Mercan Dede says he’s like a vagabond reed flute

Mercan Dede

Turkish DJ and reed flute player Mercan Dede released “Dünya,” his first studio album in six years, this month. (Photo: Sunday’s Zaman, Isa Sisek)

Interview with Ali Petkas, Istanbul

DJ Arkin Allen, aka Mercan Dede, is back in the limelight with a new album following a six-year break since his last studio release.

Released this month via Onearth Records, “Dünya” (Earth) is the newest offering from the 47-year-old musician, born Arkin Allen in 1966 in Bursa, and known in Turkey and around the world for his signature blend of Sufi music traditions with contemporary electronic tunes.

In a recent interview in Istanbul, Mercan Dede speaks to Sunday’s Zaman about how he came up with “Dünya” and what he did during the six years in between.

How did your new album “Dünya” come about?

The last album I did before this one [“800”] was meant as a tribute to Mevlana [Jalaladdin Muhammad Rumi] on the 800th anniversary of his birth. When that album became successful both in Turkey and abroad, several record companies asked me to do a series [of similarly themed albums], but I refused. The six-year period that followed served as a period of fallowing for me. Still, I didn’t just fool around during that time; I had a lot of catching up to do with my homework, that is, work on being human. That is something you need to work on a lot.

What else did you do during that period?

I didn’t get a formal education on music; as it is, I don’t see myself as a “musician.” The field I actually studied is fine arts, and during that time I realized that I had been neglecting that side of me for the past 15 years -- since I met [my alter-ego] Mercan Dede. So during that period, I made something I have long been dreaming of -- an art exhibition.

I discovered one more thing during that time -- that although I had traveled to many places around the world, I didn’t know enough about it. So I went to Jordan. There, people told me the desert had a sound, and so I recorded the sound of the desert. When I traveled to Canada for the first time the native people I met there had told me that I had to listen to the sound of the falling snow. I’ve lived there for 20 years and it was only recently that I really started hearing that.

So you started to realize things that you’ve been taking for granted in daily life.

Yes. We’re living in this world, but we’re unaware of it. That awareness is really important. I didn’t only record the sounds of nature, but also that of cities, like New York, or several cities in India. And I ended up getting a recording of around 200 hours long. Those sounds gave birth to the idea of making “Dünya.” So I think I can say “Dünya” came about all by itself.

Also during that time I reflected a lot on the state of the world. There are some really tough circumstances ahead for the next generations. We keep saying that we’ve borrowed Earth from the next generations, but we’re not really taking good care of it. There are some very serious issues, such as wars and environmental disasters. We need to do something to [stop] these. My world is made up of sounds and art, and I’m trying to do my part [to protect the Earth] using the universal language [of art].

DunyaOn one track on “Dünya” we hear a scream -- which is unusual for your music. What does it stand for?

It’s the Earth that is screaming. The basis of all the harm we’ve inflicted on this Earth is our ego. We need to get rid of it. And when you do, the world that you feel and the one that echoes inside your heart change, too. Yet it’s important that it happens genuinely. The mind is not too important; “Dünya” is not an album that was made with the mind. It’s not something that could be made by a rational mind; it’s rather something that comes from the heart. And to do that, all one needs to do is to get rid of his/her ego. This album brings together several different reflections of that kind; this “Earth” is one that we want to see, one where nature and humans live in harmony.

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The album features guest musicians including Azam Ali and Sabahat Akkiraz, and a great surprise -- a recording of the voice of Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi is a source of light for all humanity. There is only one recording of his voice that is currently available; a tape recorded in 1923 by Universal [Records] that is only six minutes and three seconds long, which features his musings on the creator. And if we had Gandhi [his voice on the album], we had to have India, too. So I added the recordings I made in India onto his voice.

You live in Montreal and occasionally visit ?stanbul and you frequently travel to other countries for concerts. Do you sometimes feel like a vagabond?

Exactly. In fact I’m more like a ney [the reed flute]: not tied to anywhere and wandering from one place to another. I made my first ney out of a piece of plastic water-pipe. That instrument was made at a hardware store in Üsküdar and now it sits at the most beautiful corner of my house in Canada. That ney’s intonation wasn’t accurate, but its heart was true. It’s my best friend. That ney depicts my own life.

You’re someone who reflects on the world. What disturbs you the most these days?

I believe the main problem is the ego. The world we live in is too ego-based -- there’s a fundamental relationship between the capitalist system and the ego. The system makes you believe that you’re in need of stuff you don’t need at all. They [policy makers] keep saying that everything depends on [humans], but it’s actually only their egos that are talking. That’s the biggest trouble in the world.

The ego is also the reason why I have always tried to steer clear of politics. Politicians say, “Vote for me, I know how to do this job.” But the minute you say that, you’re entering a very different realm, which is unfortunately full of destruction.

Even the source of the Quran says “us” while referring to himself. Whereas we keep saying “I” when we’re not even the size of a dust particle in this universe. And that “I” always wants more, it’s never satisfied. But I see there are developments in quite the opposite direction. I have high hopes for the future of the world.

You sort of lead a dual life. Do your alternative personas -- DJ Arkin Allen and reed flute player Mercan Dede -- ever clash?

They often clash. But there’s a platform on which they can communicate. In time they managed to become good friends. … Now, although they have essentially very different outlooks on life, there’s a great harmony between them, and this is reflected in my music. Actually there’s an additional third person -- which is me. I try to listen to these two personas as they exchange ideas as much as I can, and try to learn from it.

You are a pioneer of electronic New Age and instrumental music in Turkey. What do you think of the current state of this type of music? Do you think your style can be a remedy for the decline in today’s popular music?

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Of course, it can. ... In my first ensemble as Mercan Dede, I was joined by [musicians] Hüsnü Senlendirici, Göksel Baktagir, Mehmet Akatay and Yurdal Tokcan. They are all making great music now.

There’s an enormous shift to this side [mystical music] these days. People have gradually started leaving behind the world of popular culture, which wears them out. When I first started trying to play the ney, there weren’t any ney classes. But now there’s one around every corner.

Excerpt from ttrack 14, Nafti
The writers of heaven put their feather pens down —ear to the conch shell.

The phantom limb of suffering —finger painting the calligraphy of love

I see all of speech a refutable quote, all of language a silence not yet served.

 

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