Ercan Irmak, ney soloları
Çetin Akdeniz, bağlama virtüozü

Dergah1995. I arrived in the middle of Ankara in the middle of a hot August to teach at a private language school called Kent English. I had secured the job on the basis of a twenty minute phone call with the owner a few days before and an ESOL qualification I’d faked up on a borrowed laptop. I was a thousand miles from anywhere I considered familiar and many leagues out of my depth.

It took a while to settle in to the job. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know any of the teaching jargon, didn’t know the grammar – or at least how to talk about the grammar – had no idea what present perfect even meant, never mind how to navigate my students through its nuances. I don’t think I ate properly for about three months.

But people were helpful. The students were amazingly friendly, falling over themselves to make me feel welcome to their country. My fellow teachers were eager to impart their knowledge, share lesson ideas. If everyone thought I was a fake, as surely they must, they were polite enough – English enough – to keep it to themselves. My flatmate, Paul, was my opposite in that he was massively well-qualified and well-versed in English language teaching and its lore. He had a Masters in English literature from Lincoln College, Oxford, and a Cambridge Trinity ESOL qualification – the gold standard. Everything I learned that year about the language and literature I owe to our many chats long into the night, smoking cheap Marlboros or Yeni Harman, drinking endless cups of Rize Turist Çay – and to watching him work. He was a man who did everything to consummate excess, from smoking to lesson planning. And he knew how the present perfect worked.

My first class was a pre-intermediate level group of young adults, roughly my age, most of whom were university students – Ankara is full of universities. They had enough English that you could converse about hobbies and interests, studies, families etc, but not for long. Much of the point of these classes was to give students practice in using the English they already had. Kent had a strict ‘no Turkish’ policy to encourage everyone to speak English when they were on the premises, even to each other, and ran a popular programme of “extra” lessons, lectures really, free and open to all.

I became friendly with a few people in the class. Ozdenir was a prodigy – he went from knowing relatively little to speaking almost fluent English within about six months, due, it has to be noted, to his own phenomenal work ethic and extraordinary motivation, not to my teaching. He was a body-builder (a former runner-up in Junior Mr Turkey) and his ambition was to get a job at the Sheraton or one of the swanky expensive gyms in town, training rich Westerners. Then, obviously, make his fortune, meet a beautiful Western girl and travel to America. (Everyone wanted to go to America.) So I taught him the language of the gym, at his gym, while he trained me to lift weights.

Another friend, Bassam, was from Gaza and was studying at the Middle East Technical University. He was a link for me back to my time Israel, which I’d left only a short time before coming to Turkey and was still very fresh in my mind. I’d known a few Israeli Arabs like Bassam; I always found Palestinians to be generally very warm and welcoming, not unlike the Turks I was starting to get to know. Bassam lived in a spartan flat up the hill from the school with a bunch of other Palestinians. I visited a few times over the year, did a few private lessons with him over a shared breakfast with his flatmates – amazing to have za’atar once more, a complete rarity outside the Arab world, and which I had developed a serious taste for. I had a go at learning Arabic, and his flatmates tried to help, but ultimately I lacked Ozdenir’s motivation and determination and never really got anywhere.

To my shame, I don’t remember the name of the other guy. The third guy. The guy who’s the whole point of this story. The guy who introduced me to Turkish music. I think I’d even forgotten this guy’s name before the year was out. Let’s just call him Guy. He was red-haired, around my age. Quiet, serious, keen to learn. He was more enthusiastic than proficient at English and, lacking in vocabulary range, conversation was more limited than with Bassam or Ozdenir. It came out during one of our classroom sessions on hobbies and interests that he played saz, a kind of Turkish lute with a deep expressive zing to it. I in turn said I played saxophone, an unfortunate idiom in Turkey which means ‘I suck cock’. So when everyone had stopped sniggering long enough for me to express an interest in playing a Turkish musical instrument – a real one, not an idiomatic one – it became Guy’s mission to help me.

He suggested I take up the ney. I had never heard of a ney. It turns out the ney is a kind of Turkish flute with a deep expressive zing to it. It is used a lot in Sufi music, particularly in the ceremonies of the Dervishes, who were based in Konya, not far from Ankara. If I liked the sound of the ney and would like to learn, Guy offered to put me in touch with someone who could teach me. Which he did.

In the meantime, to whet my whistle, as it were, Guy turned me on to this guy: Cetin AkdenizÇetin Akdeniz, Bağlama Virtüozü. Back at the flat, Paul described him as “the Turkish Keith Richards.” You can make your own mind up about that in this overture to his debut album. It was the first of very many cassettes I bought in Ankara and the one that continues to bring fresh joy and a tingle up my spine every time I rediscover it. Like right now. It really is as it describes: it’s virtuoso bağlama music (bağlama, with a silent ğ, is alto to the saz’s tenor). It’s a tower of Turkish power. The fancy fretwork masks a hypnotic sense of rhythm and belies the fact that this music has its roots in folkloric dances. Indeed, my favourite memory of listening to this cassette is putting in a request to the driver on a bus trip with Kent English students at the end of the summer. Within mere moments, there was a line of young Turks giddily dancing up and down the aisle of the coach as we wove round the country roads through the rolling landscape of Anatolia. Keith Richards or not, that bus was rockin’.

Guy arranged for us to meet at the headquarters of TRT, Turkish Radio and Television, the state broadcaster. He knew people in there and he wanted me to meet them. So we went up to an office, can’t remember whose, and sat and drank tea and smoked cigarettes. Guy did his best to translate for everyone, but who those other guys were I will never know. After a few more rounds of tea and some more chat, we went through to one of the studios where a recording was in progress. We sat in the engineer’s tiny booth, peering out a television-sized window high up above a cavernous recording studio at three musicians playing, seated quite formally, and making the most incredible sound: it was deep, sonorous, resonant. It completely engulfed me, balls to bone. I could almost feel my kidneys reverberating. There were three wind instruments, including a massive bass reed flute which, from where I was standing, looked as long as a didgeridoo. The player of this instrument, was a neyzen, a skilled ney player, called Ferhat Erdem – who would become my teacher. This is him.

The session ended shortly after and we went down to meet the players. Guy introduced me to Ferhat. He was a quietly spoken man with good English, in his thirties, with a youthful face and a friendly demeanour. I liked him instantly. We talked about music briefly, I mentioned I was a sax player and was interested in learning ney. He offered then and there to teach me. We agreed a time to meet, back here again in a few weeks at TRT, but in the meantime, for homework, I was to go and find an album called Dergâh by a neyzen called Ercan Irmak and anything by the Erguner brothers.

I found the Dergâh album in the first music shop I passed and listened to it on the first cassette player I could find back at the school. I played it while I was doing lesson prep that day, and played it for a long time after. I found out much later that what I was listening to was deeply spiritual music belonging to the Dervishes, the occult branch of Islam. Dergâh in fact means Dervish, and the songs on that album form a large part of their sacred ritual. I just thought it sounded amazing. Ercan Irmak’s recording was only a year or two old when I heard it, and has various trappings of contemporaneity about it, synths and the like. It’s listed on one website as “ambient Ottoman classical”, which is about right. Of course, ten years later Omar Faruk and the whole Buddha Bar lounge-arabesque business swept this concept off its feet and bundled it off on a big camp magic carpet, but at the time I’d heard nothing like it. The sound of the ney still gives me chills.

I met Ferhat for my first ney lesson. He showed me how to get a note out of the thing – not easy. You need to hold the ney at a certain angle at a certain point in your mouth, your lips pursed a certain way. You also need to breathe with a certain pressure and try not to articulate. Tough to untrain years of clarinet and sax habits. Same with the finger holes, which you were supposed to close with the end joints of your fingers, not the fleshier tips. But I soon enough got the hang of it. At the end of our first lesson he, amazingly, gave me his own ney to take home with me, since they weren’t readily available. In fact he told me he had to travel to Adana in the south of Turkey to get them. Or perhaps that’s just where he got his from.

I met him for one more lesson then the trail went cold. I got more into my social life, work became harder and he was a busy touring musician so it was difficult to find a mutually suitable time. I deeply regret not keeping in touch. I liked Ferhat a lot, and still think about him as one of life’s great generous souls. I appreciated his generosity, his willingness to share his musical skills, and I enjoyed his company. As for Guy, we never really got a friendship going, sad to say. He stayed at the school for a long time after he left my class and we’d say hello, if our paths crossed, often at Kent’s famous extra lessons.

But I have those cassettes, that memory. And I still have that ney.