ANKARA: Istanbul has been hosting for a year a special gathering that uses Afro-Arab musical traditions to boost mutual understanding and social integration in Turkiye.
Since 2019, Jan. 24 has been celebrated as the World Day for African and Afrodescendant Culture, and for its part, a unique group has taken root in Turkiye that combines the musical traditions of Africa and the Arab world.
The musical ensemble, comprising 10 musicians, performs Arab Sufi and meshk music under the leadership of Abdullah Kaymak, gathering each Sunday in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighborhood, on the Anatolian side.
The group meets in a cozy environment in the city where musicians — from percussionists, cellists and violinists to vocalists and players of traditional Eastern instruments like the oud, ney and rebab — and the audience sit in a circle and chat with each other in an open format.
Each musical gathering, called meshk, is free of charge and open to all.
During sessions, traditional Afro-Arabic Sufi hymns are sung with the participation of the audience, who act as a spontaneous chorus.
The songs are selected from the well-known musical repertoire of the Arab world, especially from the Gulf states, the Maghreb region, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.
The group made its first appearance during last Ramadan, and the positive feedback from the audience encouraged them to continue their project together.
They are planning to reach a wider audience without sacrificing the qualities that render them unique and have begun receiving invitations from abroad as well.
Upon the invitation of Chishtiya Ribbat Sufi Studies Centre in Pakistan, they will be performing in Pakistan in late January and conducting several interactive meshk sessions.
“Turkish and Arabic music have been in constant interaction for centuries. Not only the instruments but also the subjects, manners and musical traditions coincide,” Kaymak, the chief vocalist and group’s leader, told Arab News.
“If the regional politics support peace, multiculturalism and the universal values of the humanities, music also becomes an instrument to achieve this goal,” Kaymak said.
Kaymak, who comes from Mauritania, learned Arabic during the years he lived in Egypt, which accords him fluency in the lyrics and pronunciation.
From his childhood, he remembers different meshk sessions under the leadership of his father, who performed music from the Maghreb region as well as hymns from the Gulf region, Iraq and Libya.
Before his latest stop in Istanbul, he performed in these musical gatherings in Madinah, Cairo, Alexandria, Jordan and Mauritania, as well as in Turkiye’s southern province of Adana.
Another member of the group is Hatice Gulbahar Hepsev. During the meshk, she plays the rebab, a wooden lute-like instrument of Arab origin that is performed with a bow.
“During these musical gatherings, an emotional bond is formed between the musicians and the audience,” she told Arab News.
“When you get to know a person in a meshk, you invite him or her to the next gathering, and the audience constantly grows,” she said.
Those who join a meshk for the first time are understandably surprised by the participatory element and the unique atmosphere of the multicultural gathering, but the universal power of music inevitably wins them over.
Audiences are mainly composed of youths and middle-aged guests, who hail from different parts of the world, including Turkiye, the Arab region, Europe and the US.
As a reflection of the musical and linguistic richness of Istanbul, the gathering has become something of a tourist attraction over recent months.
“The common feature of the audience is that they do not restrict themselves to narrow contexts. They are rather interested in different cultures and are enthusiastic about knowing each other’s backgrounds,” Kaymak said.
“Therefore, the profile of our audience is composed of those who love — rather than simply tolerate — multiculturalism and multilingualism.”
The project has made an important contribution to mutual understanding in Turkish society, where Arabs and Africans have always been associated with refugees and asylum-seekers who allegedly disturb the social fabric.
According to rebab player Hepsev, some members of the audience learn new Arabic hymns during these gatherings and feel at home.
“Turkish listeners learn new hymns from African and Arabic worlds, which gives them the opportunity to know new cultures and to enrich their exchanges with people from Arab countries. In this way, our musical gatherings play an important role in social integration in Turkiye,” she said.
Before joining the group, Hepsev played in different projects in Istanbul where she performed Ottoman, Central Asian and Turkish Sufi music.
At the opening of each musical gathering, Kaymak usually makes a speech and encourages the listeners to accompany him in the reprises of the hymns.
“The applause and the participation of the audience boost the positive atmosphere and the harmonious flow of the gathering,” Hepsev said.
Each week, new vocalists and new instrumentalists join the meshk, making it a dynamic project in continuous development.
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