Afro-Arab musical ensemble promotes social cohesion in Istanbul

ANKARA: Istanbul has been hosting a special gathering for a year that uses Afro-Arab musical traditions to enhance mutual understanding and social integration in Turkey.

Since 2019, January 24 has been celebrated as World Day for African and Afro-descendant Culture. A unique group has taken root in Turkey, combining the musical traditions of Africa and the Arab world.

The group, made up of ten musicians, combines Sufi Arabic music and meshk under the direction of Abdallah Kaymak. The members of the group meet every Sunday in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul, on the Anatolian side.

The group performs in a warm city environment where musicians – from percussionists, cellists and violinists to singers and players of traditional oriental instruments such as the oud, the ney and the rebab – and the public sit in a circle and chat in an open space.

Each musical gathering, called meshkis free and open to all.

During the sessions, traditional Afro-Arab Sufi hymns are sung with the participation of the audience, which acts as a spontaneous choir.

The songs are drawn from the well-known musical repertoire of the Arab world, in particular the Gulf States, the Maghreb region, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.

The group made its first appearance last Ramadan. The positive feedback from the public encouraged its members to continue with their project.

They plan to reach a wider audience without sacrificing the qualities that make them unique and they are also starting to receive invitations to perform overseas.

At the invitation of the Center for Sufi Studies Chishtiya Ribbat, they will perform in Pakistan at the end of January and they will lead several interactive sessions of meshk.

“Turkish and Arabic music have been interacting for centuries. The instruments are similar, but so are the subjects, the mores and the musical traditions,” says Mr. Kaymak, lead singer and leader of the group, to Arab News.

“If regional policy supports peace, multiculturalism and the universal values ​​of the human sciences, music also becomes an instrument to achieve this goal,” he continues.

Mr. Kaymak, originally from Mauritania, learned Arabic during the years he lived in Egypt, which gives him a perfect command of words and pronunciation.

From his childhood, he remembers different sessions of meshk under the guidance of his father, who interpreted music from the Maghreb as well as hymns from the Gulf region, Iraq and Libya.

Before his last stop in Istanbul, he performed in Medina, Cairo, Alexandria, Jordan and Mauritania, as well as in the southern province of Adana in Turkey.

Hatice Gulbahar Hepsev is another member of the group. During the meshkshe plays rebaba lute-like wooden instrument of Arabic origin that is played with a bow.

“During these musical gatherings, an emotional bond is created between the musicians and the audience,” she tells Arab News.

“When you get to know a person in a meshkyou invite him to the next gathering and the audience keeps growing,” she says.

Those who join a meshk for the first time are naturally surprised by the participatory nature and the unique atmosphere of the multicultural gathering, but the universal power of music inevitably takes hold of them.

The audience is mostly made up of young and middle-aged guests, hailing from different parts of the world, including Turkey, the Arab region, Europe and the United States.

Reflecting Istanbul’s musical and linguistic richness, the gathering has become, in recent months, something of a tourist attraction.

“The common characteristic of the public is that it is not limited to narrow perceptions. Spectators are rather interested in different cultures and they are enthusiastic about the idea of ​​knowing each other’s origins,” underlines Mr. Kaymak.

“Therefore, our audience profile is made up of those who love – rather than simply tolerate – multiculturalism and multilingualism.

This project contributes to mutual understanding in Turkish society, where Arabs and Africans have always been associated with refugees and asylum seekers who would disrupt the social fabric.

According to Hatice Gulbahar Hepsev, some spectators learn new Arabic hymns at these gatherings and they feel at home.

“Turkish audiences learn new anthems from the African and Arab worlds, which gives them the opportunity to learn about new cultures and enrich their exchanges with the people of Arab countries. In this way, our musical gatherings play an important role in social integration in Turkey,” she says.

Before joining the group, she participated in different projects in Istanbul where she performed Ottoman, Turkish and Central Asian Sufi music.

At the opening of each musical gathering, Mr. Kaymak usually gives a speech and encourages the audience to accompany him in the renditions of the hymns.

“The applause and the participation of the public reinforce the positive atmosphere and the harmonious unfolding of the gathering”, insists Hatice Gulbahar Hepsev.

Every week, new singers and instrumentalists join the meshkwhich makes it a dynamic project in constant evolution.

This text is the translation of an article published on

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