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The Best Things Come to Those Who Wait: Interview with Omar

Bennu Vol. 4 Issue # 1 Winter/Spring 2002

The Best Things Come to Those Who Wait:
An Interview with Omar Faruk Tekbilek

By: Alyra Nuraï © 2002

Bennu is a quarterly periodical published by ASAmed (Associated Artists of Middle Eastern Dance) Music, like any thriving entity grows, changes and takes new directions. The last two decades alone have born witness to what could be referred to as a revolution in Middle Eastern Music. But like some social and cultural upheavals, it is arguable that not all changes result in benefit. In the world of rhythmic expression stemming from areas like Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco, there has been a dramatic trend in modernization of musical composition and production that has left traditional methods somewhat obsolete. Primarily, this drift began in the early 80’s with the introduction and widespread acceptance of the Electronic Keyboard. A magnificent display of technology, the synthesizer could simulate almost every instrument utilized in Middle Eastern Music. Where once stood an elaborate orchestra that consisted of 8 musicians or more, a single soul with the right machine could effectively generate a similar instrumental composition. Rather than an enhancing support, electronic simulation has often become a substitute for the use of real instruments. This decrease in human talent spares considerable cost in both time and finance, a happy notion for producers and recording companies trying to cut overhead every way they can to assure profit. But sadly where as a dollar, lira or pound might be saved, considerably more is lost in gaping lack of musical depth, passion, complexity and originality that is the result. These and other intangible elements drawn from the foundation of the human condition are primarily the factors that enable the wonder and awe that is music to touch the hearts of people all over the world. The result: devoid of the beauty of human interpretation, most synthetic music misses the connection between life and it’s portrayal in musical art. There are many musical supporters who although appreciate modern influences in contemporary Middle Eastern Music, desperately crave the genuineness of traditional authenticity in instrumentation. Within this realm of past/present, there are a select few artisans who steadfastly hold true to utilizing the scope of living talent to actualize their compositions. These are the dedicated Master Musicians who preserve the vision of creating music with living individuality, while incorporating the progress of electronic sound to refine rather than replace. One of these virtuosos who stands as a premiere figurehead and testament to this concept is Omar Faruk Tekbilek. With demonstrated talent in a diverse array of ethnic instruments as well as visionary compositional abilities, Faruk’s musical achievements fulfill the expanding demands of an untapped population that delights in the rich texture of Middle Eastern music. Over the course of his career Faruk has firmly established his genius for melting the traditional with the modern without losing emotional content. His unique abilities are a powerful connection to people across the globe that relish losing themselves within his melodies. It has served as backdrop for media productions, an inspiration for other musicians as well as a magical conduit for Belly dancers, enabling us to bring the mysterious beauty of Middle Eastern dance alive. For many who have recently discovered Faruk’s music, it is often a wonder to them what they listened to, or danced to, before discovering him!

But for Faruk, the winding path to sharing his music with the world was alive with unexpected detours that both challenged him and inspired him. A lifelong exercise in the virtue of patience, his gradual asset to international notoriety is an amazing tale steeped deep in the same range of emotional complexities that his music conveys. On one sunny Monday afternoon before rehearsing and after meeting with the Insurance Agent, he generously set aside the time to share it with me. Omar Faruk Tekbilek was born in Adana, Turkey to Egyptian/Turkish parents and was one of seven brothers. “I picked up my first instrument around 8 or 9. A Kaval flute. My older brother was my biggest inspiration.” This talented sibling, who was a professional musician at the age of 12, was the first to expose Faruk to playing music. “Although he didn’t sit and teach me,” Faruk said, “I saw him playing and began playing myself.” After about two years of self-instruction, an event occurred that Faruk considers the “best luck.” “I had a distant relative who heard that I was playing the kaval,” he recalled, “not too many play it. Most everybody plays baglama, so it’s rare. So he called and said, ‘I hear you are playing flute, why don’t you come over here; I like your father, family and brothers. I don’t have a son, so you become like my son.’ He had a baglama store, but also a daytime job. He said, ‘after school come to open the store and stay here and I will teach you’. So that was where my biggest learning and training came from. From him, I learn my basic scales, rhythms and while at the store I did all of my baglama playing.” Faruk also attributes his early exposure to music as a result of the environment he was raised in. Adana is an artistic community with many parks and gardens by the water that are set aside for people to relax and cool off during the hot months. While he was a youth, musicians were brought to play there for the people as they rested. “My city was very good for music at that time. They used to bring musicians from Istanbul and Ankara every summer. It was like a fiesta! I was very lucky. It was a great opportunity.” He spoke of his childhood home with appreciation and affection. “It has a very rich culture. Being from Adana is a great heritage because it used to be the borderline between east and west. There was always high intellectual people there. I was opened to Arabic music, Greek music, all Mediterranean music was played where I was, not only Turkish music.” Faruk advanced quickly in his practice and was soon playing in nightclubs where his older musician friends helped him sneak in. He would usually get in a few short pieces before his age was discovered by the club owner. Once his secret was out, he would subsequently be chased off, only to creep his way in again in following months.

Beyond the creative exposure afforded by Adana’s societal culture, there was another influence in Faruk’s musical education that profoundly affected him. During his youth, his deeply religious father sent him to a Muslim school in hopes that he would one day become and Imam or ‘Atik. These students of the faith are the priests and preachers of the Muslim world. Faruk enjoyed his studies and as he advanced artistically, he also began to take an interest in the teachings of the Sufi religious sub-culture and started to develop the heartfelt spiritualism resonant in his work. After six years of studying and achieving the level of Imam (plus a few years more), Faruk chose music for his life’s pursuit instead of dedicating himself to religious practice. In 1967 he left Adana with his older brother for the metropolitan allure of Istanbul. A teeming place full of people, history and culture, it provided the 16 year old artist with the ideal combination of music and religious exposure. “I moved to Istanbul for everything. It was where everything was happening.” During the following years, he became very successful in the field of professional music as well as enjoyed the spiritual connection he built with the Ancient Order of Mevlevi Dervishes who worshipped in the City. Although not a member of the sect, he was inspired by the teachings as well as the people he met, such as the Sufi head ney player Gunduz Kutbay. The mystical approach to music and deep spiritualism conveyed by Kutbay appealed to Faruk and he united those concepts into his own musical interpretation. When asked about the impact of religious belief and music on his life, Faruk said, “Oh, I feel it has a big impact all my life — it was the first realization from when I was 12 years old. I was in the school where they trained for the priesthood, so I do all the religious ceremonies and dedications and I realize that when I was praying, the state of mind I am in was the same thing that I realize when I was playing the ney or baglama. I said what am I doing? I am just blocking the outside world, I am with myself and what is happening in me? So I found that praying and playing is the same attitude of mind. I felt that the motivation is still same because I am in myself, I am using my breath or energy just radiating out with the joy, with the experience of that moment.” Beyond his relationship with Kubay, Faruk was also influenced by his friendship with fellow professional musicians Ismet Siral and Burhan Tonguch. In particular, Siral’s outlook on the origination of music was a unique concept that opened Faruk’s imagination to various interpretations he hadn’t thought of before. “He taught me an amazing thing. That all the musicians, whatever they play actually are percussionists. Because if you don’t strike there is no sound. The feeling is, in the Sufi tradition, God created the universe with sound, he said a tune, which is also they say ‘Ommmm,’ but whatever that vibration, that first strike, it is the strike that creates the sound, and the sound becomes the music. The strike is the primary thing.”

With this belief firmly implanted in his musical outlook, Faruk embarked on his first tour of the United States in 1971 at the age of 20 with a Turkish Classical and Folk ensemble. Beginning in Germany, the tour continued to France and at last came to the US where they played in dozens of venues for the ethnic Turkish Community. “Our community,” he declared proudly. When the group reached Rochester, New York, where the second largest population of Turkish people in the country is located, something wonderfully unexpected happened. “ On that tour, I met my wife!” He said happily. “When we traveled, we didn’t have a drummer, so we find drummers when we get to where we’re going. Her brother was a drummer. In Rochester they said to us, ‘There’s a boy over here, he plays bongos, but he’s very good!’ So we choose him. And he came to rehearse, and while we were practicing she was around, so we took some pictures together. And that was the connection that we made. I had to go back for my army service so she kept writing to me and I wrote back.”
Easily switching gears from music to military service, Faruk extolled many praises for the maturity and life experience he gained during his mandatory term in service of the Turkish Army. “Of course, I admire it.” He said, “They sent me to ‘sergeant camp’ because I was a high school graduate. I loved it. I was very…how you say…conscious of it. They say army service is a school of prophet, because while you serve you discover yourself. To learn how to be selfless, to serve your country, to serve humanity and discover your ability to adapt yourself by incorporating everything. I was very aware of it. It was quite a beautiful thing for me, being in the service.” When his requirements where completed, Faruk then moved to the US permanently in 1976 and married the beautiful young woman he met on his tour stop in Rochester. However, as with his first trip to the US, life held yet another unexpected turn in store for him.
Although the population of Turks in Rochester is invariably rich, it was still not fertile enough for Faruk to sow a living as a full time musician. As a result, he found full time employment at the top men’s clothing manufacturer, Hickey-Freeman. “I was a utility man. I was a presser first. I used to press coats for Rockefeller, Paul Newman, all the famous people because it was a very high quality garment that they make.” Regardless of the security of a steady job, turning away from his self fulfillment as a musician in Turkey proved very difficult at first. But as time passed, Faruk was able to rely on the consolation of his spiritual beliefs to see him through the emotional turbulence. “The first year I struggled. I couldn’t accept this change. Then I accepted it, and when I accept that this is my destiny everything dissolved! There was no problem anymore, I was enjoying the pressing, my boss, my family.”

His peaceful acquiescence to the dramatic alteration in his life’s direction is an inspiration for all whose paths don’t lead them in the direction where they expect or want. “I found the secret,” Faruk revealed. “When you accept the fact, that is the secret. First you try to change it. I do my best and I cannot change it. I said to myself, ‘you better enjoy it.’ And then when I get that attitude and I say, ‘OK this is my destiny, I am going to enjoy it,’ everything dissolved and there was no problem! I work at my company and all the machines became saxophone, trumpet, everything is humming to me, making music around me. I said ‘ah, this is beautiful’. I learned myself, I learned this society. I was reborn as a musician. I adapt to this country. I was now a different musician all day long. So I learned my body is my instrument, I can sing, I can listen. I can do everything without having nothing.” But Faruk didn’t really have nothing. With his percussionist brother-in-law he formed a band called, ‘The Sultans.’ Originality, the musical style was founded on Pop music, but with the
addition of an Egyptian keyboardist and a Greek bouzouki player, the group metamorphasized into a diverse collective of ethnic musical talents and direction. All the while, Faruk continued to steadfastly pursue his own musical endeavors. For many years during the 80’s he said, “I punch my card and then drive down Friday night and go right onto the stage. Then the same Saturday night, and then I come back.” He laughed, “It is like a Turkish hamam! I leave all my dirt, come back and get dirty again. That’s how I feel because I was hungry to play. So OK, even though I was going 10 miles and hour, I didn’t stop. I used to go 55 miles an hour, full speed as a musician. But I found myself in slow down. I had my practice. I learn music is not for showing off to people, it was just for my own spiritual growth. Then I radiate all the values I have in me. Music became my self salvation.” In a remarkable demonstration of patience, his soulful view of life and destiny developed into a deep commitment to contagious hope and acceptance. In the late 80’s, Providence was beginning to turn his whimsical face back to shine once again on the humble talent that had been so smiled upon years earlier. One night, in 1988, Faruk had yet again raced down to New York City after a full week of work at the factory to play his music in the late hours of Friday night, this time at Fazil’s International Club.
As he had done for many years, Faruk bustled in and took the stage not long after arriving directly from the road. He began to play his set, completely unaware that somewhere in the audience the successful producer and multi instrumentalist Brian Keane sat observing him. Keane had been searching desperately for new talent to usher in fresh air to his somewhat stagnant production of the soundtrack for a film he was developing. Titled “Süleyman the Magnificent”, it was a media piece focusing on the life of the great Ottoman Emperor Süleyman, who reigned in Turkey during the years 1520 through 1566. Keane had been dissatisfied with the musicians that the Metropolitan had supplied him with, “I knew I wanted to incorporate Turkish instruments and players,” Keane was quoted as saying, “but the Met saddled me with a bunch of professors…all intellect and no emotion.” Reaching out to the widely known Turkish producer Arif Mardin who worked with international superstars like the Bee Gees and Aretha Frankin, Keane questioned him about where he could find the type of authentic musicianship he was looking for. Although Mardin was at a loss, he suggested Keane attend a few nights at Fazil’s club in Manhattan, as it was one of the best places to chance upon undiscovered but quality talent. After five nights of absorbing the diverse offerings of Fazil’s he was rewarded for his dedication by the appearance of Faruk.” Immediately Keane knew that the unassuming man who poured himself heart and soul into his music was different. The music he played was undeniably resplendent in its depth and emotion. He determined then to sign Faruk on to the Süleyman project. The collaborative effort that followed between them was soon released and met with rousing critical acclaim. Over the next few years, the two would release five more collections, which began to propel Faruk into the World Music market.

Regardless of his growing popularly as a result of the Süleyman undertaking, the unforeseeable nature of fate decided once again to rear up in front of Faruk, arranging another incredible challenge to his already impressive personal fortitude and faith. While the growing success of his music was evident in the early 90’s, Faruk still found it necessary to continue his work at Freeman-Hickey. Clocking up almost two decades of steadfast service, he received a promotion to an advanced function within the company. “I worked there seventeen years, and then because of my experience, they made me special cutter. And I moved to the front floor. But one day, a terrible thing happened.” That terrible thing was the partial loss of one of his fingers due to a mishap with the razor sharp cutting machine. Such an injury is a difficult experience for anyone to cope with, but even more troubling to one whose hands bring him so much joy and self-fulfillment from playing music. “You know there was such a coincidence. I give my blood, and after six months staying home [to heal] I have to go back to work again and they give me the same job! I said, ‘No…no, I cannot do the same job. I don’t want to cut my finger again.’ But, they didn’t want to lose me because I was an experienced guy. So they say, ‘this is the job, so if you don’t like it this is the door!’ They really said that! I was so depressed. I come home and am very sad. And what happens? I found the letter from Celestial Harmonies [a new age recording company] and they offer me a five-year contract! So far I had four CD’s, all of them one at the time contract. So now they offer me a year contract. I said “God, that’s it! I give my blood, and I am stuck, I have no choice and You’re saving me. It was my liberation!” And indeed it was. So whereas Faruk spent over 20 years going 10 miles an hour on his musical path in the US, he suddenly found that he began to speed at, “15 miles, 20 miles, then 30 and now I am again 55 miles.” And with a deep sigh adds “Thank God.”

Dedicating himself full time to musical composition and recording, Faruk was now in a position to strive for greater recognition and acceptance in the World Music arena. He continued to create a mixture of harmonies from both traditional rhythms as well as own unique melodies. Both genesis elements are tremendously significant to his musical vision, which he refers to as ‘The Four Corners.’ “In my CD’s there are always four corners.” He explained, “one for Folklore which is the traditional music; one corner for Romantic with songs of love; one corner I call Imagination corner which is free style and one Mystical corner for praying to God and Thanking him.” Faruk feels that music should not only touch people in the present, but also put them in connection with another time. “I believe that when people hear a family of traditional melody, it puts them in touch with their past. I would think to put different arrangement, but same melody, so people say ‘Ah! I know!’ and it takes them to the past. It’s very, very essential for me to put old stuff, and then some Sufi stuff, and some love and some new.” Within these four corners, as much as they are different in nature, there is a primary inspirational element for Faruk that links them all together. “My breath,” he declared with certainty, “is the heart of the matter. I watch my breath and thank God for breathing. The life that you breathe is the source of happiness, it is the secret. The breath comes from God and passes through us. So I breathe and I am with myself and that motivation is daily habit. Like how I did when I was 12 years old. I am still doing the same thing. Like yesterday and today. I am grabbing my ney and doing my exercises. I have certain exercises with the ney, all the notes, long standing notes, that open my lungs, then I do some drum to open my fingers, too. It is a daily thing so I get the inspiration through all the instruments, something from ney, from oud, drum, baglama. I got so much to get influenced by.” Indeed, Faruk’s inspiration is seemingly unlimited as his seven past recordings have demonstrated.

Just this year, he has released another CD entitled, “Alif”. The carefully chosen name is the first letter in the Arabic alphabet as well as a reference to Allah. “Alif” is a special collection that manifests a divergence from his previous methodology in that it is a melding of twelve traditional folkloric songs. These historical melodies are dedicated to the musical illumination of three different kinds of love: romantic love, love of life and the sublimity of divine love. The title track is a song meant to convey the supreme and all encompassing love of all that is creation. Faruk references things as subtle as snowflakes, beautiful as flowers and pure as the love of fellow man with hope that it will aid a fractured world to understand that all people are unified as children of God. There are numerous songs on this new compilation that have serious statements to make about the concept of love, but there are also tunes that bring a sense of lighthearted joy in their harmonics on the subject. One of the tracks, a famous piece written by the Egyptian composer Farid-al Atrash called “Ya Buoy” is a dynamic arrangement transformed especially for bellydancers. “A dancer,” Faruk explained, “is moving the bands of energy out, so they see you and you interact with them and they dance better and you play better. It is a circle of energy.” A very welcome and positive outlook from this musician who believes that there exists between the player and the performer an inherent symbiotic relationship. “I always felt the dancer is interpreting what we are doing and also we are accompanying her movements. So it’s interacting, That’s what I always think. Rather than being stuck up musician, with attitude looking down on the bellydancers, I always respect the dancers. I saw them as an artist, they are expressing. It didn’t bother me, even though it bothered so many musicians around me. But I was very sensitive because of my attitude. I was always watching the dancers, what they are doing. Even looking at their fingers, their foot! I used to follow them, I was focused so much and I appreciate them and they appreciate that very much. So it was always interacting. So they are interpreting my music so I am playing to them. It was always fun! From my heart and they felt it that’s why I was in demand then because of this attitude.”

Even before Faruk undertook his individual musical ventures, he had already gained tremendous popularity in the bellydance world while a member of “The Sultans”. The group had produced some lively songs on their own 4 CD collection that had widespread appeal. “So we were traveling all over the country doing seminars, workshops, we were quite popular band. There was a bellydance magazine in Florida, and one year we got four awards! ‘Best band’, ‘best album’, ‘best album cover’ and ‘best musician’ (my brother – in – law). So that’s how we built a name. People are still calling me for the “Best of the Sultans,’ which is not a good product recording-wise, but the energy and idea is very right. I am not selling it anymore, but it is still in demand so I think there should be some fresh product in the marketplace.”That wildly exciting concept is nothing less than a CD dedicated entirely to bellydance music. “I feel I am going to make another line just for the bellydancers. It is still my dream that I want to come out with just a dancing piece. There is big potential. There is a demand and there are not too many people doing it. My next project, maybe.” For Faruk, he is at last in an autonomous position where he can make his own decisions, ignoring the self interest and manipulations of institutional recording companies. Companies who have a subversive habit of bleeding the musicians while they keep all the profits. “When I produce my ‘Bellydance’ CD, I will do it myself. So that is the next project after things maybe not so hectic. This idea is strong in my mind, so I’m going to go for it.” This incredible positive attitude is undoubtedly a significant component to Faruk’s widespread appeal to so many people from incredibly diverse cultures. The genuine nature of his spiritual outlook is not a surface element used for self-promotion, but a deep internal sensitivity which, highlighted in music, crosses all borders and evokes a powerful connection to all who listen. Faruk firmly believes that in order to achieve the peace and acceptance in life, one must step back from the challenges and, rather than fight against the circumstances, totally and completely experience them with an open heart. Another abiding philosophy of Faruk’s is inscribed lovingly on the interior of his flute box that he travels with. When asked about it, he laughed softly. “My flute box, it says ‘Life is a mystery to live, not a problem to solve’.” Elaborating further he said, “I got this one from one of my friends. He’s traveled all over the world and I admire that. He is a beautiful person. He had a flute box like me also, and he had sayings from all over the world. I love this one the most. I said ‘this is so beautiful, I want to put in on my flute box’. I like it because people always say ‘ Oh, I’ve got so many problems I have to solve’.

But, it’s not a problem, it’s a mystery to be lived! Just step back and see what it is, you’ll find the answer right there. People try to always improve the condition, and that is the problem. You don’t have to improve anything, all you have to do is step back and accept, and whatever happens you just experience it without any improvement from you.” It is notion of great beauty and encouragement to us all that Faruk’s faithful spiritual belief in God combined with his peaceful acceptance of destiny and almost ethereal patience carried him through the years; eventually securing for him the musical self-actualization that he is so clearly worthy of. Faruk’s commitment to music isn’t about a need for personal glory. His constant striving to play music is not a result of want of riches so that he can surround himself in material delights. To the contrary, the overwhelming sense one gets in speaking to this gentle soul is that he is motivated almost purely by a steadfast yearning to give something of himself that will reach out and help people see what a beautiful, awesome and joyous mystery life is. “It’s beautiful to share what I feel in me, they are all good values. I remember I would come from the factory to go downstairs with my darbouka over my shoulder and my nay in my hand. I play, and I’m chanting, singing, practicing. I remember one day I was crying, crying! So happy and everything was beautiful. I said ‘God, one day is going to come, what I experience now will be out and people will experience though me. And they will cry with me this feeling of joy. Insha’Allah.’ And now it is coming true, the dream is coming true! Many people are coming to the stage when I finish and they are hugging me, they cry with me. They say, ‘we don’t understand what you say, but we certainly feel how you feel. And it is a great joy for all the years I cultivated myself.” At long last, the harvest of those long years of refinement is being recognized on a global scale. More and more people are experiencing the world in all its complex beauty through Faruk and his music. It calls to mind the often said proverb: “The best things come to those who wait”. And praise Allah, for Faruk and the rest of us, the time of waiting is over. Alyra Nurai Many blessings and grateful Thanks are extended to Omar Faruk Tekbilek for his soothing patience and generous time during the interview, as well as to The Neon for her insight, photographs…and tape recorder!