Mehmet Polat’s  ud serving as a bridge between East and West

1. 2. 2024 | Rubriky: Articles,Interviews

Amsterdam-based ud player Mehmet Polat studied Indian and Turkish music. He makes music with both Turkish and Western players

[Petr Dorůžka, Praha] The ud, one of the most common instruments in the Middle East, is considered to be the forerunner of a whole host of stringed instruments, including the European guitar. Unlike the guitar, it does not have frets and therefore is not limited by European scales. Besides Arab countries, a number of excellent players live in Turkey, Israel or Armenia and, thanks to the migration in recent decades, also in Europe. The instrument has gained respect in jazz thanks to musicians as Anouar Brahem from Tunisia, who records for ECM, or Rabih Abou-Khalil from Lebanon.

In addition to its musical role, the instrument also functions as a cultural symbol, linking the Middle Eastern traditions with Western genres like jazz, flamenco or acoustic music. Mehmet Polat’s music draws inspiration from this ever-changing area. His concerts are an exceptional experience. Polat and his bandmates lead their audience to the open musical landscape, where the art of listening to others is the rule, rather than promoting one’s ego.

Polat recorded his latest album, Embodied Poetry, with Bulgarian drummer Martin Hafizi, Dutch pianist Mike Roelofs, bassist Daniel van Huffelen, and guest players on trumpet [Gijs Levelt], duduk [Vardan Hovanissian] and ney [Şükrü Kirtiş].

What music did you grow up with?

Mostly with Turkish Alevi music and folk music at home and in my village. My father had a beautiful voice, a great musical memory, all my siblings and cousins were highly musical. I started playing Turkish baglama when I was around 5 years old. I continued till my age of 18, and then switching to ud.

What kind of Western pop music influenced you?

I was listening to Turkish pop music on TV and radio, and I have never been an active listener of Western pop music. Inactively I was hearing it everywhere.

Was there any formative moment in your youth that changed your view on art and music?

When I was 18, I saw a 12-year-old boy playing Paganini caprices. This gave me an amazing motivation to work harder.

Do you come from a musical family?

My brothers play Turkish baglama, my mother and father sing. I was the first one from my family who chose music as a profession, studied in the conservatories and performed internationally. My niece Fazilet Polat has followed my path. She plays Western classical music on flute, she plays in the Istanbul Opera Orchestra.

Were you born in the Netherlands or in Turkey? How and for what reason did your family moved to Europe?

I was born and raised in a village in suburbs of Urfa, Turkey in 1980’s. In 1998 I moved to Istanbul for my studies, in 2007 I have moved to the Netherlands. I came to the Netherlands for studying master degree at Rotterdam Conservatory’s Indian Music department. Since then I have been living here in Amsterdam.

At Rotterdam Conservatory, what made you choose Indian music?

Initially recordings of Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussein, Shakti. This music was the first reason why I wanted to learn Indian Music, it was so familiar but also different.

During your studies at the Rotterdam Conservatory, were you playing Indian music on the ud, or some Indian instrument?

Yes I was learning it on the ud. There were more students who were learning on sax or even darbuka.

Your latest album is called Embodied Poetry. Interpretations of the title can be diverse. I read it as “stories stored in our physical bodies”. Maybe you have a more personal explanation?

I see this album as an outcome of lots of stories about life experiences that came to my life as birth, death, survival, love, struggle, balance, perseverance and motivation for going on, diverse emotions and lessons (both life and for artistic development: I have followed jazz lessons by guitarist Mark Tuinstra, I have learned jazz standards, jazz timing, improvising on chords etc.).

You explain that 2 pieces are directly based on Indian ragas, Yaman and Charukeshi. Can you explain why did you choose these two? Just because of the musical content, or also because the emotional level, time-of-day they are related to?

I love those ragas, both because or their musical content and also they are part of my emotional world. I can relate them, they can speak out my inner world through my melodies and ud.

Do you consider Turkey as your second home? Do you travel there often to explore your roots?

Initially yes, Turkey could be my second home, but social, cultural and economic obstacles withhold me somehow. Anyhow approximately once in a year I go visit my family. I’d love to perform there as well. About my roots, I think I have brought them with me to Amsterdam. Every phrase I play sounds a bit Turkish to me. Even I find it good to get disconnected from my roots, for opening up for new cultures. I am not afraid of that.

How did you study music, at school? Or did you also have a private teacher?

I have started with Turkish baglama at the age of 5, I have learnt it from my brothers and other players in my village. After that till my conservatory years I had various private teachers and courses.

The Netherlands is known for it’s advanced educational system in non-Western musics, was this helpful?

I have studied at CODARTS, it was super helpful for me. Next to my studies in Indian music, I could also interact with musicians from Latin, flamenco and even tango departments.

Do you remember your first public performance?

I was 7 years old, playing Turkish baglama and singing at a national day (23 April) celebration at my school.

Once you told me you are Alevi. What does this mean to you, in a practical way, and in a spiritual way?

Coming from an Alevi village and family has helped me to get a humanistic perspective, respecting others, gender equality, secularism, being open minded in life and opening ourselves up for art forms as music, poetry and dance. I am grateful for this. But further now I live just a secular life without any spiritual feeling or belonging any group of beliefs.

Is Polat common name between Alevis? I am asking this, because the previous interview in the magazine was with Meral Polat, so some readers will be curious if there is any relation.

Polat means ‘steel’ in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. It’s originally a Persian word. So written Polat is one of the most common surnames or names in Turkey. Meral is a friend of mine but we are not related. Just a beautiful coincidence.

I suppose there is a large Turkish Gastarbeiter diaspora in Netherlands and even bigger in Germany. But do these people come to see Mehmet Polat concert? If not, what do they listen to?

A small percentage of gastarbeider diaspora come to my concerts here. Those are usually from Kurdish, Alevi or other minority groups, or their grandchildren. A small group of the diaspora has become world citizens, left thinking, open minded and don’t belong to any ethnic of religious group. They also come to my concerts.
But unfortunately more than 60% of the diaspora here watches only Turkish TV and get their cultural and political inputs from there.

Your label is Aftabdoes it have a meaning? Is it a common name in Muslim world, any relation to the Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab?

Aftab means ‘sun’ in Persian. I love it. By living in Netherlands I am missing the presence of the sun sometimes for weeks.

How difficult it is to survive with music that is NOT mainstream, and is also NOT part of any widely accepted genre like jazz?

It’s true that it’s not an easy task, it requires some extra work to help the audience listen and feel & understand it. And at the end it’s my responsibility to get my music heard, by audience. In bigger cities we usually have audience for my ‘multicultural jazz’ music. Recently, on June 22 2023, we have played in Bimhuis. Although it was a Thursday evening on summer, the hall was full.

But also you do other things, a programme called Heimwee naar verte with Joke Hermsen and Maryana Golovchenko.

This show is about homesickness. Amazing philosopher Joke Hermsen has initiated this project. The project has started with Joke’s new book ‘Onder een andere hemel’ (under a different sky). Myself and the great Ukrainian singer Maryana Golovchenko will make music about the subjects, Joke will combine her lecture with our music.

Do you have any concerts in the Middle East, Turkey, Morocco, Israel?

I have been in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey for concerts. And I would love to go there again and discover other countries from the region.

Have you ever worked with a singer? Any recordings?

Yes I did. Aynur, Mikail Aslan, Cemil Qocgiri, Mircan Kaya, Flip Noorman, Naomi Inez, Karima el Fillali. I am also teaching a Classical Turkish Music Choir in Amsterdam. Check these links

Turkish court music

Can we talk now about Ottoman classical music?

Ottoman Music was well developed in the court. Next to its artistic aesthetic it was also used for healing people.

How much it was improvised?

Ottoman Music was based mainly on makams (a concept of melodicity which is based on tonality and certain route/rules the melodies must follow). Most known makam improvisations are called ‘taksim’ and ‘meyan’. Taksim is a free improvisation with or without any accompaniment. Meyan is a melodic or rhythmical improvisation on an ongoing groove during the pieces.

There was just 1 melodic voice and no harmony, like in Indian music?


Did the genre evolve continually until present time, or was there some turning point when the Ottoman rule ended, that is seen like the end of the “classical” period?

Song forms and instrumental forms are still being composed, performed and listened. But classical forms (for example beste, yuruk semai, agir semai etc) are not being so much composed. Especially after television was invented, the classical forms have started to vanish.

Did notation at some point enter the music system? And was improvisation of the greatest masters written down on paper, a process that can be seen as a parallel to works of European composers? Cemil Bey could be an example?

I am sure Turkish music historians can tell a lot more about it. But yes, notation came later. Afterwards the greatest masters have written their compositions on notation. Today we are using Western notation in French system (do-re-mi..) with extra accidentals for microtones. Also for each specific pitch we have older names as well, like rast, zirgule, dugah, kurdi, segah etc.

Is there any direct relation between Turkish makam and Indian raga system?

Yes, especially when we play certain scales and follow certain rules, makam and raga systems are similar.

The ud

What it takes to bring new ideas on instrument like ud? Is it just technique, or also incorporating ideas from non-Eastern cultures?

It is a combination of having a good technique, being open to different cultures, having a broadened vision and a good taste. Ud was mostly seen as a traditional instrument which must accompany vocals. But I use it as a solo instrument, for that I have developed an advance technique based on spreading my fingers wide, transposing all the makams in every half tone. For doing that I have practised average 10 hours during my first years of learning, 25 years ago.

Why transposing is so important?

Since Turkish Music is mostly vocal music, every vocalist may want to sing the songs in the range of their voice. In this case the instrumentalists must to adapt to singers’ voice’s range, and that means we must transpose instantly. But transposing makam scales – especially to the half tones – could be ultra challenging. Because you have to keep the intervals correct, accommodate the embellishments, make your instruments sound good. Mostly the instrumentalists avoid that and play just on the keys which works on mainly open strings. But I embraced this challenge and learned from it.

How did ud playing evolve in 20 century?

Serif Muhittin Targan (1892-1967) had a big influence on developing ud in Turkey and in the Arabic world. He was also a good cellist, he could apply all his technical capabilities on the ud. Had a wide perspective and brought ud to an advance level. Targan had a lot of Western influences.

In what sense was Munir Bashir so influential? Did his studies in Hungary bring any Western ideas?

Munir Bashir was a student of Serif Muhittin Targan. Of course his studies in Hungary brought Western Ideas.

Rabih Abou-Khalil studied in Beirut, besides ud also a flute, with the Czech professor Josef Severa, did this also bring some Western influences?

Yes it did.

And Anouar Brahem made many albums for ECM, for Western ears his music still sounds Eastern, but I am sure listener from the Middle East hears many Western elements, can you name some?

Anouar Brahem has a good taste, subtle playing, broadened vision and interesting ideas which I like. I like his albums with unusual bands with for example bass clarinet, accordion, sax and more.

Are there several parallel “schools” how to play ud, like Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Israeli, Turkish, or is it now just a huge melting pot?

Yes, characteristic differences of the local cultures are definitely affecting the style of the ud. I want to add also Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Greece and North African countries on this list. All play the ud in their styles and even with different tuning systems. I believe that the instrument is just a tool, music is in your brains and heart. You externalise what you know and feel at the end, no matter what instrument you play. If a Japanese folk musician plays ud, I am sure the ud will sound more Japanese.

You also designed an ud with two extra bass strings to broaden the range and function of his instrument. Do you use it on regular basis?

Yes I do, especially in projects without bass player and bass needed, I play the bass lines with my ud. Also during my solo shows I loop bass lines to improvise on top of it.

East and West

For Europeans Eastern music seems a mystery, most of the intervals sound “wrong”, with no links to human emotions in a way major or minor scales work in Europe. Maybe listeners from the East have same feeling from Western music?

Actually not. In Eastern music we have substitute makams/scales for Western major and minor. For major we have mahur and cargah in Turkish music. In Arabic Music that’s called ajam, Persian Music mahoor etc. And for minor we have nihavend, buselik and its variants.

Or maybe, the feeling is not “wrong”, but for Eastern ears the Western melodies are trivial, simplistic, lacking ornaments and the mystery of microtonal intervals?

Actually in Western modern music there are examples with microtones and larger irregular rhythms. Also in Baroque and Renascence times there were ornaments. I am sure musicologists can say way more about that. Also it is more more than just East and West. We have many cultures and traditions in the world like North & South America, Asia, Afrika etc. I would consider them also as good sources to get influenced with.

Once I asked the Israeli ud player Yair Dalal about the differences between Eastern and Wester scales, and he explained that the most important thing is the “neutral third”, which is exactly between the major and minor third. I had to agree that “neutral third” is for Europeans a factor that immediately sounds Eastern, but is it really that simple?

I would say, that depends on makam. In some makams third note is important or with microtone. In others that could be fourth (f.e. neva), or fifth (f.e. huseyni) or sixth (f.e. Turkish acem) and so on.

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