Mercan Dede - Arkin Allen

Mercan Dede

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, East and West. It’s a bold claim, but the Turkish-born and Montreal-based musician/producer/DJ has the career and the music to back it up.  When he takes the stage with his group Secret Tribe, he hovers at the side behind his turntables and electronics, occasionally picking up a traditional wooden flute, or ney to float in sweet, breathy melodies, while masters of the kanun (zither), clarinet, darbuka (hand drum) and whatever other instruments he’s decided to include that night, ornament his grooves and spin magical, trance melodies to match the whirling of the group’s spectacular dervish dancer, Mira Burke.

This contrast between electronica and classical or folkloric arts cuts to the core of the Sufi philosophy that guides this one-of-a-kind artist. "Those things are not really separate," says Mercan 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." Mercan Dede doesn’t just bring in any traditional sounds and sights as adornment to his techno beats. He is ever on the lookout for new collaborators, and they might come from any tradition, any country, any generation. For Secret Tribe’s U.S. debut in January, 2004, he flew in three, teenage prodigies of Turkish classical music from Istanbul and two of the pieces they played were improvised during the concert. "When I choose a musician," says Mercan Dede, "I need to be connected with them in terms of personality, heart-wise we say in Turkey. We should have a similar energy and feeling about life. The second thing is they need to be down with the technical part of music. Once they’ve done that, you don’t need to worry. They can play anything."

Mercan Dede and Secret Tribe’s splendid 2002 release Nar realizes this elegant marriage of old and new stunningly. Along with the groups’ spellbinding performances, it is helping them build a worldwide following. When the group plays in Turkey, they can draw as many as 20,000 people. But for Mercan Dede - whose name comes from a minor character in a contemporary Turkish novel - it has been a long, highly unconventional road to success. Raised poor in a Turkish village in the 1970s, Mercan 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.

Mercan 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-80s, he was traveling to do "technotribalhouse" deejay gigs under the name Arkin Allen. He debuted as Mercan Dede in 1987 with 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, Mercan Dede moved to Montreal where he first studied, then taught, at Concordia College, moving ever more forcefully into the burgeoning 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 Mercan Dede has stuck with this adapted name ever since.

Mercan 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 Mercan 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 moved 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 theatre project, directed and choreographed by Beyhan Murphy for the Turkish State Modern Dance Troupe.

Both as Mercan Dede and his alter ego DJ Arkin Allen, he has performed at events as diverse as the Black & Blue 98 (a world-renowned Montreal circuit party attended by 15,000 people) and a concert of improvisations with on classical Turkish music at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. 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 150,000 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 WOMEX world music trade fair in Essen, Germany, and also the International Transmusicales Festival in Rennes.
Dede has also performed with such musical personalities as Peter Murphy, Natacha Atlas, Mich Gerber, Omar Sosa, Maharaja. Mercan Dede and Secret Tribe’s summer tour 2003 included Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland), Arezzo Wave (I?taly), Skopje Festival (Macedonia), Moers Festival (Germany),World Roots Festival (The Netherlands), Jaen-Etnosur (Spain), Rhythm Sticks Festival (UK) and many others. The group’s 2004 U.S. debut took place at Joe’s Pub in New York in January, 2004, as part of the city’s groundbreaking world music marathon, GlobalFest. Mercan Dede also provided music for Pina Bausch's recent work, "Istanbul," performed in the city it was named for in the spring of 2003. He is now working on "Orman S¸ehir" (Jungle City) MDT Turkey’s new modern dance performance, and a new album for Secret Tribe.

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 is commissioned by the Turkish Ministry of Culture as the music director of the Güldestan Project. The project is destined to represent Turkish Culture and Arts all around the Globe.

Mercan Dede is keen to bring his extraordinary music and stagecraft everywhere in the world because he feels its inclusive spirit carries a profound message of understanding and reconciliation. "I don’t like the separation," says Dede. "The Sufi poet Rumi has a very good saying: "If you are everywhere, you are nowhere. If you are somewhere, you are everywhere." My somewhere is my heart. I try to figure it out. The rest - the hype, the trends - they are not important. Instead of talking about war in Iraq, if you can make a sound of a small instrument from an Iraqi village, you can tell people more about what is going on there. For me, the future is electronic and folkloric."

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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, East and West. It’s a bold claim, but the Turkish-born and Montreal-based musician/producer/DJ has the career and the music to back it up.