Halil Karaduman, one of the world’s leading “kanuni” (those who play kanun, or Turkish zither), is known as a fabulous musician of unlimited talents who uses the kanun in a very dynamic way and with a great deal of ability. Having played kanun for decades, the wide range of music he makes has inspired many young kanun players to imitate him and has made the kanun an indispensable instrument in Turkish music and one of the most desired instruments in world music. We interviewed Karaduman, a kanun-playing genius.
You started playing kanun at the age of 5. Can you tell us about your first exposure to music?
I was born in 1959 in Urfa, Bilecik. We moved in Gaziantep, the largest city of Turkey’s southeastern Anatolia region when I was 1. I was a child in a family of musicians and grew up surrounded by music. I learned to play kanun and got my first music lessons at age 5 from my father, Fahrettin Karaduman, who was also a kanun player. In those times, Gaziantep locals listened solely to Turkish music. There is a misunderstanding in the society that arabesque music [a type of Turkish music that has Arab-influenced melodies and is considered the music of the working class] originated because southeastern people were listening to Arabic music from Arab radio stations. On the contrary, although they were near Arab areas, no one was listening to Arab radio. I can tell you that we performed much more intense Turkish music and much more beautiful “Fasıl” [a form of music performance in which works should have the same melodic structure and be played out in a particular order] in Gaziantep than in İstanbul. Even though İstanbul was the source of music, while Turkish music was being spoiled in İstanbul, Turkish music’s elegant, charming and delicate form was preserved in Gaziantep. As time went on, it was spoiled there, too.
What kinds of musical experiences did you have grown up and how did your journey to İstanbul get started?
I came to İstanbul in 1977 to attend the conservatory there, which was the first Turkish music conservatory in republican history. My goal was to get into the conservatory and become a musician for the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). We grew up listening to TRT since we were children. I owe my repertoire during that period to TRT. Since Gaziantep was a small city, when I was 14 and started to play in a pavilion, it was like playing in a large music hall in İstanbul. Famous artists came from İstanbul, Ankara, and İzmir. They performed Turkish music very well. I grew up in such an atmosphere. While I was going to school, I also worked after school and on the weekends. My job was to work on music. There was this legend about the Brazilian soccer team. We had heard that they owe their performance to playing in the sand with extra weights on their feet. I thought that I could embrace this mentality, and I started to play kanun with weights on my wrists. I worked like a demon because I wanted to go İstanbul, I wanted to join TRT and I wanted to be a musician! Ironically, even though I came in first in the TRT exam, I did not join TRT since I immediately found myself in the record business.
Since then how many soloists have you accompanied onstage and in recordings?
From Zeki Müren, Bülent Ersoy, Müzeyyen Senar and İbrahim Tatlıses to Ajda Pekkan, Gönül Yazar, Emel Sayın and Sezen Aksu, I have accompanied almost every prominent Turkish artist. I worked for 10 years with Bülent Ersoy. I worked for three years with İbrahim Tatlıses. I worked in the studio with some of them. I had the opportunity to be the music director on Zeki Müren’s last four cassettes, a phenomenon of Turkish classical music.
When did you start composing?
Actually, Selami Şahin encouraged me to compose. One day he said to me: “If I were you and had a brilliant mastery of music, I would write one song each day. Why don’t you compose?” I thought that while there are beautiful compositions made by our old, skillful masters, how would I be able to compose a good one? I made my first composition in 1983.
What is your favorite composition?
It is like asking what my favorite child is. Even if you asked which maqam [modal structure] is my favorite, I couldn’t pick one. Maqams were determined according to the “halet-i ruhiye” [spiritual frame of mind] of an individual. Just as our psychology changes between morning and noon and between mid-afternoon and night, the maqams of Turkish music change. In Ottoman times, this specific characteristic was used to heal mental patients. Even our azans were recited with five different maqams during five different periods of time.
Generally what inspires you to compose?
It is not the case that I am suddenly inspired by something and then sit down to compose. First of all, I choose the lyrics and carry them with me. From time to time, I look over them. I find their main topic; I realize the main message behind the words. Sometimes I even wake up from my sleep. For instance, in the song “İşte bu deli eder beni” (See, this makes me crazy) in order to give the sense of craziness, I created contrast in the music.
What about your well-known song “Leyla”?
“Leyla” stayed with me for four or five years since I couldn’t find a male soloist that was able to sing in the style of the song. “Leyla” is a very interesting musical piece. There are three parts in it, including Russian, Spanish and Turkish tunes. “Leyla” is the symbol of love. “Leyla” is “Leyla” in Russia and Spanish and also Turkish. In those languages, it symbolizes the same thing: love. The lyrics are from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, one of the most important modern Turkish novelists. I used some parts of his work.
Which kanun player inspired you?
I followed in Ahmet Yatman’s footsteps. I was also influenced by Erol Deran.
You are known as a genius on kanun. What is your advice to young kanun players?
I am not the one who should give advice. … I have never thought of myself as a genius, and I cannot. I am talented compared to others. If Allah wishes something, then every stone finds its place. I am a child of a musical family, and I also had a great elementary school teacher, for whom I have great respect, Namık Kemal Alper, who was able to play flute, violin, lute, and cümbüş [a mandolin with a metal body]. He always made me soloist in the shows. However, there is one thing that we need to bring out into the open: in order to become a musician, it is not enough to graduate from school. If you cannot utilize sources other than school, you cannot be a good musician. Doctors who graduate from medical school say that sometimes doctors come from medical school. [He smiles.] I also think that sometimes musicians come from conservatories. I say this because it is not enough to graduate from a conservatory to be a good musician; you have to be “hem alaylı hem mektepli” [both a pupil and a regimental]. Anywhere music passes, you need to pass all of its stages. You have to know how to play, for instance, at a wedding, or when you go to a nightclub, you have to able to play there, too. You have to play in accordance with where you go.
Are there any specific secrets to it?
I think about how I would want my kanuni to accompany me if I were the soloist. It is so simple, you just put yourself into the position of the other.
We know that you have many students from all over the world and that you give lectures and attend special concerts and seminars abroad. How did your journey outside Turkey get started?
It started with the worldwide concerts that I played with Zülfü Livaneli in the ’90s. After they heard me, they became interested in me and called me to play in orchestras. I worked with different orchestras and musicians abroad. As a result of this, I had many kanun students from the US, Greece, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and other countries. From time to time, they come to Turkey. Can you imagine that they play Turkish music without knowing a single Turkish word?
With whom have you worked abroad?
Some of the artists and musicians that I worked with abroad are Mikis Theodorakis, Maria Farantouri, Giora Feidman, Al Di Meola, Habib Chan, and Lisbeth List.
What do you think about the past and present-day classical Turkish music?
What I think is that even though interest is increasing in Turkish music instruments and Turkish music, there are no stars. In recent years the mentality of our society found itself taking the easy way out all the time, especially when it comes the issue of earning money. This mentality has been affecting the music. Youth lose themselves in the eternity of resources and easily available information from the Internet. I think since they can get the information in a very easy way, they become lazy. I worked hard; you need to work hard to be good at something. They asked a violin virtuoso whether there is someone better than him or not. He said, “I work for 12 hours a day, if there is someone who works for 13 hours a day, he/she is better than me.”
What needs to be done in order to make Turkish music a worldwide phenomenon?
There are two conditions for it: one is political and the other is musical. You need to be the leading country in the world. If you were, everyone would listen to your music like in the times of the Ottoman Empire. There was a great admiration of Ottoman fashion in European palaces. For instance, Mozart was inspired by mehter [Ottoman military bands; the oldest variety of military marching band]. The other condition is to love Turkish music, to know it and to understand its beauty. If you destroy a nation’s music, there is nothing left of that nation. You have to be good at your own music. For instance, you have to have a repertoire from which you will be able to play three hours by heart in front of an audience. This requires you to be able to play 10 hours by heart normally. You need to be able to run 1000 meters in order to perform a good 100 meter. I always mention during concerts I join in foreign countries that I come from a very rich country in which you experience a different taste in the kitchens of each region you visit and a different style of music in each region. In order to make Turkish music a worldwide phenomenon, we need to be aware of this richness, the richness of Turkish music in harmony and rhythms.
What are your future plans?
I am working on an album, I will start to lecture at the Turkish State Music Conservatory and I offered a project to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for the year of 2010 in which İstanbul will be a European Capital of Culture. The project is to give a concert with my best students from foreign countries.