Gulcin Bulut: a singer sharing the wisdom and peace of Sufi music for international audiences
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“Music speaks to the soul rather than the mind…Traditional music can be grounding, so calming, and very beautiful”.
Gulcin is a Sufi singer and instrumentalist based in Manchester. She was born in Istanbul and grew up singing and playing rock music. After moving to the UK, she turned to her roots, playing traditional Turkish and Persian music, particularly Sufi poetic songs. Music is Gulcin’s passion, but she also works as an NHS counsellor/therapist and she acts as a community leader within the Turkish diaspora, helping to organise music performances and other artistic events to celebrate this culture in Manchester.
GULCIN’S MUSICAL LIFE STORY
Gulcin was born in Üsküdar, the Asian side of the city of Istanbul, Turkey. She was raised in a smaller city, Tekirdag, around 2 hours from the capital, but found herself regularly back in Istanbul to visit extended family. From an early age, Gulcin was recognised for her musical talents, getting picked for school shows and choir solos. At secondary school, her interest in music deepened, and she started learning the guitar at a local music centre. As a teenager, she began listening to rock music, including American hard rock groups like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica as well as Turkish psychedelic bands such as Baris Manco and Cem Karaca. At the age of 13, she set up her first rock band with friends from the music centre and they started playing gigs around the city.
"I was singing to myself as a child. Both of my parents worked so I used to be with my grandparents and spent my time listening to songs and learning songs and practising in front of the mirror…When I reached secondary school, I wanted to do more, I wanted to be able to play an instrument…That’s when I really started enjoying learning more about music…I met other people like me who were into music, and we started to form a band together”.
“We started doing Turkish rock music as well as international and that was a great experience, I loved it…The cultural centre of our city hosted us, we had the room to practise. We used to perform at the weekends at the top of the bar area, during the day…We were able to perform in the large cinema area once a year when they did a festival where all the groups came together. I was a singer. I played the guitar as well, but I wanted to focus on the singing”.
Gulcin moved to Bursa to study tourism and hotel management at Uludag University, but she was always engaged with music. She helped set up the university orchestra and became one of its vocalists, performing popular music concerts on the campus and also in a local hotel. Gulcin had studied with ambitions of working in a five-star hotel in Turkey, but her dreams called out to her to move to England. In 2001, she relocated to Telford, staying there for a few months until some cousins based in Manchester encouraged her to move to the city.
“I decided that I wanted to live in England when I was 15…It was just some sort of an inner knowing…I needed to be here…I felt the land is calling me…I did dream about it a couple of times at night…I came here following my dreams – my literal dreams!”.
“I fell in love with the language first, because we were singing in English…so I think that’s initially how the curiosity started happening…I remember saying to my friends and my family that I want to be a global person…so therefore I chose to study two years in Turkey and then come abroad and do some studies in English. So I came here and I studied English and did some other studies around tourism and hotel management…But everything changed when I came…All my plans and even the area that I work in completely changed”.
Gulcin’s life changed rapidly. As well as moving to another country and completing her Higher National Diploma training in tourism, she got married and had a daughter. This was a challenging transition for Gulcin, which led her down a path of reinvention.
“I came with my books and my guitar and my music. I was thinking that everything is going to be the same. Little did I know how it was going to change my life. I initially felt like I was transported to another world…I wasn’t expecting everything to be so different…I had that initial cultural shock”.
“I wasn’t planning to get married at the age of 25 and be a mum at the age of 26. My life changed so quickly that I could not adapt…I stopped the music because I was maybe particularly feeling that stress and pressure of being in a different country, trying to make a successful outcome of this adventure for myself…Music was triggering being homesick and it was making me feel worse…I locked that away for a while…I did have some sort of depression…Then obviously I started soul searching…It was an opportunity for me to find what will make me happy in life, to dig deeper”.
Gulcin retrained as a counsellor and got back into music. However, she wanted music that felt more grounded, more deeply rooted, than the pop/rock she had played in the past, so she started playing Turkish folk music and Turkish and Persian Sufi music. In 2013, she joined a choir, Sacred Sounds, which performed all over Manchester, including the Royal Exchange and the RNCM. Around the same time, Gulcin started learning the frame drum, first the daf and later the bendir, to accompany herself singing Sufi songs. She met other musicians with similar interests and set up a group for learning the daf.
“Being an immigrant, I feel like, to a certain degree, you need to reinvent yourself, to find how you can adapt and continue living there, being yourself and maybe matching your values with the country that you’re living in…When I was exploring myself and going through that transformational journey, my music taste started changing because of my migration. That grief and that longing started coming together…I started to be drawn to more traditional songs, not usual Turkish pop music, but the root of where I’m coming from…which for me was Turkish folk music and Sufi music”.
“In 2014/15, I realised that, coming back to music, singing again, was making me feel more whole, integrated and authentic. I was thinking that I cannot leave this part of me outside of my life, because it’s a big part of me and trying to cut that from my life was the worst decision I’ve ever made. But it wasn’t a decision, it was like I was trying to protect myself…I felt like, if I was too emotional, I wouldn’t last here because and I would have to go back and that will be such a terrible failure…Being a migrant is so difficult…So, it was me trying to turn off my emotions and act like I’m handling it…but I was not being authentic to myself”.
“Daf is a very dimensional instrument. You’ve got your classical ‘tom’, ‘back’, ‘chap’, but you have also got the rings inside of the drum and some other movements which creates some good music. It’s been played for 1500 years. It’s an ancient instrument. I think that’s what I was moving towards – ancient, authentic, connecting with roots. Maybe it just made me feel safe and made me made me feel more connected to the things that I loved”.
The daf group gradually turned into a band, the Sabha Ensemble. With this group, Gulcin has been performing Turkish folk music and Sufi music all over the city, singing alongside traditional Persian instruments including kamancheh, tar and santur and Turkish instruments such as baglama. In addition to this, Gulcin also acts as a community leader for the Turkish diaspora in Manchester, running a Turkish choir and organising performances and events to help build this “family”. Gulcin continues to pursue music as her passion, keeping her main job as a counsellor and therapist in the NHS so that she can remain free to sing and perform in the way that she desires. She is currently writing her own songs and hopes to bring the guitar into her Sufi music, and she also wants to collaborate with other international musicians as part of her aim to share music with people from all different backgrounds.
“The Sahba Ensemble [gave] me a new world, new doors opened…I started to become a more confident singer. I knew what sort of things I enjoyed singing…We sing poetry from Sufi teachers like Rumi, Hafez, Saadi. These are the poetry that comes from 12th/13th century, words of wisdom. I think when music and these healing or therapeutic words come together, that’s where I really enjoy music”.
“The journey always continues – finding my voice, finding my music, finding myself. That’s coming together, expressing my artistic side, getting more confident day by day…I feel like I’m on the right track”.
THE MEANINGS OF GULCIN’S MUSIC
For Gulcin, singing is a deeply spiritual experience; she stresses that, otherwise, she would not be performing. Music has offered Gulcin an outlet for self-expression and, after her experience of migration, for self-reinvention, and she points out that it can have a therapeutic function for many listeners too. She suggests that all music is to some extent spiritual, but that she particularly loves the Sufi music because it directly harnesses the power of music for spiritual experience. She highlights that it is important not to lose these traditional music forms which preserve centuries of knowledge and wisdom, both in their messages and their sounds.
“Turkish Sufi music and Persian Sufi music talk about irfan, wisdom, and it helps people to feel calm with the type of instruments that is used…It’s quite healing and calming to the people who are listening. So, it’s sort of music therapy, in a way. It’s music that could have therapeutic influence on people. And that’s the sort of music that I like, I don’t do music to just come and perform…The reason why I do music is to be able to share this beauty with everyone, so I’m sharing it as a singer, but I also enjoy sharing it as a listener when I go to other people’s concerts. I do enjoy all traditional music from all countries, all sacred music from all different countries around the world”.
“The ideas of Sufism have always been part of me, like being very humanistic and being empathic and being loving towards all living beings…But I discovered Sufism here [in Manchester], especially, I suppose, when I was trying to find myself in that reinvention process of ‘Who am I?’ I never really had the chance to look into this when I was in Turkey, because my family was more secular…My mom’s parents were really, really lovely people and they were practising Islam. They weren’t Sufis, but they gave me a good example of how to be a good person…Rumi is quite well known in Turkey – he moved to Turkey as a child and he lived and died in Turkey in the city of Konya – so my main influence is Rumi and his ideas of humanism and togetherness, that we’re all connected…When I found out about more about Sufism, I felt it was part of my being, all the time, I just found my tribe of people!”.
SUFI MUSIC IN MANCHESTER
Gulcin suggests that Manchester is a musically rich city because it has so much cultural diversity, which allows residents to discover all kinds of different music and enjoy the chance to experience this music more deeply through live performance. She also values the opportunities for women in the city, feeling that people in Manchester are much more conscious of gender equality than in many other cities, and this has helped her to build her confidence as a singer and as a leader within the Turkish community.
“Manchester is very cosmopolitan and it has this richness about so many cultures living together. This is similar to Turkey, we have that environment since the Ottoman Empire times, it was always the case where people from different backgrounds lived together. So, I manage to experience that richness of different cultures over here. I think that played an important part in how I shaped my music, what way I want to play music, who I want to come together with. When I look into what kind of people have been our audiences, it is people with similar interests in history, literature, cultures, world music. I think we all share the same values with our listeners…that curiosity, that interest to know each other, honour each other. I think that Manchester is a nice place to be able to do that. Mostly, I’m proud I never really had a bad experience over here. I’m sure that extreme cases do exist for some people, I’m sure some people have experienced negative things, but I didn’t. I felt like this was a safe place to be. So, when you feel held in a city that is safe and it’s free, then you can easily be yourself, so it has become a good container for me!”.
“I think one of the other things also brought me here…was that I wasn’t happy about the disrespect that women were experiencing [in Turkey]. The women’s rights were not observed…I felt, as a young woman, at some occasions, I didn’t feel safe or I didn’t feel like I was treated with the dignity or respect that I deserved. In my family, it wasn’t like that. I come from a democratic family. My father raised me as a modern Turkish woman, and my mom as well. My mom was a great example to me in that sense, too. I felt like I was not in tune with that in my home country…My daf has an image, the face of a beautiful woman with some leaves. There is a poem on it, written in Persian…It says ‘May your cheeks be rosy as tulip all year around/May your beauty rise every day’. It’s a short line of a poem by Hafez. It’s a beautiful wish to have on your drum”.
“The Secret of Love/Mevlam” (SEE VIDEO)
This performance is from the “Eternal Fire” concert at the Church of Holy Name, which was a collaboration between the Sabha Ensemble with singers from Sacred Sounds, who performed Sufi music, and Catherine Braslavsky and Joseph Rowe, who performed Gregorian chant and songs from other sacred traditions.
“The Secret of Love” is a 13th century poem from Saadi, set to “Gushe Kereshme” in the Persian radif. “Mevlam” is a Turkish Sufi song from the 16th century. It means “My Lord” and the full title is “My Lord, give me your love”.
“This is the classical Persian music style…I’ve had some private lessons from a quite a famous Persian singer called Sepideh Raissadat. She’s very well known in Iran and she’s very well respected in the international Sufi community as well…This was one of the first goushehs I’ve learned from the dastgah, their musical system. In their musical system, it was explained to me that these are the streets of the city, goushehs are the little streets of the whole city, and I think there are about 250 goushehs that makes up their radif. There can be one person’s poem or another teacher’s poem that’s been sang in that way, like a makam, but I think the goushehs are even more local and unique than makams. It has certain notes, it reaches certain notes and then comes back down, it’s like a circle, so it starts from the same note and finishes on the same note…I loved it…and then we have actually mixed that together with a Turkish song…I think they came together quite well because they are on the same tone”.
The Secret of Love (Translated by Pasha Abdollahi):
“I made a thousand efforts to hide the secret of love
But being on fire, how could I stay calm?
I was conscious not to give my heart to anyone
But I saw you and my reason and patience were gone
You gave me up for nothing and I still say
That I will not give a strand of your hair for an universe”.
Mevlam (Translated by Pasha Abdollahi and Gulcin Bulut):
“Lord, give me your Love
Allah Hu Allah Hu Allah
O Lord, O Lord, O Lord
My Lord, give me your Love
Let me be bewildered in you
Like a nightingale in your rose garden
Let me sing the songs of yearning for you
Enflame me and wake me up
Rob my reason with the wine of love
Make me drunk, make me whirl
Let me be a drunken lover for you”.
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Gulcin Bulut: a singer sharing the wisdom and peace of Sufi music for international audiences
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