Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Flowing From an Ocean of Sincerity

by Rhea

I started hearing about Omar Faruk Tekbilek last summer on one of the Greek island establishments I dance for. When I was to have a meeting with the D.J. to arrange my music for the evening, he asked me to listen to one of Mr. Tekbilek’s CDs, and I immediately abandoned my previous choice of music. In my classes, I had been using music from the sound track of Suleyman the Magnificent, on which Faruk had played, and everyone had liked it — but this new release was something else again. The audience responded very enthusiastically to his music and I was hooked.

Omar Faruk Tekbilek

When I was last in America, my friend Ma’Shuqa suggested I write to Faruk, as he had told her during an interview for a review of his latest CD that he was planning to come to Greece to perform.

“Why don’t you contact him, Rhea? He sounded like such a nice person on the telephone. Maybe he’d like to add an Oriental dance to his musical repertoire.”

“Good idea,” I said, and promptly wrote down the pertinent information on him, which went into the jumble of other pertinent information I had amassed on the seminar trail. Back in Athens, Mr. Tekbilek was put on the back burner, but he was certainly not forgotten, as his music is very popular here in Greece, and many of my students as well as the general population listen and dance to it. Then I heard via the Athens grapevine, a reliable and often succulent source of information, that he was due to arrive in the city shortly. I immediately contacted Alkis Vafias of Libra Records, who is Mr. Tekbilek’s liaison in Athens, to arrange an interview.

A group of us went to the Rodon Theater to find a standing room only audience, which, for Greeks, was surprisingly hushed during the performance. There is a resurgence of interest in all things traditional in Greece. During the last ten years the country has been violently pulled into the twentieth century via satellite TV and other mesmerizing mass communication miracles, and with this trend has come a tendency for Greeks to neglect there own unique culture. But as the space-age seems to be catapulting itself to a point of no return and forgetting its roots, a burgeoning intelligentsia and avant-garde have joined the common man in a refreshing desire to revive the old, and find a place in their lives for the things that modern conveniences and the hurley-burly of modern living have inexorably squeezed out. And so the music and dance so imbedded in the Eastern Mediterranean soul are again attaining their rightful place.

When Faruk came to Athens to play in this concert, he had chosen some local musicians to accompany him who are very well-liked and respected here, but what we hadn’t expected to see was the belly dancer. Belly dancing in Greece is much loved but not very respected, as the Greeks identify it with a folk form called (by them) “tsift’telli” (taken from the word chift’telli), and the blatantly sexual way it is performed here is reminiscent of the lambada. While the Greeks love belly dancing, they don’t respect it because of its seemingly prurient nature. Greek belly dancing is generally earthy and fun but not very highly technically developed, nor do the people seem to want to develop it technically, responding more to the soul quality of the dance and their wish to express themselves emotionally and creatively. You can find some genuine Oriental dance in the cabarets, you can find it in the tavernas, you can find it in restaurants, house parties, hotels, etc., but in a theater with serious music? Unheard of!

It helped that the dancer was “ap exo” (from out or outside) of Greece. She was a friend of Faruk’s from Israel, where his music is also very popular. The entire country is touched by xenomania (xeno=foreign and mania=craze) and are convinced that whatever can be obtained out of Greece, be it cigarettes or pharmaceuticals, is of superior quality. So while a Greek would never even have suggested putting a belly dancer on the same stage with those accomplished musicians in that august setting, if Omar Faruk Tekbilek wanted his friend with him on stage to bellydance, then in she was, and the crowd gave her a warm response. I was grateful for the fact that Oriental dance was finally being performed in Greece on a prestigious theater stage.

Faruk Tekbilek playing with Ahmet Sergin, the “Elvis Presley” of Turkey, 1968

When I walked backstage to meet him and introduce myself, I was happy knowing that in addition to being the obviously serious and accomplished musician that he is, he is also willing to sponsor and promote Oriental dance in his work. I knew his work had been reviewed in Habibi previously (Volume 12, Number 3), but I wasn’t sure if he was aware of the existence of Habibi in it’s current manifestation. So I took a copy backstage. Although I had not met him before, something about him seemed so kind and familiar that I was emboldened to introduce myself. I showed him a copy of Habibi that was quickly snatched up by the other musicians in the room, and passed from — no — grabbed from, hand to hand.

“I know this magazine. I’ve been a subscriber for ten years,” said Faruk. Whew! That initial exchange being over, we chatted and parted, he to finish the show, and I to enjoy the last part of the concert.

When we met again on Sunday evening I expected to see an exhausted person before me, as he had recently completed a transatlantic trip and just performed two back-to-back concerts. But instead I was greeted by his rested kind and gentle face, full of composure, yet somehow eager and inquisitive. Alkis Vafias had pleaded with me to include the other musicians in the interview. He felt it was important for the world to know that here in Greece, in the Middle East — where the Arab/Israeli conflict has persisted for decades, where Iran and Iraq have been in conflict with themselves and the West, where Yugoslavia has been blown apart in front of the world’s eyes, where Turkey and Greece (or their governments, at least) are close to the cutting edge of overt hostilities, where many remain bitter about the expulsion of the Armenians from Turkey — that here, at least, were musicians from Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Armenia, Israel, all working together and making wonderful music. Indeed, such collaborations must be lauded in a world that seems intent on fragmentation.

But it was obvious who the star was, and the other musicians retreated into the background to read and exclaim over the editions of Habibi I brought in. Mr. Vafias asked me if he could keep one and I sadly had to decline. They are the only ones I have, a precious link to the world of Arabian dance back home and elsewhere.

So, tape recorder turned on, we started the interview. I was aided in the endeavor by Andromachi, my top dancer in Athens, who has also done much journalistic work, and wanted to interview Faruk for the Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia (The “Free Press”).

Hadji Tekbilek, Burhon Tonguch, and

I felt privileged to meet the man behind the masterful musician, a man of profound insight and diversity. I was soon to discover just how centered, kind and fair a man Omar Faruk Tekbilek is.

Omar Faruk Tekbilek was born in Adana, Turkey, in 1951, to Turkish father and Egyptian mother. His last name, Tekbilek, was not the original name his father was born with. As a young man, he had fallen under a train and had lost his hand. “Tek” means single and “Bilek” means hand, and Faruk inherited this new name. As he explained it to me, Omar means “life,” and Faruk signifies “he who can distinguish between good and evil, he who understands instinctively the meaning of justice without being swayed by the opinion of others.”

Faruk originally went to school in Turkey to become a priest. He was always interested in all the religions and had studied the lives of the saints. He believes that numbers play an important part of life, and that the numbers 4, 7, and 8 are especially personally significant. His acceptance number into religious school was 784 and his acceptance number into the order of the Rosecrucians was 478. I noted with admiration the combination of mystic and musician. No doubt the quality of his playing is enhanced by this metaphysical dimension, serving as inspiration and guide.

Faruk’s father, an imam who chanted in all the traditional maqams, or scales, had an abiding interest in music. Faruk is not the only member of his family to excel in music, as is often the case in Middle Eastern families which place great emphasis on learning not just one, but many musical instruments. Three of the six brothers have become professional musicians. His older brother, Hadji Ahmed Tekbilek, who Faruk says has always been his mentor, has lived in Sweden for 25 years and plays the ney as his main instrument, although he also plays saxophone, bagpipe, baglama, oud and western flute. His younger brother, Behzat, who lives in Istanbul, is also a musician.

Faruk studied the ney and baglama as a boy in Adana, where the owner of the local music store, Aydin, had him come to live with him in town, teaching him music while he worked as a salesman in the store. Faruk learned all of the maqams and rhythms from him, and how to read music, and by age twelve he was performing professionally. When he was fifteen, he moved to Istanbul, where he immediately found employment with his brother as a studio musician. In the 1960’s he established himself as a top Turkish studio musician, working with and learning from some of the great musicians of that time, including Burhon Tonguch, Orhan Gencebay, Ismet Siral, Ahmet Sergin (who Faruk says was the Elvis Presley of Turkey at that time), and Mine Kosan, still a very popular singer today.

Faruk’s first teacher was Ismet Siral, who played flute and saxophone in a blend of folk and jazz. Ismet was a pioneer in the blending of traditional music and jazz 25 years ago. This idea of musical fusion is slowly being accepted, and is becoming popular in Greece today in a number of smaller coffee houses and bars.

In 1969, he studied with Burhon Tonquch, who helped shape him into not only the musician that he is, but the person that he was to become. Burhon was a jazz player with hundreds of students. Faruk was lucky (his words), and was accepted as a student. Burhon saw that Faruk knew many instruments and made him study percussion as well. To aid him in this he insisted that Faruk listen to Gene Krupa. He also made him contunue his study of written music, which had a profound affect on Faruk’s life. Many people in the Middle East are brought up as children to play musical instruments, and can play them both beautifully and in time. But most cannot read music. This skill is considered so important, that in Greece anyone in a musical ensemble who can read music is awarded the title of “maestro,” even if he is not the best musician of the lot.

Burhon also taught Faruk yoga, believing that there must be a healthy combination of muscles, joints and mind if a person is to be fully alive and creative. To this day, Faruk does two hours of yoga every morning.

In 1971, already an established musician in Turkey, Faruk toured Europe and the United States for the first time, establishing a reputation as one of the world’s foremost performers of traditional Middle Eastern music. He is considered to be a virtuoso on several instruments, and is capable of performing on dozens more. He is best known for his work with wind instruments, such as the ney (bamboo, end-blown flute), kavala (piccolo), and zurna (double reed, similar to oboe, with a piercing sound). Also included in his arsenal are the darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum), davul (a large cylindrical, double-headed drum), def (similar to tambourine), bendir (large frame drum), saz, jura, oud, baglama (long-necked lute), accordion, synthesizer, voice, and more, including instruments he has built himself.

Suzan and Faruk performing at their first wedding anniversary, New York, 1977.

Faruk first met his future wife, Suzan, on a tour to the United States in 1971 with Muzzafer Aken, Sadan Adanah and Sevin Deran. In 1975, Faruk married Suzan and moved to New York, where they still reside with their three children today. Suzan is an accomplished dancer and teacher, although she does not perform publicly. Dalia Carella credits her as a prime influence in the development of her Dunyavi Gypsy Dance (see Habibi, Vol. 15, No. 1, page 11).

Since moving to the United States, Faruk has recorded or appeared with several noted musicians, including Arif Mardin, jazz musicians Don Cherry and Karl Berger, and rock drummer Ginger Baker. He has made concert appearances worldwide, including Lincoln Center in New York, the Kool Jazz Festival, the Creative Music Festival, and several international music festivals, among many other appearances.

Since the early eighties, Faruk has been very active in the belly dance world. He recorded five albums with dancers in mind with his Middle Eastern band, the Sultans. In 1984, their Volume One was selected by the readers of Middle Eastern Dancer as best album, best Middle Eastern band, and best album cover. They have played at Rakkasah, at Magaña Baptiste’s festival in San Francisco for four years, and for such dancers as Suhaila Salimpour, Morocco, Ibrahim Farrah, Elena, Serena, Lala Hakim, Dahlena, Amaya, Kashmira and Phaedra, among others.

Although Faruk has recorded with some of the biggest names in the Middle East, such as Ofra Hazra and Simon Shaheen, he is best known for his work with producer/guitarist Brian Keane. The two first met on Keane’s landmark sound track (see review in Habibi, Volume 12, No. 3, p. 34) for the public broadcasting system production, Suleyman the Magnificent, the story of the great Kanuni. Keane saw Faruk working in Fazil’s International in New York, and when he needed a Turkish musician, he chose Faruk to work with, not only because of Faruk’s facility with wind instruments, but also his ability on a wide range of string, percussion and other instruments.

Since the Suleyman project, the Tekbilek/Keane association has continued. They have worked together on the critically acclaimed recordings: Fire Dance and Beyond the Sky (See reviews in Habibi, Volume 12, No. 3, p. 34-35). Faruk’s debut as a solo artist occurred on Celestial Harmony’s Whirling, where Keane played guitars, synthesizer and bass, in addition to producing the album. In a review of Whirling in Pulse! (December, 1994, page 196), Linda Kohanov says: “Whether he is rearranging a traditional Sufi motif or performing an original tune, Tekbilek’s sound is both thoughtful and erotic as it combines the melismatic, trance-inducing power of Middle Eastern styles with subtle enhancements that give the project a western accessibility and polish without taking away from the profound sense of mystery his musical heritage evokes.” In 1995, Faruk recorded Fata Morgana with Australian percussionist Michael Askill for Celestial Harmonies. Faruk’s second solo recording, Mystical Garden, was released on Celestial Harmonies in May of this year. True to his profoundly mystical nature, it includes the chanting of all the different names of God.

But this unassuming man is not only a musician. He proudly states that he has been married for twenty-one years, has an eighteen-year-old son, Murat, who has played darbukah from the age of five, and two daughters, Pinar (14) and Deniz (15), who play piano and sing. Because his wife felt that music would not provide a dependable living, Omar decided to work for Hickey-Freeman Co. (which he points out was run by a German and a Jew, strumming again the theme of intercultural tolerance that has played throughout his life). He pressed and cut clothes eight hours per day for seventeen years, but the menial nature of his job did not bother him because he believes in learning and serving. He says that his day job “made my family life possible. I am grateful to have both.” However, his job as a cutter led to him cutting off the tip of one of his fingers, and he became disappointed by the treatment received at the hands of his bosses. Just at this crucial time in his life he was offered a five year contract with Celestial Harmonies, which gave him the economic security to leave his former job and devote himself wholeheartedly to his music.

Faruk’s commitment to music runs deep. When I asked him what it was like to be involved in the Suleyman the Magnificent production, rather than talking about himself or the music, he explained how he was drawn to the project because of the story of Suleyman. Suleyman ruled Turkey for 46 years in harmony and peace during the Ottoman Empire when many bridges and mosques were built. This increased the opportunities for contact between and blending of different cultures, as travel from one end of the empire to the other became safer. (Interestingly enough, Faruk will also soon be playing at Vernon University for a production of a play by Shakespeare about Pericles, who is more often referred to in Greece as having himself reigned over a benevolent time full of peace, harmony and creativity, a time known as “The Golden Age of Pericles.”)

It would seem that both Faruk’s motivation and fate lead him to participate in endeavors which embrace the ideas of peace, brotherhood and creativity. He feels that it is possible, particularly through music, to get along with many diverse peoples, cultures and ideas. The fact that he has been interested in playing with musicians from many different cultures is much more important here in the Middle East than it is in America, where everyone has been melting in the same pot for some time. Here it seems that music and dance are playing a more important role in the process of peace, understanding and reconciliation than the politicians are. “I view myself as a peace messenger,” declared Faruk. “I represent no nationality when I play. Music is the universal human bond. Face to face, we have no differences. I am lucky to be a musician. It is for this I pray and say ‘Thank God.’”

Faruk is a major exponent of the new “World Music” that blends various ethnic and musical traditions into a harmonious fusion. When asked in a previous interview by George Christodoulopoulos in “E” Magazine in Athens about critics of this movement who complain about the negative consequences of meddling with musical traditions, Faruk responded: “There have always been such musicians, who claim that we must ‘hold on to our traditions, we should let them be.’ We, however, believe that this is what we have been doing all along. We are members of a new generation, we do not live 6,000 years ago. As a musician, I experience freedom. I am free. I want to communicate all the goodness my tradition has given me. My generation makes use of western harmonies, synthesizers. It creates contemporary sounds, world music…Eastern music is monophonic. We put in the melody, the Westerners add the harmony…You see, the Armenian, Greek or Egyptian melodies are very difficult to come across to a mass audience if they are played in a purely traditional manner. We hold on to the traditions, but we have been influenced by contemporary sounds… Music is our common language. So we leave aside our differences and concentrate on our common points, emphasizing them. With this we become more broad-minded.”

As the four corners of his creativity, he enumerates mysticism, folk, romance and imagination. If there is one common thing that runs through Omar’s character, it seems to be his humble belief that he is a servant of God, who has many names, but is One. He has been a member of the Rosecrucians since 1983 and considers himself to be a Muslim. Being ignorant of such matters and wishing to hear what he had to say about it, I asked him what was a Muslim. “Well,” he said, “Jesus was a Muslim. Abraham was a Muslim. A Muslim is one who submits his will to the will of God.”

Faruk’s inspiration for the words to the title track on Mystical Garden were inspired by “the unity of the mystical life. The garden is an island surrounded by the ocean of sincerity, everyone with their sincere hearts chanting God’s name in their language. In essence, we are the flowers owned by the one and only Gardener.”

Rhea began her belly dance career in San Francisco under the expert guidance of Jamila Salimpour in 1967, where she taught and danced in Bay Area during the early seventies. After a soul-changing visit to Greece and Egypt in 1976, Rhea moved with her two daughters to Athens, where she still teaches, choreographs for her troupe, and performs throughout Greece. Rhea currently speaks, performs, and conducts seminars throughout Europe and the United States. Under the profound influence of Athens neighbor, Nelly Mazloum, Rhea’s understanding and thinking about belly dance has deepened as she explores its more metaphysical and spiritual aspects in both theory and practice. www.daughtersofrhea.com

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.