Erkan Oğur: A Fretless Philosopher

Erkan Oğur: A Fretless Philosopher

January 20, 2014

“Listening to Erkan Oğur is like visiting Paris and staying in a Turkish friend’ house” explained one lifelong fan, “he connects jazz and Turkish music, but has no ego and always respects his own culture.” Another admirer compared listening to his music to praying, saying that both his voice and guitar playing “sounds like it comes direct from heaven.” Both comments show the sincere devotion of Erkan’s Oğur’s fans, and the half a million followers he has on Facebook reveals their numbers.


Erkan Oğur is an iconic figure who, in his 30 year musical career has done much to advance Turkish music, both by spreading it abroad and by fusing it with Western elements, thereby giving it a broader appeal. Whether or not you know anything about traditional Anatolian folk music, watching a performance by Erkan Oğur, you are instantly aware in you’re in the presence of a virtuoso talent.


As well as mastership of traditional instruments the kopuz and bağlama, he is known for being a pioneer of fretless guitars, and made his first fretless classical model in 1976. Ahead of his gig at Salon İKSV on January 24, we had the opportunity to talk to him and find out more.


What is it that attracted you to fretless instruments? What are the advantages of playing fretless?

The main reason is because of Makam music. Fretlessness allows for a broader range of tonal possibilities and expression. However, one needs to have the sufficient knowledge and experience for it. Philosophically, fretlessness, or to be more precise “to pull the curtain up” (in Turkish the word for curtain is also used for fret) provides the will to live equally and lovingly with all the beings in the world. To play a fretless instrument means freedom.


You have been an inspiration to many, but who or what are your biggest inspirations?

My inspiration is my life and the lives of others. 


You described music as a language, what is it you want to say?

Yes, music is a language. In fact, it is the common language of all human kind, just like our emotions. All of the emotions and events that need to be expressed: love, joy, anger, protests, fear, amusement, war, peace... It is the documentation of emotions and events. Music is history, a messenger, archeology, it is today, tomorrow, it is science, it is energy, it cannot be destroyed, it is transformed, it is a vibration. It affects all of the universe and the entities.


To many Westerners, Anatolian music can sound so heart wrenchingly melancholic? Do you feel that way when you play? Or can there sometimes be a more lighter, more uplifting feeling?

Yes, I am on the melancholic side of music, I cannot help it. However, bright, joyful, amusing music exists eminently in all regions of Anatolia.


Can you explain a little about Makams and the construction of Turkish music for those who have no idea?

Makam music is a system that contains the Western music system, as well as additional tonal possibilities. Basically, in terms of maths in one octave the number of tonal possibilities is greater than the Western music system, and the way these tones are used, their movements and their relations is what constitutes Makam music. In Makam music, the tones are not static, they are dynamic and fretlessness prevails. This is the most important feature of it. 

Favorite Traditional Turkish Songs?

 Ey Zahit Şaraba (Harabi)

Zülfü Kaküllerin (Sefil Sıtkı)

Kara Toprak… (Aşık Veysel)

Sinemde bir tutuşmuş… (Harput)

Karşıda görünen ne güzel yayla (Pir Sultan Abdal)

Haydar… (Aşık Yemini – Urfa Kısas)

Hacı Arif Bey ve  Şevki Bey’in Şarkıları

Tanburi Cemil Bey’in bütün eserleri

Hafız Post, Dede Efendi, Itri


Coming from the UK, I’m often impressed by how everyone seems to know the words to every folk song. Do you think traditional music has a greater importance to the people and cultures of Anatolia than in Western European countries for example?

Anatolian folk songs have been carried on from ancient times to our contemporary lives, and they consist of regional features, attitudes, styles, languages and rhythms. They are defined as their “inner self” by various people and thus they become meaningful. They belong to everyone. This is the most important factor in the preservation, the transference, and the remembrance of Anatolian traditional music.


Can you explain about the meaning of Telvin (the name of a trio he belongs to) and how it relates to your music?

The dictionary meaning of Telvin is “colors.” Philosophically, it means change in mood and situations. It represents the fluidity and the huge cycle in the relationship between life, entities, universe and time. Everything occurs once in music, too. Repetition is the wonderful problem it faces. Songs that are only heard once are the precious ones. Recording the songs kills them.


What are your thoughts on the music scene in Istanbul and Turkey today?

A lot of commercial music and art events directed towards consumerism take place in Istanbul. In this sense, it is a highly active city. In Turkey however, education, culture and art policies are not very prevalent. Yet our folk songs are still preserved successfully even just by the individual efforts of its people, especially within families. The Anatolian folk arts are damaged through the media and public policies because of the lack of knowledge and interest in the issue.

On Istanbul...

Where are your favorite places to hear live music?

Salon İKSV, CRR, Nardis, Babylon

Where is your favorite place to eat?


What is your most memorable concert experience?

Kadıköy Halk Eğitim Concert - where we played with all the lights turned off was a great experience for us.


Did you find the answer to the question "Neden Geldim Istanbul’a”? (the title of one of his songs)

We will never know the answer to this question, nor to any of my other questions.


What advice would you give to young musicians starting out? (Particularly those interested in Turkish music.)

I would advise the young musicians to broaden their musical knowledge by traveling through Anatolia and understanding, preserving, transferring the regional songs and thus to be inspired for their musical journeys. I want to conclude with the hope for the creation of new songs and the preservation of the original ones.


Erkan Oğur will perform in Salon İKSV on January 24. See our events page for more details. 



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