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Dunya - Tribute to Turkish Music - Truth to Power at the NEC

An ensemble of musicians from the musician's collective known as Dunya performed Turkish music to an enthusiastic audience on March 27, 2014. Part of NEC's Music:  Truth to Power series, each program examines the importance of music in human struggle and how music takes form in the artistic expression of revolution.  The NEC program consisted of a series of 'songs' - poetry set to music - which touched on the centuries-long struggles of Turkish people as well as the beauty of the Turkish folk music.

"Music: Truth to Power" is a year-long New England Conservatory (NEC) festival that seeks to demonstrate "how vital music is in the human struggle and how revolution sounds in artistic expression."  The music in each festival presentation looks at social fractures, protest, suffering, submission, reflection and hope across every culture and every era.

The featured performers for the March 27, 2014 Truth to Power program were musicians from the group Dunya (the Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Greek word for "world").  Founded in Boston in 2004, the goal of Dunya is to present a contemporary view of the wide range of Turkish traditions in performance, recording and other educational activities.

Dunya Ensemble

The Dunya ensemble consisted of five performers
  • Beth Bahia Cohen, yayli (bowed) tanbur/violin
  • Burcu Güleç, voice
  • Robert Labaree, çeng
  • George Lernis, percussion
  • Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, voice/ud/ney/saz

Dunya - Turkish Music
Four members of Dunya
Dunya - Turkish Music
Robert Labaree on çeng, a Turkish harp

Note:  Photos used with permission from Dunya website.

The program's opening statement helped create a perspective of struggle, conflict and resolution over at least six hundred years and helped to establish the spirit of the evening's performances: 

"Men and women in the Ottoman region from the 16th century to the present question political and religious authority and object to accepted traditions, offering alternative visions of power, race, sexuality and belief."

All too short for the wide-range of people in the audience, the two-hour program appealed to
  • those who understood Turkish as a native language
  • those who were new to the sound of Dunya
  • at least one woman - a dedicated fan - who had heard their performance now for the fourth time.

I have a Dream

The primary voice instruments were Burcu and Mehmet while Robert on harp, his body face hidden behind the instrument, added to the full Turkish folk music sound.

The poetry of the program drew heavily on the language of religion with some of the poets regarded as spiritual leaders. Analogous to the 19th-century antislavery movement in the United States which created a definition of protest that included strong reference to Scripture, in both the Ottoman and American cases, earthly standards of human conduct, absent from the social scene, caused those who protested to call upon heavenly standards.

The title of the program,"Last night I dreamt of …", is a line from a famous song by the Sufi poet Pir Sultan Abdal.  Contrast that in the United States with Martin Luther King's "I have a dream that one day .."

Dunya selected a wide range of Turkish music and rhythms to support themes: 
  • A dream of a more just world modeled on certain mystical Islamic brotherhoods
  • Questioning authority and myth - the suffering of common people
  • Open expressions of love - five songs collected
  • Standing up to the controversial practices involving alcohol and music
  • Cruel social customs - protest against the control of marriage by families

Complex, Fascinating, Enchanting

With such a small group of instrumentalists (5), it was easy to "think" you could related the unique musical sounds contributed by each musician to the corresponding instrument but not so.  Lacking familiarity with the Turkish instruments, I listened intently to the ensemble music but had to play "discovery" to learn how to associate the sounds with specific instruments. 

George Lerner demonstrated his ease across a variety of percussive instruments, especially different sized drums which looked like large tambourines held vertically.  Primarily using hands to strike the instruments, he moved them with a dance-like energy that helped prepare him for the next beat if not contribute to the dynamic range.

You could not help but be in awe of Robert Labaree on Turkish harp and voice.  Such a complex instrument, yet he was able to generate angelic rippling streams of sound while at the same time singing. 

Beth Bahia Cohen is a person of small stature playing stringed instruments, sometimes much taller than herself, yet you could tell she was in full command. 

Burcu Güleç has a crystal clear voice, beautiful to listen to, itself a solo instrument, but tantalizingly rich in middle eastern harmonies.

Finally, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, the primary spokesperson for the group on the Dunya website, was the ensemble centerpiece playing his stringed instruments and singing with a voice to "die for."  Capable of generating complex vibrato and ornamentation, he used his mouth, throat, neck and full head as another instrument all of its own, so different from vocalizations common in the States.

The NEC and Dunya are to be congratulated on an excellent production in support of their "Music: Truth to Power" theme.


Posted: March 31, 2014    Nancy J Conrad

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