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A music school wants to revive Turkish and Syrian connections through song

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).


This is a 500-year-old song that carries both Turkish and Arabic elements.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: It's being taught in southern Turkey by Syrian classical musicians, refugees from Aleppo. The two cultures, Syrian and Turkish, have shared music and art for centuries. And as NPR's Fatma Tanis reports, a music institute hopes to revive that cultural connection and inspire integration through music.


FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: On a weekday evening in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey, students pile into a classroom. Most of them are Syrian men and women, ages ranging between 18 and 50 years old. Several musical instruments are set up at the front.

IBRAHIM MUSLIMANI: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: The teacher, Syrian Ibrahim Muslimani, welcomes the class in Arabic and Turkish.

MUSLIMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: He notes that there's a newcomer, a Turkish woman in her 20s who heard about the class from her Syrian friend and wants to learn more about their shared music and culture.

MUSLIMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Muslimani hands out the sheet music for the song they're learning today, which some of the students will play on their instruments, and they will all sing along.

MUSLIMANI: One, two, three, four.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: This selection dates back five centuries and was played at Ottoman royal courts in Istanbul. The lyrics are about music itself and how varied it is, like the stars and planets in the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: This rhythm is very common in Turkish music and in the Syrian city of Aleppo, known for its rich culture now devastated by the civil war. The students go from singing the Ottoman song to this classic from Aleppo.

MUSLIMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: For one of the students, Syrian Rafeef Oflazoglu, what she's learned here helped her adjust to her new adopted country after fleeing the dangers back home.

RAFEEF OFLAZOGLU: It make me feel that it's closer to me. Instead of thinking like you are a foreigner, when you see something you know in common between you and this culture, you feel that you are closer to this. You feel that it's two cultures, but you feel that music is unifying it.

TANIS: The school is run by the organization Muslimani founded called Nefes. First, there were two teachers; now they have 14, Syrian and Turkish, all volunteers. Along with musical and cultural appreciation, they teach how to play instruments, like the oud, an ancient pear-shaped stringed instrument and ancestor to the guitar...


TANIS: ...The qanun, a plucked zither...


TANIS: ...And the darbuka drum...


TANIS: ...Along with piano and violin. Muslimani says they have students ranging from 6 years old to older adults. And many of them fled the war next door.

MUSLIMANI: (Through interpreter) In every class, we speak both Turkish and Arabic. It's important because some of the young Syrian kids have spent most of their lives here in Turkey and are more fluent in Turkish. We're trying to preserve our Syrian cultural identity but also getting to know the Turkish identity through art.

TANIS: Last year, an orchestra of 100 students, Syrian and Turkish, held a concert. It was attended by nearly 2,000 people, an emblem of the integration that this institute is trying to foster. Turkey once had an open-door policy for Syrians, hosting millions of them. But the attitude has changed as Turkey's economy struggles and politicians scapegoat refugees.

MUSLIMANI: (Through interpreter) Racism has now, unfortunately, become part of regular life for us. But we believe that the activities we're doing here will lower the social tensions and highlight the richness of our presence together as Turks and Syrians.

TANIS: But what's going on here isn't just a superficial let's-get-together-and-sing kind of thing. It's a serious study of the music where the two cultures meet, starting with the tones themselves.


TANIS: Turkish and Arabic music are similar. To the uninitiated, they might even sound the same. They both use the same melodic system with microtones - those are flourishes in between musical notes - and that's what differentiates it from what you'd hear on, say, a piano or a guitar. The microtones add many more layers of emotions and sounds to the music.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: But there are differences. Turkish and Arab musicians will tune their instruments and even play the same compositions differently. Some Turkish compositions that can sound playful with rapid plucked notes become heavier when played in the Arabic style with the notes drawn out. So this song played in the Turkish style at the school...


TANIS: ...Sounds like this in an Arabic-style recording.


TANIS: Students are transfixed by these details.

OFLAZOGLU: I was shocked. Like, there is lot, you know, tens of the same songs that was sing, you know, in Arabic and in Turkish.

TANIS: That's Rafeef Oflazoglu again. She fled Aleppo in 2013 and is now a Turkish citizen. She finds the connect-the-dots approach with music and culture at the school delightful.

OFLAZOGLU: Also, I mean, the difference between, for example, the qanun, the Arabic one and the Turkish one, and, you know, the tone, and you have halftone, thirdtone - I mean, there is something very unique about the Turkish music.

TANIS: She's 41 years old and comes from a family passionate about classical Arabic music. Back in Aleppo, she studied the oud for most of her life. Now in Turkey, she has an office job and cherishes the chance to keep exploring her love of music.

OFLAZOGLU: I'm calling - it is my (laughter). I keep saying this because, you know, we work for long hours. It's not easy. It's my third language. I mean, this country, you know, we are not that much stable with a lot of, you know, challenges in life. But I think this is, like, my zone, my comfort, you know, place.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: This song is one of her favorites, about someone searching for their missing lover. The class sings along, first in Turkish, then Arabic. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Gaziantep, southern Turkey.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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