An Angel on His Shoulder
Turkish Oud Virtuoso Necati Çelik
by Mimi Spencer
The name Necati Çelik (pronounced nehJAHtee CHEH-lik)1 is well-known in Turkey. He is widely recognized as one of the foremost exponents of the indigenous classical “art” music of that country. Necati has been a featured oud soloist with the State Turkish Music Ensemble for many years, his salary paid by the Ministry of Culture. He is a regular performer on Turkish radio and television, and is host of his own weekly program on Istanbul’s Saman Yolu Television (STV). He has students in Europe, the Middle East, Malaysia, and the United States (over 100 here), many of whom travel to Turkey to study with him. Necati was a founder of the Music Conservatory of Selçuk University in Konya, has taught at Ege University in Izmir, and continues to teach at the State Conservatory.
Necati has not had an extensive formal education, nor has he attended a conservatory. So how, one may wonder, does one become a university music teacher, an employee of the national government as a musician, and a well-known radio and television performer without a formal degree or any formal education?
It was his good fortune to be born into a musical family and raised in a musical town. Necati Çelik was born in 1955 in the city of Konya, Turkey, the most important city in Turkey to members of the Sufi Mevlevi Order, a mystical Islamic sect which uses music, chanting and the famous whirling Dervish dance to bring its members closer to God. Necati’s sister and three brothers are all musically gifted or involved in music, but are not professional musicians. His paternal uncle was a well known oud player, and his father was a very good folk dancer, though he never really knew either of them. Shortly after his father died, when Necati was only seven, there was a wedding in which musicians played the saz (a long-necked, stringed instrument originating in central Asia that is ubiquitous in Turkish folk music). Usually when there is an event like this, the children are sent outside to get them out of the way. But because Necati was so recently bereaved of his father, who had been a very well-known and well-liked person, he was allowed to stay and watch the singing and dancing. He saw a little saz brought by the musicians, and it interested him so much that he picked it up, went outside by himself and began to play it. This was the true beginning of his life of music.
My entire life, playing musical instruments has been easy for me — practically every instrument I picked up, I could play. Today, when I am trying to teach others, I am always so amazed when they have difficulty. I ask myself, ‘why can’t they do it?’ It’s so easy!
In Konya, folk music is traditionally played on the saz, but it is also played on the classical instruments oud and kanun, so he was exposed to those instruments early in life. The oud is very prominent in the musical life of Konya, not only in the folk music, but also in the classical music which accompanies the Mevlevi ceremonies held there. In 1970, when Necati was fifteen, he took up the oud, and from that time onward he began going to the ceremonies and getting to know the musicians there. Because of his obvious ability, he was accepted among them and he began playing for the ceremonies. This was his transition from the saz to the oud, and from folk music to classical Turkish music.
Necati never really had a formal music education, and he has never attended a conservatory. Musicians from all over Turkey come to play in Konya every year, so right from the start he has been able to associate with the best musicians in the country. He says it was like being at a music camp. He was able to ask them questions in an informal situation where everyone learned from each other. For the most part, he had no formal lessons, but he watched carefully, imitated them and followed their advice. When still a teenager someone told him that he needed to know how to read and write music. Recognizing the truth in this suggestion, he set about learning music notation, and within a week he had mastered it.
It’s just like language. Learning how to read and write is not the end of language education. Nobody instructs children from birth in reading, writing or grammar. By the time they go to school and learn these things, they already know how to speak; at that time, the knowledge of writing and reading enhances what they already know. My music education was like this — not just from one teacher. Actually, the most education I have received (is) from my students. And still, I continue to learn.
When asked if there was any single most important influence, he replies simply, “Cinuçen Tanrikorur.” Cinuçen Tanrikorur (born 1938) is a famous composer and oud virtuoso who is highly respected among classical Turkish musicians. Cinuçen has composed a great deal of Mevlevi religious music. Over one hundred of his compositions were created during a two-year period spent in the United States while waiting for a kidney transplant. Students and friends of Necati have heard him refer to Cinuçen as “my teacher.”
Necati gave his first solo concert in 1983 in Konya. A solo instrumental concert, with no singer or other musicians, was a rare thing at that time. In fact, there had been none since musician Serif Muhittin Targan in 1955. It takes confidence and courage to sit alone before an audience, holding their attention for more than an hour. Necati has done it many times since then, performing pure, classical Turkish “art” music.
In the mid 1980’s, a friend teaching at Selçuk University in Konya arranged a concert and invited Necati to perform. The president of the university attended, and afterwards congratulated Necati and invited him to a meeting. There the president told him, “I would like to start a conservatory of music as part of the university. What ideas do you have?” Necati subsequently helped to found the conservatory at Selçuk University, and taught oud and classical music there. He invited his childhood friend, Sadrettin Özçimi, an accomplished ney (cane flute) player, as well as Cinuçen Tanrikorur, to join the conservatory.
Necati later moved to Izmir to join the Turkish State Ensemble and teach at Ege University. The next advance came when he was invited to join the State Turkish Music Ensemble in Istanbul, with whom he became a regular performer on Turkish radio and television. The director at that time was the famous tanbur player Necdet Yasar, who invited Necati to join his own touring and recording ensemble. Necati came to the United States with the Necdet Yasar ensemble on more than one occasion, meeting people here who asked him to return yearly for teaching and performance. Since 1993, Necati has been visiting the United States on a yearly basis, performing and teaching classical Turkish music on his oud. Beginning in 1994, he has taught at the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp held annually in August in the woodlands of Mendocino, California.
Although Necati has made numerous recordings with the Turkish State Ensemble, with the Necdet Yasar Ensemble, and other groups, he had not made a solo recording until this year. During a brief visit to California in March 1998, he recorded over seventy minutes of solo oud playing. The resulting compact disc, named Yasemin in honor of his daughter, was co-produced by Kutay Derin Kugay’s 7/8 Music and Near Eastern Music West, Inc.
It is testimony to Necati’s musical talent that he has risen to such prominence without a degree or formal education purely on his personal accomplishment and growing reputation. When asked about this, Necati replied that he loved music so much that he put in a great deal of work by himself, around ten hours a day, to the detriment of his regular schooling. “In one school year I was absent more than fifty days, and they finally said, ‘You are out!’” He then completed his oud education on his own, but couldn’t go to a formal school. Luckily, his sister was an official in one of the small towns near Konya, so he went there and they gave him a high school diploma. Necati added that not only did his regular education suffer, but his mother suffered as well. She used to complain that she was sick of the sound of his practicing. In order to not disturb her, he would take a piece of paper, fold it many times, chew on it to moisten it, and use it as a mute to play the oud.
After he had moved to Istanbul, his mother informed him one day that he was about to be married! She was looking after his interests, and had arranged for him to marry a girl from Konya, whose father had been a good friend of his father. He returned to Konya and visited the family of his bride-to-be, got to know her, and then they were married.
Necati and his wife Aysa have two children, Hacibey Celaleddin, his seventeen-year-old son, and Yasemin, his fifteen-year-old daughter. Yasemin plays oud and Celaleddin plays drums, his special interest being the North Indian tabla. It is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that Yasemin is able to produce the same kind of tone on the oud that her father does, and her hands even look like his when she plays.
Did marrying and having children enrich his musical experience? “Obviously,” he says, “it made a big difference.” Although his wife is not musical, she is, in a sense, his muse. She does everything she can to make it very comfortable for him. She has been a great admirer and a big help. “I’ve never had a problem with my children or with my wife. She’s done everything she can to help me. Quite often I will sit up all night long. Or suddenly, at 3 a.m. I will have the urge to play oud. She will get up and listen to me.”
Necati considers himself to be a very fortunate man. Without a degree, he has attained university positions because his ability was recognized by those in authority. Today his salary is paid by the Turkish government, and he rehearses with the State Ensemble in the Yildiz Sarayi (Star Palace) in Istanbul. Necati is also fortunate in his family. “Just about everything in my life happened like that. I never said, ‘I want to do this or that.’ It just happened.” In his words, “There is an angel sitting on my shoulder.”
Necati feels strongly about the concept that music is a kind of language. And it is a language that he understood and spoke from an early age, although the concept didn’t strike him until later. When he was about thirty, Cinuçen explained to him that the word “music” comes from the Greek word “musica,” meaning, “of the muses,” which Necati translates as “angels.” Suddenly he realized the divinity of music: even the word came from the divine. When he picks up a musical instrument and plays it, Necati feels he is speaking a divine language. Somehow, he has the ability to express himself fluently in it.
Beginning at about 2:00 in the morning in the fireplace room at the Mendocino Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp this year, four virtuosos from four different cultures (Necati, Turkish; George Lammam, Arabic; George Mylordos, Greek and Muhamed Najad, Persian) spent a good part of the night improvising in the form known as taksim. It was a very moving experience both for the musicians and for those listening. According to Necati, the four of them were speaking the musical language. “I am very sure that every human being and animal on Earth will understand this language. They may not be able to speak it, but they do understand it. Music, with the ability to understand it, is one of the most important gifts God gave to the beings on this Earth, maybe even more important than the ability to speak verbally.”
The ability of these four musicians to speak the same musical language, although they are rooted in four different cultural traditions, can also be explained by the cross-cultural influences in the history of the development of these musical forms. Since the Turkic peoples migrated from Central Asia to other lands, they naturally assimilated cultural elements from those lands, which influenced and expanded their musical development. Like the Greeks, the Chinese and others, the Turks have a long history. Before the Huns there were the Göktürks, and the people whom the Chinese called “Tuiku.” The Great Wall was built to defend against their attacks. From these tribes came the Huns, the Mongols, and around the twelfth or thirteenth century, the Selçuks. Then the Ottomans followed in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. A pinnacle of refinement was reached in the nineteenth century, although Turkish music continues to live and grow.
There are examples of classical Turkish music extant as far back as the fifteenth century. Compositions by the fifteenth century composer Abdel Kadir Meragali (“Abdel Kadir from the town of Meraga”) are taught in the conservatories today. There are even compositions attributed to the ninth century composer and theoretician Farabi that are still being taught. However, after the fifteenth century, there is a gap, a period from which no compositions exist today. This is attributed by some to the fact that at that time the Turks were warring outside their country. Near the end of the sixteenth century the composers Hafez Post and Itrî appeared, beginning an unbroken tradition of famous musicians.
The music of Abdel Kadir Meragali was not religious in nature; it was social and joyous, probably dance music. After the gap, or period of unknown composers, there emerged two types of music, religious and secular. Both Hafez Post and Itrî composed in these two types. Itrî invented a religious form known as tekbir, a short line of melody in praise of God with words from the Qur’an, which became so famous that the whole Muslim world still recites in that form.
Asked about the relationship of Turkish music to Arabic music, and who influenced whom, Necati referred to a book written by Dr. Huseyin Saddettin Arel called To Whom Does Turkish Music Belong? It was written during a period around the 1930’s when the Turks were disowning their classical music, saying that it is Arabic, not knowing that at the same time in the Arab world people were saying that it is Turkish music. Dr. Arel’s position was that the music actually is Turkish, although it may have been influenced by Arabic music. He encouraged Turkish people to retain and honor their own music.
In addition to the interaction between Turkish and Arabic music which continues to this day, there has also been a tremendous sharing of Turkish and Greek music. The Anatolian area was part of the Byzantine Empire, part of Greece, until 1453, and ethnic Greeks still lived there until the 1920’s. There are many forms, such as the zeybek (in Greek, zeybekiko) and rhythms, like karsilama, that are common to both cultures; and the ancient Byzantine church music, still used in the Greek Orthodox ceremonies, has much in common with classical Turkish music.
His own contribution to Turkish classical music, Necati believes, does not involve a radical change. “When I give a concert, if I can touch somebody’s soul and make them like music and want to learn, that’s a contribution.” He believes, and rightly so, that Turkish music is at the same level as any other highly developed music in the world. However, for whatever reason, it has not attained the renown or the respect that Western classical music commands. Fortunately, awareness of it is gradually spreading internationally, and Necati Çelik has made a great contribution in this respect. Turkish music is highly rich and complex, with a tremendous capacity for self expression, which cannot, perhaps, be completely explored without spending a lifetime on it. Such has been the life of Necati Çelik.
1. Some notes about pronouncing Turkish words: C sounds like English “j,” Ç, like “ch” as in church. S sounds like “sh,” and ö and ü are similar to their German counterparts. Undotted 1 is like that most common English vowel “uh.” In Turkish the long or dotted i is also dotted in capitalization.
Author Mimi Spencer al-Khayyam has been performing Middle Eastern music and dance for more than twenty years. She has played the kanun since 1978, and sings in seven languages. The author of three books in the field, she is the president of Near Eastern Music West, Inc., a nonprofit educational corporation, and the editor of the Near Eastern Music Calendar, a newsletter of Middle Eastern music centered in the San Francisco bay area. She arranged for the U.S. visit of Necati Çelik, Sadrettin Özçimi, and Göksel Baktagir in 1996, sponsored by Near Eastern Music West, as well as Necati’s 1997 visit here. Mimi visited Istanbul for the second time in February 1997, where she appeared twice with Necati Çelik on Saman Yolu television and was a dinner guest of Necdet Yasar, among other memorable experiences. She is currently an oud and makam student of Necati Çelik, and performs frequently with him (on the kanun) when he visits the United States. Mimi also teaches oud, kanun, Middle Eastern singing and makam in the San Francisco area. Her playing, with the Jazayer ensemble, may be heard on a number of compact discs and cassettes.
This article was partially based on material provided by Habibi editor Shareen el Safy from an interview with Necati at the Mendocino Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in 1998. We thank Ergun Tamer for translating, for although Necati speaks English and improves in it every year, he feels more comfortable discussing important and abstract subjects in his native language.
Daughter of the Soul of Love
Vase of bitterness and of
Dream of the human heart, fruit
Flower of joy, fragrance and
bloom of feeling
Tongue of lovers, revealer of
Mother of the tears of hidden love
Inspirer of poets, composers, architects
Unity of thoughts within fragments
Designer of love out of beauty
Wine of the exulting heart in
a world of dreams
Heartener of warriors, and strengthener
Ocean of mercy and sea of tenderness
In your depths we deposit our hearts
Thou has taught us to see with our
And hear with our hearts
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?
All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.
Mevlana Celaleddin-e Rumi