Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is a Turkish-American composer, ethnomusicologist, multi-instrumentalist, Harvard research fellow, and Emerson College and Holy Cross faculty member. He is the co-founder of the DUNYA musicians’ collective.
I hail from the ancient and enchanting Middle Eastern landscape of Cyprus and Turkey. This is where I fell in love with music and bonded a deep connection. The sophistication of this mesmerizing and equally vast music diaspora may be unknown to Americans. The odd, handmade strings and horn instruments are incredible pieces that bend notes micro-tonally, alongside unfamiliar scales and rhythms on instruments such as the tanbur or the duduk. Although I grew up with vast and rich Turkish music tradition, American jazz, and European classical music was an essential part of my world.
I grew up in a household rich with the music culture. My mother was a classical concert pianist, and I received piano lessons at the very early age of 5. This early introduction would play a huge role of what I later pursued in life in terms of music. When I first arrived in the United States in 1993, I wanted nothing to do with Turkey. I came to the United States to play jazz and I was at the perfect place. I studied music under the internationally acclaimed Turkish composer/pianist Aydın Esen, and then I won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music.
I was instantly successful in the music scene in the United States and received the Clare Fischer Award at Berklee College of Music. I had studied jazz composition, with such accomplished composers as Herb Pomeroy and Ken Pullig. In the same year of 1997, I founded the band AudioFact with Onur Türkmen and toured in Mexico, Argentina, across Europe and the United States. By 1998, my band released Black Spot on Kalan Records, and in 2000 I graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music with a Master’s Degree in Jazz Composition. Things were certainly moving along quickly and rather nicely on my journey towards becoming a jazz musician.
Yet just as I was enrolled in my Doctorate program in composition, the market for jazz music in the U.S started to decline steeply. This was the time that I had to find something different, something of different color, taste and something that espoused multiculturalism in a sophisticated and an informed way. Suddenly, I found a brand new musical interest… Turkish music! The ancient musical sounds took over my being. It became a very cool, creative liaison with my jazz, as I began by adding the musical colors, modes, and microtones of Turkish music directly into the mix.
I now found that Turkish music appealed to me differently. I could do something with the sounds of Turkish music and combine it with the language of jazz as well as contemporary classical music, and make it work. I became the sort of cultural voice of music of the world when I was commissioned in 2002 to write a piece using Turkish instruments for PALS Children’s Chorus. A Boston chamber orchestra and I came up with “Ergenekon: An Ancient Turkish Legend”. This won many accolades, especially from The Boston Globe’s preeminent classical critic Richard Dyer, when he wrote that my music was both sophisticated and multicultural.
The successes in my musical journey from Turkey to the U.S. had transformed unexpectedly but quite nicely when I completed my Doctor of Music Arts at NEC under composers such as George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer and Lee Hyla. This helped me co-found the non-profit organization known as DUNYA, a collective of musicians dedicated to the presentation of Turkish musical traditions and their interactions with world traditions through education, performances, and publications. The creation of DUNYA was a major success, and I have released nine CDs as well as a DVD of a multimedia performance I composed, directed, and performed.
I have been able to achieve bilingual composition by mixing Turkish musical sounds with jazz. It took me a very long time to blend such compositions that appeal to a wide range of audiences through the intersection of two musical languages. In a way, my two worlds are now meeting in a natural manner. The album “Whatsnext” demonstrates both who I was as a jazz composer back in the late ’90s and early 2000, as well as who I am now. It features compositions that are completely inspired by some of my film interests as well.
My journey as a jazz musician and composer is nowhere near complete. All of what I have done truly represents my passions and my interests. One thing has led to another and another, providing beautiful experiences of learning something new about both my audience and myself.
My musical journey is, in a way, my American journey. I had left my homeland of Turkey to pursue jazz music. I landed in America and transformed myself – interjecting jazz into Turkish music. Perhaps it is a story that is not possible in any other place but here.