Featured Creator: Amar Chebib explores the musical culture of Western Asia

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Over the course of the last two years, filmmaker Amar Chebib and his crew have traveled across Syria, Turkey, Europe, and North America, seeking to explore the musical culture of Western Asia. He's filmed hours of footage with the world's top musicians, musicologists, artists, teachers, and students, all in an effort to capture the profound link between musical tradition and history; musician and the music itself — and how this link has been shaped by its complex relationship to nationalism and religious conservatism in the Arab World. 

Intrigued by the sights and sounds featured in Amar's project video, we dropped him a line to see if he would enlighten us with some of the most memorable music and people he experienced while filming. He wrote us back with a handful of names, along with some richly detailed anecdotes about his time spent alongside them: there's a revered music teacher who resides in Alepo, a youthful visual artist who has mastered an ancient (illegal) dance, a Paris-born musician who is now one of the most well-known qanoun players in the world, and a renowned flute reed player. And to think, that's just the beginning!

Read more about them, below. Back the project here

Mohammad Seifuttin Zein Al Abidin (AKA "Sheikh Seif"). A master of classical Ottoman-Mevlevi music, Islamic scholar and Amar's beloved music teacher, Sheikh Seif grew up among the last dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi lodge in Aleppo before its closure. Through his background and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, he became the most sought-after music teacher in Syria. Now retired, he continues to teach a small handful of students, stubbornly without payment.I met Sheikh Seif through a small group of musicians in Aleppo who were passionate about Ottoman music. A very unassuming, humble elderly man with kind eyes, you wouldn’t guess that he was well versed in music, poetry, philosophy, calligraphy, science, religion… — the list goes on. 

All the musicians I met longed to study with him, however he seemed to be very selective about who he would spend time with. For one reason or another, he agreed to teach me music. Everyday I would go to my friend's cafe where I would drink tea, check emails, and practice oud (lute). We wouldn't make an appointment to meet, but it was understood that he would show up at some point and see how I was doing with the piece he gave me the day before. We would then spend several hours together playing music and conversing in my broken Arabic. To me it felt like much more than just "a music lesson". There was a transmission of knowledge that took place just by being in his presence. 

Through him I learned that every note of this music quivered with divine remembrance, or zikr as the Sufis call it, and therefore music itself became a spiritual practice. We continued this way for a month or so and then I had to return to Canada. Now with the situation as it is in Syria, and Aleppo in particular, I haven’t been able to go back and visit. It’s hard to say how he's doing but I hear about him through friends (he's not much of a computer person) and he is safe. I will go back to visit him one day, and until then he continues to hold a deep place of reverence and affection in my heart.

Kudsi Erguner. A master of classical Ottoman-Mevlevi music, Neyzen (reed flute master), and internationally renowned recording artist, Kudsi grew up in Istanbul performing in illegal underground Sufi lodges. He comes from a long family line of Sufi musicians facing suppression from the previously anti-Islamic Turkish government. He was also among the first to perform abroad with the state-supported "Whirling Dervishes."

I first heard about Kudsi Erguner through a friend who told me to read his auto-biographical book Journeys of a Sufi Musician. I read it and immediately knew that I needed to include him in my film. I contacted him and flew to Paris just to meet and (hopefully) interview him on my way to Turkey. We met at a cafe on Boulevard Saint Germain, a cultural/intellectual part of the city, and had tea/coffee together. Although very kind and amiable, he seemed quite skeptical and reserved about getting involved with any project having to do with Sufism. Having read his book, I knew this might be the case as "Sufism" seemed be thrown around a lot for various reasons, usually for commercial and/or political reasons. After some time though he let his guard down and agreed to let me shoot an interview with him. We talked about so many different subjects like the commercialization of Rumi, colonialism/orientalism, Islam as a cultural identity, and music of course. When it was over, I realized we had spent three hours talking. We had just enough time for a powerful ney (reed-flute) improvisation, with which he blew my mind away (pun intended). 

Alper Akcay. A young up-and-coming visual/performing artist from Istanbul, Alper has been studying and performing the ritual Mevlevi whirling ceremony and many other forms of sacred movement since his youth. He is part of a younger generation of Turkish artists who are integrating traditional knowledge into post-modern society. Alper is respected throughout the different Sufi circles in Turkey and abroad. He has been an invaluable resource in opening doors to private ceremonies that have never been recorded.

6:32 AM sometime in October, 2011 in Kitsilano, Vancouver: I just finished a 2.5 hour Kundalini Yoga session and begin speaking to Selin, a bright-eyed Turkish girl with a warm smile, about my impending trip to Turkey. Who does she link me up with? Alper Akcay. Before I even meet him, I have this strange feeling that already know him. One month later in Istanbul, we meet and he takes us to a Sufi lodge filled with about 500 men during a very masculine and intense zikr (chanting/breathing) ceremony. A couple days later we go to this apartment in the middle of downtown Istanbul. We get inside and there are about 50 women, photos of dervishes, family and other random things on the wall. Alper introduces us to the elderly woman Sufi teacher and gets us permission to film it on the spot, not an easy task for these private (and still illegal) ceremonies — especially with women. This is Alper though. He knows/loves everybody and everybody knows/loves him. We spent the next couple of months together hopping to different musical/Sufi circles in Istanbul, and went down to Konya together for the annual celebration of Rumi's passing. Besides the official commercialized activities, every night there was a private ceremony in someone’s house with music/zikr and Alper would whirl for hours at a time — all night long. 

 Perhaps my most vivid memory was after a long day of shooting interviews where Alper was translating Turkish-English for us, including one with Esin Chelebi, the 22nd generation great-granddaughter of Rumi. We went to this mosque beside Rumi's mausoleum around midnight on a foggy evening. Alper, dressed in traditional Mevlevi Sufi whirling garments, began whirling as Nathaniel, my assistant and travel-buddy, played a slow piercing rhythm on the frame drum and I began recording. We spent several hours this way in what seemed like an empty city. It feels like that emptiness was somehow recorded on camera because it sends shivers up my spine every time I watch it. Alper has since become my brother (from another mother) and will indeed have an important and sweet role to play in this film and many more to come, insha’Allah (God-willing). 

Julien Jalaluddin Weiss. Born in Paris and originally trained as a classical guitarist, Julien moved to Aleppo, and began rigorously studying the qanoun (zither) after learning about Arab music in his mid-twenties. Almost 40 years later, he has converted to Islam, adopted the name "Jalaluddin" after Rumi, and is one of the most well-known qanoun players in the world. He now lives in Istanbul where, through his research, he seeks to retrieve a lost common ground of a sacred pan-Ottoman musical tradition.

I learned about Julien very early in my research for the film. I knew I wanted to meet him and figured I would run into him once I got to Aleppo. However once I got there, I learned that he had left his Mogul mansion for Istanbul. Over a year later, through the help of Alper, we were at his apartment next to Galata Tower, a trendy-upscale neighborhood. He had knocked all the walls down in the place and transformed it into a huge open space decorated with Persian carpets, cushions, musical instruments and photos of dervishes and well-known musicians. He was extremely eccentric, funny, and seemed more like a high school buddy than a 60-something oriental music virtuoso that developed his own music system from 17th century Ottoman musical transcripts. He was very serious about music, having practiced 6-8 hours a day in his twenties. He also liked to have a good time. Unfortunately during our interview, we discovered the people in the bar downstairs also liked to have a good time. Julien threatened to go down but his girlfriend Rila intervened — recounting how the last time that happened Julien went downstairs smashing giant symbols together. Apparently they don't like him anymore. Rila and Alper went down and managed to get them to turn down the music by becoming drinking buddies with the owner. 

Meanwhile we managed to finishing shooting the interview upstairs. Several weeks later we were at his place again, but this time with six other musicians, including Rila, who made up his Ensemble Al-Kindi. They were a diverse group that played this hypnotic oriental fusion music blending Indian, Persian, Arab and Turkish elements together. Julien called it “music of the silk road.” They were all together in a circle so I found myself in the middle with the camera panning around. It was so beautiful. The night extended to the early morning hours and ended with a 4am pizza delivery. Merci Julien!

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