Medicinal melodies

Medicinal melodies

November 12, 2009 16:52
omar farouk tekbilek

omar farouk tekbilek. (photo credit: )

With Omar Farouk Tekbilek you can always bank on getting a lot more than just top-grade musical entertainment. You don't need to hear more than a snippet or two of any of the 58-year-old Turkish-born multi-instrumentalist's growing discography - 14 as leader or coleader to date, with significant contributions to around 70 more productions - to get a clear idea of the spiritual ethos of the man and the artist. Tekbilek is no stranger to this country, having played here around 10 times over the last decade or so, and he will be back later in the month to put in a couple of appearances at this year's Jerusalem International Oud Festival. The festival began yesterday and will run until November 27, with Tekbilek set to front a sextet, including his percussionist son Murat, at the Jerusalem Theater on November 26 followed by a concert at Nazareth's Diana Hall the following day. Born in Adana, Turkey, and now a longtime resident of Rochester, New York, Tekbilek was something of a child prodigy, and got his first practical experience in music when he picked up a kaval (Middle Eastern piccolo flute) in an instrument store at the age of eight. It looked like music was the natural career choice for Tekbilek although, had it not been for a self-inflicted wound, he might have ended up tending to people's soles rather than trying to uplift their sprits. "When I was 11 I made money from selling soft drinks," recalls Tekbilek in a telephone interview. "I made a cart for the drinks and people thought I was smart, that I had a business mind. Then I trained as a shoemaker, but I cut my finger quite badly, so that put a stop to that. I even tried out as a tailor's apprentice but that didn't work out either. Obviously that wasn't the way I was meant to go." In fact, the youngster was set to devote his life to matters of a more patently spiritual nature, although serendipity had some say in the matter too. "Initially, my father thought about sending me to a business school but, as we walked there, we passed by a religious studies school and my father asked me if I wanted to go there. My mother wasn't very happy about the idea but I decided to go there anyway." Although a diligent student, Tekbilek's life course continued to meander. "I thought about joining the police force after about five years at the religious school, but I didn't have the necessary educational background." But the omnipresent musical subtext forced its way through. "A year after that I quit the school and decided to become a professional musician." The die was well and truly cast, although Tekbilek's academic training continues to inform his professional life to this day. Things began well for the flutist, partly thanks to some sibling assistance. "I started performing when I was 12," says Tekbilek. "Then when I was 17, after leaving the religious studies school, I moved to Istanbul and became a professional. One of my older brothers already lived there and was a successful musician so, to begin with, I played with him." Making the transition from closet musician to performer proved to be something of a steep learning curve, but Tekbilek chalked up plenty of hands-on training in double quick time. "We played weddings, clubs, you name it," he recalls. "Sometimes we played five or six gigs an evening. It was hard but I loved it." OVER THE years Tekbilek has gained a reputation for being able to spread his instrumental and vocal talents across a wide tapestry of styles and genres. Since his early kaval-playing days, he has added other wind instruments, including ney and zorna, and several of the string and percussion variety, to his palette as well as proving to be a highly competent singer. Tekbilek puts his genre-hopping activity down to his geographical and domestic milieu. "I was very lucky to grow up in Adana. It used to be on the Turkish border and was very mixed culturally, and in the arts too." His neighbors also helped spark his interest in contiguous areas. "Back then there was a NATO base nearby, and I listened to jazz and Latin music programs on the Voice of America radio station. My dad used to listen to Arabic music on Radio Cairo, so I got a very varied musical baggage. I thank God for this heritage." Mention of heavenly support crops up frequently during the interview and Tekbilek clearly practices what he preaches. There is a strong devotional element to his performances and recordings, regardless of the musical terrain he happens to be exploring at the time. "You have to have a good repertoire. I get inspiration from God," he states simply before adding more concrete elucidation. "There are four types of songs. There are songs that talk of love of God, there is romantic love between people, there are folkloristic songs and songs about nature." In fact, when Tekbilek crossed the Atlantic for the first time, he had his heart set on honing his skills in Western improvisational music, until logistics intervened. "I wanted to study jazz at Berklee [College of Music in Boston], but it was too far away from where I was living at the time. I went to Eastman School of Music [in Rochester] but there were no jazz studies there back then." Jazz's loss eventually became the world music fraternity's gain. Things were tough for Tekbilek to begin with, as he found there was little interest in pure ethnic music in the States in the mid-1970s. To make ends meet, he formed a band called Falcon and played at weddings and parties. But there was an important upside to his default line of work. "That gave me a chance to learn more Arabic music and my Arabic repertoire grew," Tekbilek recalls. The turning point in his career took place in 1988 when he met Grammy Award-winning composer, producer and musician and world music innovator Brian Keane, and the two began a highly fruitful synergy. Their first project was the acclaimed CD Suleyman the Magnificent, the soundtrack for a documentary about the Ottoman Empire, released in 1990, and the latest Keane-Tekbilek offering, Kelebek, was recorded earlier this year. "When I met Brian Keane, he introduced me to more types of music. We love and appreciate each other very much. Like me, his mind is blank when he listens to others playing. Like Indian musicians, he shakes his head to empty it. It puts him right in a state of emotional balance. He always does his best for the music." Working with Keane opened up avenues to top draw collaborations, and to a whole host of stellar musicians from a range of different disciplines, including the likes of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, ex-Cream rock drummer Ginger Baker, late Israeli singer Ofra Haza who herself became a major world music star in the 1980s, and Indian crossover percussionist Trilok Gurtu. BESIDES HIS musical output over the years, Tekbilek has become known for spreading goodwill and putting out positive vibes in the face of adversity and even regional hostilities. "Music gives people hope and brings people together," he says. "The day before my last visit to Israel, Israel made an attack on Syria and lots of musicians canceled their performances in Israel. But I came to Israel then to help people forget about the politics, and remind them of beauty for a few hours. It was the same after 9/11. I had a concert in New Orleans shortly after the attack and my manager called to cancel the show. But the people in New Orleans said they needed my music and love. So I did the show and played some Sufi songs for them. Music has such powerful healing powers." Tekbilek is also a firm believer in giving as good as you get. literally. "I was once in Harlem. There were blacks and Puerto Ricans and, because I radiated a sense of calm, that is what I got back. But I saw other people giving out a different message - hostility and fear - and they generated an entirely different attitude." Tekbilek says he's delighted to have the opportunity to spread some of his music and bon vivant in this neck of the woods again, and he evidently feels quite at home here. Over the years he has built up a strong Israeli connection, playing with former highly popular world music outfit Bustan Avraham, and internationally renowned artists such as oud player-violinist Yair Dalal and percussionist Zohar Fresco, and he even has an Israeli-born manager, Ofer Ziv. "I met Ofer in Israel in 1998. Back then I was booking my own shows and tours. A musician can't do that. Ofer has helped me a lot." As far as Tekbilek is concerned, the locations of his forthcoming concerts aren't too bad either. "Jerusalem and Nazareth are such holy places. I feel blessed to perform in places where prophets struggled to bring peace to people. The Sufis say there is only one religion - people get disillusioned by so many prophets, but the message is the same. Whatever you call God, the bottom line is always love, love without attitude." And, despite the increasing sophistication of his musical output, Tekbilek believes that, at the end of the day, we need to get back to basics. "All we need is a bit of cheese, a few olives and some bread and tomatoes. You don't know need anything else. People talk about an economic crisis, but it's all about luxuries. There's no economic crisis in the United States." His education and definitively spiritual approach to life notwithstanding, Tekbilek is not above feeding off more seemingly mundane sources of inspiration. "We are all on a journey, and the journey is a beautiful one," he states. "The final frontier is music. That's like in the Star Trek series. I remember seeing Captain Picard play the flute. I was so impressed." Omar Farouk Tekbilek will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on November 26 at 9 p.m., and at the Diana Hall in Nazareth on November 27 at 8:30 p.m. For more information about the Oud Festival: (02) 624-5206 and

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