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The Man is the Music

by Michal & Baruch Gefen

Chaim Acherim [Different Life] Israeli Monthly for Natural Medicine, Mysticism, and Alternative Thinking

Issue #37, October 1999.
Issn 0793-7121

The caption on the cover of the Magazine reads:
Man, Rhythm and Harmony
An interview with Omar Faruk Tekbilek

The music of Omar Faruk Tekbilek has been playing in our house for several years now. We have always heard there much warmth, happiness, harmony, romance, modesty, beauty, openness, a lot of heart. Its connection with the sublime almost tangible. When we met him, on a summer morning in Tel Aviv, we realized that the man is the music and the music is the man. All those gifts his music brought to our house came naturally flowing from this handsome and sensuous man. He brought with him a ney, a simple reed, wrapped in a newspaper, and played it in a soft, dreamy, penetrating sound when we went for a walk around the Suzan Dellal Center.
Omar Faruk Tekbilek – a gifted musician and a talented composer – was born in Turkey to Parents of Egyptian and Turkish (from Syria) origin. He lives in the United States, where he is quite successful, as he is in Greece, Brazil and Israel. A world musician incarnated. He is a virtuoso flute player who mainly uses the ney and the zorna, Middle Eastern string instruments like the baglama, and masters percussion. He recorded and performed with musicians such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ofra Haza, Simon Shahid, Don Cherry, Jai Uttal, and Ginger Baker. His main success, however, followed from his cooperation with American guitarist and producer Brian Kean, with whom he recorded several CD’s. Faruk’s music is made of Middle-Eastern materials of the Turkish nature, freely influenced by American Jazz and Arabian classics. He produces a soft and romantic sound, that sometimes moves you to tears and at other times makes you jump with joy.

Music for him is the worship of God, he said. Playing is praying, and praying is always filled with gratitude. His approach to music is “cosmic”, following from a deep commitment to his inner truth and the connection to the sublime inside him. “Music is the shortest way I know to make contact with God, Mashallah,” he says, and his face lights up with a big smile of a happy child.

When Omar Faruk Tekbilek was a child, living with his parents in Turkey, his father sent him to a Muslim school for Imams and ‘Atiks. The first school year, Faruk recalls, started with the schoolmaster addressing the new students: “You came to a school for spiritual leaders, but, in fact, each and everyone of you will learn how to be his own Imam. Before you can lead people, you must be your own Imams. Then, your life will be a living example of Work, and then, there is nothing to teach.”
A seven-year course brings the student to the level of ‘Atiq, preacher in a mosque. Imam studies take only four years. Faruk left the school after six years and chose music, “but I have a diploma. I am an Imam,” he says with a rolling laughter. Ever since then, Faruk has really been his own Imam. “God has blessed me,” he says. “At the right moment, the right package always falls where it is needed.”

Music always played in his parents’ house. “My father used to listen to Radio Cairo on his little radio-transistor and knew all the Makams (Arabic musical scales),” Faruk says and his eyes shine. He went to Istanbul to learn how to play music and the teachers that crossed his way gave him wonderful gifts, he says. One of his teachers, “a wonderful musician,” had a stroke that left half his body paralyzed. The man did not lose hope and built himself a percussion kit for a player with one hand. “For me,” Faruk says, “this was a living example of a man who works with and out of what God gave him, and does what he knows how.”

He is well known on the ethnic music scene in the United States and is very often invited to play at festivals, while regularly performing to the large Middle Eastern community there. Among other prizes he won, last year he won the “Golden Belly” award, issued by the US association of belly dancing.

What is music for you?
“When I play, I pray. I have a divine experience and other people sense it too. When I recorded in the studio, I was in a trance; crying, laughing, thanking God. I remember suddenly realizing that there is someone who lets me play myself, my own thing, and is even willing to pay for that, Thank God. Playing the music, I actually meditate. I learned how to pray at the Imam school. Years later, when I was playing, I suddenly noticed that I am in the same state.
“In my CD’s, for example, there are always four corners: one for folklore – traditional, popular root music, played as close as possible to the way it was played where it was created; the romantic corner – with heartbreaking love sons; the imagination corner – usually made of free music, contemporary, almost Jazzy; and there is a mystical corner, where I pray to God and thank him. I enjoy playing fast and hard sometimes, you know – to make the people happy. But then you must slow down a little, return to the center.”When I play, I also leave a corner for God (and he laughs again). If I play four quarters, I go silent on one quarter and I listen: what is God doing there? How do I connect to that? What is needed now? What should I do? The answer comes as I keep playing.

“As a rule, I believe we should have a direct contact with God, that should be straight and simple. We should beware of attachment to a prophet. When someone says: ‘I am the way,’ I am very careful. The prophet becomes the way, but there are so many ways! After all, we have no reason to worry – God promotes himself very well. I connect to my divine source. This is the beauty of music – singing, drumming, dancing.”

Two years ago, Avshalom Farjun brought him to Israel for one concert with “Bustan” in Jerusalem. Last summer he again came for a performance, as part of the Israel Festival, with “Sheva” who may be joining him on a world tour festival marking the end of the millenium. Faruk promised this was not the last time he comes to Israel. Somehow, Faruk is in a constant (accidental?) contact with Israel. His personal manager, Ofer Ziv, is a former Israeli. In the United States, he played with Zohar Fresco and Emmanuel Mann, both from Bustan. His next CD is being produced by Yuval Ran, and the recordings take place at the Saban Studios.

Your music feels very much at home here. Do you feel that?
“You know, several months ago I performed in Greece. Do you understand that? A Turkish musician playing in Greece. The people just loved it. The critics were enthusiastic. The next day, the newspapers said that if the politicians were musicians, there was peace in the world a long time ago. It is interesting that the US president and your new prime minister both play. Maybe they are not great musicians, but it is good to be around musical instruments. Who knows? Inshallah.
“My music comes from the Fertile Crescent, that is, from here. But today, there are no borders anymore. I play music from Turkey to Morocco. Music eliminates nationalities. I do not feel like I belong to any particular nationality. I am not proud that way. I thank Turkey for the things it gave me, but I am not a Turkish musician. Alhmadulla, many people here say that my music feels at home for them. I feel very full here. People know me and I can give more of myself. Last week, I played with Sheva, and there were no differences. We felt like brothers, really.

“We are all human beings, sons of Adam. The differences between us are tiny, and the points of similarity are enormous. Just like Agha Khan said: human beings are made of rhythm and harmony. We are rhythm and we seek harmony in everything we do. I learned it through playing and breathing. I play and sing the Sufi sound of Huu, that goes deep in and up to God. Music is my Work.”

You speak of the connection between music and the spiritual. Do you practice some form of meditation?
“First of all, connecting with my Maker is my reason for living. I want to learn more and more about him. When someone speaks about God, I listen. When he was very ill, my Turkish teacher met a Yogi healer who taught him the knowledge of Hatha Yoga, breathing. He passed that knowledge directly to me. My teacher taught me that everything is rhythm. I have been playing percussion since. I also met once a Sufi who taught me mysticism. These materials built up inside me, but remained distant.

“I ignored the knowledge inside me for years. At a certain moment, it just burst out. Breathing is the heart of the matter. Deep, long breaths. Now I sing. When I sing, I look at myself and breathe. I watch my breath and thank God for breathing. The life that you are breathing is the source of happiness. This is the secret. There is only one truth. All the great teachers and masters were artists of breathing. The breath of God comes from him and passes through us – wind, breath, nafas, nefesh.

“Today, I practice Hatha Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Qong. Chi Qong helps to better understand my body’s left-right separation that I learn when playing percussion. Through this, I gain a better understanding of the center. I sit for two hours every day and play the ney as part of my meditation. Ney is a hollow instrument with seven holes – just like man. I turn to the four corners of the world and play the seven chords, seven breaths for each. I also pronounce verses from the Koran, because I know the words, only to give myself an inspiration.”

Making so very local, big and sensuous gestures with his hands, Omar Faruk praises music, musicians, God, and the salad in his plate with the same force and joy. All in the same breath. For him, all is one. The music he makes is his way to thank God for existing and to tell God that Omar Faruk exists as well.
The meeting with him made us think the opposite of what we are told in the opening clip of the X Files, that “the truth is out there”. Just the opposite is true: The truth is right here, in front of us, in everything, on every level, shape and moment.

Those of you who are not familiar with Omar Faruk’s music, just go out and seek it. We warmly recommend listening to a warm and breathing man, to go on a voyage with him to the magnificent and the distant, while touching that which is simple and very very close.