When Rebetiko and Balkan music is spoken of in Turkey, the name of the virtuoso accordionist Muammer Ketencoğlu is inevitably mentioned. Every week on the radio the folk music scholar takes his listeners "to the other side of the Danube" – with great success. A portrait by Tuba Tunçak
Muammer Ketencoğlu is a musical traveler. With his CDs, samplers and concerts he takes us to a town on the Aegean, then to Armenia. With his "Zeybek Ensemble" the musician revives Turkish and Greek Zeybeks and lets us share in the sorrow of the expellees who were forced to leave their homeland in the exchange of peoples between 1923 and 1924 – but most importantly he brings almost-forgotten works of folk music into the present.
Ketencoğlu began his life as a musician in the schools for the blind in Izmir and Gaziantep, where he took his first musical steps. He especially remembers his charismatic, Greek-born music teacher whose Greek songs opened the door onto a new world for him. While studying at the Bosporus University, which has an international folk music archive, he became increasingly interested in folk music from different countries.
Music was always a part of his family: the songs his mother sang to him are as unforgettable as his uncle, the head of the city band, who took home an accordion which Ketencoğlu fell in love with in 1973.
The music of the Aegean
It was the Rebetiko that sparked Ketencoğlu's musical journey. In 1993, after winning money in the state lottery, he was able to record his first album "Sevdalı Kıyılar" (Coasts in Love). On this album Ketencoğlu interpreted old Greek songs he had listened to passionately since his childhood, as well as newer ones.
According to Ketencoğlu the Rebetiko does not belong to a certain people, but rather to a geographical area, namely the Aegean. The album was followed by the two samplers "Rebetika" and "Rebetika I" he compiled, as well as further sampler albums of folk songs from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, the Central Asian Turkic republics and Kosovo. He also compiled and published a selection entitled "The Pioneers of Klezmer Music".
Keys to world culture
While touring various countries in search of songs, Ketencoğlu noticed that the folk songs are closer than the people are. For him, folk music is the kind of music that describes people at their most naked, and it is the key to world culture.
"But women's contribution is usually disregarded," says Ketencoğlu. To acknowledge this contribution, he collected women's songs in the Turkic, Kurdish, Greek and Armenian languages from throughout Anatolia and presented them with his women's choir.
The power and warmth of music
On his musical journey, which began in Anatolia and reached other continents as well, he encountered not only the various folk songs, but also the most famous musicians of every country. One of them is Mikis Theodorakis, who made peace between Greece and Turkey and whose name Ketencoğlu first heard in secondary school. Thus it meant a great deal to him to share the stage with the great master Mikis Theodorakis in Greece 1996.
Since the 1990s Ketencoğlu has performed concerts not only in European capitals such as Berlin, Paris and Vienna; his musical journey has also taken him to Brazil and Israel. At the end of April 2008 he also toured Holland and Belgium.
The musical traveler has also visited Cyprus, which has repeatedly led to conflicts between Greece and Turkey. Despite the political conflicts, due to his peaceful attitude he has never had any problems so far. His mission is "to overcome extremist nationalism, hatred, misunderstanding and prejudices in people's minds using the power and warmth of music."
"Izmir, the city of the unbelievers"
Along with his sampler albums, Ketencoğlu has released five albums to date. His latest album, which is now in its third edition, allows the listener not only to travel from country to country, but to take a journey back in time to pre-1922 Izmir, when Turkish, Greek and Sephardic songs could be heard in the streets. The album includes songs such as "to Dervisaki" by Stelyo Berber in the original recording as well as new recordings of old songs.
"İzmir Hatırası - Smyrna Recollections" is not only a musical journey in time; its booklet provides a collection of documents, photos and explanations.
"With its sounds and smells, Izmir has a large place in my heart", says Ketencoğlu. He loves the city where he first appeared onstage at the age of eleven. In his work, he allows listeners to partake of the rich and many-layered musical tradition which Izmir owes to its cosmopolitan past. Thus it is also a gift for this city.
In the Ottoman Empire, cosmopolitan Izmir was a liberal, wealthy port city. Previously, and sometimes today as well, Izmir was known in Central Anatolia as the "City of the Unbelievers" – i.e. non-Muslims. Ketencoğlu comments on this in the CD booklet: "Now it is your turn to open your heart to the stories told by the Turks, Greeks and Jews who lived together for hundreds of years. Now it is your turn to embrace the City of the Unbelievers."
Muammer Ketencoğlu explores folk music from the entire world with the sensitivity of a passionate music lover. In a music world dominated by popular mass culture he tracks down the old folk songs. In the process, with his unprejudiced attitude toward other cultures, he builds new bridges between the peoples.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole