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Bay Area Beats: Isik Berfin on keeping Alevi traditions alive through music

Sonia Narang
Isik Berfin playing the daf


21-year-old San Francisco student Isik Berfin has a special bond with her mom. Both are musicians in the Turkish Alevi tradition, which has been passed down in their Kurdish family through generations. Alevism is nominally a branch of Islam, but also has influences from Sufism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and shamanism. 

Many people know about the Armenian genocide in Turkey, which was commemorated earlier this week — but fewer are aware that the Alevis have also faced persecution, both historically and in recent years.

This is why Berfin’s family ended up here in the Bay Area, and it’s also part of why she’s so passionate about keeping her music and culture alive. 

In this edition of Bay Area Beats, Berfin talks about the importance of lineage. She and her mother, Özden Öztoprak, will also perform a few songs with baglama, a kind of lute, and daf, a type of drum. 

Berfin and Özden will be performing at Sounds of California, a concert at San Francisco’s Bayview Opera House that will also feature music from the Bay Area’s African American, Vietnamese, and Chicano communities.

"My mom taught me that it doesn't take a person to become a musician when they just play music, looking at the notes. It takes a person to become a musician when they play it with emotion and feeling."

Crosscurrents MusicImmigration
Jen Chien was the managing editor for Crosscurrents and KALW News from 2016 to 2018. She has been a contributor to All Things Considered, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, BBC/PRI’s The World, Making Contact, SF Public Press, East Bay Express, New America Media, and KPFA in Berkeley, where she took part in the First Voice Apprenticeship Program. She is the recipient of the 2013 Outstanding Emerging Journalist Award from the Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California. She holds a BA in American Studies from Smith College, and an MA in Interdisciplinary Performance from New College of California. Before entering the field of journalism, she had a successful career as a professional dance and theater artist, teacher, and massage therapist.