Our final day of the tour included two very special events. The first was one that was arranged only days before we left Philadelphia with the help of the Turkish Cultural Foundation, which had awarded us a grant to help fund the tour. The director of their Istanbul office, Hulya Yurtsever, arranged for us to visit a special school to teach traditional Turkish music to children and adults who otherwise could not afford such instruction – the Eyup Musiki Vakfi. We had studied how efforts to preserve traditional the “classical” music styles (alaturka) had been severely challenged by the Kamalist reforms of the early days of the republic – but here we were invited to witness first hand the tradition being handed down through children.
There were about 80 children from about 6-12 years old on stage in three long rows with five adult instrumentalists in front of them, all directed by a charismatic woman who clearly had a passion for both the music and the children. They sang the unison melodies of the classical style in response to a range of young soloists who displayed remarkable facility in the ornamented, focused vocal style of the idiom. There were only a handful of boys among the group, similar to children’s choirs in the US. Some of their parents were seated behind us in the audience, dressed in more traditional clothes than we had seen elsewhere in Istanbul (including veils for all the women). Our students were of course enraptured by the children and their singing.
After presenting gifts of several music instruction books and a 25th anniversary plaque to us, their director, a Turkish classical composer in his 70′s, insisted that we sing for the children – so we formed two lines in front of the stage facing the children on the stage. The music for our Turkish songs was copies and distributed to the instrumentalists so they could accompany us.
The adults in the audience began clapping along with our renditions of Karanfil Deste Gider and Niksarin Fidinlari, the children’s eyes were wide, and we felt some small pride in knowing we were the first Western choir to sing for them in the 26 years the school has been open. We closed by singing our upbeat spiritual “There’s a Great Camp Meetin’ in the Promised Land” knowing that this was music they would have never heard before. I made a simple explanation of the history of the spirituals and how they were songs expressing the belief of the slaves (“black people who worked for no pay and were treated badly by their white owners” – I wasn’t sure the children would understand what was meant by “slaves” or “African-Americans”) – but believed that God wanted them to be free, and would help them survive whatever suffering they faced. I’m not sure how exactly the introduction was translated by Hulya, but the response to the music, which I couldn’t see with my back to the children but heard about later from our students and their director, was special. Tears welled up in the faces of the director and a few of the children at the upbeat message of hope in the song. The director was so moved as to offer an extended “guzel” or classical style solo with accompaniment by the adult instrumentalists – soulfully sung in a very personal way that was deeply humbling for us to witness. With the director and children not understanding English and we not understanding Turkish, all the words exchanged were only via translation – but surely what we heard in each other’s music touched each other’s souls in completely unexpected ways.
The other event that day, very different but a beautiful emotional balance, was an hour-long cruise on the Bosporus. It was a beautiful afternoon – chilly but clear enough to see the bridges and the glistening shorelines of both Europe and Asia, with deep blue waters full of jelly-fish flowing strongly in between. In spite of the cold, this became the opportunity for the students to do some spontaneous singing together – for the handful of other passengers on board, but really for themselves – of several pieces in our repertoire – the burdens of our mid-week discussion on spontaneous singing had lifted, inspired by the vistas of what must be one of the most majestic and fascinating cities in the world. Even a wonderful “farewell banquet” that evening couldn’t come close to topping the joy we shared at these two very different musical encounters.