New concert series breaking new ground in Ramadan entertainment

İlhan Erşahin

August 12, 2010, Thursday/ 15:56:00
The much-anticipated time has come and the Muslim world has commenced its holy month of Ramadan. While Ramadan has always been a great opportunity throughout history for Muslims to refresh themselves spirituality, it is also a fact that Ramadan is also a time for celebration and entertainment throughout various Islamic countries or societies where a particular Ramadan culture has flourished for centuries.

One of the centers of the Islamic world well-known for its unique “Ramadan culture” and thus “Ramadan entertainment” is, without doubt, İstanbul. Traditional shadow puppet/theater shows, festivities, ortaoyunu (a kind of comedy), canto and fasıl music are only some of the popular examples of historic Ramadan entertainment in İstanbul. Most of these were at risk of being forgotten until recently as there have been efforts to resurrect these old traditions that add a certain cultural dimension to Ramadan, enriching it socially and making it more than just a religious time of the year.

“Ramazan’da Caz” (Jazz in Ramadan) is a remarkable project bringing together the essence of Ramadan entertainment with modern cultural tastes. Organized by Hakan Erdoğan Productions as part of Ramadan activities on the İstanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture program, “Jazz in Ramadan” brings together prominent Muslim jazz musicians to recreate the cultural ambiance of Ramadan.

Ahmad Jamal, Anouar Brahem, Abdullah Ibrahim, Dhafer Youssef, Turkish jazz musicians İlhan Erşahin and Aydın Esen -- who will present a special program titled “Aydın Esen Plays for Ramadan” -- will all be taking stage in the courtyards of Topkapı Palace and the İstanbul Archaeology Museum, for a series of eight concerts from Saturday through Aug. 31.

However, as the theme of the festival includes Ramadan, the content is not only confined to jazz -- Turkish classical musician Münip Utandı will also give a concert with the Dede Efendi Ensemble at the Archaeology Museum.

The final concert in the lineup will feature a performance by Kudsi Erguner and his ensemble, in which they will present a program called “Islam Blues,” bringing Erguner and his ensemble together with jazz musicians.

Entertaining with good music

“I’ve been organizing classical music and jazz concerts for many years. This is my job,” says Hakan Erdoğan, the founder of Hakan Erdoğan Productions, in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “If you ask whether 20,000 people will come to a classical music concert, yes they will. It just depends on how you present it. What I’m trying to say is that there’s no requirement for either classical or jazz to be the ‘music of the elite.’ In the past, people used to enjoy good music while today nobody is entertained with, for instance, jazz or music composed by Dede Efendi. Yes, there are concerts, but nobody is really a jazz listener, they are usually in pursuit of what is popular.”

One of Erdoğan’s objectives with the festival is to develop an alternative to the “modernized” Ramadan entertainment presented in recent years. “Ramadan doesn’t have to be a group of unbearable sounds coming from a very disturbing sound system, especially at shopping centers. It is nothing but fake authenticity; a woman making gözleme, two carpets on the ground, an oud and a kanun player and so on... No, we don’t live in such a world. And nobody has to have this kind of an entertainment in Ramadan. This is my alternative.”

But Erdoğan is reluctant to call what he does a “modern reinterpretation” of Ramadan entertainment. “When we think of the past, we cannot say this is a modern interpretation because they already used to make good music back then,” he explains. “A [modernized] arrangement of Dede Efendi is a horrible thing that I can’t even imagine. Because his music doesn’t need polyphony, his music is already wonderful the way it is. Those who try to change it do it because they can’t do anything else.”

Sharing the same culture

What distinguishes this festival from other jazz events is that all the names on the bill are from the same culture, more or less. “The reason why I preferred Muslim musicians,” explains Erdoğan, “is to draw attention and to associate it directly with Ramadan. Speaking for the event’s upcoming editions, it would not be very pleasant if we required a musician to be a Muslim in order to take part in our event, but it is important to be a part of the Islamic culture. Besides, I don’t think that canto singers who performed in Ramadan entertainment during the Ottoman era were Muslims. Indeed, the Ottoman music scene had very significant Armenian, Greek and Jewish performers. This is how we used to live, our origins. But for this first year, having Muslim musicians perform was expressive.”

There is a certain ignorance and prejudice about Muslim musicians and indeed, many people don’t even know that there are Muslim jazz musicians who are known worldwide. “This festival can overcome prejudices,” says Erdoğan. “For example, Ahmad Jamal came to Turkey four or five times previously and he is a very good musician and he’s a Muslim. So what? Ignorance has no identity in this respect. We are all ignorant as much as we are all civilized.”

Erdoğan wants to send a message through this festival. “Through this festival, I’m saying, ‘Look, we’re a Muslim country, but we’re this kind of a Muslim country’,” he says. “We’re living in a global world and everybody is aware of this. We have to create common fields for sharing and one of the best ways to do this is to share the same culture. Actually, we do share the same culture by living in Turkey. Whether one fasts or not, Ramadan influences everybody’s life in a way.”

The festival has already garnered some international attention as well. “As far as I know, there is no other festival of this kind that is unique to Ramadan in other Muslim countries,” notes Erdoğan. “But we’ve already received some feedback. For instance, [an event organizer] from Indonesia, said they should also be offering an event like ours soon. There are also Arabs following our website.” So, this festival might also be a trigger for further organization. “If I could, I would like to hold this [festival] overseas as well, at least in neighboring countries such as Syria, or in Jordan,” says Erdoğan. “Because [for the next few years] Ramadan will be held during summer and there are many beautiful historical places in these countries that are suitable to host such a festival [during summer].”

As the festival is being held on the occasion of Ramadan, organizers naturally took into consideration those who will be fasting. “We scheduled the concerts according to the time of iftar [fast breaking meal],” explains Erdoğan. “And we will open the doors at least 15 minutes before the iftar and will offer catering services at a very small cost.” For full program and ticket info, check www.jazzinramadan.com.

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