Simon Broughton pays a visit to the Mystic Music Festival in Konya with performances from Kayhan Kalhor and Sain Zahoor
I’ve spent the last few days at the Mystic Music Festival in Konya, Turkey, which ran for nine days until September 30. Konya is most famous, of course, for the shrine and mausoleum of Rumi, the Sufi poet and religious leader who died here in 1273. His followers, known as the Mevlevi or the Whirling Dervishes, spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. But in modern times, the translations of his Persian poems of tolerance, plurality and love within that have made him a spiritual inspiration worldwide. Annually, Konya is visited by two and a half million people, 500,000 from overseas.
September 30 is Rumi’s birthday and the festival included musicians from Iran, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Mayotte, Spain, Bolivia and Turkey. These included kamancheh master Kayhan Kalhor (who played at Songlines Encounters in June, see #100), but here with a five-piece Iranian ensemble accompanying poetry of Rumi; and the extraordinary Sain Zahoor (pictured below), a true Sufi mystic from Punjab, who won a BBC Award for World Music in 2006. His speciality is the Punjabi poetry of Bulleh Shah. “I don’t feel it’s me singing,” he says, “it’s as if Bulleh Shah is singing inside me.” The festival ended, of course, with a performance of Mevlevi music and whirling from the Konya Turkish Sufi Music Ensemble.
Back in the 13th century Konya was the capital of the Turkish Seljuk empire. It’s not one of Turkey’s most immediately appealing cities, but there are some magnificent buildings surviving from that golden age. Rumi’s tomb in the mausoleum, with its distinctive green conical dome, is a place of pilgrimage and also a fascinating museum of Mevlevi belief, history and music. There are a couple of guys from Birmingham, also regular visitors to the Fes Festival, who are here for the third time. “It’s a great place to chill out and hear some really quality performances,” one of them, a lawyer, tells me.
I write this having just emerged from a transformative Turkish bath (hamam). Turkish food, the Turkish bath and probably Iznik tilework are the three greatest Turkish contributions to civilisation. In the hamam, dating back to Seljuk times, I was scrubbed with an abrasive glove – producing köfte kebabs of dirt and skin – and then lathered with soapy foam from a muslin bag which was then kneaded in. As I lay on the marble slab I gazed at star shaped holes in the ceiling. Glorious. It was finished off with a glass of tea – and Turkish tea is surely the best in the world. I emerged floating on air.
I also took the opportunity to go and see the mausoleum of the other important Sufi mystic, Hacı Bektaş. A contemporary of Rumi, he was the founder of the Alevi Bektaşi Sufis and his shrine is in a town now called Hacıbektaş about 260km from Konya (pictured above). Whereas the Mevlevis became close to the Ottoman court, the Alevi were simple rural people and have always been associated with the grassroots. Put simply, the Mevlevis were an educated elite while the Alevis were ordinary folk – and that’s very obvious in the costumes and headscarfs of the women that come to the Hacıbektaş shrine. In an Alevi gathering music is played on the saz (long-necked lute) and men and women participate together on an equal basis. One of Hacı Bektaş’ most celebrated sayings is “a nation which does not educate its women cannot progress.” A message that still needs to be remembered in many parts of the world today.
Both Rumi and Hacı Bektaş have left a huge musical legacy. As well as all the music for the Mevlevi sema ceremonies (one of them composed by Sultan Selim III), there are countless settings of his lyrics and all the ney (reed flute) repertoire symbolising man’s search for God. The musical legacy of Hacı Bektaş is the music of the aşik minstrels, accompanying themselves on saz, which is so central to Turkish folk tradition. In fact at Hacıbektaş I bought a wonderful piece of kitsch – a statue of Pir Sultan Abdal, an Alevi minstrel and follower of Hacı Bektaş who was celebrated for his songs of struggle. He’s standing, dressed as a dervish holding his saz aloft in triumph. He’s a 16th-century Sufi musician, but totally rock’n’roll.