Rumi is an Inspiration at the Istanbul Jazz Festival

  • The Turkish composer Zulfu Livaneli, who is inspired by the poet Rumi.

    The Turkish composer Zulfu Livaneli, who is inspired by the poet Rumi.

  • The vocalist Romy Camerun performing with Ralph Graessler on bass at the Istanbul Jazz Festival. Photography by Monique Jaques

    The vocalist Romy Camerun performing with Ralph Graessler on bass at the Istanbul Jazz Festival. Photography by Monique Jaques

Istanbul Deftly Takes Contrasts in Its Stride

Rumi Is an Inspiration at the Istanbul Jazz Festival

July 7, 2014   |   The New York Times

ISTANBUL — During one particularly eclectic afternoon here at the end of June, I watched the whirling dervishes in their serene ritual at the 15th-century Mevlevi Lodge and then dashed out to observe an exuberant gay pride parade marching down Istiklal Street, the city’s bustling pedestrian shopping boulevard.

Despite the large contingent of riot police, the colorful parade — which took place the day after the start of Ramadan — proceeded peacefully, observed with an air of bored detachment by shopkeepers and cheered on by boisterous supporters.

The march ended near the Mevlevi Lodge, established by followers of Rumi, the 13th-century poet, philosopher and Sufi mystic who espoused a doctrine of tolerance and compassion.

It seemed fitting, then, to listen a few days later to Zulfu Livaneli’s “Rumi Suite: The Eternal Day” — an engaging contemporary fusion of jazz, traditional Turkish tunes and other genres. The work was presented on Wednesday during the Istanbul Jazz Festival, part of a lineup of jazz, classical music, film, visual art and theater under the umbrella of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which brings prominent international artists to the city. (The jazz component, which runs through July 16, includes the pianist and composer Chick Corea and the singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo; the classical lineup — which finished on June 27 — featured musicians including the soprano Diana Damrau and the pianist Nelson Freire.)

The “Rumi Suite,” which had its premiere in Bremen, Germany, in 2013, received its first Turkish performance in the gardens of the Sepetciler Palace (called the “Basketmaker’s Kiosk”): a space offering an alluring view of the bridges and minarets that dominate the skyline of this magical city.

Mr. Livaneli, a well-known author, composer, human-rights activist and political figure in Turkey, dedicated the piece to the anniversary of the Sivas massacre of July 2, 1993, in which 35 people (mostly artists, intellectuals and writers) staying at the Madimak Hotel in the Turkish city of Sivas were killed by Islamic fundamentalists.

“Fundamentalists hate Rumi,” Mr. Livaneli, a gregarious 68-year-old, said in an interview. “Rumi was a poet, not a religious figure,” he added. “He was very progressive-minded and wasn’t against wine.”

Some of the most memorable moments in the work were the solos by the ney player Burcu Karadag, said to be Turkey’s foremost female professionalon the instrument.

The ney, a reed flute common in Ottoman classical music, is also an integral part of Sufi rituals (which have been repressed under both secular and Islamist governments in Turkey, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in the Middle East). The ney has an earthy and sensual timbre that contrasts with the bright, clean sound of the Western classical flute. “Listen to story told by the reed, of being separated./Since I was cut from the reedbed, I have made this crying sound” begins Rumi’s “Reed Flute Song.”

Ms. Karadag’s haunting, expressively rendered melodies soared over the enigmatic tapestry created by the German jazz pianist-composer Henning Schmiedt, the trumpeter Joo Kraus (who also offered several mesmerizing solos), the bass player Ralph Graessler and the percussionist Uli Moritz.

Romy Camerun, the charismatic vocalist, sang lyrics based on English translations of Rumi’s poems. Mr. Livaneli used Rumi’s lines “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there” as the leitmotif of the suite.

The lines have particular resonance for him, he said. A prolific songwriter
who was imprisoned during the 1971 Turkish coup d’état, Mr. Livaneli said that he was frightened by the announcement on July 2 that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to run for Turkey’s presidency next month. (Mr. Erdogan has ambitions to amend the constitution and replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one, which would increase his power.)

“He wants to be the imam of the country,” said Mr. Livaneli, voicing the fear expressed by many
secular Turks regarding what they see as Mr. Erdogan’s conservative Islamic values and recent authoritarian tactics.

The pianist Fazil Say, whose new composition meshing Western and Turkish instruments was performed last month during the festival, was recently accused of “publicly insulting religious values.” During a very brief interview, I was given strict instructions by one of several minders present not to ask about the charges that led to his court case in 2012. (He received a 10-month suspended jail sentence.)

Mr. Livaneli, whose protest songs were banned during periods of military rule in Turkey from the 1970s through the ’90s, said that in keeping with Rumi’s open-minded outlook, he wanted to compose a work that wouldn’t be pigeonholed into a particular genre. “I love the dialogue of cultures,” he said. “I am a cosmopolitan.”

My trip to Istanbul, coinciding with the music festival, gay pride and Ramadan, certainly offered a chance to experience this cosmopolitan city in particularly vivid contrast: from the upscale Nisantasi area, where glamorous women in miniskirts smoked cigarettes in chic cafes nestled between designer boutiques, to the conservative districts near the Fatih Mosque, where most women wear head scarves — a religious symbol previously banned in state offices in Turkey and whose resurgence worries secularists.

Rumi, Mr. Livaneli said, “was against racist and religious and sexual discrimination. We need this kind of bright understanding now.”

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