Poster Mehmet Ali Sanlikol
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is a Grammy-nominated Turkish American composer.
New Classical Tracks®

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol combines jazz with classical Turkish music

New Classical Tracks - Mehmet Ali Sanlikol (Extended)

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and A Far Cry — A Gentleman of Istanbul (Crier)

New Classical Tracks - Mehmet Ali Sanlikol
New Classical Tracks - Mehmet Ali Sanlikol

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol is a Turkish American composer and multi-instrumentalist who grew up surrounded by Western classical piano music. Then, he discovered jazz. He moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. And today, he’s a professor at the New England Conservatory. His life-changing journey comes to light in his new recording with the chamber orchestra A Far Cry, A Gentleman of Istanbul.

“I came back to my roots seven years after moving to Boston,” he says. “When I reconnected with my culture. I realized that I was self-alienated, self orientalism. It was a very important moment. It took about 10 years for me to come out of it.

“What I mean by that is I started picking up several traditional musical instruments, studying them in addition to piano and singing professionally in traditional classical Turkish style. It was around 2011 when I relaunched my career as a composer and jazz musician. I had developed a more confident and unique voice as a composer.”

How did you come up with A Gentleman of Istanbul?

“It wasn't that difficult for me to think about a theme because right then, Donald Trump had come forward with his Muslim ban. It wasn't in response because almost everyone I knew was arguing. What surprised me was how many people out there looking to defend Muslims happened to be putting out images that were also stereotypes.

“This just kept hitting me one after the other. They once said, ‘Come on, this is not right. This is reductionism.’ Islamic geography is huge, from Morocco to Indonesia. It's a huge religion, and you're reducing that culture to just the mosque and the headscarf?

“I said, ‘Let me show you cosmopolitanism within Islam.’ I went to this fantastic Ottoman intellectual Muslim traveler from mid-17th-century Istanbul. His name is Evliya Çelebi. I thought if I picked several excerpts from his traveling, I might be able to show the kind of cosmopolitanism I rarely see.

Would his ideas of Islam be accepted now?

“I think those kinds of attitudes still exist. However, he was devout, but at the same time, he had a lot of room for all kinds of Sufi dervishes, too. That's the cosmopolitanism that I'm talking about. It's striking, especially considering this is a 17th-century travelogue.”

How have you created music that blends traditional Turkish Western classical jazz?

Oud instrument
The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument common to Turkey.
Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images

“First, I selected four different sections out of the travelogue. The first one was the clocks and bell towers of Vienna. That first movement is a little bit more classical, if you will. I am playing the oud as the featured soloist — the middle of the first movement follows the sonata form. In the middle of that, there is a fugue. There is a sense of Vienna that I found different ways to express.

photo showing houses and buildings of Istanbul with Bosporus waterway off…
Bosporus Strait
Theodore Kaye

“In the second movement, where he talks about the death of an Ottoman sultana, he becomes melancholic, dramatic and Homeric. I thought about Istanbul and the kind of violet or purplish tones you see that get reflected on the Bosporus Strait right around sunset. I imagine crossing the Bosporus with a ferry at that hour and seeing the seagulls fly before the Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque. I had these images, and then I thought, ‘That's jazz.’ I said, ‘I'm going to score a jazz ballad.’

“The third movement is the funniest passage, because he says he sees two Bektashi Sufi dervishes, an order from central Turkey. One is riding a rhinoceros, and the other is on an animal with horns by the ears. I was like, ‘What's going on?’ It was so entertaining. When I go back to that, it puts a smile on my face, and it's fantastic. It's like a passage out of Star Wars, right?”

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and A Far Cry — A Gentleman of Istanbul (Amazon)

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol (official site)

A Far Cry (official site)

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