Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Omar Faruk Tekbilek Biography

Looking back at his musical career, Turkish ney master Omar Faruk Tekbilek reveals, "I have a picture I carry in my mind. I call it the 'Tree of Patience'".

The seeds of the Tree were sown in Omar’s Faruk's hometown of Adana, Turkey. "My brother Hadji was a born musician," he recalls. "He was my guru, my inspiration." Hadji played the flute, and Faruk followed suit. But as he grew up, Faruk found himself drawn to other instruments as well. "My first teacher taught baglama (a long-necked Turkish lute). He had a music store, but he also had another job during the day. So he told me to come after school, open the store, and - in exchange - he gave me lessons." While working in the store, Faruk learned the intricate rhythms of Turkish music, how to read scales, and other rudiments.

At the same time, Faruk was studying Sufism with the thought of becoming an Imam (cleric). At 15, he left school to pursue music but still continued his studies. "In fact, I am still studying; it's endless. Music and Sufism are intertwined for me - playing is like prayer." After moving to Istanbul, Faruk met the Mevlevi Dervishes, the ancient Sufi order of Turkey. He did not join the order, but the head Neyzen (ney player) Aka Gunduz Kutbay became another source of inspiration. Faruk was but profoundly influenced by their mystical approach and fusion of sound and spirit.

A second, almost equally significant force in Faruk's musical life occurred shortly thereafter in becoming friends with Ismet Siral and Burhan Tonguch. Siral, a saxophone player and a philosopher had some unusual ideas about music theory. "He would say things like, 'Let's play for birds and for trees and lets draw a picture with music.' Tonguch, a drummer and music teacher, put the ideas in my mind that everything is rhythmic instrument and everyone is a drummer. Without a beat, there is no sound." Augmented by this unconventional outlook, Faruk's skills in the studio blossomed in Istanbul and by 1971, at the age of 20, he made his first tour of the United States as a member of a Turkish classical/folk ensemble. Faruk's Tree was about to grow in a different direction.

"I first met my wife on that tour," he explains. "But I had to go back to Turkey to do my army service." Faruk could not return to America until 1976, and when he did, he found very few options for a Turkish musician in upstate New York. He took a job with a clothing company, and by his own admission, "struggled with the idea for a while."He formed a band with his brother-in-law called the Sultans. It started as a pop band but very quickly turned into a sort of pan-Near Eastern ensemble, with an Egyptian keyboardist and a Greek bouzouki player. For several difficult years, Faruk would punch a time card on Friday and then drive to New York City to perform in the Middle Eastern clubs. "After a couple of years," he says, "I accepted it. And when I accepted it, I was able to do my job and my music better. And when the time came, I was ready to move on."

But that time did not come right away. For much of the 1980s, Faruk continued to work a weekday job while raising three children and playing music on the weekends. The Sultans managed to record several albums during this time, and began to attract some attention within the circle of Middle Eastern dance fans. Then came a fateful meeting with Brian Keane in 1988 and Faruk's Tree of Patience began to take root.

"When I met him, he was working at the clothing company in Rochester," producer and multi-instrumentalist Keane recalls. "But he was trained as a Sufi priest, so he took it all in stride, and found artistic merit in that." Keane was working on the soundtrack for film about the Ottoman emperor Süleyman. "I knew I wanted to incorporate Turkish instruments and players," he recalls, "but the Met saddled me with a bunch of professors - all intellect and no emotion." Desperate to move the recording along, Keane called Arif Mardin, the legendary Turkish producer of the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin, and so many others, and asked if he knew any Turkish musicians. Mardin didn't but suggested to check out Fazil's International Club in Manhattan. “So I went for five nights and suffered through really bad belly dance music. Then one night after driving 7 hours from Rochester, Faruk shows up looking like he was right off the boat. You could tell immediately that he was different. His playing was so emotional; he really stood out." Faruk joined the project and the soundtrack was released to critical acclaim.

After the success of their initial collaboration, Keane and Faruk were eager to work together again. "I felt he had such a great appreciation of Turkish music," Faruk says. "He always encouraged me." Faruk was finally able to concentrate on making music, and in the following years, he and Keane would produce another five recordings together, launching Faruk boldly on the world music scene.

Faruk's music has now taken him to far-flung corners of the globe and further collaborations with a number of leading musicians such as; Jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, keyboard player Karl Berger, ex-Cream rock drummer Ginger Baker, Ofra Haza, Peter Erskine, Trilok Gurtu, Simon Shaheen, Bill Laswell, Mike Mainieri, Michael Askill, Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Jai Uttal, Hossam Ramzy, Glen Velez and many others.

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