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Concert garners support for Turkish earthquake victims

Saturday’s event combined culture and music for a good cause

By Fiona Lockyer
On January 30, 2012

  • Cem Mutlu sang Arabic music with beautiful, poetic lyrics. Anna Yatskar
  • Robert Labaree played the çeng, a harp-like old-fashioned instrument. Anna Yatskar
  • Mehmet Ali Sanlikol is the co-founder and musical director of DÜNYA. Anna Yatskar
  • The DÜNYA musicians’ collective aims to increase awareness of Turkish customs. Anna Yatskar

My heart races when I hear musicians tune before a concert. There's something electric in the air when hearing a performer listen so intently to his instrument, seeking the sound and pitch he wants with unparalleled precision. I love hearing the oboe play an A and feeling the rumble of the rest of the orchestra swell up section by section. I love when the band first walks out on stage for a sound check, the bass drum thumps deep in my chest and my ears perk up as the vocalist checks the microphone levels.

So when I saw DÜNYA, whose goal, according to their website, is "to present a contemporary view of a wide range of Turkish traditions, alone and in interaction with other world traditions, through performance, publication and other educational activities," play in the Slosberg Recital Hall on Saturday night, you may be able to imagine my confusion—or even surprise—when I saw three men on stage pluck at the strings of instruments resembling harps and lyres and tap a drum-style percussion instrument. It was not like anything I had ever seen during any kind of sound check. From the audience, the instruments were visibly different from those used in rock or orchestral performances, the delicate strings of two of the instruments shining from the stage. The sounds, even in the tuning, were unlike anything I had ever heard. Everything seemed to be played at a higher pitch—the guitar-like instrument's tone was slightly elevated, the harp just perceptively off.

The event, put together by Rozi Levi '13, Aziz Sohail '13 and Nusrath Yusuf '13, was coordinated with the support of Project Nur, the Intercultural Center, the Music department, MusicUnitesUS and the Brandeis Pluralism Alliance. The event was created to raise money for aid organizations working in Turkey on earthquake relief following the Oct. 23 earthquake outside of Van, Turkey in which 600 people died and over 4,000 people were injured. The set seemed to be created to bring the culture of the affected people into our purview so that we understood the culture as much as the natural disaster that had taken place.

Each set, four sets in total, began with an instrumental improvisation session, in the first movement referred to as an Ud Taksim. The improvisation started slowly with a melody played by Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, the president of DÜNYA, on the oud, or lyre: a tentative entry into the program. As I listened, I imagined myself opening up a book for the first time. The tuning served as the cover, and the improvisation was the introduction. I felt unsure of where the story was going. Then the melody started: changing, turning, moving. Next, the other two members entered. New characters were introduced. A love interest develops; the mingling melodies of the çeng, or harp, and the lyre danced together playfully, yet cautiously, into "Beyati Saz Semaisi," the first song from the set of urban folk music. I dove into the story.

After the first set, a re-tuning was needed as a result of the performance and the moisture in the air from the New England winter. Smiles abounded across the stage as the three musicians worked meticulously to bring their instruments back into proper pitch. The second set, "Songs from the Country," began with "Gurbet elde bir hal geldi basima." The words and the melody wove together both woeful ("Far from home, I fell into sadness") and optimistic sentiments ("Do not weep, mine eyes, the Lord is merciful") by using a slow tempo overall, mixed with the relatively fast-paced repetition of higher notes by the çeng. The set ended with a deep, rhythmic piece from the trio, waking up ears lulled to sleep from the first and second songs by accenting the offbeat.

There was another short period of retuning, then the instruments again joined back together. The heads of the people in the audience were all tilted at a 45-degree angle, enchanted by the music. The next chapter began, highlighting songs of devotion. The first, a Greek paraliturgical song titled "Christos Anesti Mati Mou," or "Christ has risen in front of my eyes," was slow and reverent, led by Sanlikol's intensely focused performance on the ney, or a reeded instrument resembling a cross between a flute and a recorder. The sound, emanating from the stage so tenuously, shared a mysticism and spirituality with the audience. The songs of devotion based on Christian texts are joined by Sufi and Jewish texts as well, played in similar styles. For example, "Yesha El Hay Tohil" and "Gel Gönül Sabreyle" are adaptations of piyyutim, or devotional poems written in Hebrew, by Israel Najara and adapted by Sanlikol to the melody for a Bektasi devotional song that fits the meter of the poem. The songs performed together showed the interconnection between the religions of Turkey, which is centered in the middle of religious homelands.

The final section, a piece that links a piece by Sultan Selim III of the 18th century to Mustafa Sandal, a contemporary musician, is a gutsy, unexpected and impressive move from the group. I found myself blown away by the vocals of the last song, a forceful delivery of acrobatic leaps in tone across Sanlıkol's baritone range as he sings of falling in love, sentiments shared across two centuries of music.

In an interview with justArts after the event, Sanlikol said that DÜNYA is entering into its ninth year of touring and playing, even though the core members of the ensemble—himself, Robert Labaree and Cem Mutlu, who played at Brandeis for the event—have been playing together for an even longer time. Reflecting on those nine years, he said, "It's been a true adventure, you know, our researching, and our researching never ends. … We've just grown and learned more, and there's tons of experiences to tell." And tell, they will. By the end of the performance, I understood why the concerts for DÜNYA are not just concerts, but conversations. This is more than cursory: It is complete, ranging from music of the court, to the country, to the city, to the spiritual, to the romantic.

Editor's note: Aziz Sohail '13 is a contributing writer for the Justice. 

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