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 IIb

The first "classic" Miles Davis Quintet at the New Port Jazz festival 1958. Photo by Dennis Stock

Next I’d like to discuss a specific moment in the history of jazz, which has been interpreted in different ways. The moment in question is 1959, and I think it provides a good example of the differences in views around the debate of jazz as Black music I’ve discussed earlier. Whereas a recent BBC documentary presents the year 1959 as the “year that changed jazz”, Nicholas Payton is of the opinion that “Jazz died in 1959”.

Although these views of 1959 as marking a “change” or “death” of jazz might seem contradictory, in the present context, however, it could be argued that they refer to the same phenomenon: Jazz stops being Black music.

Payton is quite clearly of this opinion as he views jazz as ‘a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that.’ For him, the biggest mistake was that

Jazz separated itself from American popular music… The music never recovered. Ornette [Coleman] tried to save Jazz from itself by taking the music back to its New Orleanian roots, but his efforts were too esoteric… Jazz died in 1959, that’s why Ornette tried to ‘Free Jazz’ in 1960… The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago.

I think part of the problem Payton talks about is that the term “jazz” continues to carry racial connotations, references to racial stereotypes such as spontaneity (improvisation) and “naturality” going back to the primitivism I discussed before. The jazz scholar Ingrid Monson, among others, has talked about these and other persisting, often romanticising, notions about jazz and jazz musicians. And these notions get marketed with the music – albeit often implicitly – which makes it indeed bad marketing in many ways.

One point on which Payton and the documentary makers agree is what marks 1959 as a turning point in the development of jazz; why “1959 was the coolest year in Jazz” [Payton]. Four records came out that year signalling a change in their own way: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, David Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, although Payton only mentions the first two.

Live performance of "So what", the opening track of Kind of Blue - but without the intro.

In his Autobiography, Miles Davis also speaks of the changes, musical and political, around this time. Along the lines of Payton’s view, Davis also came to the conclusion that

success in this industry always depends upon how many records you sell, how much money you make for the people who control the industry

and while

Columbia Records served the mainstream of this country[,] Prestige [the label he was previously signed up with] didn’t; it was making great records, outside the mainstream. (195)

"Take Five" from Dave Brubeck's Time out became the best-selling jazz single.

The notions of “mainstream” and “American popular music” Payton and Davis discuss in the current context, raise questions about the nature of culture, especially in ethnic terms. Humanities scholars have since a while ago already recognised that cultures are not homogeneous entities, especially not in ethnic terms, i.e. there’s no singular “Black culture” that would be applicable throughout time and space. The US Black society, such as any other society, consists of many groups, divided by e.g. social status and geographical location, sharing only some aspects of the “social aesthetics” Payton referred to.

Music in cultural spaces

In his book Power of black music Samuel A. Floyd has defined a Black “core culture” as the

portion of the black population that has remained closest to its mythic and ritual roots, whose primary cultural values and interests lie within that community. (10)

These “mythic ritual roots” for Floyd are the “ring values” of “Dance, Drum and Song” dating back, most famously, to Congo Square in New Orleans and further to the African cultural origins of black Americans.

On the other hand, “mainstream” and “American popular music” obviously refer to something more inclusive. In his book, Davis is clear that

[a]s a musician and an artist, I have always wanted to reach as any people as I could through my music. And I have never been ashamed of that. Because I never thought that the music called ‘jazz’ was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all other dead things that were once considered artistic. (195)

Davis seems to be rather indifferent about what the music is called, and throughout his book prefers to talk about “my music”. He does, however, recognise that a term such as jazz enables critics to talk about the music and the record industry to package and sell it, which again brings some cents to the musicians as well.

Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" from The Shape of Jazz to Come touched base for e.g. Louis Reed as he mentions in the BBC documentary.

In the time of change in the early 1960s, in Davis’ view, the

white critics started supporting the free thing, pushing that over what most everybody else was doing. Jazz started to lose its broad appeal around this time.


[w]hen those critics had pushed the way-out thing and people started to turn off, the critics dropped it like a hot potato”.

The BBC documentary 1959 – A year that changed jazz tells a story of a specific period through the four above-mentioned albums and their creators. Different aspects of the narrative quite neatly match the philosopher of history Hayden White’s “plots” of historical narratives; the artists are portrayed as heroic geniuses, in Mingus’ case a tragic one. The ancient Greek hero triumphing against the odds is mixed with a 19th century Romantic genius with a touch of the above-discussed primitivism, as the artist gets his inspiration from a sublime source and through his ability to translate his emotions and human experience into artistic expression. To ensure the full attention of contemporary audiences, the narratives are presented by a voice that could be used in a Hollywood action film trailer.

The bottom line of the document is summarised by the jazz critic and author Stanley Crouch towards the end of the film:

1959 was a really important year in jazz because you had some of the greatest musicians in the world playing a response to what had been played but what was also a response to what could be played. The art was advanced in 1959. Another set of choices were offered to everybody.

It’s not too difficult to place these four albums in an evolutionary continuum of jazz with Davis introducing, or at least popularising, “modal jazz”, Brubeck mixing exotic Eastern European rhythms into his music, Mingus finding ever new ways of creating music deeply rooted in what Floyd called the Black “core culture” and finally Coleman attempting to “free” jazz of its formal boundaries of harmonic and melodic conventions. They can also be quite neatly categorised as the beginnings of stylistic periods, as discussed before.

On "Fables of Faubus" on Mingus Ah Um Mingus commented on the recent developments in racial politics. The lyrics are omitted in the released version.

For Payton, these musical developments, although artistically laudable, meant the loss of jazz’s status as American popular music. Around this time, rock was growing in popularity and attracting the attention of the public as well as the music industry. It could be argued, as I interpret Payton, that the term “jazz” from there on was lacking the coherent meaning as a music deeply rooted in the Black culture. Although it had always been “hybrid”, a mix of many musical cultures, it was now coming to a point where these roots were becoming somewhat less obvious – affecting also the music’s popularity within the black American society.

Music as identity

But, as Stanley Crouch mentioned, these developments were “a response” to their contemporary socio-cultural-political conditions. American society was going through significant changes and music, musical tastes and cultural predilections were changing as well. As Americans were searching for their identities in these turbulent times, music was part of the process.

The musicologist Simon Frith has talked about identity

com[ing] from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.

For Frith, music is identity as

[m]usic, like identity… describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social.

Browsing records

Ethics of music

This “aesthetic identity” (my term) also has an ethical dimension; if engagement with music – whether listening or creating – is “trying on” an identity, then sharing musical tastes is sharing some ethics as well: “Good people” like “good music”.

While this line of thinking can – and has been – easily expanded to universalistic ideas of music as an agency of various kinds of good for humanity, it is not without risks. Ideas of universality – a bit like music industry, as discussed above – may flatten everything to the same level and erase differences. As the power relations in the world are never equal, this risks the kinds of exploitations discussed above when the white mainstream exploits the music of the black margins.

Morality of categories

But now I’m veering into areas that require more thorough discussion. My point is that Payton may well have arguments to say that jazz, as Black music, died in 1959 and that continuing to use the term for music thereafter is to linger on ideas of the past. The rest of the world, however, doesn’t seem to agree with him.

What I’ve tried to point out here is that we need categories (names) for things to understand, think of, and discuss them as parts of the human experience. We do, however, need to be responsible and critical in our usage of such categories, to recognise them as the historical constructs that they are, with sometimes far-reaching implications. I.e. these categories, and our use of them, have a moral element.

For me, jazz, of whatever era, will always be essentially Black music, especially in terms of performance practices. The way in which jazz musicians (meaning musicians knowledgeable of the jazz tradition) communicate with each other through their music – regardless of where the musical material is derived from – and the kind of energy this process generates, is for me the most distinguishing thing about jazz, whether I’m listening to or playing it. Such musical experiences seem to me to afford a way to witness, or take part in, a living tradition. I also find this kind of engagement with jazz the best tribute to the past, present, and future contributors to this great form of performing art.

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