Baton Rouge Traditions

Sacred Sounds in Baton Rouge Churches, Synagogues, Temples, and Mosques

By Maureen Loughran


Page 4

Instruments in Religious Services

Sacred sounds are not restricted to the voice, as instruments can often play a similar role to singing in religious services. The flute, in particular, lends itself to easy comparison with the voice. Both use breath to propel sound into music. Those who play the flute often refer to the instrument's "voice," for the expressive sound produced by an instrumentalist. And in some cultures, the flute appears in folktales and stories as a symbol of communication and magical protection. Unlike an Islamic service at a mosque, the Islamic mystic tradition of Sufism places a priority on music in their religious services and in particular, a reed flute called the ney.

Playing the Ney: Sufi Sacred Music

Kazim Sekeroglu is in his final year as a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Louisiana State University and is also a master student of the ney, a reed flute used in Sufi Islam sacred rituals. As a native of Turkey, Kazim takes particular pride in the ney and its repertoire, which he practices when he is not conducting dissertation research. He recalls it was during a visit with another student, his good friend back in Turkey, to his hometown of Sivas that Kazim first became interested in the ney:

Kazim Sekeroglu posing with ney. Photo: Maureen Loughran.

I took him to some historical place and there was some music playing there, and it was ney. And I knew it. But at that time, because of the atmosphere or something, it really affected me deeply. And I went to one of the officers that was working in that place and I told him, "What is the CD? Who is playing, this one?" And he was so generous and he told me, "You know what? You can't find this in Sivas. We found it in Istanbul city. But we have two copies of it. I could give you one of them." I was like, wow that's awesome! [He] just handed it over, so I took it. Then, I travel with my friend from Sivas to Ankara, with train it took eleven hours. So those eleven hours, I listened to the CD. There were eleven different songs in it. It was instrumental, so for almost eleven hours I listened with my CD player. Then right after that, I talked to my friend. He's from Adana. (1) The ney is made from a reed. . . . So those south region of Turkey, there are a lot of reed grown so those people, they know more about ney. So I told, "Do you have any friends that can find me a ney?" He told me, "Yes, I have one, actually." So he asked his friend's family and they sent a ney from Adana to Ankara.

The next challenge for Kazim was to find a teacher. In the Sufi tradition of learning, it is considered best to learn not from books or general group classes. The best learning happens one on one, being trained by a great player. Kazim was lucky to find Ekrem Vural, an elderly government worker who in his native Turkey was considered a master musician of the ney. To learn the instrument is also to commit to it, as it takes years of direct mentorship to gain all the knowledge necessary for playing the repertoire.

Audio Player
Kazim Sekeroglu demonstrates the ney with two pieces, the first an instrumental setting of 14th century poetry by the early 20th century composer Sulyeman Ergeniz, and the second a more modern instrumental piece of film music. Recorded at his home in Baton Rouge, LA. March 7, 2016. Field recording by Maureen Loughran.

Kazim spent many years working with his master teacher, all the while continuing his studies in engineering. However, when he moved to Baton Rouge to complete his Ph.D. studies, it became more difficult to maintain the close lesson habit he had developed with his master teacher back in Turkey. Kazim explained that while he did try to do online lessons with his mentor, it just did not work as well as being present with his teacher. So, he began studying by himself, seeking out ways to learn from different sources. He explained the process:

So when I came to the United States, I brought my ney with me as I do wherever I go. So I tried doing it by myself, some online courses but it didn't really work. Then I thought, I may not be really qualified to teach but one way of improving yourself is teaching. So I started teaching ney. I have two or three friends. So we gather at least a week, every week, we are playing together. So I try to teach them how to play" (Sekerouglou 2016).

Some of the repertoire that Kazim and his students play comes from the Sufi tradition, a devotional music that is used in sacred mystical rites of Sufi Islam. One such sect of Sufism in Turkey is the Mevlevi sect, also known as the Whirling Dervishes. The music set used for a Whirling Dervish ceremony (also known as a Mevlevi sema) is called an âyin. The ney is one of the most important instruments in any Mevlevi âyin. As Kazim describes, the ney player is called the neyzen, and the leader of the ney players is called the neyzen basi which is also the name of the director of the whole ensemble. A group may also include instruments like a kudum, tambour, kanun, and oud. So far, in Baton Rouge, he has not encountered other musicians who play the instruments found in a Sufi ensemble. And so, he's concentrated his efforts on developing his own skill on the ney.

The centrality of the ney to the Sufi repertoire finds its expression in its origin story. The Sufi mystic poet, Rumi, in his epic poem in six books, called The Masnavi, tells the story of the ney at the very beginning of the poem. Kazim shared one version of the origin story that he had heard:

The Prophet had a secret and he told that secret to one of his close friends and his follower and his cousin. Then told them "This is a secret! Don't tell anyone!" So, that secret was too heavy and screamed it to the ditch-place. And then the reed grew from the ditch, and one person took that reed and made the instrument and played that one. And one prophet was passing through when he was playing and he said, that instrument, the sound come from that instrument. "That's the secret of what I told you" (Sekerouglou 2016).

The mystical healing power of the music is also embedded in the theoretical systems that are used to compose the music. In his research into ney repertoire, Kazim came across a book which relates specific musical modes, called makams in Sufi music, to healing properties. For example, if someone has heart disease, they should listen to music based in a specific makam, in this case, the Uşşak makam. This healing interpretation of music even found its way into the medical system of medieval Turkey. Kazim shared that in the 14th century, in his hometown of Sivas, there was a hospital in which the ney was used to alleviate people of mental health problems. The power of the music to enable healing seems to be an ancient trait.

Two types of ney resting on a music stand with the two pieces of music which Kazim demonstrated in the interview. Note the nine segments in each ney. Photo: Maureen Loughran.

Another term for the music used in the Mevlevi ceremony, which Kazim plays, is the Rumi âyin, a progressive musical set in which the music propels the whirling dervishes into a state of prayerful ecstasy. The head neyzen plays an important role in the âyin, as he would first play an improvisation, or taksim, on the selected makam. This would set the mood for the âyin. As the musicians go through the various stages of the âyin, the atmosphere becomes more and more conducive for the whirling dervishes to attain a state of ecstasy. When asked if he grew up going to these performances in Turkey, he said it was only in college that he went, but he noted the effect of tourism on the tradition:

If you look at the history, it is done every day in a dergah, where those dervishes were coming together and they might be living together. But after that . . . during the 19th and 20th century, it becomes more touristic. Now, those dervishes are all over the world. They do that everywhere, every time, you know. There is no certain time and place now.

Today, in Turkey, attitudes toward the ney are a bit more modern. The ney will be heard most prominently around Ramadan, and is even a key feature in certain television show's theme music and in film. One of the pieces that Kazim plays in particular is from a well-known Turkish film. And so the repertoire is not restricted to religious venues. It would not be unusual to find female ney players, and there are even neys specifically made for female players. However, religious music is still played only by men.

At his home in Baton Rouge, Kazim has a collection of neys, each of which produces a different kind of tone depending on the length of the instrument. Back in Turkey, there are at least 10 different sizes of ney, but what they all have in common is that the reed used to fashion the ney must have nine segments and be straight. That is why finding the perfect reed is so important. One of the things that Kazim has decided to do before he returns to Turkey is make a pilgrimage to see the oldest ney in existence, which is in a museum collection at Pennsylvania State University. As someone who has such a love for the instrument, he understands the commitment it takes to play and practice, but also sees the benefit of playing, "it requires really hard working. I know a person who was playing seven, eight hours every day, so it's not easy. Being a PhD student in another field, yeah but it's pretty good when you have stress or anger or anything, just blow out, just take them go out from you."


Music and song have a central but sometimes conflicting position within religious faiths, as seen in this project. The Biblical story of Lucifer being cast of our heaven while also being God's choir director was often given as an example for how potentially distracting music can become to the mission of a faith community. In other denominations, the word music was not an adequate term for describing how prayer and sacred language is employed in their worship service and daily lives. Still, the singing of sacred texts and prayerful language is an important method for delivering a holy message, whether that be communication of God's words or communication with God. Common to all the communities documented was the importance of the institution for maintaining and guarding musical traditions. Almost all the communities in this project were part of a specific institution, whether church, mosque, or synagogue, and in the case of the Shape Note community, on-line connections with other singing groups. Through these institutions, rules are set as to how music (or recitation) will be employed in the worship service, discussions are had about the need for shaping new rules, and community members find outlets for participation.


1. Adana is a southern province is Turkey, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south.


Bradford, Wesley. 2016. Interview with the author. March 21. Goodwood Church of Christ, Baton Rouge.

Fowler, Josh. 2016. Interview with the author. April 22. Goodwood Church of Christ of Baton Rouge.

Knighten, Donald and Leo Perkins. 2016. Interview with the author. April 27. Greater St James Baptist Church of Baton Rouge.

Lacraru, Emanuela and Jaycob Warful. 2016. Interview with the author. March 20. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Baton Rouge.

Monteleone, Anthony. 2016. Interview with the author. March 29. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Baton Rouge.

Olivier, Nanette and Charlene Heaton. 2016. Interview with the author. April 28. Baton Rouge Sacred Harp Singers.

Quang, Thich Dao. 2016. Interview with the author. April 2. Tam Bao Meditation Temple, Baton Rouge.

Rice. Antonio. 2016. Interview with the author. March 17. Greater New Guide Baptist Church, Baton Rouge.

Rushing, Stephen. 2016. Interview with the author. March 11. B'nai Israel Synagogue, Baton Rouge

Sekerouglou, Kazim. 2016. Interview with author. March 7. Baton Rouge.

Soysal, Ömer, Suleiman Suleiman, Nafes Hakim-Khiry Furqan, Muhammad Abelussalam, and Hanif Soysal. 2016. Interview with the author. February 27. Masjid Al-Rahman campus, Islamic Center of Baton Rouge.

Summers, Deidre. 2016. Interview with the author. March 22. First Pentecostal Church of Baton Rouge.

Van, Fred. 2016. Interview with the author. April 11. Tam Bao Meditation Temple, Baton Rouge.

Webster, Pastor Isaiah. 2016. Interview with the author. April 4. Greater New Guide Baptist Church of Baton Rouge.

Maureen Loughran is an ethnomusicologist based in New York, New York. This article was prepared in 2016 as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.