Colin O’Donohoe seeks to unite people through the language of music. Recently, this mission took him from Tempe to Turkey.
The Chandler man founded the Pangean Orchestra, or the “Immigrant Orchestra,” in the East Valley in 2010 and is re-establishing it in Istanbul.
The Pangean Orchestra comprises musicians drawn from various countries who play their traditional instruments.
They harmonize seemingly incompatible instruments, such as the stringed instrument, qanun, from Iraq; the percussion instrument, tabla, from India and the goblet drum, Djembe, from West Africa; and play music in new ways.
Think of a Chinese version of Irish music, or a Senegalese song played with American instruments.
“I’m trying to create a new style of orchestra that speaks to the people of today,” O’Donohoe said. “A couple hundred years ago, orchestra was a cool thing to do. Now it seems to have connotations of upper class or something elegant. I want to take some of that elegance and make it more personable.”
O’Donohoe, who divides his time between Chandler and Istanbul, is crowdfunding to enable members of his orchestra, both local and Turkish, to travel back and forth to perform concerts.
He also organized a concert during the July 4th weekend at Tempe Historical Museum.
It all began in 2001, when O’Donohoe played in a Turkish band in Tempe, and was invited to visit Turkey.
A band member who had municipal government contacts in Kusadasi, a western town in the country, recommended him when it sought to commission a piece of music for a chamber orchestra. He organized the concert last November.
“It has opened doors for me,” O’Donohoe said. “Because I was given that first commission, it gave me some credibility with the Turkish musicians. They knew I was invited by the government and they could trust me.
“When you’re an immigrant, you are starting from zero and you need to establish yourself and it doesn’t matter what you’re able to establish before because now you have to accomplish it in the new home,” he added.
“That’s why I’m really grateful to get a commission from them because it was really my first big step towards being able to become a leader and conductor of my own projects in Istanbul.”
O’Donohoe’s orchestra includes several musicians in Istanbul, Syrian refugees, Iranians and other immigrants. He wants to build a relationship between the two countries, but it hinges on his ability to raise the funding.
If he can raise about $12,000, he can organize a concert series, he said, which could be repeated each season and be held in both countries, as well as Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Mali in West Africa, two places he has traveled to in connection with his experiments in mixing music.
Among O’Donohoe’s local members of the Pangean Orchestra is Chinese flute/pipa player Lai Ma; American musician of Irish music Brian Harris; Burundi drummer Pierre Gasimbo; turntablist DJ Akshen; and Iraqi Qanun player Ali Kamil.
Harris, from Chandler, has been a member from the orchestra’s inception, after O’Donohoe persuaded him to do an Irish jig set at a concert in Phoenix.
He plays the Irish tin whistle, also known as a penny whistle, a 6-holed, end-blown wind instrument, similar to a recorder. The instrument is heavily associated with Irish and Scottish folk traditions, though it makes occasional appearances in other forms of music.
“It was a blast! I was happy to be a part of it,” said Harris, who was hooked from that point.
“I liked meeting the different musicians from around the world and the exposure to music I normally don’t get to hear. Though we all have different musical traditions, the love of music is the common thread for us all. That was a cool thing to experience,” he said.
Gathering musicians from immigrant groups and inviting them to join an orchestra that would blend their music is not a smooth process. Trust is one of the basic challenges for O’Donohoe.
“Musicians work so hard to dedicate their life to a specific style of music and they want to be taken seriously and they deserve to be taken seriously,” O’Donohoe said. “When you start to blend music, they don’t want to lose their identity, because it’s hard enough when they are in America.
“They feel like they’ve already lost a bit of their identity or they’ve changed a little bit just to be in the new place,” he said.
In this instance, he tells them, “You’re going to have to give a little bit. There’ll be times when you don’t, there’ll be times where you can show exactly what you want to say. What you’ve been working on, you can do it unadulterated exactly the way you would wish it to be performed.
Harris said that the music he plays in the orchestra is different from the traditional Irish music he plays.
“And that’s what I like about the Pangean concept – that we are able to weave so many vastly different music traditions from around the world and create something new and exciting out of it,” he said.
O’Donohoe also tells them to look at new ways of playing music.
“Music is always evolving. Even if you stay in your own country, your music evolves every decade, that’s why we have the music of the ’80s, ’90s and so on,” he said.
For O’Donohoe, the logistics of getting people together is another issue, and so is language. However, language is a challenge only at the beginning.
“Once you have a piece of music and they listen to it, the language is not so important anymore because we’re performing. Now we don’t have to speak the same language because we’re playing music and this is what all of us were born to do and love to do,” he said. “Now we’re talking with our heart and soul and not so much with our brain and our mouth.”
O’Donohoe, who has lived in Turkey since 2017, has also found love there.
He’s engaged to an engineer from Antalya named Ceren Oztemir. Later this year, they plan to settle in Istanbul, but he will divide time with Chandler, where he has two young children from a previous marriage.
As these plans are falling into place, O’Donohoe is researching music to play during the concerts.
Among his favorites is “A Ballad for Chanakkale,” a Turkish folk song about the Battle of Gallipoli, which occurred during World War 1 on the Gallipoli Peninsula. He usually follows it with “And the Band Played Walzing Matilda,” which is written by an Australian singer and describes war as futile and horrible, and criticizes those who glorify it.
Most of his songs have been chosen for their powerful messages.
“I really feel that when people know each other from all parts of the world, it’s a lot harder to hate each other,” he said.