Turkish music feeds of one of the most sumptuous cultural hinterlands. The country’s geographical position, straddling the interface between Europe and Asia, has helped it imbibe and produce an eclectic swathe of sounds, styles and textures from all points of the compass.
Kudsi Erguner is one of the Turkish musicians who have benefited from that rich history. The 64-year-old longtime Paris-based ney (flute) player will perform at the YMCA in Jerusalem on September 21 (9 p.m., doors open 8 p.m.) as part of this year’s Mekudeshet Festival, which will take place under the aegis of the Jerusalem Season of Culture from September 4 to 23.
Erguner will front a cast of top-notch musicians from the ethnic end of the sonic spectrum in a program of liturgical maftirim material, based on texts by late 16th-century to early 17th-century poet and Kabbalist Rabbi Israel ben Moses Najara, fused with Turkish music.
The flutist says it is perfectly natural for him to key into a wide range of genres. Over the last 40+ years, he has enjoyed quality synergies with rock artists, jazz musicians, classical players and exponents of ethnic music – particularly intoxicating Sufi music – to mention but a few areas of creative paths he has followed.
“Istanbul is a great treasure of memories, great moments and also culturally very rich,” he notes. “That includes not only Turks. It also includes all sorts of populations that have passed through Istanbul, such as Armenians and Greeks, the Jews, and Persians with their Persian literature. So there are so many rich relationships in Istanbul.”
That has left its imprint on Erguner’s musical evolution and the projects he gets involved in.
“I am interested in all this,” he says. “What is interesting for me is that we are under the influence of Western culture, European culture which is also a great treasure of human memory. But that is not the only musical language. There are so many different things in the world.”
The flutist would like us to keep at least one ear open to the vast range of sounds and rhythms on offer in other cultural domains.
“Everyone thinks immediately of the artistic value of Western culture, but nobody thinks of the things from India, China and so on. They also have a very fine musical culture,” he says.
In that respect, Erguner is coming to Israel to play to the converted.
Musicians and fans around the world often express their great appreciation of the breadth of creative endeavor one can catch in Israel on a daily basis.
The music Erguner will bring here is the result of an association he has enjoyed for the past 15 years with the Venice-based Giorgio Cini Foundation. The flutist invests considerable resources in the nurturing of musical and scientific initiatives.
“They offered me the possibility of doing a new project every year,” Erguner explains. “It’s all about [Turkish and Arabic] maqam (modal) music. Last year I did something on Turkish music from the 16th century, and I have done some work on Armenian composers from Istanbul.”
Erguner also turned his attention to heady intricate compositions produced by Istanbul’s Jewish artistic community of 500 years ago.
“What is interesting about the Maftirim project is the exchange between the different communities, for example the Whirling Dervish [Sufi] community in this repertoire,” he says.
Each time Erguner embarks on a project for the Venetian foundation, he spends some time researching the cultural backdrop to the music, following various avenues of exploration to achieve as full a picture as possible of the material in question. That involves library research and getting in touch with artists who are closer to the history of the genre.
“In one of the meetings I met a singer who is very well known in Turkey who is a good friend of a cantor from the synagogue in Istanbul. He learned some songs from him and sang some of them at the meeting.
It was very beautiful, so I heard this music,” he recounts.
Erguner says that Ottoman music is filled with significant contributions by the local Jewish population.
“Tamburi Isaac was one of the masters of Ottoman music,” he says.
Isaac was something of a superstar in 18-century Turkey. His birth name was Isak Fresco Romano, but he was known by his professional moniker due to his scintillating skills on the tambur, a bowed or plucked long-necked lute used in Ottoman court music. He was perhaps Turkey’s most famous composer of both synagogue songs and classical Turkish music. When he was in his 50s, he landed a plum gig and became the private tambur teacher of the liberally minded Sultan Selim III.
Erguner says he can’t wait to come to Jerusalem to present the fruits of his research into Ottoman Jewish music here.
“It is very exciting for me to go deeper into this. There is so much in it. For example, we know that Turkish composers also wrote Ottoman literature,” he says.
The latter takes in all the cultural strands that make up the multi-layered cultural hybrid that is inherent to Turkish culture.
“There are all sorts of texts composed in different languages, including in Hebrew and Ladino, or Persian or Greek. We [Turks] don’t know them because they are for the [indigenous] community. So I think it is very important to research these things, this religious music.
Religious music is not just for the church, mosque or synagogue,” he asserts.
It seems only fitting that this eminent Turkish musician is bringing material from just up the Mediterranean road, infused with Jewish Turkish sentiment, to Jerusalem, the historic capital that has witnessed millennia of multicultural ebb and flow.
Erguner’s ensemble for the YMCA date includes instrumentalists and vocalists from Turkey and Israel, featuring renowned liturgical vocalist Rabbi David Menachem and Istanbul-based Israeli percussionist Yinon Muallem.For more information: http://www.mekudeshet.com/