Saturday, June 08, 2013

A Musical Journey from Constantinople to Istanbul

Istanbul The Golden Gate -  A musical journey from Constantinople to Istanbul

En Chordais Ensemble - Artistic direction - Kyriakos Kalaitzidis
Byzantine Orthodox Choir of St Jean de Damas

Mevlevi whirling dervishes directed by Necip Gulses
Halil Necipoglu - voice
Fahrettin Yarkin - percussion
Volkan Yilmaz - ney flute

Over the years the audiences at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music have enjoyed splendid performances by Turkish whirling dervishes. In 2008 it was the Al Kindi Dervishes, in 2009 the Mevlevi/Konya Sufi Brotherhood were superb as was the contemporary take by Ziya Azazi, with computer sampling and a series of variations on the dervish whirling. More recently the Khalwatiyya brotherhood who had visited in 2011, whirled, swayed and rocked to the rhythm of their trance-inducing chanting at the 2013 Festival of Sufi Culture.

These musicians, singers and dancers (Semazens) represent one of the most interesting aspects of the mystical culture of Turkey. The Sema - the whirling dance - and the Zikr - the hymns sung by the sacred choir - are connected to each other, a spiritual ambience that leads the Dervish enter a mystical universe.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and if the whole world's harp
should burn up,
there will still be hidden instruments
playing, playing
This singing art
is sea foam.
The graceful movements
come from a pearl
on the ocean floor. ~ Djalal al din Rûmi

The Concert

Tonight's Concert at Bab Al Makina was again held in cold, windy conditions - although not as chill as the previous night. The crowd was smaller and, without the intense security and formality of the opening night, more relaxed.

The concert, billed as a musical journey from Constantinople to Instanbul, began in earnest with the arrival on stage of black clad singers and musicians who struck up a sedate, hypnotic beat.

These were the combined musicians from the Mevlevi dervishes and the En Chordais Ensemble. Behind them, on a raised dias, were the five singers from the Byzantine Orthodox Choir of St Jean de Damas. All were dressed in black.

Byzantine Orthodox Choir of St Jean de Damas

Despite the dress code, right from the start there was a pleasant informality about the concert. 'The correct concert in the correct place: la Porte d'or. Voila!' joked artistic director Kyriakos Kalaitzidis, gesturing to the arch lit gold behind him.

The first section of the evening was the slow and somewhat sombre offering from the Byzantine Orthodox Choir of St Jean de Damas. While the singing was of a high quality, the performance lacked vitality.

However, the contribution from En Chordais Ensemble, and the musicians from the Mevlevi dervishes, which included some fine oud and violin playing, was well received.

After forty minutes the singers and the Ensemble members left the stage. The remaining musicians; singer Halil Necipoglu, percussionist Fahrettin Yarkin and Volkan Yilmaz on ney (flute) prepared the way for the moment many in the audience had come to see - the arrival of the Mevlevi whirling dervishes.

Stage lighting went through a series of luscious, jewel-like tones, one minute washed completely in ruby red, the next dramatically turquoise and amethyst.

From the back of the stage through diaphanous curtains came the dervishes, four in brown hats, one in black and green, stepping slowly holding their black capes close to their bodies as though to conserve heat and energy. Next came an elaborate ritual of kneeling, ground kissing, circling each other and bowing, their tall camel-hair hats, or sikkes, emphasising their movements.

The night, that had started as a performance, now became a ceremony, performed in an almost somnambulistic slow motion with deep contemplation. The drumming faded away, replaced by chanting in a gentle buildup to the moment when they would drop their capes.

At last it happened and they began to whirl. Lined up along the stage with eyes closed, arms extended, hands relaxed and heads tilted their performance was mesmerising. After some minutes they broke, opened their eyes, crossed their arms over their chests, bowed and restarted. Upon finishing, apart from the occasional wobble, they were remarkably composed as they put their capes back on, bowed and dikr (prayers) were chanted.

What happened next could not have been scripted. A gust of wind blew away the music sheets from half of the music stands and the evening turned decidedly and splendidly Greek.

To the delight of the audience the Greeks burst into what could have been a Theodorakis tune. It was a delight, a feeling that the now grinning musicians obviously shared.

A Theodorakis moment

In his seat beside us, Festival Director  Fauzi Skali was also grinning. 'Bravo!" he called.

Then another Greek moment. The principal singer, who had so far performed seated, stood and came down stage where he was joined by the violinist. As he sang he danced cautiously in that traditionally Greek manner, like a man with a back injury, reluctant to exert himself. The music, reminiscent of rembetika, was the perfect vehicle for transporting us from the chilly night air to Greek taverna on a balmy evening.

All of this the audience loved.

'Zorba the Greek,' said Faouzi Skali with a grin. Which, in a funny way, summed up the night. The dervishes were as amazing as usual, but the Greeks gave us something special too. Whoever said, 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts', was wrong.

A little historical background

The Ancient Greeks built Byzantium, that later became a capital of the Roman Empire under the name Constantinople. Nowadays, Istanbul (whose name derives from the Greek ‘eis tein polis’ or city) supremely expresses the idea of a city that encompasses different peoples and religions, lying as it does between the East and the West.

Similarly to Andalusia, this Ottoman city became a place of cohabitation for Orthodox Christian tradition, mystical Persian or Arab Sufism, and for Jewish Ladino culture. Istanbul opens her gates to reveal such musical treasures as the vocal beauty of the Mediterranean Orient of Greece and Turkey, and the Mevlevi tradition of celestial turning.

The Byzantine tradition of sacred music which flourished between the 5th and 16th centuries, originated in the Arabo-Persian civilisation in both secular and classic form. Later, through Ottoman and Greek music, this ancient tradition was prolonged in the Mediterranean area which linked East and West.

Constantinople was founded in 324 by Constantin the Great, on the site of the ancient Greek Byzantium. It was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire in the East, often known by historians as the 'Byzantine Empire'. In 1453, the city fell into the hands of the Ottomans who renamed it Istanbul and made it their capital until 1923.

Throughout its history, Constantinople-Istanbul has always held a strong position from both a cultural and cosmopolitan point of view. It is the bridge between Turkish and Greek tradition, Muslim and Christian. On his death, Petros Peloponnisios, cantor of the ecumenical Patriarchy and very close to Ottoman court musicians, was honoured by the dervishes who placed a ney flute on his coffin as a sign of respect.

Kyriakos Kalaitzidis and the En Chordais Ensemble continue the multicultural traditions of the Mediterranean and are popular experts of this genre.


Sunday June 9th - Batha Museum 4pm

Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane - Mauritania
The art of the Mauritanian griots

Bab Al Makina 9pm

Paco de Lucía – Spain
The legendary flamenco guitarist

Sufi Nights Dar Tazi

Sunday June 9th: : Tariqa Habibia (Taza)
Taza, in Arabic: تازة) is a city in northern Morocco, which occupies the corridor between the Rif mountains and Middle Atlas mountains, about 120 km east of Fes.

The Weather - Sunday will be a cool 22 degrees Celsius (71 Fahrenheit) during the day and down to 9C (48F) at night. The day and evening may have scattered cloud. Take something warm to the evening concert. Monday will be warm and clear with night temperatures a couple of degrees warmer.

Fes Festival program
Fes Festival Medina Map
Fes Festival Food! 
Fes Festival Site

Text:  Stephanie Clifford-Smith,  Sandy McCutcheon, 
Photos: Suzanna Clarke, Sandy McCutcheon

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