Omar Faruk Tekbilek
As I write about Faruk, as Omar Faruk Tekbilek is familiarly called, I am listening to Whirling. It is all the inspiration I need to help recall the conversation we shared on the phone. The winding ney has the same silky quality as his voice and recall is instantaneous.
Faruk is one of the most popular Middle Eastern musicians of today. Although known primarily for ney, he is also adept at playing darbuka, bandir, zurna, kavala, davul, def, jura, oud, baglama, and synthesizer. Of course, one cannot forget his fabulous voice!
Faruk has performed with some of the most well-known musicians in the Middle East, but is probably best known for his work with Brian Keane. Their paths crossed while Faruk was working at Fazil’s International in New York when Brian was looking for a Turkish musician to help with his project Suleyman the Magnificent. Brian liked Faruk’s talent and knowledge of so many instruments. Faruk was attracted by the story of Suleyman, ruler of Turkey for 46 peaceful years. The pair connected and went on to create Fire Dance and Beyond the Sky. The combination of Faruk’s music and Brian’s arrangements made it appealing for audiences east and west. In fact, both are critically acclaimed works. Faruk said, “One song in Beyond the Sky, I wrote it for God. Saying every nation has its beauty. God belongs to everybody. People go crazy when I start singing it.”
It’s impossible to speak to Faruk without coming away with the impression that God is his greatest inspiration. He speaks of it. You hear it in his music. He explained that the Sufi way of expressing themselves through music is with “long notes without melody.” This is typical because it could be very imaginative or very powerful. It depends. Each note is so beautiful that you don’t want to go to another note. When the player emphasizes that note, you can feel the spirit come out of that one note. They are moving notes. Sufi tradition emphasizes that so you can warm up the tone and widen the note. It is beautiful.
“There is no difference in performing for Americans vs. Middle Easterners. They all appreciate. They all are amazed. The power of music is the same as long as the players play with their hearts. Everyone can come together: Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Egyptian, because it’s all about God. There is only one God, no matter what you call him, and he belongs to everybody. That is what my music is all about.”
In order to stay in touch with God and himself, Faruk practices Hatha Yoga daily, a ritual he began at 17. He was introduced to this by his music teacher, Burhan Tonquch, while he was practicing. “I fell in love with it,” he said, “Also now, I learn Tai chi. that really effects me. I practice everyday. It makes me more aware of my body. We have a treasure in the mind and body.”
Whirling was Faruk’s first solo project. It is created, as is all his music, with the four corners in mind. It contains some Sufi style music, some romantic, some folkloric, and some modern-but this will be in the least amount. Faruk’s approach to music is cosmic. It’s a difficult thing to explain with words when the concept is really so celestial. He hears music all around himself. He says, “It’s in the humming of machines. One is humming “c” while the ceiling fan is humming “f.” The telephone hums, the air filter, the refrigerator. Concentrate and listen. It’s there.
Traditionalists have questioned Faruk’s use of synthesizer in music, but he explains that it represents the universal hum. He is always aware of it and feels it should be there. He says it gives more of a spacey, meditative quality.
As a fairly new dancer, I was introduced to Faruk’s music with Whirling, but I found out there was much more history and more music than that! Born in Turkey in 1951 into a musical family, Faruk began his journey into music almost from birth. His older brother, Hadji Ahmed Tekbilek, was already playing on the radio when he was just 12 year old. His younger brother, Behzat, is also a musician. Although not a musician by trade, his oldest brother, Kadir, also plays music, and his father likes to sing. Faruk said it was inspirational having musical people around.
Faruk began his instruction from his brother, but his formal training began at the age of 10. His first teacher, Aydin, was a music shop owner who thought of Faruk like a son. Aydin taught him rhythms, scales, and baglama. There, he also learned how to read music- a rare skill in the Middle East.
By the time Faruk was 12, he was performing professionally. Three years later, he went to Istanbul where he worked as a studio musician with his brother. Here he worked with and learned from some of the leading musicians of the time including Orhan Gencebay, Burhan Tonguch, Ismet Siral, Mine Kosan, and Ahmet Sergin, the Elvis Presley of his time. Faruk considers himself lucky to be part of the musical revolution in Turkey.
Faruk explained that before classical Turkish music never emphasized the rhythm. It was weak and not considered the foundation of music. There was no rhythm structure, just steady beat. Ismet Siral’s fusion of jazz and folk and Burhan Tonquch’s influence of Jazz and Latin changed the music forever. Faruk describes this time as a “beautiful experience. I learned tremendous things.” He stayed for 10 years.Faruk’s experiences lead him to write a poem about his greatest influences, his teachers, his brother, and God. It says, We wash our souls with the water of thanks/ We look at the future through the happiness of now/ The future is now, now will be future/ We can see what beauties he shall give us/ He fills our heart with his love/ We burn like a tree with our love/ In that fire everything shall melt/ And my patience tree will bear its fruit.”
Faruk’s next goal was to go to Sweden to join his brother, but after traveling the world, Faruk decided to come to the United States to broaden his knowledge of music.
During his first tour here, he met his future wife, Suzan. After a four year courtship mostly by mail, he married her and settled in New York. He got a job there playing with Top 40 musicians, but after 6 months, he quit. He wanted to introduce Middle Eastern instruments, but they were not open to it. They didn’t see his vision so he though it better to get into a club circuit and show venues.
Faruk remembered, “The first year was terrible because I couldn’t stand to be staying in a room all day long. Suddenly I realized, this is my body. I play my body. Since I have my body with me, I can whistle. I can sing. My body is my instrument. The realization was that the body is the most powerful thing. Most people need a product, but as a musician, everything is happening in the body and the mind. I think this is the most exciting thing.”
In the 1980’s, with his brother-in-law Ibrahim, he formed The Sultans, a group that often performed with bellydancers in mind. They recorded five albums together and were seen at Rakkasah, Magana Baptiste’s annual festival and other prestigious events. The played for many well-known dancers such as Jamila Salimpour, Morocco, Amaya, etc. The public demand for Faruk’s performances took him away from the group, and his career went in other directions.
When I spoke with Faruk, he had just returned form Israel Festival Jerusalem, a world renowned event for artists all over the globe. He said that his experience was a career highlight because not only did he get to perform with his brother here, he was joined by Bustan Abraham. It was a festival of people of all cultures playing for an audience of all cultures. It was fascination to see everyone having fun. Faruk smile, “That was the cake, my brother was the cream.”
Faruk is also getting ready for a couple of concerts and the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp where he and his wife will teach. He has a new Celestial recording due out in March or May. He has visions of creating a studio where his son Murat will work with him as a sound engineer. He is also interested in doing documentary work, assembling a new band, and of course making more music.
But Faruk is not just a performer, he is also a teacher. Faruk has a unique approach to teaching. He teaches more than basic rhythms, balance, and how to do right left combinations. He explains his philosophy in these words, “When I teach ney, I put it in the air and tell them to listen. It’s the nature of the wind. When “who” is the most appreciated word, it imitates the breathing sound. I make people aware of air flowing through our bodies when we play. It’s the simplest form of meditation. It is following your breath with no effort. I emphasize this and people get into it. It’s like playing your body instead of an instrument. Look, you can feel the bounce on the air.”
When I asked Faruk how he prepares for workshops and performances, he replied, “I am always ready. I always feel that I am performing, and I don’t feel embarrassed. I play while driving. I would perform whatever is in my mind, it just depends on the audience. I have a wide repertoire. I have thousands of melodies in my mind…”
My interview with Faruk ended with these words, “Music is the shortest way to feel God. I went to religious school for 5 years and have a diploma. I also belong to Rosicrucians, like a white brotherhood from ancient Egypt time. They were teaching how to develop inner power and listen to the whispers in your heart. They also say the knowledge does not belong to any sect. It’s cosmic. It belongs to the universe. You just have to listen”.
“All my life I was searching for this form all over the world. So that’s the feeling of God. It’s the main thing. Whatever the language, it’s calling you. Through music and dance people can reach each other. Everybody likes it because everybody can enjoy each other without seeing the differences between them. Nationality puts the difference between people. We are all children of Adam. “ I represent no nationality when I play. Music is a universal human bond. Face to face we have no differences. I am lucky to be a musician. For this I pray and say ‘Thank God’.”