New concepts lift Arab music of old

by Damaris Kremida
02 Mayıs 2009 - 00:00Son Güncelleme : 01 Mayıs 2009 - 17:18

ISTANBUL - A group of Turkish classical virtuosos and dervishes take the sounds of Anatolia and Sufism to Lille this week in a unique performance under the auspices of Zither master and French-Swiss native Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss

In a unique exportation of Turkey’s musical and mystical past, a group of Turkish musicians and whirling dervishes will bring an old art form to the Opera of Lille in the north of France this week.

Brought together by French/Swiss native Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss the unique musical project staged in Paris and at the Opera of Lille May 6-9, will take place in an effort to showcase music of Turkey’s Ottoman and sufi heritage as it relates to other expressions of Arab music. The group, boasting classical names such as tanbur player Özer Özel and vocalist Doğan Dikmen will perform the Hüzzan Mevlevi Ayıni by Ismail Dede Effendi, a composer of Turkish classical music and mevlevi rituals born in Istanbul in 1778.

"This is an opportunity for me and I’m happy because this event allows me to work with musicians who are very busy," said Weiss.

Weiss, a virtuoso of the Arab zither (qánûn), told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review from his apartment overlooking the Galata Tower in Istanbul that putting together performances like the one he is taking to France this week is lots of hard work. He has spent the last six months listening to transcribing and playing the piece as well as hand picking the group and bringing it together. And that was when he found time between working on other projects and performing around the world.

The foreign musician and roving expat shares his time between his three homes in Paris, Syria and Istanbul. After 14 years spent between Paris and a 14th century palace he bought in the bazaar area of Aleppo, and 30 years of studying Arab and Eastern music, he said he decided to add Istanbul to his collection of homes so he can learn more about Ottoman music.

"After 30 years of playing the quanun and studying Syrian, Iraqi, Tunisian, Egyptian, Persian and Azerbaijani music, I started to be interested by the Ottoman music," he explained. The paradox however, is that although he is based here, the type of music he performs doesn’t interest Turks. "For them it’s the music of their grandfathers," he said.

In 1983 he founded the Al-Kindî Ensemble which is considered one of the best formations devoted to classical Arab music. Top musicians from all over the Arab world have been coming together in his ensemble to blend oriental instruments such as the qanun (a table zither with pinched strings), the Ud (oriental lute), the Nay and percussions.

With Al-Kindi, Weiss has recorded 20 albums, each of which he considers a unique re-contextualization of Arab music. In one of the most recent Al-Kindi projects, Greek Orthodox chanters and Arab musicians joined for a special tribute to the Virgin Mary and performed in concert halls around the world.

The French-Swiss expatriate is a polymath very much like Al-Kindi the 9th century Arab philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age whose name Weiss gave to his musical group. Natural perhaps for a man who has studied topics varying from the mathematics of music to Greek and Eastern philosophers, theories of music and the development of sciences in the Middle East.

"I am not Greek, not Turkish, Syrian, Egyptian, AzerbaijaniÉ I’m not Iranian or TunisianÉ" said Weiss. "For me it was a fantastic way to travel in these cultures with their music but in parallel I was studying the epistemology of science, in the Arabo-Islamic world," he said.

Creating his own language
Weiss said his lifestyle is one of learning as he tries to develop a musical language that draws on many traditions. "When I start to become a photocopy of something that is traditional I escapeÉ I always try to develop my own language from deep traditions and this is why I studied so many different types of music," he said.

As a result Weiss and Al-Kindi are able to bring to life Arab music in ways that are intelligent yet palatable for musical audiences. "I chose the name of Al-Kindi to make a contrast with the cheap belly dance music, all this New Age stuff that is easy and the often academic and boring conception of the traditional way to play music in the Middle East," he said.

He explained that if he were to put on a concert of Syrian traditional music he would expect an audience of 50 people. On the other hand a performance based on the poetry of the Arabs from the time of the crusaders would fill a concert hall. "You come up with a concept and people are interested in that," he said.

The last 30 years of his research has focused on music of countries East and South which at the peak of the Ottoman Empire were heard at Topkapı Palace. Musicians of Ottoman times, either driven by money or captured as slaves, found themselves together at the Istanbul courts creating a new Arabic and Ottoman music and thus becoming the center of Ottoman civilization, he said.

"The pinnacle of culture was Istanbul," said Weiss. As a result, even today he said he finds the musicians here to be excellent to work with and the resources for hungry minds like his immense.

Apart from his musical ambitions, the Bosphorus and the fact that Istanbul is just a "good place to live", he said that here he doesn’t feel the weight of religious and political ideologies that he has felt elsewhere in the Middle East. Here, Weiss said, he hopes he can continue to learn, compose, conceptualize and create on his journey through the annals of Arab classical music and beyond. He confessed that lately he has been dabbling in Indian music. "I need 20 lives to do all this research," he said looking a little overwhelmed. "You know, I’m not finished and Byzantine music is an ocean. I have done so much research in Turkish and Arabic music but there isn’t enough time."

To learn more about his music: www.alkindi.org

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