Mehmet Ali Sanlikol: ‘Reconstructing My Identity’ In Music


‘Those Who Don’t Know Us’

Sufi, of course, is the mystical dimension of Islam. Many of us may appreciate its essential beauty through the work of the 13th-century poet Rumi. And some of our most moving contemporary classical music today is inspired by translations of Rumi, maybe most significantly the majestic, moving work for chorus and orchestra, The Here and Now by composer Christopher Theofanidis. (If you don’t know the work, I recommend Robert Spano’s Atlanta Symphony recording with the remarkable soprano Hila Plitmann.)

As so much in the world of Islam is pressured today by news of unspeakable terrorism and bullies’ rants on the campaign trail, the American Composers Orchestra’s (ACO) “Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind” concert at Carnegie Hall takes on added significance. In so much of the music of the Middle East and Mediterranean lies a purity of humane grace that belies the beligerance of modern violence.

Composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, who talks of feeling grounded by Sufism, is keenly aware of this factor, speaking in our interview of “the troubling rhetoric about Islam” today. “It makes the work I’m putting out there more important,” he says. “It’s my Carnegie Hall debut” on April 1, “and I wanted to compose a piece that had something to say, not just musical but a world view.”

“Sufism and these internalized musical languages are intertwined in me…This is what it is to me to be a Turkish-American man.”
Mehmet Ali Sanlikol

His response is a work called Harabat — The Intoxicated.  Based in the classical Ottoman/Turkish tradition, the piece has at its heart a poem by the early 20th-century Sufi dervish Edib Harabi. Sanlikol will both sing and play the ud in the piece. Because the Carnegie Hall performance will be a world premiere (under the ACO’s George Manahan), we can’t offer you music from Harabat yet. You may recall our #MusicForWriters piece in 2014 on David Krakauer’s Isaac The Blind. The second track on that Grammy-nominated effort is the piece Vecd, which is by Sanlikol.

And we have two samples of Sanlikol’s music for you in videotaped performances. There’s the Othello In The Seraglio, his “coffeehouse opera,” as he calls it, which gets its New York premiere one week after the Carnegie performance, at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.

And we I find even more affecting is embedded here first for you: “A Song for Those in Love With God,” in which you see and hear Sanlikol sing with the aching serenity of the age in which these sounds were born.


The text you hear him sing here with Robert Labaree, is from the 17th-century poet Sahin:

Those who don’t know us should know and understand
Where we come from, where we wander
Those who don’t understand what we say should understand
We do things that do not make sense

Friendship of the Friend is hidden inside the soul
Wherever that Friendship is we desire that place
No one knows where our home is
Our tracks don’t appear, on snow we wander

We’re not poets like those others
We’re not capable of flying in this world
We’re falcons, we’re not really here
Somewhere in the spiritual world we wander

And here’s the surprise in what we learned in talking with Sanlikol: He had to come to America to learn his own root culture, the world of the Ottoman/Turkish classicsm — which today is infused with his boyhood love of jazz.

‘Knowing Nothing About Turkish Music Or Culture’

Thought Catalog: Sanlikol, when writing Harabat, you’ve told me, you were in touch with Sufism. Can you describe how that concept of mysticism relates to your work as a composer?

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol: I’ve discovered that if I ground myself in Sufism, the ultimate work succeeds better. Maybe it helps me express some deeper thoughts better.

TC: What’s the mechanism there? Is there a meditative element to it that helps you?

MS: I came to the U.S. 23 years ago knowing nothing about Turkish music or culture, and I do mean nothing. Both of my parents are Turkish Cypriots, and I grew up in Turkey and visited Cyprus often when growing up. Both my parents grew up under the British. My mother is a classical piano teacher. So I grew up in Turkey in a household where I heard more Chopin and Beethoven than anything Turkish.

I had a rebellious soul at the time and took interest in progressive rock, which led to jazz, and as a result, in 1993, I came to Boston to study jazz at Berklee College of Music [the alma mater of Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis, and Esperanza Spalding, among many others]. When I was 15, I could sing the entire overture to Mozart’s Figaro by heart. But my dream was to become a jazz composer and musician.

But something started happening. I started taking an interest first in the music of India. Then I came a little more west and looked at Iran. And then started looking into Arabic music.

TC: And a friend played some Ottoman military music for you, a recording of a Janissary band, right?

MS: Right, as a joke. But the music kept playing in the background. I started paying even more attention, and discovered a lot of intricacies in the Ottoman Janissary band music.

And that’s what happened to me. I had gone to two of the world’s most important schools in jazz, and I decided that however many years it would take, I’d now learn the music of where I come from. And that was a very serious promise. I’d just been accepted to a doctoral program at the New England Conservatory, and that allowed me to almost do a minor in ethnomusicology — I’d been accepted into the classical music program.

It was a complete transformation. I literally stopped pursuing a career in jazz. Instead, I started taking classes at Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies so I could learn how to read the old Ottoman Turkish, which used Arabic script. It just went on.

It became what I call the decade where I reconstructed my identity. I discovered many things, including Turkish Sufism. One of my first compositions at the end of this decade was called Palindrome.

TC: Because you’d now gone in both directions in your life, away from home and back to home, frontward and backward, like a palindrome.

MS: Exactly, it represented that journey. And Turkish Sufism was a major discovery for me. I seemed now to realize that I’d grown up with it without knowing I’d grown up with it. As I was doing these cultural studies, I started realizing all of these details. Even my name. Mehmet is the Turkified version of Mohammad. And Ali. My name is Mohammad Ali. [Laughs.]  I wanted to know why it was Mehmet and Ali? But that’s it, it’s the impact of Sufism in Turkey that was behind even my own name.

The pieces I’ve composed are all part of the internalization of these influences. Jazz and Western classical music were in me before classic Turkish music, but all of that now finds its way into these pieces.

Sufism and these internalized musical languages are intertwined in me.

They don’t co-exist. They’re intertwined in a kind of cosmopolitan modernity.

This is what it is to me to be a Turkish-American man.