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Kudsi Erguner - Become like a Ney

Kudsi Erguner

Kudsi Erguner lives and works in Paris as musician, composer, musicologist and teacher. He is a master ney player in the world and one of the foremost experts of Ottoman Sufi music.

He published many CD's both solo and with several ensembles. Two great examples are 'Islam Blues' and 'Taj Mahal', a collaboration with Ustad Sultan Khan. He can also be heard on Peter Gabriel's soundtrack 'Passion'

Kudsi Erguner is a contemporary master of classical Ottoman Sufi music. From an early age on his father taught him to play the ney, the reed flute which is ever present in Turkish Sufi Music, as his family belongs to a long line of Sufis. It was the time when the young Turkish secular republic wanted to break with its religious past and determined the old traditional Sufi rituals forbidden and disbanded the Mevlevi order, the Sufi order that was founded by the famous 13th century mystic Rumi . However, because Kudsi belonged to the Erguner family, he was fortunate enough to meet the last people who held the key to this Sufi tradition when they secretly held their rituals in small places in Istanbul.

These days Sufism and Mevlana Rumi are all around in Turkey, from little dolls in tourist shops to big discussions on talk shows. I guess that's quite different compared to the time in which you grew up in Istanbul.

Looking back, it was a very interesting period because we formed a bridge between the old traditions and the present day as it is once again tolerated. But nowadays Sufism became much exploited politically – not only in Turkey but worldwide. In the supposed conflict between the secular West and the Muslim world, Sufism is presented as the ‘modern’, ‘light’ or ‘open’ version of Islam. Yet Sufism is pure Islam just like any other form of Islam. So you can’t try to solve the problem between the West and Islam – which I actually think is more a problem of modernity, capitalism, and geo-politics than of religion – by acting as if Sufism is less ‘strictly’ religious. There is no Sufism without Islam and there is no Islam without Sufism. Today, however, people want to create a new sort of Sufism, which relates more to commercialized spirituality and New Age.

Real Sufism is a sort of ‘self-education’. The human being is in between being an animal and a human being and in Sufism it is believed that the real reason of our creation is ‘to become human’. The context of the Sufi tariqats, the orders of the Sufi's, is therefore to help people you find this necessary education and elevation. Yet many people who supposedly talk of Sufism don’t refer this inner work. They only say: “oh, we love each other”, “oh, we are so tolerant”, and so on. But for me this is a ‘Catholic’ version of Islam. Of course ‘love’ is the main topic of tasawuf.* But the love that the Sufis of old generations were talking about is not the same love that those people speak of. The love of the Sufis is a love for God that brings us beyond the ego.

Is your music a way for you ‘to become human’? Do you see it as a tool to ‘transcend’ your ‘animal self’?

We can’t give a reason for everything we do. Of course some people explain what they do with big words. I am not like that. I am a musician and I love music. That’s it.

I am of course convinced that the early Sufis were deeply affected by the music they made. It was not just some frivolous enjoyment but a deep experience. Today it is very rare that people have such a deep feeling and deep understanding of the music, but the repertoire is there and it’s a beautiful repertoire. So why wouldn’t we play it, without any pretention?

As a musician you also seem to have a great interest in mixing your music with the music of other cultures like the way you fused it with Jazz in the 'Ottomania project' or with renaissance music in 'La porte de Félécité'. Isn’t it sometimes very difficult to fuse different sets of musical systems?

If you remain yourself, if you have something to say through your music and if you can be really sincere with yourself without having to imitate the other, then there doesn’t have to be any problem at all. Yet I think this is a very philosophical problem that does not only apply to music and that is of particular importance today. Can one person live in the UK, Belgium or France, but still remain Turkish? In Europe, more and more, people want you to assimilate. So we have to ask ourselves: What makes me myself? What do I need to retain to remain myself? That means you have to eliminate certain unnecessary things that aren’t very important and keep other more essential things. It’s the same in music. For example, we can’t leave our intervals. Each maqam, that is to say, each melodic phrase, has specific intervals but if I give them up to go easier with the European intervals, I lose myself. In none of my albums, therefore, do I abandon those intervals.

When I left Turkey in the seventies it was a bit like the soviet bloc. We were a much closed country and constantly tried to protect ourselves from other countries. But after the eighties it wasn’t possible anymore, neither economically nor culturally. So what happens is that the dominant culture of the world, which, right now, is the Western commercial culture, invades countries like Turkey. That is why I believe artists have a duty to underline the differences, to insist on particularity and, in so doing, protect our identities from this invasion of commercial ‘mass culture’. I take that duty upon myself as well because I want to say to people that if we want a new global culture then we need to respect the others and ourselves.

That brings us back to the contemporary interest in Sufism. For can't Sufism be of much help in this matter? Doesn't Sufism have a lot of elements within its spirituality that oppose such a consumption culture?

It certainly does, but sadly enough we are not talking about these things today.

Some claim they know something about Sufism simply because their grandfathers were Sufis. Others claim they’re ‘masters’ and that they have special powers which can cure people. But neither of those groups teaches the real tradition of Sufism. They only tell their own theories and ideas. Still others refer to Turkish tradition to claim their authority in the Muslim world. But in Turkey there has been at least 50 years of ‘nothingness’ during which the tradition wasn’t continued. So such references are simply false.

When I spoke to Dr. Stelzer he also told me that the line of the Mevlevi’s had been cut so that the tariqat in fact doesn’t exist anymore. How does that make you feel about the Mevlevi Ensemble of Konya that tours around the world?

That ensemble is nothing more than a group of people who work in the folklore department of the ministry of culture. So it’s more a matter of tourism than tradition although they act as if the people in the show are real Dervishes.

In the seventies I toured around the world with my father to give the first presentations of sema, the ceremony of the whirling dervishes. We were honest about what we did. We simply wanted to show the tradition and let people know that it was forbidden in Turkey. But then, all of the sudden, the Turkish government took it over. They didn't do it to tell about the tradition. They used it to sell their country.

And what is your opinion on those DJ’s and musicians that try to explicitly mix the traditional with the modern by mixing club beats with Sufi elements?

The problem is that when you say ‘Sufi elements’, in fact those aren’t ‘Sufi elements’. Sufi music is a particular repertoire, composed on the poetry of the Sufis. It is very subtle, solemn and majestic. So it is not because there is some ney in it or some specific singing that it’s Sufi music. So their music is only dance club music, and that’s how it should be seen.

Sometimes some of these musicians feel a bit offended when I say such things but I don’t mean to criticize their music in itself. It isn’t my personal taste but it’s the taste of others and that is fine. All I say is that we shouldn’t call it Sufi music because it lacks the codes of true Sufi music.

What bothers me a bit however is the fact that such things might become an obstacle for those who are truly interested in Sufism. All these things that dress up as Sufism, while they are not, keep people away from the real thing.

Is it impossible then, to find ‘the real thing’ in Turkey?

If we want to go to the real literature of the Sufis, there are in fact many works available. You don’t have to be a mystic yourself to enjoy the poems of Attar or Rumi. And their works can easily be found, also in translations. The problem is however that people don’t read Rumi’s books. They read the books of others who wrote about Rumi. Yet those books are not the same medicine as the works of those great masters are.

I agree with you on this matter. Often people don’t take the effort of reading the classics, even though they contain beautiful treasures. That is why I have read many parts of the Masnavi myself (Ed. the multi volume work composed by Rumi). And like many others I really love its famous opening verses, the 'song of the reed flute' in which he describes the sound of the ney as an expression of the longing for God. It voices the feeling of separation between the soul and the divine. Is that a feeling you try to evoke when you play?

The importance of the ney lies in the fact that it is made from hollow reeds. You have to let God blow through you.

The human being has some sort of secret nostalgia within himself. Perhaps the sound of the ney can awake this feeling. But when Rumi speaks of the ney, he does not do so because of its sound. The importance of the ney lies in the fact that it is made from hollow reeds. The metaphor is that those, who want to be open to the high inspiration, need to be clean and empty like the insides of the reed flute. You have to become like the ney. You have to let God blow through you.

As such, if there is no ney, you can’t properly perform the ceremony because when the ney isn’t played, there is separation, when the ney is played, there is unity. Separation is the life of this world. Since we are here, we are in separation. But we have this innate sense of unity that we would like to reach.

I find this theme of union and separation most beautifully described by Saa’di, the famous Persian poet, when he tells the story that he entered the Rose Garden and saw a nightingale with a rose in his beak lamenting about his separation from the rose. So the poet says to the nightingale: “I don’t understand. You are in a rose garden, with a rose in your mouth, but still complain about your separation from the rose.” The nightingale replied: “It’s a game between us.”

Related conversations

Sufism in Turkey today with Steffen Stelzer

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