The Aegean port of İzmir is one of the most prosperous and developed cities in Turkey. But İzmir’s Tepecik neighborhood has a different story – this mainly Roma district is better known for poverty and crime. Hamdi Akatay, a Roma percussionist from Tepecik, is trying to offer something more hopeful to the youth, with a unique project: the Tepecik Philharmonic. Even more extraordinary, these young musicians combine Roma music with the works of Mozart.
“One of the aims of this project is to protect young people from these evils through music,” Akatay says. “I spent my youth in Tepecik, and if I hadn’t started playing the darbuka then I might have been dealing drugs on the corner. I think music is a very therapeutic path.”
Akatay, having performed with famous names such as Tarkan, Sezen Aksu, and the Berlin Philharmonic, is a role model for the neighborhood. He is also the author of Universal Darbuka Method, the first handbook for Turkish rhythms on the darbuka. Akatay’s musicians are all classically trained, but it was not so easy for the folk of Tepecik to understand his project. “Being a Roma neighborhood, most people in Tepecik listen to arabesque or folk music,” said Akatay. “When we started rehearsing Mozart in the coffee house garden, local guys came and gave us strange looks. Later on they felt that soothing quality, the way Mozart transports you to another world, and they started sitting and listening with their tea. Of course, when we played medleys of Mozart and local music, people liked it even more.”
Perhaps the first question in listeners’ minds is, why Mozart? Classical aficionados will know Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca,” which took inspiration from Turkish music. Orchestral instruments such as the bass drum, cymbals, and even the oboe came to Europe from the Middle East. Given that history, a Roma percussionist playing Mozart might be more natural than we imagine. “If he had been alive today, I think Mozart would have wanted to play with us,” Akatay told The Guide Istanbul. “In future we could extend this project to Bach, Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven. This is a long-term project – it might even last for centuries.”
The Tepecik Philharmonic is beginning work on its first album this year. Akatay’s dream is to perform his interpretations in Salzburg, the town where Mozart was born. His passion for the orchestra is clear: he says of his work, “There are two legacies I’m going to leave behind for my children and grandchildren: my darbuka method and the Tepecik Philharmonic.”
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