Mehmet Polat – Musical Journeys and existing through music

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

I feel like I have to start this post with a disclaimer as there’s been a much longer pause in publishing activity here than usual – not that I’ve ever been extremely active. Most of my free time in the last couple of years has gone into a project I will certainly come back to here as well. Most of this article was written nearly half a year ago after the concert I discuss here. At the time of writing these words, I’ve sat in Corona self-quarantine for two weeks. Luckily I don’t have any health issues but it has thrown me off my – already delicate – routines.

The present pandemic also puts the below article in a different perspective. In this time of severe travel and movement restrictions, music and other arts can offer us precious means of ‘travelling’ to distant places and experience cultures and people from far without risking contagion. We  could call this ‘virtual’ – see my previous discussions of virtuality – but at the present moment that might be as real as it gets. The other topic of this article, ‘existing through music’ or ‘musical being in the world’ can also be helpful during this time of crisis. As we practice social distancing – even isolation –  the social aspect of engaging in musical activities, whether listening, making, learning, teaching music (the latter two most likely online) or something else, becomes more apparent. Many are already habitually using music to regulate their emotional states and help them e.g. ‘be sad in a certain way’. During this period music can help us remain connected to the world outside, to ‘musically be in the world’.

I’ll elaborate on the above thoughts later, but now a glimpse of the pre-Corona world in the hope that the post-Corona world still allows us experience and appreciate musical journeys and experiences in real social environments.

Bassist on stage

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Oud player Mehmet Polat with his new band Embracing Colours in Bimhuis, Amsterdam.

Music – like all art forms – is very personal to its creators, even if artists are not always very explicit about it as they might want to leave it for the listeners/viewers to find their own meanings and references in art. Polat, however, was rather explicit about the personal dimensions of his music and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Musical ontology

Polat’s introductions to his compositions were mostly quite personal and even biographical. At some point he mentioned that he ‘exist[s] through music’. This is an interesting philosophical statement that I won’t get into any deeper here but refer you to my earlier discussions regarding Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and musical ontology in Hindu philosophy. In his discussion of music as identity the musicologist Simon Frith speaks of ‘musical-being-in-the-world’. Although he doesn’t cite Heidegger, I think his view is a musical application of Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’. According to Hindu philosophy the universe consists of sound, which is perhaps slightly more literal ‘existence through music’ than Polat had in mind 😉

Polat is by no means the only musician to think in these terms. Below is a talk with the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who (from 26’20”) talks at lenght of ‘way of being as a musician’.

Musical journeys

During the evening Polat frequently reflected on translating his life experiences into music. For the present discussion I’d like to draw a comparison with another Oud player Dhafer Youssef, although not in any normative sense as they’re both unquestionably masters of their instruments as well as resourceful composers and skilful band leaders. Both musicians started their musical journeys by immersing into their native musical traditions and later encountering and exploring other traditions resulting in intriguing combinations.

Polat has not only innovated on the instrumental technique as well as the construction of his instrument to serve his artistic needs; he also has a unique talent for working with musical materials of other cultures and have a musical dialogue with them. In such dialogues, he – together with the other musicians – explores these musical materials from his own background and roots in the Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical music.

Cross-cultural instrumentation

The Embracing Colours project is a jazz band with drums, double bass and accordion. Polat is of course not the first one to play the Oud with a jazz rhythm section. The best known today is probably the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef who has for a long time had a similar group but with piano instead of accordion. The choice of instrumentation has quite significant repercussions to the musical possibilities available for the groups. While Arab music – like most musics of the world – has repertoire that can be played on Western instruments, it does entail sacrificing some of the tonal richness of the musical culture. The micro-tonal maqamat are difficult to perform on instrumentation with fixed intonation. Youssef’s choice is to avoid the micro-tonal maqamat, whereas Polat has cleverly arranged his music so that the accordion doesn’t clash with the micro-tones he plays on the Oud. The Mozaiek Ensemble I have discussed previously also managed to arrange their music to combine piano and micro-tonal maqama.

Cultural encounters

Cultural encounters always require negotiations on various levels to reach mutual understanding – or harmony, which in this context is not a musical term. Musicians are often inspired by each others’ music and musical cultures. Depending on their aspirations and understanding of the musical cultures they’re involved with the results may vary from mere exotic flavour borrowed – or stolen, a.k.a cultural appropriation – from another culture to exciting mixes of and dialogues between different musical cultures.

No music no life

I’ve earlier briefly discussed how The Beatles – especially George Harrison – were inspired and influenced by Indian music. Even earlier the usual Western response to music from other parts of the world was to view them as primitive (see also my earlier discussion of primitivism in early jazz criticism). The first attempts of the British colonialists to engage with Indian music was to harmonize it as they viewed it as lacking this musical dimension – central to much Western music, but much less so in many other musics of the world. Power relations in cultural encounters may result in cultural appropriation. In music, this risk is greatest with agents in prominent positions in the music industry.

Polat’s and Youssef’s different approaches to music-making and their own musical roots speak volumes of their respective musical journeys. While Polat has immersed himself and draws from the musical heritage of his home region and other cultures in the region, Youssef had his formative musical experiences at a young age in his native Tunisia but paid his musical dues in the jazz scene of Vienna.

It would be too simplistic to try to draw any straight correlations between Polat’s and Youssef’s backgrounds and their musical expressions. It is, however, interesting to observe the musical journeys of these artists.

Specifically, my interest here is the relation Polat’s and Youssef’s musics have to jazz as some of their music is characterized as jazz or jazz-influenced. I have earlier discussed jazz as Black music. However, jazz has ‘gone global’ already a long time ago and there are various local jazz traditions and different kinds of fusions and hybrids with other musical cultures.

While Polat’s and Youssef’s musics don’t use musical elements of jazz in terms of melodic materials (blues) or the characteristic triple based swing of jazz as already mentioned, they opt using the rhythm section of jazz. While bass and drum set are nowadays common across genres, it’s good to keep in mind in this context that this form of ensemble playing started in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early days of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz musicians at those times adopted their repertoire to the audiences they played for. This legacy lives on with contemporary jazz musicians who are typically rather versatile stylistically, even if they specialize on, or prefer, playing in certain styles or (sub)genres. Polat’s and Youssef’s ensembles consist of these kinds of musicians brought together for the specific projects that mark the musical journeys of these artists.

Black music – Part IIa

Next I’d like to discuss Black music in light of some debates around jazz and whether it should be considered Black music or not, and why. Jazz has been in the centre of my activities for the most of my musically active life, whether playing, writing, studying or listening to and I’ve learned to approach it from various angles.

The discussion around jazz as Black music (or not) is mostly a North American discourse and I’ll focus on it here as such. The music, of course, has been played around the world since nearly a century now, and there’s been much attention to jazz as global and national phenomena outside United States. As race, however, is a social construct I’ll stay here within the North American context in which race, unfortunately, continues to be a heavily debated matter.

Categories

To put the debates around jazz into perspective it might be helpful to understand “jazz” as a name for a category, or several categories in fact. Depending on how one sees, or hears, jazz it can be a musical, commercial, artistic, racial, social, cultural or political category, just to name a few. As I hope to illustrate here, as a musical practice jazz, like any music, is simultaneously all of the above, even if we might attempt to isolate or highlight one aspect at a time for discussion.

As discussed in the previous part, we can try to establish criteria for jazz as a musical category by defining its constituent elements. The first jazz critics in the first half of the 20th century such as Hugues Panassié, André Hodeir and Winthrop Sargeant talked about “hot jazz” and “real jazz”, referring to musical expression arising from black folk music. It was seen as an “authentic” art form in contrast with other commercialised forms of music, which others – mistakenly, according to this view – called jazz. Such views are today considered primitivistic; placing the value of the music as a socio-cultural practice in it’s “authenticity” as primitive folk expression attempts to “freeze” the music, and its practitioners, into that socio-cultural – and by implication, economical and political – state.

This was rather typical thinking of the time when the “other” and its culture was measured against Western European standards. The post-World War II post-colonial thinking has shown the oppressiveness of such thinking but unfortunately some romanticised notions of e.g. jazz’s spontaneity and “freedom” still echo the above-discussed primitivism.

Tradition

Characteristic to the jazz historical discourse of the early 20th century (and much of the later one as well) is that it attempts to construct a musical tradition similar to that of European Classical music; a narrative of a progressive evolution of a music neatly divided into stylistic periods and highlighted with masters and major innovators. Thus we get a story of jazz from Africa to Congo Square to Chicago to New York and from e.g. Buddy Bolden to Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis with various forks to the tree of jazz history, but still maintaining a comprehensible linearity. In this narrative jazz progresses from a primitive folk music towards “higher” forms of art music. It could be said to have reached its climax when in the 1980s it was declared “rare and valuable national American treasure” by the U.S Congress and “American Classical music” by the jazz scholar and musician Billy Taylor (here’s a counter argument to Taylor).

Such histories tend to aestheticise musical tradition by removing the human from the equation; music evolves as a creature of its own without human (socio-cultural) agency. History becomes a list of the above-mentioned markers and highlights which don’t really help us understand the socio-cultural-economic-political conditions affecting – but not causing – these developments. I say “not causing” because although the fore-mentioned conditions may drive change in musical practices they cannot explain the particular change that occurs, i.e. (musical) change can (and mostly will) take many paths, even when the practitioners live in similar conditions.

What I find most disturbing in the narratives of jazz history and the way they construct a jazz tradition is that they are based an aesthetic criteria set by the historians and the music industry – the former being part of the latter, in a way – and not the musicians or the music-listening public. In many such narratives jazz history “ends” with John Coltrane’s death in 1967 or with the fusion jazz of the 70s (see e.g. this documentary) as later music cannot be fit into their aesthetic framework.

But musicians still continue to play jazz in ways that pays homage to the tradition but refuses to be bound by it. The best examples of this I’ve found in New Orleans where people like Leroy Jones and brass bands such as the Rebirth Brass Band, Hot 8 and the Stooges Brass Band continue to make music deeply rooted in the city’s rich musical tradition while still being relevant to contemporary audiences at home and elsewhere – and they’re proud to call their music jazz.

Is jazz Black music?

In 2001 the San Francisco Jazz Organization arranged a panel discussion titled “Jazz and Race: Black, White and Beyond”. The panel consisted of representatives of musicians (Steve Coleman), authors (e.g. Nat Hentoff), academics (Dr. Angela Y. Davis) and the music industry (Blue Note records president Bruce Lundvall). I’d also like to bring up here some of the thoughts on the topic by the New Orleanian trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

Jazz in these discussions is mostly discussed as an art historical category – a historically constructed music genre – and a commercial category – a “brand name” for a product to be sold by record companies and promoted by music event organisers.

I find it quite telling of the nature of the discourse that the panel discussion revolves much around jazz musicians of the past. References to jazz history are made to defend positions of jazz as Black music based on a view that the “originators” of the music were black; or a more “shaded” view in which the roles of the many white musicians are highlighted.

Dr. Angela Y. Davis also points out that in racial terms the matter is not “black and white”; e.g. many Latin American musicians have also significantly contributed to the music. In this regard one should also think back to Jelly Roll Morton‘s notion of a “Spanish tinge” and e.g. Dizzy Gillespie‘s Afro-Cuban co-operations.

On the same token – but still staying within the North American context – one might also think of the contributions of black musicians to other genres, be it western art music, various Latin American influenced styles or popular music. My point, as you might have guessed, is that these claims for “ethnic ownership” of music are hard to back up factually, partly because music as a “thing” is difficult to contain within any categorical boundaries, but also because these “facts” are formed around problematic notions such as “origin” and “authenticity”. These remain, however, passionately felt ideas that cannot – and shouldn’t – be neglected, nor taken for granted.

Music in commercial and social spaces

Another much debated topic among the panellists is the distribution of labour – to call up a Marxist term here – within music industry. Saxophonist Steven Coleman speaks of the common perception among black musicians, as well as his own experience, that white musicians often end up doing better than their black colleagues after an “inter-racial” collaboration. He also claims that black musicians don’t receive as much attention and marketing effort from record labels as white musicians. Bruce Lundvall is quick to dismiss this claim.

The issue Coleman brings up tabs into a longer debate about Black music in the United States. For instance Charles Keil and Amiri Baraka wrote already in the 1960s of the trend of every successive Black music style being co-opted and made commercially successful by white musicians. In this discourse music has a significant counter-hegemonic force as black musicians response to this exploitation by inventing yet new styles.

My visit to New Orleans confirmed the feeling I had had regarding this kind of power-struggle in relation to black music, as music there seemed to mean so much more to people than anywhere else I had been to. As Nicholas Payton has said: “New Orleans was and still is home to some of the most talented musicians in the world. There is a strong social aesthetic in the music there. It’s all about the people… It’s all about life, never about music”. I.e. music is being made mainly for (communally) internal reasons instead of external ones. Music can be a means to a strong communal – as well as individual – identity which helps dealing with many kinds of external pressures.

While this might at first sound a bit like the primitivism discussed above, my point is that music making is a social process; made by musicians living in communities with specific “social aesthetics”. Music industry, by definition, aims at producing music that bypasses such specific social values. In the process it often flattens – or compresses, if you’d prefer a more adept term – the music to something quite generic; something it’s able to sell to people who only share some general – and not necessarily musical – aesthetics.

The innovations, however, come from the musicians, not from the industry. Or as Nicholas Payton puts it: “The industry can’t move the music forward, the musicians have to do that… The industry’s success is based on the artists, not the other way around”.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll discuss a specific moment in jazz history some view as a “game changer” while others view it as the “end” of jazz. Below a teaser as well as further discussion on the topic discussed here:

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