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If there's been one constant in the long and winding career of Turkish virtuoso Omar Faruk Tekbilek, it's his music, emphasis on his. From the nightclubs of Adana and Istanbul; to the production line of a Rochester, New York, clothing factory; to a string of albums and recognition as one of the top Turkish musicians in the West, the multi-instrumentalist Faruk has steadfastly held to the simple joy of playing. "I play for presidents, I play for one person -- my motivation is the same, because I play for myself," Faruk says.
He considers his performing to be one and the same with his practice of Sufism, a mystical offshoot of Islam. "That's my motivation since the beginning. I always approach music appreciating my breath, with His name in my breath; this is a very important thing for my life," says Faruk through a thick Turkish accent. "One day I was home, I remember very clearly; I was playing my baglama and suddenly I realized the state of mind I was in. It is the same when I pray. My mother was working and I didn't even hear her. I said, “Wow, this is the same thing.' I am blocking out but I am with myself. So playing is praying; it's that attitude I always feel.
"[When] I played for belly dancers for so many years, my attitude was always: I'm with me, I am creating something beautiful in me and developing and radiating out to people, to let them experience what I feel, instead of judging outside what's going on."
Perhaps it's no coincidence then that Faruk's pursuit of music paralleled his study of Sufism: He attended a religious school in his hometown of Adana in southern Turkey with the idea of becoming an imam. After seven years he left the school to pursue music, at age fifteen, but the learning continues.
"I am still studying; it's endless," says Faruk. "Music and Sufism are intertwined for me."
It's a devotion that can be heard in each plaintive and heartfelt note of his nay (a wooden flute), in the plangent wail of his vocals, in the intricate strumming of his baglama, in the powerful precision of his darbuka drumming, and even in the sweetness he's able to coax out of a zurna -- the piercing wind instrument that, in lesser hands, can sound like a cross between a bagpipe and a flock of hysterical geese. It comes through in all his work, whether it's pure Turkish folk or the Westernized new-age variety, or even the loungy remixes by worldbeat DJs.
And his devotion was on display that fortuitous night fifteen years ago when producer/composer Brian Keane was in the audience, in search of Turkish musicians for his soundtrack to the TV documentary Suleyman the Magnificent. "I went for five nights and suffered through really bad belly-dance music," Keane said about his search at Fazil's International Club in Manhattan, suggested by the legendary Turkish producer Arif Mardin. "Then one night after driving seven hours from Rochester, Faruk shows up looking like he was right off the boat. You could tell immediately that he was different. His playing was so emotional; he really stood out."
Faruk and Keane collaborated on several projects before Faruk launched his solo career with the 1994 release of Whirling. But the two continued to work together, and Faruk credits Keane with much of his success as a professional recording artist.
"He discovered me and from the beginning, I was always admiring him," says Faruk. "He was like a master for me, trying to make something out of me that I respected very much."
But before his first solo album and the success that followed, Faruk would punch the factory clock on Friday and drive from his home in Rochester to New York City to perform in the Middle Eastern clubs there, a seventeen-year ritual that belied his prodigy status as a boy in Adana and early success in the Istanbul music scene. That began with an older brother who taught him the nay, and an uncle with a music store who gave him baglama lessons in exchange for work. Faruk was good enough to play professionally by the time he was twelve and was smuggled into nightclubs by fellow musicians for short sets before club owners inevitably chased away the underage wonder.
At sixteen he moved with his brother to Istanbul and the two quickly established themselves as sought-after session players in the city's active music scene. Then in 1971, at age twenty, he toured the United States with a Turkish classical/folk ensemble and met the girl in Rochester who would become his wife in 1976, when Faruk returned to the U.S. for good after fulfilling his compulsory military service.
Throughout his life and career, Faruk has absorbed the influences of various musical traditions and teachers, from the head Neyzen (nay player) of the Mevlevi Dervishes -- the famous whirling dervishes -- to the partially paralyzed drummer Burhan Tonguch. "He was a jazz drummer and told me whatever instrument you play, everybody's a percussionist," Faruk says of Tonguch, his first drum teacher. "So he put that in my head. And because he also saw I had a very good rhythm knowledge from my town that I come from, he was like, “Oh, you're ready.' So he gives me his tapes and I start to practice Gene Krupa."
Faruk would get together with fellow musicians and practice what they called Turkish jazz -- a style using traditional Turkish melodies. "A sense of the jazz was really similar to our traditional way, which they play the melody and then they always take the improvisation," says Faruk, who has since worked with the likes of Don Cherry, Ginger Baker, and John McLaughlin. "In Turkish music we do this in the middle. We play the melody, somebody takes the solo."
Even though Faruk hopes to one day incorporate the melodies of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis into his music, he stayed with a decidedly less adventurous approach for his latest album, Alif -- taking elements from various musical traditions in the areas surrounding Turkey and blending them with his own sound. "It's a Mediterranean concept in my mind that I was dreaming since my childhood," says Faruk. "Mediterranean cultures are really a common culture ... from Spain to Greece, Turkey, Persia, Arabia. People always interacted in these civilizations, cultures are very interwoven. So through music I wanted to celebrate it."
To achieve this, Faruk brought together singers like Greece's Glykeria, Persia's Mamak Khadem, and Israel's Zehava Ben, along with flamenco guitarist Jose Antonio Rodriguez Muñoz and multi-instrumentalist and world-music producer Steve Shehan. The result is a mélange of influences wrapped around the Turkish core of Faruk's masterful playing.
But through all the gyrations of his fluctuating career, and for all his recent success, Faruk never wavers on the point of his calling. "The music is a universal language; through music we become universally bonded to each other. It's a beautiful thing that we can experience each other without seeing differences," says Faruk enthusiastically. "People always come and talk to me, and even though they don't understand what I say, they say they feel what I do when I perform. So this is a beautiful thing. Music is our ultimate salvation to celebrate our humanity, our brotherhood."