Conductor and kanun player Hakan Gungor brings together musicians from the former Ottoman lands to form an orchestra.
Organised by the Istanbul Culture and Art Foundation (IKSV), the Istanbul Music Festival is in its 46th iteration this year. Spanning two weeks, the festival features musicians from Turkey and abroad who perform in various, often extraordinary, venues across the city.
One such concert is “Melodies of Istanbul”, for which IKSV has secured the Grand Bazaar as the concert venue. The Grand Bazaar, a centuries old shopping arcade home to carpet sellers, leather makers and spice merchants in the Old Town of Istanbul, is generally closed on Sundays. But that was not the case on a recent Sunday.
Inside the heritage building, the concertgoers walk through strangely empty corridors of the bazaar that normally bustle with tourists and shoppers during the week. The air is thick with the scent of various spices, such as kofte bahari, the spice that Turks use for their grilled meatballs, composed of coriander, black pepper, sweet red pepper, clove, bay leaves, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon and oregano. One of the streets has been blocked with rows of unnumbered seats, 11 per row, across an elevated stage.
“Melodies of Istanbul” is the brainchild of Hakan Gungor, the conductor and the kanun (a stringed instrument) player of the orchestra. TRT World talked with Gungor, as well as Kudsi Erguner, the famed ney (an end-blown flute) player, and Cag Ercag, the young cellist, all soloists for the programme handpicked by Gungor for concertgoers on this pleasant summer evening.
The programme is a selection of Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Armenian, Syriac, Sefarad, Hebrew and Afghan traditional pieces, plus original compositions by Erguner, Ercag and the oud (a stringed instrument) soloist Osman Yurdal Tokcan.
Gungor, Erguner and Ercag say they didn’t choose music; music chose them.
Gungor’s father was an oud player at Turkish Radio and Television’s (TRT) Ankara Radio. Hakan Gungor says he picked up music at a young age. He says he asked for a kanun, a traditional string instrument, as he began to speak, and a kanun was what he got.
Gungor says the kanun has no particular style; that you can listen to kanun in a dance tune, in a jazz orchestra, with a symphony orchestra, in a folk tune, as long as the player has the range.
“Sometimes it’s the shimmy in your fingertips, I say” he says, “and sometimes it’s the ache in your heart.”
For Erguner, being a ney master goes way back, “My grandfather, my father, my grandfather’s father and his father … we’re a family of ney players for six generations.” So, he says, with a great understatement, becoming a ney player was, for him, “something that developed naturally.”
Ercag was encouraged to be a musician by his parents, especially his dad, who is an amateur guitar and baglama (stringed instrument) player. When he got into the conservatory at the age of 10, he was told he would study the cello. “You don’t have the luxury [of choosing an instrument] when you get into the conservatory,” he says. “You don’t know well enough about instruments [to make an informed choice] either, to tell the truth.”
The three men met at different points in their lives. Gungor calls Erguner his spiritual father, a sentiment echoed by Erguner.
Erguner says he met Gungor in 1992. Erguner had prepared a flamenco and tasavvuf (sufi music) project for the Istanbul Music Festival that year, and musicians who worked with him alerted him to a young talent playing the kanun. “Let’s introduce you, let’s get him in the team,” Erguner recalls them saying.
Erguner and Gungor were inseparable afterwards. “He’s like a spiritual son for me,” Erguner, 66, says of Gungor, 45. Gungor recalls receiving a phone call in 1993 from Erguner, who lives in Paris, asking him to play with his ensemble.
“I’d be honored,” Gungor says he told Erguner, who he says played a great role in the young musician’s development and fame. Gungor is also grateful that Erguner has agreed to play with him in the “Melodies of Istanbul” project, “setting aside all his work, coming over from Paris.”
Cag Ercag says he met Kudsi Erguner in Paris, and was introduced to Gungor during a project they did with the Turkish pianist, Fazil Say some years back.
As for the project, “Melodies of Istanbul”, Gungor says he has always dreamed of realising his own projects, and that this is his first. Gungor says he planned for years how an orchestra representing Turkey should be, how an Ottoman orchestra should be – including all the nations that the Ottoman lands once contained. He says he has known many virtuoso players and always wanted to create an orchestra for Turkey by bringing them together. According to Gungor, this orchestra is a small-scale version of his dream.
The orchestra, he says, features musicians from Armenia, Bulgaria, Syria – who couldn’t make it because of visa issues – and musicians of all religious backgrounds. They have gathered to play songs from Gungor’s archive “that have gotten the best audience feedback in concerts over the years.”
Gungor is thankful to the festival organisers, who have known him for years, for trusting him to bring together such a concert. “Another name for the concert is called ‘Masters of Istanbul’,” he says. And he is only half joking when he says “Be careful who you come to the concert with, [because] you’ll end up falling in love [with them].”