Mercan Dede: a man on a mission

Interviewer: TONY HILLIER

TH: Are you primarily Montreal-based these days or do you tend to divide your time between Canada, Turkey and other places?

MD: I’m like a whirling dervish, one of my feet in the centre and with the other one I whirl around. Recently, I was told that I’ve travelled around the world more than 120 times. I still continue to live both in Montreal and Istanbul and I love both of them dearly. I think I’m very lucky to live in two amazing cities at the same time.

What can Australian fans expect to hear during your tour here in March?

I’m bringing my incredible band Secret Tribe to Australia. This is the third generation of the musicians that I’ve worked with, literally.  Some of these young musician’s fathers used to play in the first version of Mercan Dede, 20 years ago. So we are coming back to Australia full band with all these extraordinary young musicians.”

What might their roles might be and can you describe what kind of shows you have in mind?

I try not to have much in my mind … I don’t enjoy overly polished shows. Some of my performances, especially the ones that involve high technologies like holograms have lots of pre-production and because of their nature, they are very well polished and I like that type of performance as well. But playing with my band, I don’t feel creating some showcases in advance and perform the same show over and over again is good. Instead I like to be very spontaneous and create something in real time in front of audiences. Mercan believes in letting the audience participate in the process of creation and let them witness how a simple melody or rhythm can develop and become a language between different musicians. It can be a profound experience.

The Secret Tribe line up comprises the following:

Cafer Nazlibas on kemane, a traditional folkloric violin-like instrument. He is one of the best kemane players, if not the best. He’s an established musician and also a full time featured artist at the prestigious TRT (Turkish national radio and TV). He also released his solo album in 2015, which was very well received.

Burak Malcok on ney (reed flute). He’s also an established artist with his own solo album. He did his master thesis on ney at Istanbul Technical Music Conservatory, where he still teaches.

Mert Elmas : He’s a rather insane percussion player and he’s been playing with me since he was five years old. Now he’s 19 and established as one of the most powerful percussion players for his generation.

Tanju Yildiz : Baglama — a  guitar-like folkloric instrument.  He’s also from the Traditional Music Conservatory, and has been with us for quite a long time. With his smooth playing, he’s the soul of our music. He teaches baglama and performs with many musicians.

Ergun Senlendirici:  on clarinet. He’s the son of the legendary clarinet player Husnu Senlendirici, who was the clarinet player in my first group 20 years ago.

Like his father, he’s one of the best musicians of his generation.

Ceyhun Varisli: What we create with sound becomes movement in his sacred whirling dance. Ceyhun is our whirling dervish and he’s a traditionally trained. He’s an extraordinary artist — the real deal. He does not perform but rather meditates, prays and creates deep spiritual energy to share with audience. He’s magical.

Performance-wise, what was the highlight of your 2011 tour here?

I love Australia. It’s a package deal — I like everything about it, I like the venues, people, their energy, underground radio stations, so it’s unfair to pick some moments over others. In general I personally connected with Melbourne, more than any other city. Melbourne reminds me of Montreal and San Francisco. It’s culturally very diverse, and is a ‘go with the flow’ type of city, which I adore. Our concert there in 2011 was really emotional. During our two-hour show, we witnessed the crowd both dancing like shamans and crying like babies. It was really something special. As a working visual artist, the Melbourne street art scene is one of the most vibrant I’ve witnessed. I’m looking forward to walking around Melbourne again.

As you’ve already indicated, this year is the 20th anniversary of Mercan Dede. Do you have anything special planned to mark the milestone?

I think the Australia tour will honestly be our celebration of the 20th year anniversary — what could be more beautiful than playing music with great musicians and celebrating with wonderful friends in Australia. I’m also planning to create a very underground type of documentary film about our tour, whatever we can shoot with our iPhones or hand cameras, not only the concerts but behind the scenes and our adventures. I think we can create something very sweet, honest and cute that will be our 20th anniversary gift to our friends and ourselves.

What did you hope to achieve when you initiated your best-known alter ego and has it fulfilled expectations?

To follow my heart — that was, and still is, the main motivation. To find out who I am, and with that try to be a simple, decent, kind, generous and thoughtful human being. Everything else is a side story. Creating Mercan Dede and where we are at is rather a ‘dream come true’ story. Starting as a poor, untalented average kid who made his first flute from a plastic pipe, where we are at today seems to me nothing but pure magic.

I don’t take it for granted or claim that it’s my success. I think this is what happens to any average untalented poor young person once they decide to spend all their life around art, creating, performing and sharing. So I’m not an exception, may be rather persistent and quite hard working. That’s why my good friends call me ‘goat’, because I’m dedicated.

I’m planning to continue to be like that until end of my life.

Does the name Mercan Dede have any special significance and what is its correct pronunciation?

It would be more like ‘Merjan Dede’. Dede means grandfather. Also in Sufism it’s a title given to dervishes who complete certain training, which usually takes a lifetime. I consider myself neither a grandfather nor a wise man. I think it’s kinda funny that people take the words so seriously and yet don’t care about the meanings. There are few little secrets related to that name, but again, I like them to stay as secrets.

I know you also have other alter egos and aliases. Do they ever clash?

I have nine alter egos. That’s why all my friends think I have multiple personality disorder. Four of these names are still anonymous — even my best friends or management does not know about them. I don’t think they clash but rather complement each other. Each of them has a certain way of seeing life and responding to that by creating music, performing and sharing.

All you have to do is choose which one is right for which occasion.

I think creating art anonymously — as many street artists do — gives you great freedom. You don’t have to worry about anything … feedback, reaction, money, success, legal mumbo jumbo, etc. None of this matters. You feel it, create it and share it with the universe freely. It frees me on so many different levels.

How much of the music in your live sets is pre-programmed and how much is actually performed live?

It really depends. We have some songs that are fully acoustic, played live in real time. But then I have some electronic sounds that I play live and some backing tracks that I bring in and out. So for me there is nothing pre-programmed in that sense. Either you hit a key on a keyboard to get a sound of bass or percussion or hit on a real percussion instrument or play real bass. It’s the same thing for me. They are all toys and instruments. What you do with them and how you use them is the important part of the story.

Also, I have so many ambient recordings that I use in almost every song, either of street vendors from India, or police car sirens from New York, or wind from up in North Canada. These are all in my personal sound library and the only way to include them in my music is to pre-record, and then play live on stage. This makes our performance quite interesting and diverse, because we have counterpoints between east and west (like Istanbul), acoustic and digital, live and pre-recorded, old and new, traditional and contemporary, past and future, ethnic and electronic. Although we have played more than a few thousand shows, so far we have never given an identical performance of the same song. It’s always different, like our fingerprints.

How much ney and bendir do you play in the course of an average set?

It depends on the show. Playing the electronic equipment and also conducting all the musicians at the same time with multiple cues requires focus. Sometimes when I play percussion or my ney, I get too excited and carried away with live playing, which can be troublesome for the musicians. I enjoy playing both of these instruments, but I am not a great player. I am more like a composer, producer and conductor. That’s why I have amazing musicians with me, so everyone can focus and enjoy what they are good at.

Is all the music you play self-composed or is some of it traditional?

I think almost 100% of the music we play is our own. Since all the young musicians in the band are also great composers, we include some of their songs as well. But we try to play as much as possible our own original music. If we play something traditional, we try to give our own twist and style on it. There is no point repeating someone else’s music over and over again. Life is too short for that. We are here to create fresh, new and unique sounds that reflect our ever-changing aesthetics; otherwise we are no different than photocopy machines.

I think our music is a good balance between electronica and ethnic music. If we play at big festivals with tens of thousands of people of course, we push a little bit more on the electronic side since you need large volume for the power of that type of music. If it is a more seated and peaceful setting, we tend to bring ethnic sounds more upfront. So again it depends. That’s why we don’t do pre-programming. We’d rather see the venue and feel the audience and create something with them in that moment … whatever feels right and groovy.

In what way does your act incorporate Sufi philosophy?

My intention in art and especially music is to create something sincere, honest and personal. Since I consider philosophy a lovely way to waste some time, I stay away from over thinking and overly intellectualising. My music reflects who I am and in that sense, Sufism and especially Rumi had an enormous influence on me. When I create art, I just let the conscious and, of course, the subconscious energy manifest itself, so that it’s not incorporating anything but rather letting yourself be free and let whatever your heart wants to reflect happen on stage.

As Rumi said: ‘Appear as you are, be as you appear’. This is my mantra. Not always easy and I’m a slow learner.

I know you’ve worked with the likes of Susheela Raman, Dhafer Youssef and Sheema Mukherjee in the past. Who else have you collaborated with?

Since last touring in Australia, we have played with many great guest musicians worldwide. Trilok Gurtu is one of our favourite musicians to play with … he is a legend. We played with him in Germany and Turkey. Then last year we also invited Mino Cinelu, a great producer and percussion player to join us in Turkey. He has played with and continues to play with almost every great artist in various music scenes, including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, George Benson and an insane number of other artists. I’m also working on a commission work with the extraordinary Borusan Symphony Orchestra for a unique project with visuals and electronic sounds. It’s a 118-piece orchestra with an incredible sound and a great conductor. I’m also working on a single with the legendary vocalist of Bauhaus, Peter Murphy. There are many exciting projects on the horizon. We need to slow down the time. I’m still a little kid, trying to learn how to maintain excitement, joy, gratitude, and to be sweet. My only homework is love and kindness. Music is the reminder of that.


  • Mercan Dede’s March tour dates: Melbourne’s Bohemia (4th), Adelaide’s Garden of Earthly Delights (8th), Port Fairy Folk Festival (10th), Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory (16th) and Cairns’ Tanks Arts Centre (17th).