For centuries, the ney has been a native instrument in large parts of the Islamic world, in particular, in Iran and Arabic-speaking regions. It was perfected, however, in the Ottoman Empire within the Mevlivi religious order, an 800-year-old Sufi brotherhood that bases its teachings on the works of Rumi.
The ney was the main instrument of the Mevlevis for hundreds of years and served a ritual function in accompanying the Sema ceremonies. The Mevlevis created their own musical repertoire for this famous rotating form of meditation. An example of this are the compositions of the 17th century Ottoman music master Buhurizade Mustafa Itri, a contemporary of Bach, with whom he is sometimes compared.
Today, Erguner is at home in this musical tradition like almost no other musician. Even as a child, his father regularly took him along to visit Sufi circles in Istanbul, where he became familiar with the Mevlevi order. In his autobiography, “Journeys of a Sufi Musician”, which was published in 2005, Erguner describes the gradual disappearance of Sufi traditions within the modern Turkish republic – a result of Ataturk’s 1925 ban on the Sufi order.
The prestigious journal Songlines wrote in a review of Erguner’s book at the time, “Whatever revival [of Sufi music] there may be, it is for the most part due to the efforts of Erguner and his colleagues. He is excellent at bridging the divide between East and West and all the irony that it entails.”
A royal melancholy
The title of his new album, “La Mélancolie Royale”, is well considered and alludes to the historical dynamics between East and West. The eponymous phrase in the title originates in an Ottoman story. Under the regency of Abdul Mejid I (1839-1861), the Ottoman sultanate developed a preference for Western music. As a result, it began to neglect the thousand-year-old national tradition of Eastern court music.
One day, so it is told, as Abdul Mejid’s son Abdul Hamid (1876-1918) heard the famous musician Tanburi Cemil Bey playing the long-necked lute, he could no longer bear the melancholy of the music. His valet was instructed to put a halt to the tanbur performance and he whispered in the ear of the virtuoso that he had caused the potentate to suffer a “teessur-u sahane” or a “royal melancholy”.
Erguner turns to this anecdote to remind us of the spiritual character of Ottoman court music. Ottoman sacred music must be understood as a spiritual aural tradition that was completely different in character from the temporal sounds echoing from the palaces of European potentates. Yet, it did not take long for Turkish music to adapt to European trends, becoming secularised in the process.
“I suggested this title for the album in order to stress the radical and fundamental philosophical transformation of the role ascribed to this music by our scholars, who since the 19th century have fixated on Western civilization,” explains Erguner, who rejects any kind of differentiation between Ottoman court music and the Sufi musical tradition, as these are in reality branches of one and the same tradition.
Even though his reputation is that of a world musician, Erguner has always regarded the concept of “world music” with a critical eye as a collective term for non-Western musical traditions. In an interview, Eren Guvercin once asked the ney player about his fusion of Mevlevi music with Goethe’s poetry on German stages. Erguner answered, “Turkey always wants to prove to Europe that it is also European. That is why festivals constantly feature Turkish pianists playing Mozart and why Turkish pop musicians are displayed in showcases, not to mention the techno Sufis … . I ask myself, is there nothing left of our past, of our civilization? Goethe provides the best answer to my question! The world also needs other cultures besides that of the West.”
As such, “La Melancolie Royale” with its long solo “Ney Taksimi” (ney improvisations) is perhaps a little exhausting for the untrained listener at first, but in light of Erguner’s cultural preservation work, which confronts the trivial and ephemeral, a real accomplishment. This is ney music with a mission.
© Qantara.de 2020
Translated from the German by John Bergeron