, the finger which he chopped a piece off on the mechanized cloth cutter.  The doctor botched the repair (“he was terrible”) and told Omar Faruk he could go right back to work.  Needing his income, against his own better judgment, he returned to the same dangerous job on the production line.  “ ‘Otherwise’, they told me, ‘there’s the door.’”
But within weeks came the contract for his first CD, and since then he’s been able to devote himself to playing and teaching.

Seven CD’s later, touring the West Coast accompanied by his son, then flying to Greece and later Brazil to perform, Omar Faruk is building a reputation as one of the finest Near-Eastern musicians in the world.  But for a man of his stature, he remains surprisingly modest.  He told me he was going that weekend to Buffalo to play at a wedding.  The other musicians there were old friends and he’d agreed to help them out.  The band there was mostly keyboards, he said, and they wanted him play ney and kaval and zurna.

The winds, he says, “give the flesh.”  In a club, or “praying in the house of God, I feel the same thing.”  Pouring his breath through a simple bamboo tube or length of plastic pipe, he brings a little of the divine into the mundane world.  “The breath,” he says with a quiet smile, “is God.