This album of Turkish hymns fused with polyphonic Western musical styles paves the way for people to discover faith in their hearts. In a recent interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Özer spoke about his new album and illustrious career.
The album “Hû” (He/Him/God) you released 10 years ago was the first album of symphonic hymns. “Âlim Allah,” too, has a symphonic style. Sami Özer continues to walk alone in the new world he has ushered in. But where did you get the idea of using polyphonic Western music in Turkish hymns?
The one who actually paved the way was His Holiness Safer Efendi -- may God allow us to benefit from his intercession. I think it was in 1997, when my album “Ey Allah’ım 3” was released. Following its release, people from [the Turkish Sufi Music Research and Support Foundation] and other places started to voice criticisms about it. One day we were sitting in the room where we rehearse music, and he said, “Sami, just play ‘Ey Allah’ım 3’ and let’s listen to it.” It was the first time we had used stringed instruments. Critiques were there as well; my master said: “You use the violin minimally, Sami. In your next album, use more violin and rhythms. Include Western musical instruments as well.” This style became increasingly popular. It paved the way for people to discover faith inside their hearts. For the first time, Sufi music was played at Rumeli Hisarı, in 2002, and made a big impact. Clips made frequent appearances on TV. Why not make music as good as Sting, Mariza or Tony Bennett? We made symphonic music, but we never distorted the hymn format. I would shy away from doing so. What I do is something like decorating the calligraphic rendering of the name of Prophet Muhammad.
Have you ever thought, “With this voice, I would be world famous if I had been a singer in the West”?
I am quite content with what I am now. I continually thank God for that.
A good voice is a divine trust. One should be thankful for it, not boastful. One needs to be more thankful to God, to help one to use that voice for a good purpose.
How did you start to use it for good purposes?
I got my training in straitened circumstances. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to cover my ticket expenses when I would go to the Üsküdar Music Community and to Amir Ateş for training. Once I even missed the last bus to my neighborhood. I met some acquaintance and asked him to give me 50 kuruş. “I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” I said to him, but he didn’t give it. A taxi driver who knew me from the mosque said, “Hafız, what are you doing here?” I told him the story. “Man, come on. That’s unacceptable. I won’t leave you here. You are a valuable man to us,” he said.
Were you working as a muezzin while attending the Üsküdar Music Community?
No, I had resigned from that office. In the mid-1970s I attended the Üsküdar Music Community. I was born and raised in Paşabahçe. I was working as a muezzin at a mosque, and devout attendees of the mosque were very odd. I had decided to become a muezzin and a hafiz [a person who memorizes the entire Quran] because I loved it. But when the attendees at the mosque started to criticize me, saying, “Why did you recite the iqamah in that way?” or “Why do you have long hair?” or “Why do you wear bell-bottom pants?” I said to the imam: “Take this key. I cannot do it.” Doing it on a voluntary basis sounded good to me. I recited the call to prayer everywhere around the world. Muzaffer Efendi would say, “Do something voluntary with your good voice as it is a divine gift.”
My life changed after meeting Safer Efendi
What was the course of your later life?
I worked with Emin Ongan on musical projects for 10 years. Whenever I went to his house he would welcome me with the Quran in his hands. Meanwhile, I got engaged, but we later broke up. Those were problem-laden years. There was İhsan Sedef, who lived in Beykoz. He would attend Karagümrük [dergah]. And I decided to go there in 1986. I met Safer Efendi. I wanted to be one of his followers. “Son, hopefully you’ll see it in your dreams,” he said.
Did you see that dream?
That night, I had a dream. It was about our Prophet and the setting was Medina. When I told him my dream, he said, “Son, when you set off on this path, you won’t leave it.” In a way, I was born in 1986. After that, my life really changed. All the poverty and problems were gone, thanks to God. He raised us in the best way; Safer Efendi taught us the dervish-style Sufi music. It was him who selected the hymns for my 1993 album “Ey Allah’ım 1,” which became very popular. In that album, there is a hymn titled “İsmi Sübhan Virdin Mi Var.” At that time, there was a popular song called “Saza Niye Gelmedin.” My master [Safer Efendi] said: “This song was originally a hymn. Sing it as a hymn.” And I decided to sing it, although the album was ready to be released. Later Ahmet Kaya even invited me onto his TV program “Ahmet Abi’nin Vapuru.” We sang this hymn on that program. “If I had known these lyrics would so perfectly fit to this melody, I would have sung it in that way in the first place,” Kaya said. After the program, we had a chat with him. May he rest in Heaven, he said: “I am actually a religious person. Everyone knows me for my political opinions. But I believe in God and in my Prophet.” He tried to prove himself. He recited Ayat al-Kursi and [parts of] Sura al-Baqarah, and he recited them well.
How was your relationship with Safer Efendi?
He quickly took me into his service. At that time, people were urging me to get married. … Three years passed [with my master] and my master said, “Son, what do you think about marrying Yumna?” I replied, “Of course,” but I didn’t know Yumna. At that time I was the chief muezzin at the dergah.
How did Yumna know Safer Efendi?
At that time, she was working on Middle Eastern languages in Indianapolis. She met Muzaffer Efendi in the US. She received a scholarship to attend Boğaziçi University and came to Turkey. Then [they] told her about the marriage. I had seen her in my dream.
How did you see her?
In the dream we were together at the Kaaba. One day, at the Turkish Sufi Music Research and Support Foundation, I said, “Yumna has come,” without actually seeing her come. People said to me: “You are flying high. Have you seen her?” When she came in, everyone was surprised. “Currently, I am not planning to marry,” I said. “Isn’t he already married?” Yumna asked. “No, he isn’t,” they replied.
In 1990, I went to the US, but nothing happened then. Later, I came across her during a concert at Abdi İpekçi, fundraising for Bosnia. When I was sitting with my master, I said to him, “Should I go to the US to propose marriage to Yumna?” He said to his granddaughter Betül, “It seems your brother has gone crazy.” She said, “Let him go.” I went to the US and proposed marriage. At that time, I was penniless and had no place to live. “OK,” she accepted gratefully. When there is a master behind a marriage, everything changes. Afterwards we stayed in a simple house, which we called the Pink Mansion, in Dereseki, and we were in the service of my master. One day, Safer Efendi said, “Son, if you want to have a house in this village, recite the call to the dawn prayer successively for 40 days. And God will give you one.”
Did you recite it?
I was unable to recite the 39th call to the dawn prayer. “The chain was broken,” said Safer Efendi. Then I recited the call to the dawn prayer for 54 days successively. Then I got the offer for the release of “Ey Allah’ım 2.” I earned a lot of money from that album, and I gave all the money to my master, who told me to summon [master construction worker] Hasan. It turned out that the plans for a house had already been prepared. “Son, there is a reason why I urge you to stay here,” he would say. It was paradisiacal, far from noise, and located in the forest. So I was penniless in the beginning, but thanks to a sultan’s help, I started to have money. I started to receive proposals for concerts. Once a person said, “Wow, Sami, you are earning too much money,” but my master interrupted: “Stop talking nonsense. He did not come to this position out of the blue. Go and take the stage and sing a hymn if it is easy.” If I travel to many places around the world, this is attributable to the help of those holy people. People ask, “When will you release a new album?” I have invested my savings in this album. If people show appreciation for it, they will see future albums. But they should not download it from the Internet and ask forgiveness from me. This is not the proper way of asking forgiveness.
‘I no longer attend Karagümrük as I don’t see the old love’
Was it Safer Efendi who asked you to work with Mazhar Fuat Özkan?
Yes. Mazhar came one day; I think he actually wanted to work with someone else. But my master told him, “You should work with Sami.”
Would Mazhar Alanson frequent the foundation in Karagümrük?
Fuat would seldom come, but Mazhar was a frequenter. Of course, they played a great role in promoting me. We worked together for three years. Then we parted ways.
Why didn’t you want to maintain your collaboration?
They started to give concerts at nightclubs. That was not my style. “If there is a big concert, I’ll come and work with you. But I want to leave,” I told them.
Would you want Safer Efendi to listen to “Hû” and “Âlim Allah”?
I think he is already listening to them. But I would have wanted him to be at the concerts I gave in Sarajevo, Washington and the Netherlands. Only with his help could I have gone so far. We were in Dereseki two weeks before the death of my master. He told me and Yumna: “You didn’t make me sorry concerning your marriage. Thank you. Sami, God won’t waste your efforts and you’ll be world famous.” He just wanted to go away, and then he was gone.
Did he want his exile in this world to end soon?
Of course he did! They stay in this world just to save us, when actually they want to unite with their Beloved in the next world. We fear death, but what does this world offer us other than sorrow? You are a singer and you have wealth; so what? Fame in this world is nothing! May God give us fame in the next world!
Do you still attend Karagümrük after the death of Safer Efendi?
I cannot attend frequently. I have work to do, and also I don’t see the old love there. I don’t want to go there and sin.
You see unacceptable things and feel sorry. We are in the service of our master. There is a saying, “Proximity to a sultan is closeness to fire.” Those 13 years were more precious to me than gold. I would prefer to be with my master over having wealth. I would prefer to live with him even if I were penniless. It is very hard. He was more precious than my father.
How did you learn of his death?
It was a black Monday for me. We were in Üsküdar. He was not feeling good and we took him to a hospital. As he was being taken to intensive care, he waved to Yumna, as if to say, “Goodbye.” I was watching from outside. They defibrillated him. When I saw this, the whole world seemed to turn upside down. At that moment, I would have taken his place.
He didn’t want to return.
No, he didn’t. Perhaps he was exhausted by us! My master flew to the realm of Divine Beauty. I know he is with his Beloved Prophet there.
How do you feel about being left behind?
It is very hard. I cannot explain. As I said before, I would prefer to live with him if he lived, and I wouldn’t mind if I had not been famous…
It suits you well to sing about the word of God.
No, not a bit. Hafız Muhammed Sıddık El Meymeni used to tell me: “In Medina, the branches of the date trees touch the ground when they are full of fruit. But when their fruit is collected, they stay erect. Like a fruitless tree, an empty person stays erect and is conceited. A learned man becomes humble.” I don’t have even 2 percent of that modesty. But we can make it, thanks to the supplications of others. One day a father brought his 7-year-old son to me and he said to me: “Uncle, I saw our Prophet in my dream. I said to him, ‘I love Uncle Sami very much.’ And he said to me, ‘I, too, love him very much’.” This is the best news I ever got, and this world is no longer of any importance to me.
In an interview you gave in 2006, you said that you wanted to meet Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi. Soon after, you were able to meet him. What did you talk about with him?
I had three concerts in Pennsylvania in 2007. Afterwards they took me to Mr. Gülen. I said to my companions: “Let us leave our instruments here before we enter. Otherwise we might bother him.” He inquired about my companions. “My orchestra,” I replied. I explained that we did not bring in our instruments in order not to be a nuisance to him. “You’d be far from bothering me. Please let them bring their instruments,” he said. It was one of my best concerts. It took one hour and 10 minutes. Most of the hymns were about our Prophet. Hocaefendi cried all through the concert. He made many supplications for us, may God be pleased with him. Then he summoned someone and told him to give me whatever I wanted from the room. There were so many presents to Hocaefendi. “Is there an olive rosary?” I asked. They gave me one. Later I learned that it was a very precious rosary. So he treated me with many compliments and he made many supplications for me, may God be pleased with him. There, I recited the call to the night prayer. “Did you record the call to prayer?” he asked. “No, we did not,” I replied. And I intended to recite the call to the dawn prayer, but I couldn’t do it.
Hocaefendi loves the Prophet very much. May God give him good health and keep him with us. There are few people like him left. When we find one, we must appreciate the treasure. We should not make them feel sad. When we took Safer Efendi for medical treatment in the US, the physician said: “I prescribe medicine, but it is nothing. You must not make him sad.” But we couldn’t do it. People would have a quarrel at home or plan to buy new furniture, and rush to my master. Therefore, everyone should appreciate what they have. They should keep their problems inside.