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One Truth: Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s Sound of Soul

One Truth: Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s Sound of Soul

by Mehmet DEDE
April 2003

“We are breath but nothing else,” reminds us Omar Faruk Tekbilek as we talk about the path in search for God within his music..

The Middle-East is in the news again these days. It is hard to think of another region in the world that is as misunderstood as this region today and throughout history. As I make my way through the 2-feet of snow, my mind is in a state of flux. I throw a look at the silhouette of Manhattan from Queens. I am in Long Island City, an up & coming and happening neighborhood with a row of cute little restaurants and the hip school-turned-art gallery PS-1. New York’s wind chill factor makes facing the cold, literally, painful and I find comfort at once in the warmness inside the building where I am meeting my interviewee.
Omar Faruk is the master of the nay (a hollow reed-like instrument with seven holes) as well as numerous other Middle-Eastern ascending instruments. He writes, composes, performs all around the world, and is considered to be one of the true pioneers that brought contemporary Middle-Eastern sounds to the West. He is of Turkish roots and his music emanates from the depths of Anatolian soil, as well as Greece, Mediterranean, Persia, Arab countries, North Africa, reaching as far as Spain as do his spiritual roots.
One short conversation and it is hard not to notice Omar Faruk’s energy-filled vernacular and positivism. The way he sits, both legs firmly crossed under his torso and his arms resting on his knees, is pure tradition. As our conversation progresses he often switches to new sitting positions, just like a child who cannot sit still. With every answer, his mind and soul opens up. As we take a pilgrimage through his life, I realize this is an interview made not only face-to-face, but also heart-to-heart.

Re-start: Upstate New York
“I wanted to learn jazz when I came to the US,” begins Omar Faruk. “I heard about the Eastman Music School in Rochester. But at that time they didn’t have a jazz department, they said you had to go to Berklee in Boston. Ooh, it was nine hours drive,” he says shaking his head from left to right, recalling the moment of frustration. Having left a promising career in Turkey, Omar Faruk moved to the US in 1976 at the age of 25, after marrying a Turkish girl from Rochester and started things from scratch. He began working as a steam presser at a cloth manufacturing company in Upstate New York to earn his life. Little did he know that he would spend the next 17 years on this job. Yet he knew he needed to play music. “I bought a drum set and a piano to practice on my own. I realized that music was for my spiritual development,” he explains. “I used to come home [from my day job], sleep for two hours to recharge myself and then go out to practice. For 6 months I was in a pop band as [a] drummer. We used to play “Roooooolling … rolling on the river’.” [sings and then smiles]

Dissatisfied with the pop band, he formed his own group with his brother-in-law, the Sultans, in the late 70s hiring Greek, Egyptian, and Lebanese players. At that time, there were no middle-eastern bands playing belly-dancing music and the group swiftly became a local success.

In the early 80s, Omar Faruk began to play in New York at a club called Fazil’s International. He used to punch out his card at work, then drive straight down to New York on Fridays and Saturdays. With an electrifying mood, he remembers: “I come from the road – seven hours drive into New York. The darbouka player gets tired I tell him ‘Go sit down,’ I start playing. The baglama player gets tired, I grab the instrument and start playing. I am so thirsty.” He rubs his hands and adds, “It’s like I have this dirt that I want to get out of myself. All my life I have played and now I miss to play.”
In 1988, producer Brian Keane was looking for music for a documentary he did on “Suleyman, The Magnificent.” He called Turkish producer Arif Mardin to ask for advice. Mardin suggested he should check out Fazil’s. After seeing Omar Faruk in his usual profound and inspiring performance, Keane decided to give him the job. Thus, came his first album “Suleyman, the Magnificent.” The success of the award-winning documentary and its music spread the word on Omar Faruk. With a strong buzz around him, Celestial Harmonies offered him a record deal that would finally see him go back to his 24-hour job as a musician.

Today world music and more specifically Middle Eastern music has outgrown its own little niche and attracts a larger audience with a myriad of festivals and specialty shows. Omar Faruk is no doubt one of the pioneering musicians who have helped middle-eastern originating sounds and authentic instruments become more popular. “African music influenced the whole world. After that came Flamenco and Latin music. Everything is heard now,” he notes, citing the example of Sting’s song “Desert Rose” as an example for new sounds. “Desert Song” featured vocal contribution by Rai superstar Cheb Mami and was immensely received. “The use of darbuka, nay, oud, zurna, kanun is getting popular now,” he emphasizes. “People need new timbres, new rhythms, new sounds.” Omar Faruk’s music represents folk and classical Turkish music as well leaving room for more experimental sounds and sacred music. As Omar Faruk breathes new life into this genre, he continues to spearhead a movement to bring the experience to many more ears and hearts.

Revelation: The Nay
The main motifs and motives of Omar Faruk’s life are spiritualism and music. “I got my insight when I was playing one day,” he explains. “Suddenly, I felt like the state of mind that I was in was the same when I was praying. I was blocking myself from the outside, and praying to my Lord. Being with oneself is the essence of prayer. Playing is praying for me.”
In his music, Omar Faruk presents his soul on a pedestal using a nay, because that soul is the breath of Allah. “For me, music is the shortest path to the Lord,” he declares. “Let’s give thanks to the Lord for the breath, for the gift. Being a nay player is the most blessed thing for me because it makes me aware of my breath.” In his life, spiritualism and music intervene. I ask if he considers his work Islamic art? “Sufism describes it best,” he replies, “because it believes in oneness. Wherever Sufis look they see Allah, the creator. Everything is a manifestation of him. I don’t represent Islam, I represent adoration for the Lord.”

The first year he came to the US, Omar Faruk had a hard time coming to terms with the reality of life. All his life he was a musician, free like a gypsy, and now he had to settle with working in a job that had nothing to do with playing. “After one year, I realized that music is for my own spiritual development. Of course, it’s good to perform on stage but my musicianship is my practice, developing myself. So being home practicing became the larger part of being a musician. As soon as I accepted this fact,” he says straightening himself and widening his arms “everything opened up. All the machines at work, they became saxophone, trumpet, and started to hum. They were talking to me, I was talking to them, chanting, whistling, singing.” And in another interview he was quoted saying “I remember one day I was crying, crying! So happy and everything was beautiful.”

Now picture this humble man performing on stage in a Manhattan velvet rope club after driving seven hours in to town. Amidst a thick layer of smoke while people drink and shout, imagine him giving praises to the Lord because he is feeling blessed to perform on stage. Look into his glowing face as he closes his eyes and carries himself into a different world. Indeed, he is lying on the green grass of Anatolia feeding the sheep and playing his nay. The distance between New York and Turkey never seemed so close. Concludes Omar Faruk, “I have an amateur spirit. I don’t feel ashamed; I play wherever they tell me to. It’s my joy.”

The Lure: Istanbul
“Everybody’s dream is to go to Istanbul because everything is happening there,” remembers Omar Faruk, even before there was remotely an idea of moving to the US. “It was like going from elementary school to high school education.” It was in Istanbul, the capital of the music industry in Turkey, that he met musicians like Burhan Tonguc, Ismet Siral, and Aka Gunduz and gained a solid foundation in music. When he moved to the city in 1967 one of the first people he met was Orhan Gencebay, then and even now, the undisputed king of arabesque music. “His flute player left for army service and they were looking for a replacement,” explains Omar Faruk. “I played for him. Oooh, he liked me. You are hired!” The inexperienced Faruk became a studio musician right away.
The young Omar Faruk also wanted to learn more about jazz. Saxophone player Ismet Siral’s fusion of folk and jazz, drummer Burhan Tonguc’s use of latin in jazz music were remarkable achievements for him. Remembers Omar Faruk: “Ismet Siral, Okay Temiz, me and my brother, we found a small place like a depot. We cleaned up the place and turned it into a tekke. Everybody come, we jam!” The idea was to improvise around a certain melody as it was commonplace in jazz music. The improvisation part fit the nature of local Turkish musicians like him because just like gypsy musicians they had improvisation in their blood. “We were picking up nice melodies in 7, 10, 15 meters” explains Omar Faruk. “Aksak ritimler,” he adds (Turkish for “uneven rhythms”). They would blend zourna and nay with saxophone to create an expansive piece of music with Middle-Eastern patterns. In the late 60s, Omar Faruk & Co were mastering what became part of Eastern Jazz, or what they referred to as Turkish Jazz.

Omar Faruk worked for as a studio musician for various singers for ten years until “it became like an office job.” It was then that he made his move from Turkey to the US at the age of 25. He still keeps in touch with the music scene in Turkey and tells us about his favorites. “I love Ibrahim Tatlises and Orhan Abi,” he says. He also loves Sezen Aksu, Tarkan and admires Arto Tuncboyaciyan who has worked on several of his albums.

The Roots: Spiritualism
Omar Faruk was born to Turkish/Egyptian parents and raised in Adana in southern Turkey. Adana offered the young Omar Faruk a creative social surrounding. As the weather gets very hot during the summer, people tend to flock at nearby parks, cafes and “tea gardens” where they can cool off. Omar Faruk began playing at these communal gathering places. He began playing a variety of instruments at a young age and today plays the darbouka, bandir, zourna, kaval (shepherd’s flute), def, jura, oud, baglama as well as the nay.
At a young age, he started attending religious school to become an imam, a preacher who leads the congregation at a mosque. “In school, they say you come here to be an imam. But you are your own imam.” In his early education at school lies the spiritual roots and discipline that have come to define him. He adds, “When you teach anything to yourself your actions are going to reflect that. Then, your life will be a living example of work and that will lead the people.” Omar Faruk took this statement as a motto for life.

When he quit school at the age of 15, he didn’t quit studying. He was interested in learning more about Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Brahmanism, and Yoga (He’s been practicing Hatha Yoga since 16 years old as well as Tai Chi, and Chi Qong). When he moved to Istanbul he met the Mevlevi Dervishes, the ancient Sufi order of Turkey famous for its whirling dervishes. Their fusion of poetry, dance and music had an immense influence on him not just spiritually but also musically. Omar Faruk sometimes sings verses from the Qur’an.
Omar Faruk Tekbilek has come a long way since his early days in Adana. “God is the greatest composer and his music is chiming everywhere, we just hear it,” he reminds me. Once more he gives thanks to the Lord for what he has given him and finally concludes, “We are breath but nothing else.” As I make my way to the door, he serenely blows into his nay.