Can musical harmony rise above the wreckage of Israel-Turkey ties?

Can musical harmony rise above the wreckage of Israel-Turkey ties?

Straining to maintain a melodic partnership, a handful of musicians are intent on keeping cultural connections alive

Patrons get down during a set by Harel Shachal and Ottomans at Shafa Bar, Jaffa. (photo credit: courtesy Shafa Bar/Facebook)
Patrons get down during a set by Harel Shachal and Ottomans at Shafa Bar, Jaffa. (photo credit: courtesy Shafa Bar/Facebook)

At a packed restaurant in the heart of the trendy Jaffa flea market, a six-piece band plays generations-old Ottoman tunes to the delight of the crowd. Dozens of tables sprawl outside where diners feast and socialize, but inside, in a space smaller than many living rooms, it is all about the music – traditional and classical Turkish music, which in recent years has enjoyed a boom of popularity in Israel.

The band is Harel Shachal and the Ottomans and the place is their regular Monday night gig at Shafa Bar, which, by end of their set at precisely 11 p.m., typically sees the small space transformed into a sweaty dance party, complete with appreciative belly-dancers cutting loose and assorted patrons dancing on tables, which the management, supportive of the vibe, does not seem to mind.

Band leader and clarinetist Shachal is one of a small group of Israelis who have devoted themselves to learning and teaching the complicated nuances of Turkish music, which is quite distinct from the Arabic-style music typically performed in Israel by both Jews and Arabs. It is a style which has become much more visible in Israel over the last few years, despite the political difficulties that have arisen between Israel and Turkey over the same period.

Shachal, who became dedicated to Turkish music while making a living as a jazz and world musician in New York, has for years traveled regularly to Turkey for lessons and inspiration. The first time he arrived in Istanbul, he recently told The Times of Israel, he “felt that I had grown up there. I had an unexplainable, spiritual connection.”

‘Music is eternal, politics is temporal’

Describing the process of learning Turkish clarinet as “having to work on it like I was a child,” he eventually realized he would have to give up his other musical pursuits and focus solely on Turkish music if he wanted to make real headway. Even so, “I will never be a five-year old kid who grew up in Turkey… but I want to get close to the essence, because it gives me goosebumps.”

Shachal returned from the US to Israel five years ago and now regularly conducts workshops on the intricate Turkish scale system — which draw upwards of 30 students at a time, many of them professional musicians themselves — and performs several times a week in his various ensembles. When he first came back, he says, “no one knew about this,” but now “I think that there is a strong influence” of Turkish music on the ethnic music scene.

Turkey in 1949 was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the newly born State of Israel, and the two nations traditionally have enjoyed close political, economic and military ties. Turkey was, just a few years ago, a top destination for Israeli tourism, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis visiting annually.

However, relations have become increasingly strained, especially since the rise to power of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who served as prime minister from 2003-2014 and is now the president, and whose anti-Israeli rhetoric has been widely reported on. The 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza war, the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident (in which nine Turkish citizens, while en route to Gaza, died during an IDF action), and this summer’s renewed Israel-Hamas hostilities, among other events, all served to further distance Ankara from the Jewish state.

‘The brainwashing from Erdogan has influenced everything there, including musicians’

A 2013 effort by US President Barack Obama to improve relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, and an apology for the Mavi Marmara deaths by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have done little to improve relations – a recent Pew study, released at the end of October, showed that only 2 percent of Turks have a positive view of Israel and a full 86% hold a negative view.

But for Shachal, the political situation has no bearing on the music he makes. “Music is eternal, politics is temporal… I believe in the difference between politics and music. Good art will succeed past the test of time and succeed past politics,” he says, and notes that the majority of the music he performs was composed during the late Ottoman period, over 120 years ago and long before the current political situation.

The clarinetist was in Turkey right after the Mavi Marmara flotilla, and admits that “there were problems” and that he didn’t feel comfortable, but stresses that things had returned to normal on subsequent visits.

‘The end of the Ottoman culture’

But Shachal, immersed as he is in Turkish music, has never lived for an extended period in Turkey, and not all artists feel, as he does, that there is a clear separation between music and politics.

One Israeli musician who has spent extensive time in Turkey, and who emphatically feels that the shifting political winds have affected opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration, is Jerusalem-based singer and ethnomusicologist Hadass Pal Yarden, who, beginning in 1999, lived in Istanbul for six years studying Judeo-Spanish and Turkish music. She eventually received a master’s degree in Turkish music performance from Istanbul Technical University.

During this “wonderful” period, she relates, it “was very good for Israelis to live there.” Pal Yarden’s superb premier recording, “Yahudice,” released in 2004, was a collection of Jewish Ottoman secular and religious music recorded in Istanbul, released on a Turkish label and supported in part by the Turkish government. Pal Yarden, along with Turkish musicians, toured the USA and Europe several times in support of “Yahudice,” a true Israeli-Turkish international effort.

“But now it is different, unfortunately,” Pal Yarden says. “I think the ‘brainwashing’ from Erdogan has influenced everything there, including musicians… it isn’t correct to say that there isn’t a connection between music and politics, because there is a lot of influence.” She adds that over the last ten years there has been “intensive promotion” of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic ideas, which has affected those who lean both to the left and to the right politically.

“Even the Turkish people, who are very Ottoman, very open to other cultures, can’t withstand the anti-Israeli brainwashing,” she says. These new anti-Semitic ideas in Turkey, she adds, are “very sad. I feel that it is the end of the very old Ottoman culture.”

This last point is a telling comment: The Judeo-Spanish musical repertoire Pal Yarden studied in Istanbul is a legacy of the original Sephardic Jews, who, following successive waves of expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula culminating in the late 15th century, found a new home in the then-mighty Ottoman empire, where they thrived and became an integral part of the economic and cultural fabric of that multicultural, Mediterranean society, the “old Ottoman culture” whose passing Pal Yarden is lamenting.

‘Even the Turkish people, who are… very open to other cultures, can’t withstand the anti-Israeli brainwashing’

There is still a fairly large, although beleaguered, Jewish community in Turkey of some 30,000 people, but the community maintains a low profile in the current climate.

Pal Yarden preserves ties to Turkey and still visits at least once a year, but says that while “my Turkish friends will always be my friends,” this is “despite the brainwashing… I think they have a bad opinion of us.” Today it would be “a lot harder to do the wonderful things we did before Erdogan. Then, the state gave a lot for Jewish culture, which is wonderful if you think about it, but these are things that won’t succeed today.”

Her latest musical project, which had its debut this month during the Oud Festival in Jerusalem, mixes Jewish religious poetry with jazz and is a collaboration with a Berlin jazz group. When in Berlin, Pal Yarden says, she visits the Turkish neighborhoods, where “I feel at home.”

In the period before Israeli-Turkish ties cooled, major Turkish musical acts began to give concerts in Israel, including superstar singer and television personality Ibrahim Tatlises, who famously gave a massive, sold-out concert in Eilat in 2005. Tatlises later hosted Israeli singer Yasmin Levy on his Turkish television show, but today, according to Pal Yarden, even Levy, a dramatic Ladino singer who has performed all over the world, finds it hard to book concerts in Turkey.

But there are exceptions. Israeli metal band Orphaned Land has a strong following in Turkey and still performs there, and as recently as December 2013, New York-based Turkish Sufi musician Omar Farouk Tekbilek, arguably the most well-known Turkish musician living in the West, defied calls from the BDS movement and gave several concerts in Israel, where he has performed many times.

A foot in both worlds

And then there are exceptions who are truly exceptional, such as Turkish musician Mumin Sesler, who has lived off and on in Israel for decades and is an influential figure in Israel’s pop music scene. Sesler is a scion of a Muslim musical family in Istanbul; his late older brother Selim Sesler was one of Turkey’s finest clarinetists and one of Harel Shachal’s teachers.

‘I have half a foot in Israel, and half a foot in Turkey’

He arrived in Israel in 1985 after his stint in the Turkish army to play some gigs in a Turkish club in Tel Aviv, but, “a month became twelve years,” he said recently during a phone conversation from his Bat Yam studio. Sesler, a master of the qanun (Middle-Eastern zither), ended up during this period doing arrangements and musical direction for up-and-coming singers in the then-burgeoning scene of Mizrahi music – eastern-oriented Israeli pop. His resume reads like a who’s-who of the Israeli charts: Sarit Hadad, Ofer Levy, Zehava Ben, Lior Narkis, Kobi Peretz, Zion Golan. He still continues to work with many of these artists.

“I loved life here, I got connected to Israel, I learned Hebrew,” Sesler explains simply. He brought a group of Turkish musicians to the country, some of whom ended up marrying Israeli women, “making kiddush, and receiving citizenship,” he says. Sesler’s son Uğurcan was born in Israel and spoke Hebrew until age six, but in 1997 the family moved back to Istanbul. Since then, “I have half a foot in Israel, and half a foot in Turkey,” he explains, with homes and recording studios in both Bat Yam and Istanbul. Uğurcan Sessler, now in his early 20s and an accomplished cellist, also divides his time between Istanbul and Tel Aviv.

Over the years Sesler has been involved in numerous projects involving Israeli musicians in Turkey and, especially, Turkish musicians in Israel, and today, frayed political ties notwithstanding – Sesler uses the Hebrew word “masriah,” meaning stinking or dirty, to describe the politics of both countries – he is still able to make a living. He has even recorded, in Istanbul and with Turkish musicians, an album of Jewish religious melodies, which is to be released in Israel next year, and, in September 2013, organized a series of performances in Israel by popular Turkish teen singer Mehmet Dash.

However, bringing Israeli musicians to work in Istanbul is another story. “Once it was a lot more comfortable to do performances in Turkey, but today it is a lot less so,” Sesler admits, but is quick to add that “between the peoples, there are no problems,” and if there are problems for Israelis in Turkey, they are caused by a “small group of fanatics.”

Sesler seems to blame Turkish attitudes toward Israel in part on the media. During this summer’s Israel-Hamas conflagration, he watched both Israeli and Turkish television coverage, but in Turkey “they only see Israel killing children, they don’t see the three children they took during Ramadan,” a reference to the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas members at the start of the summer.

Sesler, over his career, has clearly seen Turkish music gain a foothold in Israeli musical society. During the twelve years he lived in Israel, during the 1980s and 90s, “there weren’t young people who were learning Turkish music,” but now he has met “hundreds of Israelis who go to Istanbul to learn and meet musicians. They go to Turkey, stay for months, get instruments, then come back here and make performances.”

The level of Israeli musicianship vis a vis Turkish music has “advanced greatly,” he says, but is “still not completely professional.” Sesler notes the micro-tonality of the Turkish tuning system, where each half-step (the space between two adjacent piano keys or two frets on a guitar) is divided into nine discrete intervals called commas, as a major impediment. Most Israelis who get into Turkish music already have some knowledge of Arabic tuning, which generally uses true quarter-tones (each half-step is divided exactly in half), but that system must be unlearned, at least in part, in order to truly get the feel of Turkish music, Sesler insists. “There are no quarter-tones in Turkish music!” he exclaims.

Israeli percussionist and composer Yinon Muallem, who has lived in Istanbul since 2002, works only “within the Turkish tuning, the Turkish feel,” even though he grew up listening to, and playing, traditional Arabic music. Muallem, reached via Skype in his Istanbul apartment, relates that although his father, an amateur violinist originally from Baghdad, had learned the Arabic maqam (scale) system from his grandparents, he himself, upon visiting Turkey, found that he had “a deep connection” to Turkish music.

‘There are no quarter-tones in Turkish music!’

Making the move in part because of career opportunities – he was asked to join the band of his oud (lute) teacher, Yurdal Tokcan, a prominent musician – Muallem learned Turkish, met a nice Turkish girl, and the rest is history. “I live here, with all the good and bad, and continue with music,” he says. He has done “a lot of projects mixing Turkish and Israeli musicians… we found a bridge,” he adds, a bridge that continues to exist, even though “it’s not how it was, those were the good days. It’s possible to still do things, but it is harder now.”

Muallem even served for two years as Israel’s cultural attache in Istanbul, but left the post last year – “it wasn’t exactly my place” – and regrets that these days, there is no Israeli ambassador in Ankara. “The problem is that when there is war in Israel, with Erdogan, he is more extreme, religious and anti-Israeli, and he influences the Turkish public,” Muallem says, adding that “as an Israeli musician who lives in Turkey, it is hard. You need to wait.”

“During this period of Erdogan and Netanyahu, I don’t see how [things can improve]. There could be a lot more connections between the two states,” he notes.

Muallem, who returns to Israel several times a year for visits and performances, is upfront about his own contribution to the Turkish scene, saying that “I did a few things in Israel, which influenced people,” such as bringing a Muslim religious singer from Istanbul to perform as part of the Oud Festival in Jerusalem, but says that in his recent projects, like Pal Yarden, he is branching out to more jazz influenced music, mixed, of course, with that Turkish feel.

However, Muallem is still working on “the Israeli-Turkish connection,” and is in the initial stages of a grand project based on the works of medieval Turkish Sufi composer Yunus Emre and on the Jewish mystical poets from the Golden Age of Spain, a conceptual project which will feature both Hebrew and Turkish religious lyrics and musicians from Turkey and Israel.

Meanwhile, back in Jaffa at the Shafa Bar, things feel a lot more straightforward as Harel Shachal and the Ottomans begin their second set. No one asks any political questions as a singer, who someone later explains is really a professional guitarist, suddenly appears, grabs some funky shades, jumps on a chair, and launches passionately into a medley of Turkish songs. The cramped dance floor quickly fills up with revelers, and no one is talking about international relations, Erdogan or Netanyahu, or even about micro-tonality in Middle Eastern tuning systems. It is just party time, and all are welcome. At this moment, it is definitely the right idea.

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