People passing by the café hear the sound of the ney from inside, and they venture all the way up to the door that leads to the room where the music is coming from.
Many decide to sit down on one of the chairs outside and wait for the session to come to an end. When the lesson finishes, they expect a male ney musician will emerge. But what they see is Burcu Karadağ, a well-known Turkish female ney player.
Karadağ is not the first woman to ever pick up a ney and play it, but she is Turkey’s only professional ney player who has made, and is making, a mark on both the national and international music scene.
She is also the only female ney player to have her name etched permanently in the long line of ney musicians that have come before her. Karadağ, a professor at Haliç University, also works with a variety of musical ensembles connected to TRT İstanbul Radio.
As it turns out, Karadağ and the ney were a perfect fit for each other from the beginning. After she finished primary school, she scored high points on the exam for the conservatory. The jury, who saw her talent, was convinced at the time that if she were to orient herself in the direction of the ney, in the future she could really be an exceptional example and a “first” and an “only” in her own right. She told her family about the jury’s opinion. Ever since that day the ney, which up until then she had really only ever seen on television and had certainly never thought she might play one day, has been her closest friend.
Karadağ went on to enter the İstanbul Technical University Turkish Music State Conservatory, where she took ney lessons from Salih Bilgin and Niyazi Sayın, lessons in Turkish music theory from Erol Sayan and Doğan Dikmen and Western music lessons from Ali Eral.
Playing like a man
Karadağ recalls that her friends and teachers at the conservatory all said that she had a very unique style of playing the ney. “They used to tell me I played the ney like a man. Since I was so young, I didn’t really understand what this meant. I elicited a very strong sound from the ney and people told me I understood immediately what was said to me in terms of the education we were getting. But actually, I never set out with the idea that somehow ‘there are no women in this arena, I should try and make my mark here’.”
Karadağ does admit that she was the target of many negative comments regarding her choice of instrument from early on. “You are not the first, you cannot play very well, you certainly can’t play the ney with nail polish,” were just some of the comments she heard in the past. Her response to this sort of criticism was simply to work harder than ever.
Karadağ has these comments regarding criticisms she receives as a ney player who happens to be a woman: “I am a Muslim and I am a strong believer. I grew up with the Sufi philosophy, but I cannot say that I have transferred this all into my life. Just two months ago the bangs in my hair were purple. At that point, I would hear comments like, ‘Can a ney player really have purple hair?’ But I don’t pay attention to these sorts of things. Actions speak louder than words. This is the motto of my life. My answer to those who may think badly of me is my own art. Let those who criticize me criticize me for my art.”
Karadağ has performed in concerts with different groups and orchestras all over Europe, from France to Germany and from Austria and Belgium. She has been invited to take part in many different international projects. Part of the reason for her popularity in these arenas is that she always wants to do unique things with her art. Karadağ has stayed true to the essence of the ney but at the same time managed to bring this traditional instrument, which has been closely associated with Sufi music, beyond the arenas in which it has been played and enjoyed for hundreds of years. In the process she has made it possible for new audiences to get to know and appreciate this instrument and the culture which lies at its heart.
Because of Karadağ’s efforts, many people who had never even seen a ney before have gotten to understand what it is. She notes that this in turn has awakened curiosity in many people about Sufism and Rumi. “I have introduced many people to this instrument. And they tell me that it is because of me that they have gotten to know the ney. For me, this is the best applause I could get. When people ask, I explain about not only the ney, but also Sufism and Mevlana [Rumi]. And so they learn and this is where I feel I get my rewards for any difficulties I have to put up with. And this is really enough for me.”
Concert in Konya
Karadağ has worked with a number of different musicians, including classical pianist/composers Fazıl Say and Sabri Tuluğ Tırpan, pop singer Sertab Erener and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. She dreams of being able to give a concert in Konya, which each year hosts ceremonies commemorating Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. Karadağ notes that she has not yet been invited to perform at special ceremonies in Konya, saying: “Ever since I was 11 years old, I have known that [playing in] Konya is the highest point a ney player can achieve in terms of performance. Despite the fact that I have performed in many different countries abroad, I have never played solo in Konya. This is painful for me. But complaining comes from weakness, so I won’t complain. When the time comes, it will happen, I hope.”
Karadağ also has an album project in the works. She says it is going to be a fusion album and will include lots of Western instruments and compositions but no classical pieces.
Karadağ says that for the past five years, new students have been coming to her based on word-of-mouth referrals. Most of these students are male and they are generally older than her. About this experience, she says: “Usually when I give lessons, I sit among my students. So when someone opens the door and says they are looking for the teacher, and I say ‘yes, it’s me, how can I help you?’ They just stare at me for a while. This is because the image they have of a ney musician is much different than what they see. They probably think a ney player should be old, with a moustache, or perhaps with a beard, but above all, a male. And so they are very surprised at seeing me. At first, some people really put me down and didn’t take me seriously. But it would take at the most a couple of weeks for them to change their minds. Just seeing this change makes it all worth it. People look at me differently before they know me compared to after they get to know me.”
Karadağ believes that projects undertaken by such musicians as the world-famous Kudsi Erguner and electronic musician and reed flute player Mercan Dede in recent years have done much to increase interest in the ney. She also believes that the ney being played in different kinds of music, as well as support from the government for Turkish traditional arts, has been important in this change. But she also points to a danger that she perceives: Because of all the popular interest in the ney these days, lots of bad ney music is also being produced, more so than in the past.
“People who simply have not received enough training in the arts decide to try and become instructors after just one year of playing the ney. The people who are really at fault here are those who give these people the encouragement and the feeling that they have really learned enough to be teachers. It is wrong when people, who have only gotten one or two years of training, can’t even really read the notes yet, and don’t really play the ney that well, appear before others and announce that they are now teachers. It is wrong for our future generations. So the responsibility that lies with those who really love the ney is great on this front.”