This musical style was once a dividing line in Turkish culture

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: Jazz musician, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol lives here in Boston, but he’s from Turkey and goes back to the country every chance he gets. On his last trip about 4 weeks ago, he noticed something. Mehmet Ali Sanlikol: What struck me was the combination of refugees and Arab tourists that was just unlike the previous years. Werman: The presence of Syrian refugees and Arab tourists was new to Sanlikol. When he was growing up in Turkey, he told me most of the tourists were from Western nations. That’s changing now, and not just because of the conflict in Syria, but also because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies that look more to the Middle East than to Europe. Sanlikol says that’s a big change from the Turkey he remembers. Sanlikol: I remember, from 25 or so years ago, one of the most hotly debated topics was all about this Turkish ‘Arabesque’ music movement. The so-called “white Turks” were really annoyed by that. Werman: And that Turkish Arabesque is really kind of like a nod to the Arab world? Sanlikol: The name says so, but when a careful eye takes a closer look at it, you see that it’s actually a true blend of many Anatolian internal Turkish cultures and has a lot of countrysides of different backgrounds, including Turkish, Kurdish, etc. So, it really is, in fact, a very rich rock’n’roll-rich type of social phenomenon. But the Turkish elite at the time was just not able to see it because of a lot of preconceived notions. Werman: You mentioned the aesthetic that was brought from the countryside, that seems like a great segue to ask you about your own music and how this dichotomy has affected it. Are you trying to be more consciously adventurous now with your music to kind of push things? Sanlikol: Well, I see myself in the line of some Turkish musicians who have been actually very effective - in fact, gave new direction to American music, such as the Ertegün brothers, Arif Mardin - I am clearly a product of that kind of upbringing of an upper Turkish class, grew up with Chopin and Beethoven and all that in my house and far less Turkish music. But somehow I, unlike those people that I just named, because of the changing times, because of my personal story, I somehow discovered what I grew up with, including the Turkish Arabesque. It was always around me and I decided not to ignore it. Werman: You’ve got a song, a piece on your new album called “Palindrome.” Does that play into what you’re talking about here? About trying to merge these worlds and understand them better? Sanlikol: It very much does, and I must say that I’m proud of that piece because, in it, I was able to capture some of the very complex rhythmic cycles of the classical Ottoman-Turkish music, as well as some of the subtleties of Jazz improvisation. It’s definitely written for a Jazz orchestra, yet I also have some Turkish winds in it. It is unique as far as the sonic scape it creates. Also, it’s #1 inspiration is a personal journey of an immigrant, such as myself, and it is definitely inspired by Turkish Sufism, more so than anything else. Werman: Just a final question - the way you describe Turkey right now, it sounds like it could be kind of a rocky road ahead. Are you hopeful? Sanlikol: I’m always hopeful. That’s the only way to go. Werman: Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, thanks for coming in. Great to see you again. Sanlikol: Thanks for inviting me.