Turkish-born world music artist Omar Faruk Tekbilek can’t recall how many times he’s performed in Jerusalem at the annual Oud Festival.
“I can’t remember,” he said. “But I love coming here. They tell me I am a musician’s musician, and they inspire me. They really understand music here.”
Tekbilek has returned this year, and will be opening the festival on Thursday, with a dear friend, American guitarist Brian Keane and hosting Zara, the Turkish vocalist-actress of Kurdish origin, reviving pieces and works from their thirty years of friendship and performances.
The festival, hosted by Jerusalem’s Confederation House, runs November 21 through November 30.
It will mark Tekbilek and Keane’s first time playing together in Israel, and Keane’s first time in Israel since 1983, when he came three years in a row with other musicians, including Herbie Hancock and Bobbie McFerrin.
Tekbilek and Keane met in 1986, when Keane, a guitarist and composer, was asked to produce music for the 1988 documentary “Suleyman the Magnificent,” which was shot on location in Turkey and narrated by Ian McKellan.
“I knew nothing, nothing about Turkish culture,” said Keane, speaking in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
He asked local academics and called a Turkish musician he knew, but it was only through some friends heading to a Turkish club in New York’s Hell Kitchen that he discovered Tekbilek, who plays a wide range of wind, string, percussion and electronic instruments, including the flute-like ney, the piccolo-like kaval, and the double-reed zurna, as well as the stringed oud.
“Omar barely spoke English, I didn’t speak Turkish, but what happened is I played the synthesizer and he played the ney and the hair stood on the necks of everybody in the studio,” said Keane. “Music is the spiritual language and even though we come from different cultures we share that language as does the audience.”
The film came out and then a record executive from Germany gave their partnership a second life by requesting a second album.
They subsequently recorded seven albums together, though over the years they have seldom performed together on stage.
“It’s been my dream to have Brian next to me on stage,” said Tekbilek, who has lived in Rochester, New York, for several decades, and began playing and singing at the age of eight.
The two played together last spring in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in a sold-out concert. Both see themselves as a kind of messenger to their audiences, translating the message of music to their listeners, and bringing them into the musical conversation.
Tekbilek has worked with Ofra Haza, Yasmin Levy and Tomatito, always emphasizing in his performances the power of music to unite people, pointing to the different kinds of love present in music.