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x0x The 'breath' of the East "Kudsi Erguner"
By BAHAR KALKAN
Master of the 'ney' and musical archaeologist Kudsi Erguner is a
musician who combines jazz with Ottoman and 'sufi' music.
The concert that we watched, listened to, and read about in the
enchanting atmosphere of the 1500-year-old Hagia Eirene was actually a
summing up by Kudsi Erguner of his entire musical career. Taking his
inspiration from the quatrains of Mevlana Jelaladdin Rumi, he fills
the stage with music, calligraphy and dance all at once. Erguner
expresses mystical philosophy through his 'ney' (reed flute), bringing
disparate musical cultures together in a burst of sound. Istanbul
music lovers have become accustomed to seeing a new project from him
every year. Heavily involved in music since the age of nine, Erguner,
who has spent 32 years in Paris, goes for the natural, seeking
'pleasure' and excitement in music. As far as he can count, he has 92
albums to his name. Regarded as one of the world's leading
representatives of sufi music, Erguner does not limit his own musical
universe exclusively to Mevlevi chants and rituals.
He also does research on classical Turkish music, archiving forgotten
compositions and mixing Ottoman music with western rhythms and
improvisational jazz. He has produced film music with world-famous
directors like Peter Brook and Tony Gatlif as well as engaging in
joint projects with musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Didier Lockwood
and Michel Portal. Coming together with Erguner on the occasion of his
latest project, 'Metaphor', we talked with him about his life in
music, his multi-cultural projects, his new books, and the
much-debated East-West divide.
You've said that you 'inherited' your profession from your grandfather
Suleyman Erguner and your father Ulvi Erguner, both of whom were 'ney'
players. How did you start playing the ney as a child?
It was out of the question in those days that my peers would take any
interest in the ney or in Turkish classical music. People simply had
no such interests; in fact, such things were slightly frowned upon.
But the encouragement I received from my father and the people around
him spurred me on to learn. Another source of encouragement for me were
the small amateur choruses in which I sang. Although I was much
younger than most of the other members, we played together and I
performed in the concerts. Later I joined the Istanbul State Radio,
where I worked for two years. I sang briefly in Nevzat Atlig's chorus.
It was after that I went to Europe.
You're usually involved in multi-cultural projects. Is there a special
reason for that?
Let's say it's a spinoff of living in Paris. Because Paris is a world
city; you meet a lot of artists living there. There are also musicians
I've met not just in France but in other countries I've visited. I
admire a lot of their work and I want to work with them. Most recently
I got together with jazz trumpet player Markus Stockhausen. I've
played with Michel Portal, Christof Lauer, Michel Godard, Marc
Nauseef, and Rabih Abou-Khalil. Sometimes I invite them, and sometimes
they invite me.
'From Sufism to Flamenco', 'Ottomania', 'Islam Blues' and 'Ney-Zen'
are just a few of the projects in which you've brought disparate
musical cultures together. What are you trying to draw attention to in
these multi-cultural projects?
What's important for me is to work on a theme. The project, 'From
Sufism to Flamenco,' for example, was in memory of the mystical poet
Ibn Arabi, who was born in Andalusia in the 12th century. He started
out from Andalusia, came as far as Konya and then settled in Damascus.
We translated his book of poetry, 'The Lovers' Guide,' from Arabic
into Spanish. Spanish Flamenco musicians recited the poems in Spanish
and Istanbul sufi musicians recited them in Arabic. The 'Ney-Zen'
project was realized with Japanese and Turkish musicians. In Zen
culture the most important instrument is the 'shakuhachi', which is
made of bamboo. It's very similar to the ney of sufi music. Bringing
these two instruments together is important both from the musical
angle and as a symbol. Our 'Taj Mahal' project was inspired by the
Baburname, the memoirs of Sultan Babur, a descendant
of Tamerlane and founder of the Indo-Turkic empire.
In other words, a sultan in 16th century India wrote a book in
Turkish! It's impossible to read it and not be touched. In other
words, there is a reason behind all these projects.
Most recently we enjoyed 'Metaphor', a project of yours that brought
together various branches of art under the sponsorship of Boeing in
the Istanbul Music Festival. In the concert you all expressed
yourselves through your own medium, you through your ney, Carolyn
Carlson and her group through dance, and the famous calligrapher
Hassan Massoudy through his lines.
I believe that music is not an art that develops by itself. A musician
is nurtured by a cultural environment. And that environment is
connected to all the branches of art as well as to the life of the
time. Music and the fine arts complement each other in a
I want to show how all of them can be part of a joint production when
they are inspired by the same enthusiasm, the same theme, the same
literature,exactly as we did in the 'Metaphor' project. We designed
this project based on the quatrains of Mevlana, who says that the
flute without the breath of the flutist, the pen without the hand of
the calligrapher, and man untouched by the divine has no meaning. It
was entirely improvisational. Hassan Bey took his inspiration from the
poetry translations and stylized his lines in keeping with the music
and dance. The dancers did the same.
We're always talking about a mutual embrace of East and West, but
don't we have differences too? If we tried to list them,
they'd easily fill three or four volumes!
One of the biggest problems in the world today is that a very
commercialized civilization has taken over the world. There's no
difference any more between somebody who lives in Japanese and
somebody who lives in New York. We're heading straight towards
What we need to do straightaway is to appreciate the unique cultures
of people of different civilizations and introduce them into the
culture that has monopolized the world. And artists are the people who
can do this. I would like the cultural components that constitute our
own identity but that can also contribute to a world culture to find
their place in that world culture, either in modern form or in the
original. If we look at it in terms of culture and philosophy, the
development of the Western countries is quite different from that of
the Eastern countries. The ideas put forward in western society are
forms of thought that result from wars, from events experienced, and
from the various phases through which the west has passed. The person
of the East has no experience of such things. Its as if the West was
looking for something but could never find it, whereas the East is at
peace, claiming to have found something. But these are two very
different kinds of cultural richness. The truth that is claimed to
have been found in the East provides people with a number of pleasures
The West too discovered wonderful things during its quest. The two
should complement each other.
Can we talk about your new projects? Whats in the works these days?
My book entitled The Fount of Separation: A Ney Players Journey, which
was first published in French, came out this month in English,
translated by my wife. Its intended to be autobiographical but is
actually more of a first-hand account of the period in which my
generation lived. Its been translated into Greek as well. I have two
other book projects at the moment: Im compiling a book of Mevlanas
stories and the figures of speech he used in the Mesnevi. The second
book is an experiment, in the musical sense... a book Ive been working
on for years. A detailed analysis of the way in which the modes used
in classical Turkish music are played today. It will take take years.
I also have an opera project. A Gesamtkunstwerk of course... A reply
to Mozarts Abduction from the Seraglio called Return to the Seraglio.
It is currently in the libretto-writing phase...