Interview date: 28 July 2017
I have conducted an interview with Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol last December via online video conferencing and wrote my notes about that for Jazz Dergisi. It was an interesting interview that allowed me to get to know this successful musician (in addition to being an academician and ethnomusicologist at the same time) living in the States, as well as allowed me to return to my own interests and issues. Firstly, it reminded me of the issues that have kept me busy for years, the foundation of my academic interest in jazz; the fact that the beloved “synthesis of the East and the West” projects of the early modernization in the founding of the Republic were so exciting for our classical Western music composers, while passing our jazz musicians by. Really, why among these two groups of musicians with such similar sociological backgrounds (Occidental, Kemalist, educated, they live in the city and belong to middle class families) one is in the pursuit of the “musical reformation” ideas of the Republic, writing compositions to support this claim; whereas the other group follows “mainstream” (originating from the USA) jazz, try to perform and compose with such a mindset and never think about creating a synthesis in music (let’s call it “Turkish Jazz”)? Of course, there are exceptions to this, a couple of projects especially in the recent years, but I believe that I am underlining an irrefutable fact for those who follow jazz in Turkey. Sanlıkol goes to the USA at a very early age, as I also mentioned in my previous article on Jazz Dergisi, and listens to janissary music ‘mehteran’ due to a coincidence, and decides to focus his musicology doctorate on ethnomusicology (with an emphasis on Ottoman music culture). He would go on to put his jazz life as a pianist and composer on hold for ten years, write his thesis and investigate the musics of Ottoman and neighbouring (such as Byzantium and Persia) cultures. He would also try to learn and understand how to perform these instruments and musics, and more importantly the founding ideas in their cultural systematics (Islamic mysticism ‘tasavvuf’, court ‘divan’ literature, the traditions of dervish convent ‘dergâh’ and Islamic monastery ’tekke’).
Still, his sentiments for jazz would never die, it would call out to him and emerge as a new sound. The fact that his CD Resolution, a part of his personal search and project “What’s Next?”, has been positively reviewed by Downbeat and many other serious publications and critics gave us, his listeners in Turkey, a different opportunity. Sanlıkol was invited to perform at Istanbul Jazz Festival and allowed us to experience one of the most interesting concerts of the festival in my opinion. Yes, I am calling it an “experience”. Even though it wasn’t exactly what the earlier eras of the Republic demanded, as I mentioned above, the audience was greeted with an obvious “musical synthesis” during the concert. In addition to admirers and followers of jazz and jazz venues, the concert hall was filled with many outstanding jazz musicians. And the concert started. Some were enthusiastically applauding, while some simply sulked, some even opted to leave the venue. It was impossible not to notice a wave of movement in the concert hall (positive or not) when he played Erkin Koray’s Estarabim as the final piece. I didn’t conduct a questionnaire after the concert, but it wouldn’t be unfounded to claim that the audience didn’t experience anything ordinary that evening. I asked Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol all the questions I couldn’t ask the members of the audience. I suggested to meet in Istanbul when his tour following his performance at Zorlu (he played in Bursa and Kıbrıs with the same band) was over and thankfully he accepted.
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is a very humble person, what old-timers call “çelebi” (“gentleman”). He talked about that evening and its aftermath in a polite but outspoken manner. Let’s start with the end of the concert at Zorlu. Because the audiences in Bursa and Kıbrıs concerts had nothing to do with that at Zorlu. The members of the audiences in Bursa and Kıbrıs are less informed about jazz, more “local” and more “ordinary”. When I asked him how they reacted, he said there were no problems, and that he thought both the musicians and the audience enjoyed the concerts. When I asked him about Zorlu, on the other hand, he said that everything was okay when the musicians on the stage were concerned, but that he wasn’t so sure about the members of the audience; he thought there possibly were those who enjoyed the music as well as those who felt more distant to it. His polite and careful wording more or less reflected the energy carried from the audience to the stage. To clarify, I asked him how people reacted to pieces like Devr-i Revan, with obvious influences from Mevlevî music, he said it could be confusing, and could be perceived as New-Ottomanist musician; whereas what he does has absolutely nothing to do with this. He added that his ultimate concern is to create a structural union between different musics, and that he likes and respects these melodies.
Of course, we cannot understand what Sanlıkol’s main “concern” is solely through his words. Therefore, it might be important to understand to what extend he derives from Mevlevî music, for example, and where his own music diverges and how. As those who know about Sanlıkol’s music, he is also a “gazelhan” (meaning a vocal performer, I will return to this subject at the end of the article) or at least he is a vocalist who performs his music as well as playing many different instruments. It is necessary to be familiar with Ottoman Turkish as well as the traditions of Mevlevi/Nefes in order to understand the lyrics. Do the lyrics come directly from Rumi’s Masnavi? Not at all. For example, he especially derives from the controversial poet Neyzen Tevfik. Even one line from Tevfik (“Aksedince gönlüme Şems-i hakikat pertevi / Meyde Bektaşî göründüm neyde oldu Mevlevî”) sheds light to what Sanlıkol’s concern really is. It is true that Neyzen Tevfik also comes from the tradition, but he doesn’t fully represent these traditions himself; it might even be said that he defies the tradition through the life he lives. He is a ‘rint’! The dictionary meaning of ‘rint’ is firstly ‘a person of heart’ and secondly ‘vagabond’. I don’t know which meaning you would find suitable for Neyzen, but I invite you to remember the poem called “Rindlerin Ölümü” (meaning “Death of the Rints”) by Yahya Kemal Beyatlı: “Ölüm âsûde bahar ülkesidir bir rinde / Gönlü her yerde buhurdan gibi yıllarca tüter” (“Death is a peaceful spring country for the rint/His heart smokes everywhere for years like an incensory”). The confusing in trying to decipher Neyzen Tevfik is similar to the main issues of jazz in Turkey (A depression, in my opinion). Because, he has to survive in the modern world and therefore is a mortal being in pain, and at the same time he belongs to the tradition; he is a dervish. Could his life, poems, beliefs, his instrument and the way he plays it be sort of a “fusion”? Give it a thought with this perspective.
Let’s go back to our discussion of the concert. Sanlıkol knows very well where his his music, his approach to music in general and jazz stand in today’s world, and therefore he knows that his music can touch some “nerves”. When I ask him if he played Estarabim solely for this reason, we have to take a look at Sanlıkol’s life in the States. We understand that he has some sort of a mission. He has been organizing concerts in Boston for many years in order to introduce different genres of Turkish music, such as “Anatolian rock” and “Arabesque” nights. He says that what matters is to play examples from these genres well with good musicians. Estarabim comes from that repertoire and is rearranged for this concert. His piece A Story of the City: Constantinople, which alludes to the music culture of Istanbul, reminds us the Orhan Gencebay composition called Felekten Beter Vurdu in his album İstanbul. In the meanwhile, I also learn a rather odd detail about his life in Boston, which is important in order to understand the musical practice he focuses on.
I remind him his vocal performance during the concert and ask him a trap question: Is he a “gazelhan” or a “muganni”? Gazelhan, in its most basic form, means “he who sings ‘gazel’” (a traditional poetry/singing form) and when traditional music is concerned it is usually used for vocalists who aren’t educated but has a good ear. Muganni means “he who sings songs”, and it points to an educated singer who learnt the traditions of singing from his teachers. For example, Münir Nurettin regards himselfs as a muganni, even though he can also perform gazel pieces very well. Sanlıkol not only did not fall into my trap, but he also surprised me with an answer that indicates he is both or maybe something more. He said he could be called a “mevlithan”. Mevlithan? One of the most unique religious rituals of our traditional music is to perform a ‘mevlit’ for someone who has passed away. Interestingly, ‘Mevlit’ tradition, performed in Turkish, is getting less and less popular recently while Arabic ‘Yasin’ tradition is on the rise. I won’t make a political or cultural analysis here since that is not our topic, but I have to note that this transformation is requires attention.
Returning to the topic at hand, which is in Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s own words, the fact that he is the “only” mevlithan of Boston and why he chose such a path. Mevlit is usually performed by more than one soloist because of its length. If you look at the records in Turkey, you will see that always more than one soloist in the performance. Sanlıkol also explained that performing mevlit is tough on him and that he tries not to wear his voice out during the first part and save it for the final ones. So why does he perform mevlit in spite of its challenges? Because he believes that such a work of art as mevlit can only be learnt through its performance, and the phases that the performers and listeners go through could only be analyzed this way. The main concern of this human being is to experience the music he focuses on, whether he is playing ney or sing gazel, to be engulfed in his music and to continue on with it. He doesn’t have any claims on the performance, even though he says that this work could only be understood through performance.
When I ask him about the projects currently on his table, he interestingly gave his answer while pointing to the last ten years of his music life. He started his explanation with the fact that his path was shaped by his divergence from his previous one and also by the traditions he was introduced to. A tough path that is intertwined with different trails that join up, separate and then merge. From what he says, I understand that this journey started out with mehteran (called “kaba saz” in Ottoman music) and then evolved into “ince saz”. It has two directions that support one another. First, he talks about an academic project that focuses on Byzantine music (known as “Greek-Orthodox Church Notation” with its own unique notation) that is one of the building blocks of Ottoman music. He has a comprehensive book about Byzantine music published in 1850 at hand. He is busy dissecting this work which contains both church music and secular music. His second destination is more concerning the matters of the mind; it focuses on Islamic mysticism, especially breaths, tekke/dergâh music, the web of meaning in them, and about their musical structure. I think Sanlıkol’s own compositions play an important role in the background, so do the accumulation of knowledge behind them. The platform in which he searches for himself, finds and maybe loses what he is looking for is shaped in these territories.
Speaking of his more tangible projects, he thinks he will continue with his group music format in “What’s Next”. It is good news to hear that this combo-band music, embraced by the musicians playing it, which matured in time and became a synonym with Sanlıkol’s name will persevere. But from what I understand, jazz and his pianist persona have woken up in his psyche as well, and they are pushing Sanlıkol urgently towards more fmailiar jazz formats such as trio music. He thought a lot about this trio subject and he excitedly explains the profile of the trio he wishes to form. A piano that will be supported by a couple of electronic instruments, a double bass with a prominent use of the bow, and most importantly, a drum kit that will become a new structure within itself. I think this idea has matured enough, and this trio will perform in Paris on the 23rd of November this year. I am already curious about its realization.
It is unnecessary to question whether the structure of this trio will be oriental or a synthesis of oriental-Far Eastern music. The resulting music will be as free as our distance to this subject of Eastern-Western synthesis that we have been dealing with for years. Of course I am not talking about music without an identity. Our cultural identities converge paths with the artists and touch the musician no matter what we do. We should plan ahead, but instead of building our ideas on Eastern-Western dichotomy, we should look for them within the dynamics of modern vs. traditional. Ece Ayhan surely is correct in saying “Those who travel too far east will end up west due to geography. And vice versa.” And let’s not forget that poem is the sibling of music. You have to look into traditional poetry in order to understand modern Turkish poetry (court and folk poetry, dergâh and tekke, but always revolving around Ottoman culture). There is a lot to learn from poets concerning music. Therefore, you will always end up on these coinciding grounds (traditional and modern, courth and folk, dergâh and tekke, elite and commoner etc.) even if you start out with the examples that seem to have nothing to do with the traditional, for example Ece Ayhan. Ayhan never was a poet who wrote about a “black cat” without a vision, he also was a dervish, or maybe not. He was here and there at the same time. Those who are curious can research about Zambaklı Padişah and will understand what I mean. “Ey ustalıkla taşeronluğu birbirine karıştıran ve / yaşayan okur! / Sen yabancı değilsin bense bir fakir derviş”. The way Ece Ayhan uses Ottoman poetry can be a guide to understand Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s journey.
Musicians who accompanied Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol during his tour in Turkey:
-Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, piano, keyboards, vocal, continuum fingerboard, ney, zurna and cümbüş -Tiger Okoshi, trumpet -Sam Dechenne, trumpet -Mark Zaleski, clarinet and alto saxophone -Aaron Henry, soprano and tenor saxophone -Bulut Gülen, trombone -Melanie Howell, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone -Cenk Erdoğan, fretted and fretless guitar -Adem Gülşen, piano and keyboards -Alper Yılmaz, elektric bass -Bertram Lehmann, drums -George Lernis, kudüm, darbuka and percussion