World Beat musician and producer Arkin Ilicali, better known as Mercan Dede, cleverly fuses the Eastern spiritual traditions of Sufi music with the contemporary sounds of ambient and chill out music to create a mix of old and new, East and West. An adherent of mystical Sufi spirituality, Turkish-born and Montreal-based Mercan Dede brings his holistic understanding of sound and the rhythms of nature to his interpretations of traditional Sufi music as well as his original compositions.
Mercan Dede believes that when you put digital electronic sounds together with hand-made human ones, you can create universal language capable of uniting old and young, ancient and modern. ‘Those things are not really separate ‘ says Dede. ‘The essence of Sufism is counterpoint. Everything exists with its opposite. On one side I am doing electronic music. The other side of that is this really acoustic traditional music.’
Raised poor in a Turkish village in the 197s Dede recalls the moment when listening to the radio as a six-year-old he fell in love with the sound of the ney. But even when he moved to Istanbul to study journalism he could not afford an instrument so he made his first one from a length of plastic plumbing pipe. Although he eventually found a ney teacher Dede did not pursue music as a career. He was more deeply involved with photography and by chance an official at the Saskatoon Public Library in Canada saw some of his work and invited him to come and do an exhibition.
Dede wound up studying multimedia in Saskatoon and he worked in a bar to earn rent money. That was where he first encountered the art of deejaying. One day the bar’s deejay couldn’t make it and Dede stepped in. The techno revolution was just beginning and Dede was getting in on the ground floor.
By the mid-1980s he was traveling to do ‘technotribalhouse’ deejay gigs under the name Arkin Allen. He debuted as Mercan Dede in 1996 when he released his first album Sufi Dreams recorded for Golden Horn Records in San Francisco. The album was a minimalist techno project featuring the ney flute and it earned impressive reviews.
A few years later, Dede moved to Montreal where he first studied then taught at Concordia College moving ever more forcefully into the growing techno scene. Recordings he made under the name Mercan Dede got noticed in Istanbul and a festival invited him to perform expecting an older gentleman as Dede means ‘grandfather’ in Turkish. When people saw a young band mixing techno and tradition they were exhilarated and Dede has stuck with this adapted name ever since.
Dede formed his first group in 1997 and created more recordings, Journeys of a Dervish (Golden Horn 1999), Seyahatname (Doublemoon 2001) and Nar (Doublemoon 2002). From the start, the group was more an idea than a set lineup. ‘I always get different musicians ‘ says Dede ‘all the time. When I do a European tour each country I choose a guest musician from that country. This is the essence of the group.’ The Canadian TV station Bravo filmed and aired Dede’s concert with Turkish master kemence (Persian violin) player Ihsan Ozgen at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in the Fall of 1998. German television producers Saarlandischer Rundfunk were so attracted by Dede’s music that they traveled to Canada to feature him in their documentary about Sufi Music. While filming Dede at work in Montreal and Toronto in February of 1998 the producers requested that Dede create the soundtrack for this project. Mercan Dede’s album Seyahatname includes pieces composed for a dance theater project directed and choreographed by Beyhan Murphy for the Turkish State Modern Dance Troupe.
In July 2001 Mercan Dede performed at the highly acclaimed Montreal Jazz Festivals sharing the General Motors Big Event stage with Burhan Ocal and Jamaaladeen Tacuma in a concert called ‘East Meets the West’ before an audience of more than 15 people. On that same evening, right after his concert, he appeared at Spectrum this time performing with his project Montreal Tribal Trio again as part of the festival program. In 2002 the group electrified the World Music Expo (WOMEX) world music trade fair in Essen Germany and also the International Transmusicales Festival in Rennes.
The group’s 2004 U.S. debut took place at Joe’s Pub in New York in January 24 as part of the city’s groundbreaking world music marathon GlobalFest. Mercan Dede also provided music for Pina Bausch’s “Istanbul”’ performed in the city it was named for in the spring of 2003.
Mercan Dede was invited to play at GlobalFest (APAP Conference) in New York in January 2004 where 16 different bands from 5 continents play. He was commissioned by the Turkish Ministry of Culture as the music director of the Goldestan Project. The project is destined to represent Turkish Culture and Arts all around the Globe.
Combining the artist’s first two albums on Doublemoon (‘Seyahatname’ and ‘Nar’) ‘Sufi Traveler’ was the first Mercan Dede widely distributed release in USA. The double album followed a North American tour in the summer 2004 including the 27th annual Vancouver Folk Festival (Canada), Stern Grove Festival (San Francisco), Grand Performances (Los Angeles), Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre Celebrate Brooklyn.
UNESCO announced 2007 as World Mevlana Year during which Mercan Dede released 800, an album in homage to Rumi’s 800th birthday. After a six year hiatus, his album Earth was released to critical acclaim featuring guest vocals by Azam, Ali Sabahat Akkiraz and a sample of Gandhi’s first and only speech recorded in 1923.
Sufi Dreams (Golden Horn, 1998)
Journeys of a Dervish (Golden Horn, 1999)
Nar (Doublemoon, 2002)
Seyahatname (Doublemoon, 2002)
Sufi Traveler (High Times Records, 2004)
Su (RH Pozitif Muzik 2004/Escondida Music, 2005)
Breath (White Swan, 2007)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.