At the risk of sounding sappy, there’s no denying that music has an inexplicable influence over people. Often, when normally spoken words can’t reach us, a tune easily can. Music is an international language. These words may sound clichéd, but they still have truth to them. Such thoughts must have been on the mind of Turkish musician Latif Bolat during “The Healing Sounds of Ancient Turkey,” his performance of Sufi music this Tuesday at a public event in the Whitney Humanities Center.
When I began listening to Bolat’s singing and strumming of the baglama — a commonly used Turkish folk instrument — I was uncertain whether the appeal of his music would be truly universal. Sufi music, about which I knew little before the concert, is the devotional music of Sufism. Also known as Islamic mysticism, Sufism is characterized by asceticism and dhikr (a prayer containing the repetition of Allah’s names). Sufi lyrics often draw upon Sufi poetry inspired by the poets’ close relationships with Allah. So, I was puzzled to hear Bolat present these uplifting lyrics through subdued singing and the baglama’s melancholy sounds.
But what I assumed to be melancholy was actually pensiveness. I realized this when he first asked for audience participation; he wanted us to chant “There is no god, but God” in Turkish in order to provide a chorus for one of the devotionals he would perform. Traditionally, such chants can go on for ten hours, but Bolat played the piece for a little less that ten minutes. I prefer not to chant phrases from religions other than my own, so I just watched. Once he ended, though, the mellow strumming and singing placed me into an partial trance. While I was glad that the singer decided to move to another, more varied song, the Turkish lyrics continued to echo through my mind. I didn’t think about anything religious, but I felt relaxed. The million things that I had to do after the concert melted away, at least for a moment. If the piece had been as energetic as other worship music, I’m not sure I would have felt so focused.
Bolat soon switched gears entirely, asking someone from the audience to read from “Quarelling with God,” a compilation of famous Turkish poetry that he had translated. This reading led to the concert-lecture’s most unorthodox part: Bolat played the baglama while a man read “Hiroshima,” by socialist Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. This famous poem, translated into English and set to music by such artists as Pete Seeger, the Byrds and Paul Robeson, conveys a powerful anti-war message by speaking from the point of view of a girl who perished when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Why would Bolat feature this poem? Bolat described “Hiroshima” as a “poem of all times” because of its potent plea for mankind to abandon war. And why wouldn’t a cry for peace fit into a book of poetry concerning the love from and for a higher being? Although initially surprising, Bolat’s use of “Hiroshima” made his concert more accessible by adding a secular element to a largely spiritual show.
For the final act, Bolat played and sang over a slideshow of pictures of modern Turkey: images of sunsets, flowers, city night lights, mosques and rundown houses. The final part of the performance provided an excellent closure for Bolat’s concert-lecture, connecting Turkey’s musical past to its history, its role in globalization, its problems with poverty and its natural beauty. With that, Bolat finished his concert while lamenting that he couldn’t perform longer. Apparently, Sufi devotionals can last from sunrise until sunset. There was little hope for that happening here and now; before the concert-lecture ended, several people quietly packed their things and tiptoed out. But I found it a presentation worth sitting through.
Latif Bolat’s visit to Yale makes up part of his final concert tour, which also includes visits to the west coast, the United Kingdom and India. Despite acting as a musical ambassador, he sees his music as a force for national music genres and against globalism. His website reads, “Latif Bolat’s cultural mission can be summarized as ‘preserving the cultural traditions in this rampant wave of commercialism.’” His performance resisted the idea of music as immediately universal; indeed, all foreign music, especially that in a different language and with religious content, can be difficult to grasp. By challenging American listeners to expand their ideas of what music should be, Bolat’s performance aimed to preserve his unique musical culture rather than conform to globalized tastes.
Yet how does one reconcile the universality of music with the individuality of different kinds of music? When you move beyond the difference in language, culture and religion, there remains an emotional core that everyone can relate to. For Bolat, that core is the desire to reach a higher plane of understanding, some sort of transcendental realization as we go through our everyday life. And while Bolat’s music was strange and new, this sentiment resonated deeply with me.