According to Önder Focan, a jazz musician should be humble, should listen to the other musicians in the band while playing and respect them. Because a mystery is solved every time you listen to jazz.
Önder Focan’s first instrument was mandolin. Then guitar and jazz followed. He played a jazz piece with his friends in a competition between high schools, they were disqualified because it was “improvised”. He says he plays a bit of tambour and piano, but adds “It might be rude to call it playing, though.” He loves Turkish Classical Music, he plays it professionally as well. He likes jazz with a touch of jazz.
I conversed with Önder Focan for NTV Radio’s “Bizim Cazcılar” series. Hakan Rauf Tüfekçi had previously told me that I would learn a lot of things from Focan. The words of this valuable musician, who started playing jazz in a period when jazz musicians were viewed merely as “musicians who played in hotel lobbies” and who is now one of the leading names in Turkish music (and also the owner of the longest-standing jazz club Nardis), are very educational, especially for those who like to keep jazz ate an arm’s length.
While you read this interview, you can listen to one of the pieces Focan picked. “Pek Methini Duyduk” from “Sekiz”, “Without a Song” from Sonny Rollins’s album “The Bridge”, “Eski Küçük Şehir” featuring Meltem Ege from “Songbook” album, “Salatanın Suyu” from Önder Focan & Şallıel Bros. Funkbook album.
Mr. Focan, how were you first introduced to music?
I had a great interest in instruments. We didn’t have so many instruments at hand at the time, but primary schools had mandolin lessons. I acquired a mandolin during third grade, and started to take lessons. I excelled really fast. Our teacher would bring Classical Music methods of arrangements made for the mandolin. We would play from these, and he would make me play the harder parts and the second voice. The popular music of those years were The Beatles. I wanted to play the guitar as well, but I wasn’t easily able to get a guitar. I got my first guitar when I was about 13-14 years old. I first played pop music, then rock and after that, jazz. I was completely autodidactic. I taught myself. This is how I started playing and how I progressed. I have focused solely on jazz since I was 20 years old.
Did you have other musicians in your family, did they support you?
My grandfather on my father’s side was a Turkish music composer. I have his hand written sheet music. His friends would gather up at their house and played together when we went to visit. He was a qanun player. That might have been an influence. My grandmother had good aural skills. She could play some tunes on the piano. She wasn’t a pianist, and she didn’t have any formal training, though. My father could play some tines by the ear as well. Generally speaking, my family had an affinity to music, but my grandfather was the only real performer. They all had interest in music, though, and supported it.
“We Played Jazz at a High School Competition, and Got Disqualified.”
How did you start playing jazz?
I believe it was around my second or third year in high school. Back then, our greatest desire was to enter Milliyet’s competition between high schools. We entered one of them. There was a band called King Crimson, they have a live album called “Earthbound”. A friend brought it. We got so excited, it was amazing! There was a 11-minute piece; it was great! I worked one month to transcribe the mellotron guitar and saxophone solos.A friend helped me as well. The others would wait for us outside, playing miniature goal football. It turns out—the solos were improvisations. We though they were necessary and mandatory back then, and played them note by note during the competition. Do you know what happened? We got disqualified for playing improvisations. Because the piece is 11 minutes long and nobody expects such a piece from a high school band. Those practices were really useful, though. That band’s music leaned towards jazz and blues. I think they played a role in my interest in jazz.
“A Little Tambur, A Little Piano, But It Would Be Rude to Call It Playing”
What kind of music were you listening to back in those days?
There were several rock bands I would listen to and admire. I still do. These bands would have their unique color, they would evoke ideas in me (these musicians knew jazz to a degree). I thought “In order to play rock well, one has to learn about jazz as well” and I started listening to jazz. And I stayed there—rock was over for me. Actually, it is not completely over, I still listen to it occasionally, but I stuck with jazz as a performer, guitarist and composer. Just to make it clear—rock lead me to jazz. Not today’s rock, but Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin instead of Pink Floyd. Later on, the jazz-rock movement emerged. Jazz mingled with rock is what ultimately lead me to play jazz.
Do you play any other instruments than the guitar?
There are some instruments I play by myself at home, but not in front of an audience. For example, piano, but barely. Tambur, but again, not too much. I play it by myself at home, I was working to adapt the tambur technique for the guitar once. So there are some instruments I keep secret. Because, it would be rude to call it playing when there are master musicians who gave their years to these instruments. It is nice to seek out other colors at home, though.
“Jazz Musicians Were Considered As Hotel Lobby Musicians”
You have another profession as well, but your musician identity and jazz are always more emphasised.
Yes, I have two professions. I studied mechanical engineering at Middle East Technical University. And I practice this. I have been doing both of these jobs all my life. But I have only played jazz as a professional musician. I didn’t play popular music, maybe once or twice. I was able to focus on jazz due to this. Jazz always kept its special place for me.
You represented Turkey at the Internation Jazz Festival in Cannes in 1997 on behalf of IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts). Could you tell us about that?
Istanbul Jazz Festival was a member of the International Jazz Festival which had the participation of 11 European countries. MIDEM always has some sort of an organisation. They named that concert in 1997 as “guitar night” and 11 guitarist from different countries took stage. I think I honourably represented Turkey. Arrangements were made and sent to us. We practiced our own parts. We were told where and when to play our solos. We played some together as 11 guitarists. I was number 4, there were incredible musicians, most of them are world famous now. It was an interesting evening…
Let’s talk about your albums. You started out with cassettes.
I have a cassette called “Jazz Guitar”, before the CD format became prevalent, in 1994. Back then we were composing a lot. By us I mean, me and my friend İlkin Deniz, the bassist of Telvin. I know Kerem used to as well. People would consider Turkish jazz musicians as musicians who play in hotel lobbies. We actually had a lot of accumulated materials, but couldn’t present them. Then, we couldn’t record, because the recording opportunities back then were minimal. First, İlkin recorded a cassette called “Gece Dansı”. Meanwhile I made made a record, the cassette called “Jazz Guitar”. My compositions were arrangements of examples of Turkish Music and popular music. There were no jazz standards in that record. We then released that in cassette format. Then the era of CDs started. CDs were being produced in Turkey as well. Along came “Erken”. “Erken” consists solely of my own compositions. Back then Şenova Ülker and I would play those compositions on the stage. We thought that since we had an active band, and some compositions ready, why not make an album. This was our state of mind, not about the album, but this was only one part of the picture. It was a period with a intense agenda. The Bosnian War was going on. As you know, it is the second bloodiest war in Europe in the current history, following Second World War. That affected people. Actually, all wars do, but I was particularly affected by that particular one. I even wrote a piece called “Bosna-Hersek”.
“Compositions For Salad Dressing And The Color Of A Cat”
Every composition has its own memory, doesn’t it?
Yes, there is always something that influences me. A joke somebody makes, for example. I noticed this when I was first learning about jazz and looking through jazz repertoires. There is a piece called “Airegin”. It becomes “Nigeria” if you read it backwards. There is a pice named after the number of a hotel room. I have many different interests; one of them is football. I got excited about a great movement during a match and wrote a piece about it. My son saw a cat once, there is a guitar color called ‘Sunburst’ that is similar to the tortoiseshell color of a cat. He said “Dad, look, a sunburst cat.” I wrote a piece called “Sunburst Cat”. We played it once again in my latest album. There are interesting track names in that album. For example, the leftover dressing at the bottom of a plate of Greek Salad is one of my favourite things. We have a piece called “Salatanın Suyu” (Salad Dressing). Also, you know that feeling one gets when one is so thirsty and that first sip has a different taste. There is a piece called “İlk Yudum” (First Sip). The first track in the latest album. Then there is a piece I wrote to commemorate a friend who passed away. This piece, called “AB’s Dream”, is on several of my previous albums, as well as this latest one with a different interpretation. We lost Ajlan Büyükburç at a very young age, as you know. We made a vocalist album together. We recorded it in New York. She used to call one of the harder pieces that we recorded “Önder ağabey (brother) this is my nightmare.” We lost Ajlan shortly after that. We were devastated. She was really loved and so young. I wrote a piece for her with her initials and gave her a sweet dream, to make up for the nightmare she experienced because of me…
How is your relationship with the younger generation jazz musicians, do they get in contact with you?
We have a club that has been active since 2002. Its name is Nardis. Nardis is the longest-standing jazz club in Turkey. When we first opened, Bilgi University Jazz Performance department was still active and there were a lot of bright musicians coming out. Those bright and young musicians frequently performed in Nardis. We got to know them and they got to know us. Then the department closed, but they grew up to be some of the most important musicians of Turkey. As a result, we have very close relationships with that generation and the one that followed it through our jazz club. We get to know them, we play together. We arrange performances for them and I follow them all. My most recent album is called “Önder Focan ve Şallıel Kardeşler” or “Şallıel Bros”. One of the Şallıer brothers is 21 and the other is 22. They are both younger than my son. You can work together with such young people, or old people who can still perform. You can play with anyone, or listen to anyone. It is very pleasant.
There are a lot of jazz clubs overseas, but only a few in Turkey. What kind of a relationship is there between jazz and society?
Most established jazz clubs are in New York. Jazz production is mainly in New York right now as well. Everybody thinks of New Orleans when jazz is concerned but the main stage of jazz right now is New York. All of the musicians in New York are working really hard to succeed in getting booked by the venues and there really is some top notch musicians there. Therefore, there are at least 10 jazz stages there that I can count right now. They seemed to struggle a bit in the past, but I think now they are as strong as ever in New York. It isn’t the same for those in Europe, though. Europe—England, France, by England I mean London, Paris are still going strong, but Scandinavia, once the stronghold of jazz, is now losing a lot of blood. There is one jazz club in Helsinki now. There was non until a year ago. I mean, a jazz club in a serious sense. I am not talking about restaurants that have jazz performances on their stages, but Europe also has a deficiency in the number of serious jazz clubs. I don’t know why. It could be due to ease of consumption. It could be due to the changes in sociocultural consumption. It might be because the CDs etc. are not slowly disappearing and people are watching what they want to on the internet. It could be because people have started spending more time at home because they have internet. There hasn’t been more than two jazz clubs at a time in Istanbul. They didn’t last long, either. 2 years, maybe 3 or 4 at most. Nardis is now finishing its 14 year. Of course, there is a need for more. There are venues that support jazz and book jazz musicians. I know of two places in Kadıköy, for example. There are some on the European side as well. This is a good thing…
“I Like Rock, Especially Non-Commercialised Rock”
Didn’t you want to stay abroad and make your music there?
Things might have been different if I had the opportunity to go abroad during my student years or in my youth. I went years after those periods. Since I went at an older age, I had a comprehensive and stable life here, so I didn’t have an occasion to stay abroad. Also, it is so easy to travel back and forth now. There is an advantage that comes with being Turkish. There are advantages of living in Turkey, too. We give a lot of concerts with the sponsorship of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Do you listen to any other genres of music other than jazz, which one do you like the most?
There are two genres I like other than jazz. One is rock and the other is Turkish Classical Music. But I think the forms in Turkish Classical Music are similar to jazz. There are longer melodic forms. And I really love that. I have many esteemed friends, I get the opportunity to listen to them. I even occasionally play with some. I played with “Yansımalar” for a long time as a guest musician. We gave a lot of concerts overseas together. I played with Münip Utandı who only plays Turkish Classical Music. I accompanied Dilek Türkan. I take great pleasure from those. I really love that genre. I had a project with Şenol Filiz. Birol Yayla, he is a tambour player and guitarist at the same time. I always enjoy being with them and listening to them. Of course, I have always loved rock. I especially love non-commercialised rock.
How does music affect your private life? Are you one of those who say they are married to their music?
It is true that musicians are married to their music. Music occupies a very important space in our lives and we want to be alone with it quite frequently. If you are married to someone who respects that, then your marriage with that person doesn’t come between you and your music. My marriage is like that. My wife, Zuhal, has always respected my relationship with music. It never came between us. Therefore, my marriage has been going great, knock on wood. I was also able to pursue music as I liked. Because you cannot be with someone who says “Me or music, pick one!” Music is that person’s life. Actually, not only music. In every relationship partners should respect important things in each others’ lives. And not try to change the other. I think this is the formula for a lasting relationship. We will be celebrating our 30th anniversary this year.
“Jazz Musician Should Be Modest, Know to Listen When Playing With A Band”
Do you think there is such a thing as a jazz musician profile as opposed to other musicians?
There surely is an idealised version of a jazz musician profile. But since this question is directed at me, and I have to list; firstly a jazz musician should have talent, educated, practice frequently, keep his repertoire big, be able to play with different bands. He should have a big repertoire of standards and respect his bandmates while playing. In other words, he should how to listen while playing. He should have a dialogue while playing. All of these require work and dedication so a certain amount of modesty and discipline come along hand in hand. This modesty and discipline automatically form anyways. But we are all human. Each of us have our own positive and negative characteristics, our “problems”. Some of us are problematic on the stage, some are problematic during the rehearsals. Some of us think we aren’t problematic, and cause problems that way. So we deviate from the ideal. But I think this is what it means to be a jazz musician. And he must love what he does. This isn’t something that could be done without loving it. He should be in love with his work. He should frequently listen, because every time we listen to new things we learn something new along with it. A mystery is unlocked every time you listen to music. There can’t be a jazz musician who doesn’t listen. He should listen to both his bandmates and the 1945 Charlie Parker album. There really is a lot of things to do. He should always practice. His live performance should be dazzling. He should be able to perform live not every single night but easily 3-4 days per week.
Is there a gap between jazz musicians and musicians of other genres?
Those outside of jazz feel a little distant to jazz musicians. I get that feeling. I have a rocker friend. He lives in Sweden, he is 65. He is still in this state of mind, thinking “They won’t like us”. Why not? Miles Davis would go and listen to rock musicians and he inserted rock guitarists to his band. This is how jazz musicians think. “There are two kinds of music; good or bad. I chose the good.” There is a saying like that. I believe everything done with dedication, with heart and a love for music turns out to be beautiful.
I would like to thank Önder Focan for this enjoyable interview…