Mercan Dede , The Visual DJ

Author: Yvonne Mitton

Interviewing Mercan Dede is a dream ~ quite simply, you don’t interview Mercan
Dede, you sit with him eating mezze and drinking tea in a plush Turkish
restaurant in Islington, and talk as if you had known him all your life, as if
you are old friends pleased to see each other, enthusiastically swapping stories
about childhood, university, art, music and other topics of mutual interest.

He’s quick to talk about the very special experiences, still precious to him,
of his early years in Turkey, speaking eloquently and fervently of when, at the
age of six, traveling in a car with his mother in his home town of Bursa, he
first heard a sound on the radio that transfixed him; she told him it was the
ney ~ the Turkish flute. That sound never left him and years later, he made his
first ney after seeing one in a shop in Istanbul. As an 18 year-old student,
with little money
and during the hard times of the military coupe of the 1980s, the price was
beyond his means; grabbing a piece of paper from the gutter he marked it with
the length and the position of the holes, bought the cheapest plastic water pipe
and improvised. He smiles when he remembers the terrible sound it made, but for all its
faults, he has kept it and still has it on his wall as an icon of his
inspiration. These days his neys are made by a master craftsman in Istanbul from
specially selected bamboo, the sections of which have to be a precise length for
the positioning
of the holes ~ and incredibly only one in 5,000 lengths are suitable. He’s also

a plastic ney as a homage to that ancestral water pipe, this one

has lived in Canada since the 1990s, not perhaps the most obvious of
destinations for a young Turkish man, and he now spends much of his time, when
not touring, between Montreal and Istanbul, both of which he regards as home.
His life, after his arrival in Canada, at that time speaking no English, took
him on a serendipitous path. Initially he went to Saskatoon for only three weeks
with his exhibition of photography ~ he already had a degree in photography and
journalism from the University of Istanbul ~ and was spotted by a professor from
the University of Saskatchewan who convinced him to study there for a degree in
Fine Art. He then went on to Concordia University, Montreal, to study for his
Masters under the tutelage of Guido Molinari, the installation artist and enfant
terrible of Canadian Formalist painting.

During the 90s
exhibited, in his real name of Arkin Ilicali, as a
visual artist and as well as teaching at Concordia he continued DJ-ing ,
something he started doing as a student almost by accident to help pay the rent.
In conversation it’s obvious that his knowledge and interest in the visual arts
has never left him and as he talks he evokes vivid imagery and references to
describe his philosophy and music. The visual still has real meaning for him; he
creates light projections for many of his larger stage performances and the
photographic images on his last album, Su, and the collage on his techno album,
Fusion Monster, also released in 2004, are his work. He’s modest about recent
accolades, the nominations in 2003 and 2004 for two categories in the Radio 3
Awards for World Music and casually mentions in an aside that he played drums on
the soundtrack of the Ridley Scott film,

Kingdom of Heaven

Without proselytizing, he wants to make it clear how important Sufism is in
his life ~ first and foremost he is a Sufi, and he explains how the use of
music, poetry and the dance of the dervishes are central to Sufi beliefs as a
pathway to worship. Dervish means threshold and their meditational whirling
dance is used as a means to pass through this transcendental doorway to bond
with the divine. The ascetic white woolen costume gives the order its name ~
Sufi meaning man of wool. He goes on to relate how the 13th century Sufi poet,
Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order in Turkey, developed the regimen of whirling
as a devotional practice, inspired by the the steady rhythms of craftsmen in the
goldsmith’s quarter beating their precious metal into shapes. And this brings
the conversation to another important and enduring memory of his childhood ~ his
first sight of dervishes when they visited his town, whirling in their white
robes; for a child they were fantastical beings, they astounded him ~ he asked
‘are they aliens or angels?’. Everything returns to
’s consummate passion
for his faith, it is the absolute and uncompromising focus of his music ~
without his beliefs there is no music, it is this that drives and empowers his
impressive creative energy as a composer, recording artist and performer. And
this dynamic, spiritual energy isn’t just about
Dede, he tells me he has
nine names under which he works, because for him what he does isn’t centered
around personality or image, it’s about the meaning of the music; in all his
guises ‘the message is the same’.

The name
Mercan Dede
came into being because he didn’t want to put his real
name, (which he was happy to use as producer) to his first album, made with the
San Francisco based Golden Horn Productions. This was

Sufi Dreams
and he ended
up responding to the needs of the record label, choosing the name
Mercan Dede
meaning coral grandfather after a character, a ‘really crazy man’, in a book he
was reading by the Turkish writer, Ihasan Oktay Anar.

He describes his nine names as the equivalent of the separate parts of a
child’s puzzle; after a bit of discussion we decide this is a jigsaw, the pieces
with their enigmatic, individual characteristics that when fitted together make
a recognizable and coherent picture. Using his hands descriptively, something he
does throughout the interview, he also summons up the image of the Turkish
riddle ~ ‘what is one when you buy it in the bazaar but thousands when you get
home? A pomegranate.’

He has been impressively prolific, with five CDs as
Mercan Dede
since 1997,
plus Fusion Monster in his DJ alter ego, Arkin Allen. Each album is conceived
not only as collection of linear tracks but as an interwoven whole, circling
back on itself and again reflecting the images of the jigsaw and the
pomegranate; nor does he compromise on the length of the tracks. He composes
using the concept of the Sufi musical tradition of maqams or modes, but doesn’t
regard this as confining or restrictive, for him it is infinitely fertile ground
for his inspiration and creativity, mixing the orthodox with the underlying
substrate of his techno skills into a seamless blend of traditional and and
modern, east and west.

As we drink tea he likens the structure of his albums to a Turkish dinner,
the courses exquisitely and delicately balanced, complimenting each other in
a composition of tastes, textures, colors and presentation, building into a meal
of celebration and satisfaction. And he is is a great believer in the power of
the resonance of music to affect the emotions and to heal ~ there are maqams
that relate to specific parts of the body and he gives me the name of the maqam
for the digestive system, huzzam, as an example.

His first three albums as
Mercan Dede
are a trilogy,

Sufi Dreams

Journeys of a Dervish
(1999) and

(2001), charting the stages of a journey
~ dreaming of the journey, the journey itself and the diary of that journey.
From the start, with that very first album, the uniqueness of the
sound and compositions were established, confident and timeless, there’s a feel
of the ancient about them brought into existence by that moveable feast of
distinguished musicians and collaborators he gathers to him for both recording
and performance.

He reveals that

, 2002, is the first in a proposed tetralogy and as well
as meaning pomegranate, it is the Persian for fire, but not, he explains, the fire
of destruction, it is the fire of passion. This was followed in 2004 by

although for him the present is more important than the future, bringing his
hands up to his head he tells me that the concepts of the two further albums are
already there in his mind. Remarkably, Su, meaning water, was recorded entirely
in his
flat in Istanbul appropriately opposite the waters of the Bosphorus, ‘everyone
came there’; he has begun to find the recording studio ‘too clinical’.

He’s been DJ-ing for 16 years, but surprisingly, did not get round to
releasing an album in his primary performing guise until 2004, the same year as

. This is Fusion Monster, the title taken from a negative article about him in
a Turkish newspaper; he astutely turns the criticism into a positive. Fusion
Monster is the heavily dominating techno of Arkin Allen, more frenetic and
compulsive than
Mercan Dede
, but he is unmistakably there, at the same time
familiar and
unfamiliar in the circular amassing sound. He still enthusiastic about the DJ
part of his life and he continues to perform to large audiences, most notably in
July 2004 at the Concert of Colours Diversity Festival in Detroit on the main
stage to a crowd of half a million.

But whatever the size of the gig, from behind his decks he likes to watch the
reactions of the audience, they provide him with a performance. On a superficial
level, as either
Mercan Dede
or Arkin Allen, his music could be pigeonholed as
dance, ambient, fusion, but there is a depth far beyond the decks and tracks of
the DJ in him; there’s an intelligence to the organization of the sound, an
intensity, an involvement, a sense of place that isn’t where you are physically,
you’re taken into another landscape, the sound moves you and gets inside you
whether you are receptive to its spiritual dimension or not and in this it
undeniably succeeds as Sufi music.

He toured England in June this year [2005], the first Turkish musician to do
so, albeit restricted to the south; Salisbury, Bristol, Brighton, Kentish Town
Forum in London, where I see his concert before he traveled on to the Wytchwood
Festival, Cheltenham. I thought I knew what to expect from a
Dede concert
~ a friend had emailed me from Seattle after he had performed there in May and
was still in a state of euphoric shock, people had left
the concert weeping for the joy of it ~ but nothing can prepare you for the
experience, any description is going to be totally inadequate, even in Kentish
Town the spectacle of it involves and engulfs you. A compact version of his
ensemble was on stage, only six musicians including himself, brought together
for this tour, but the sound still achieved the overwhelming power of his
albums. Most eminent of these musicians was Goskel Baktagir.
was quick to
point out
that Goskel is more famous than he in Turkey; known as ‘the father of the kanun’
with at least 13 albums to his name, he is a highly respected performer and
teacher of the instrument, and
also tells me with shy pride that the
kanun, or zither, is the forerunner of the piano.

It is Goskel’s melodic and liquid sound that we hear on


Also on stage are three impressive young musicians: Aykut Sutoolu a 16 year old
clarinet and trumpet player from a gypsy family and two young percussionists
with the skills and virtuosity of much longer life times, Huseyin Ceylan, 19
years old and Memduh Akatay, a mere 15 years old.

At The Kentish Town Forum, the marvelous Sheera Mukerjeee, sitar player from
Transglobal Underground is the support and also joins the ensemble on the stage
for Ab-i Lå’l from Su on which she guests.
is modest about his own
musicianship, ‘anyone can do it’, and leaves the centre stage to
the ensemble. He’s at the side with his decks, giving us sampled tracks and the
visceral percussive depth of the bass. He occasionally gestures to his musicians
with precise and elegant

hand movements or picks up one of his neys adding momentarily a breathy,
atmospheric susurrus to a piece. Of course his hair, blond and shaved into rows
by a barber in Istanbul, tells you who he is ~ there is no mistaking him!

But most breathtaking of all is the Canadian, Mira Burke, a female dervish.
The passion of her whirling is palpable; balletic, dynamic, almost frenzied at
it’s climax, not the slow, stately dance of the more familiar male dervish. As
she whirls she gradually emerges from a brown coat and is in the purest of red
costume, the color singing as the speed of the whirl builds up.

Returning to the stage later she’s in the traditional white garments of the
Sufi and spins again, giving the illusion of suspension, the lights dim and the
hem of her skirt glows with the endless blur of a revolving ribbon of neon

There’s no stage invasion at the Forum as there was at the Queen Elizabeth
Hall when he was there in 2003~ we would have needed ladders ~ but an ecstatic
and well pleased audience got the three encores they demanded before the lights
came up and it was over.

Back stage I expected to see him slumped with exhaustion, but he was still
buoyant and energetic, unfazed by 2 hours on stage, engaged in animated
conversation with a packed dressing room. It was a real wrench to take my leave
Mercan Dede
, even more so when he paid me the generous and
unbelievable compliment, ‘You are now a member of the
Dede family

Other Mercan Dede stories:

Ritualistic Alchemy of the East and West
, CD review

Mercan Dede’s New Album “Su” and NY Concert
, News article

Turkish Delights
, CD review