Uniquely in Istanbul: Afro-Arabic Sufi Music 

Sunday nights welcome a crowd in the intensely packed upstairs of an Üsküdar neighborhood cafe. The musicians sit in a circle — vocalists, percussionists, an oud and rebab player, and sometimes a ney (flute) player — the audience gathers around them. The musicians are in constant conversation with each other, often leaning into the circle, as if calling to the eyes of a lover to evoke an ecstatic state of unity. 

The songs sung in this circle are well known in the Arab world, hailing from the Gulf States; Damascus region: Syria Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and generally Northwest Africa, especially Mauritania, known colloquially as Maghreb. For a Turkish crowd, these songs are somewhat unfamiliar, but the young musicians are a mix of Turkish and Arab musicians who similarly draw friends from a variety of backgrounds, including tourists from the West who are enamored by this high energy and participatory style of devotional music. 

The style of this musical gathering is called meshk, which denotes a form of continuous music that is in praise to the divine through both lyric and melody. Usually, songs in meshk are well known and can therefore be sung by both the performers and audience, unfolding into a layered group unity. 

Abdullah Kaymak, the group's leader and lead vocalist (who can be seen leaning forward in the photo above), notes that each meshk will bring out a new feeling in both the musicians and audience. "Normally, besides percussion and voice, other instruments are not used," however, "we bring together music from a variety of regions, so we similarly invite a variety of instrumentalists to participate," notes Kaymak. 

Given that the meshk is open for participation, each gathering will include different musicians and audience members, which will inevitably change the flavor of the performance. For instance, Kaymak regularly invites a friend who is a neyzen (a traditional Turkish reed flute player) to join, which will add a tone to the songs that floats above both the voice and percussion. Additionally, Kaymak shares that, after reading the room, he may choose to perform a different version of the same song, "we can present the lyrics of Ebu Meyden sometimes in the Damascus version, sometimes in the Maghreb version." 

Even at such a young age, Kaymak is a natural when it comes to intuiting the direction of these songs: "I can say that these pieces are part of our family tradition. From childhood, I learned these pieces by practicing with my father and his friends in the regions where they originate from." In addition to studying the music, Kaymak learned Arabic in Egypt, which gives him a strong basis for understanding the importance of proper pronunciation and lyrics. In this way, the style of Afro-Arabic Sufi meshk, is much like a family, where participants gain fluency in the music. 

Photo by Ali Mohammed Fareed. Used with permission

Hatice Gülbahar Hepsev, playing rebab (pictured above), describes that "[her] goal first and foremost in joining meshk is to play with other musicians, and thereby grow [her] skillset and repertoire." Hepsev is not a newcomer to collaboration, and can often be found playing in groups around Istanbul that perform Turkish Sufi music, Ottoman classical music, and Central Asian works. She explains that "the pleasure I get from all [of these styles] is distinct for [her]." 

In particular, Hepsev reflects that this "Afro-Arabic Sufi meshk gives a feeling that is quite different from other meshk settings… Some Tasavvuf (sufi) compositions have a heavy quality to them, whereas the works that are chosen for this meshk generally bring a high level of enthusiasm." At the foundation of this, Hepsev guides us to appreciate the way in which the leader of the group, Kaymak, skillfully manages the various accompanying vocalists and instrumentalists to create a harmonious flow. In regard to the open format of the meshk – where new instrumentalists, vocalists, and audience members are present each week – it is most important that the leader acts as a pillar to subtly manage the overall sound of the group. 

"Why is the interaction between the audience and performer so important?" I asked Kaymak. He said, "This is the nature of the music we make. The music is sung in chorus, meaning we always make a special effort to include our audience throughout the performance. Our goal is to introduce and teach this music; we attain our reward by performing the songs together with joy for the sake of God."