From small-town boy to big-city rocker: Turkey’s Mehmet Erdem
About midway into our conversation, hours before the second show of his first-ever North American tour, Mehmet Erdem paused. Looking up from my notes, I noticed the normally fast-talking singer-songwriter looking just past my left ear, where his musicians were standing beside an American sound engineer. His eyes quickly met my own and he smiled apologetically. ‘Would it be alright if I went over there and helped with sound check?’ he asked me. ‘I’ll come back as soon as we’re done.’ I assured him it wasn’t a problem, and, after about ten minutes of scratching observations about the Washington, D.C. venue in my legal pad, I lifted my head to see Erdem positioned above the stage in the sound booth. A few minutes later, he descended to the dance floor (the space is normally used as a salsa club) and huddled with his manager and musicians, his brow furrowed.
After playing a few bars from a handful of songs, including his stirring cover of late Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya’s Kum Gibi (Like Sand), Erdem returned to my corner of the venue, his polite smile renewed. ‘For some reason, our sound [on stage] is the last thing that we in the music industry think about’, he said with a laugh. ‘How ridiculous! What difference does it make how good we are if the audience can’t hear us properly?’ In that half an hour, I felt as though I had witnessed all sides of Mehmet Erdem: the singer known for his gravelly bass voice, slow pop-rock melodies, and innovative covers of well-known Turkish songs; the multi-instrumentalist who embraces almost every stringed instrument like an old friend; and the mechanical engineer who isn’t afraid to start pushing buttons on the sound board.
Erdem was an engineer before he was a pop singer-songwriter – but he was a multi-instrumentalist before assuming either of the two other identities. Born in Manisa, a small city on the Aegean coast, Erdem spent his youth in the nearby metropolis of Izmir before heading off to Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, home to one of Turkey’s leading engineering programmes. Though he said he had always been a problem-solver, Erdem added that most of his childhood energies were focused on tinkering with musical instruments. The first object to attract his attention was the child-sized mandolin lying around his house. He taught himself how to play it when he was ‘five or six years old’, and soon moved onto other instruments like the oud, bouzouki, and cümbüş, all staples of Turkish folk music. ‘Eventually’, Erdem also picked up the guitar. ‘I didn’t have a lot of stick-to-itiveness back then. I wouldn’t say I’m a master of any one of those instruments, but I can pick any of them up and start playing.’
Erdem was also quick to point out that, although he spent his childhood on the Aegean coast, his family hails from the eastern Anatolian town of Arapgir, in Turkey’s Malatya province. That heritage featured prominently in his household; in addition to his parents encouraging him to learn to play various traditional stringed instruments, Erdem’s uncle – a physician by trade – taught folk dancing and was a voracious consumer of locally produced folk music tapes. The young musician grew up listening to those eastern Anatolian melodies alongside prominent national acts like Sezen Aksu, Barış Manço, Fikret Kızılok, and Erkan Oğur. ‘I think listening to a wide range of music feeds the soul’, Erdem remarked. ‘You learn to appreciate different points of view.’ This diverse taste in music yielded Erdem’s distinct sound: never quite conventional Turkish pop, and only occasionally sliding into rock, although almost all his singles have received mainstream radio airtime. ‘I’ve incorporated melodies from the Balkans, covered Turkish folk songs, and done rock and jazz arrangements, so I never know how to answer questions like, “What is your genre?”’
Complicating matters further, Erdem said, are his direct ties to multiple geographies – and thus, multiple musical traditions – throughout Turkey. ‘I studied in Istanbul, my family is from Malatya, and I grew up in Izmir. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t confusing at times! But it’s a good sort of confusion. I’ve always tried to make the best of it in my music.’ After gaining admission to Boğaziçi University’s mechanical engineering department in 1997, Erdem also identified what may well have been the best venue to showcase his diverse background and musical interests: earlier that year, the now-legendary folk music collective Kardeş Türküler (lit. ‘Songs of Fraternity’) had released their debut record, which included tracks in Kurdish and Armenian alongside Turkish-language folk staples. Erdem said he listened to their album non-stop, and, knowing that the entire ensemble consisted of Boğaziçi students, was set on joining them in the fall. His tenure with Kardeş Türküler playing the various stringed instruments he had studied in his childhood lasted eight years and included dozens of live performances across Turkey at a time when tensions surrounding issues of ethnic identity – particularly Kurdish – were high.
After the overnight success of Hakim Bey, Erdem found himself no longer seated toward the rear of the stage with an oud or cümbüş on his lap, but front and centre, standing up behind a microphone
Needless to say, during those whirlwind years on the road, mechanical engineering was not his top priority. ‘I toured with the group all throughout college, and our tours were always during the most beautiful time of the year – May and June’, he remembered with a laugh, ‘– which is when our exams were scheduled, for some reason. So I can’t really say I was a good student.’ But Erdem certainly doesn’t have any regrets about joining the group or attending his alma mater, which he praised for providing its students with a ‘democratic and open’ environment, before becoming a professional musician. ‘We needed Kardeş Türküler’, Erdem said, referring to Turkey as a whole. ‘There were Turkish and Kurdish folk songs long before Kardeş Türküler, but nobody was trying new things with them. This group introduced the [music of Anatolia] to a new generation of people. That’s why I was so mesmerised by that first album.’
By the time he parted ways with Kardeş Türküler, Erdem was an established ensemble musician with a strong interest in composing. He began pursuing opportunities to score films and television shows, eventually establishing a fruitful working relationship with director Onur Ünlü. At times manic and upbeat, and at others emotional and wrought, the soundtrack that Erdem developed for Ünlü’s beloved comedy series Leyla ile Mecnun (Layla and Majnun) – an absurdist retelling of Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi’s famous version of the Arabic love story – remains his most famous work, excepting his three solo albums. Since the popular series’ abrupt cancellation in 2013, shortly after images of the cast and crew protesting in Gezi Park surfaced online, Erdem has only worked on film scores, which he says are easier to manage with his jam-packed tour schedule because their stories have clear beginnings, middles, and ends. ‘Unless it’s really arthouse, films are completely unwatchable without their scores’, he told me. ‘The music has to be there. But you can’t be too selfish when scoring a film or television show. You’re there as a musician to enhance another work of art.’
A decade and a half after beginning his first professional music gig, Erdem decided to take the plunge into the ‘mainstream’ Turkish pop scene, and recorded his first full-length album, Herkes Aynı Hayatta (In Life, Everyone is the Same). The 2012 release of Erdem’s debut single, a rock-influenced cover of Sezen Aksu’s Hakim Bey (Your Honour/Judge) – penned in the 90s as an impassioned defence of freedom of expression – became an instant hit. Since then, he has released two more, the most recent being 2016’s Hepsi Benim Yüzümden (It’s All My Fault). After the overnight success of Hakim Bey, Erdem found himself no longer seated toward the rear of the stage with an oud or cümbüş on his lap, but front and centre, standing up behind a microphone. Reflecting on his roles as a musician, he noted that:
With Kardeş Türküler, I was an instrumentalist, and, in a sense, that was easier than what I’m doing now. I’m not saying that playing an instrument in a band is easy, but at least you get to focus on the music. Now that I’m the singer, I have all these side obligations. On stage, I have to be careful to speak between each song, [and] need to get a feel for my audience at each show.
He gestured toward the stage, where his fellow musicians and crew were still adjusting the equipment. ‘And if anything goes wrong, word gets out that I was terrible, even if it was something outside [my] control. But you eventually get over these anxieties.’ I asked him if people had recognised him prior to Hakim Bey. ‘There’s also that’, he added, smiling. ‘My face has been in a lot of music videos and photographs [since then]. I don’t really get to talk about music with my fans anymore. All our conversations are centred around how I should pose for pictures.’ But, after observing Erdem pacing between the stage and sound booth, moving mic stands and observing his fellow musicians, hands in pockets, before offering feedback, it was obvious that – 450 solo shows and countless TV and newspaper interviews later – fame had not gone to his head.
Like many musicians in Turkey, Erdem is almost always on the road. Concerts have become the lifeblood of an industry where fans prefer streaming services and YouTube to legal album purchases; but touring is more than just a way to bolster name recognition and raise money for the next album release, Erdem said. With popularity, he feels, comes a responsibility to connect with fans personally. ‘I’ve never seen touring as a money-making opportunity,’ remarked Erdem. ‘For example, we go to [smaller provinces] like Uşak [about 200 kilometers east of Izmir], where the venue might have a maximum capacity of three or four-hundred people. So even if the show is completely sold out, we’re only playing for three hundred people.’ Nonetheless, Erdem still tries to play in as many cities as possible. ‘Music should be about that’, he opined. ‘I have fans all over [Turkey], and I want to see as many of them as possible face-to-face. That’s what I love to do. Music is something that should be shared.’