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Using the oud and the kanun, Loreena McKennitt conjures up images of Istanbul on her latest album with its special references to figures from Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. The artist will perform in the city on 13 June.
A living legend with worldwide album sales nearing 15 million, Canadian singer and composer Loreena McKennitt combines Celtic music with the melodies of the East. Now McKennitt is coming to Istanbul for a concert in June at the Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Theater. The artist will also appear in the ancient theater at Salamis on 16 June in the 13th Magusa Art and Culture Festival, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’s biggest.
Returning to Istanbul, where she last performed 13 years ago at the International Istanbul Jazz Festival, McKennitt will appear in a concert organized this year by the Istanbul Art and Culture Foundation. We interviewed McKennitt prior to her big concert.
Although Celtic music lies at the heart of your music, there are also Eastern influences in your songs. How would you describe your music?
It is really hard to describe. Unfortunately putting music into categories is a very regrettable yet inevitable practice of the music industry. Definitions can be extremely relative as I see it; nevertheless I agree that there are elements of Celtic and Irish music, and in some sense elements of the music of the East, in my melodies. The eastern dimension in my music is more impressionistic and a matter of historical allusions.
There were Greek musicians on your last studio album, and the lyre was used, which resembles our ‘kemençe’ and is therefore very familiar to the Turkish listener. Not only that, but the instruments that are used, such as the ‘oud’ and the ‘kanun’, conjure up images of Istanbul. How would you describe Istanbul in your own words?
How wonderful if they conjure up images of Istanbul! I tried to convey that especially in my song, ‘The Gates of Istanbul’. I like the contrasts of Istanbul and they way they exist side by side. In addition to the cultural richness and the history, I know that Istanbul is very different at night. It can somehow balance past and tradition with night life and nightclubs where all the latest technology is available and the most current music is played. This amalgam is incredible.
In your song, ‘The Gates of Istanbul’, you make reference to the period of Mehmet the Conqueror and to his outlook that inspired ‘tolerance for the different’. What exactly did you want to say in this special song?
I’m not an academic. What I can say about that period is very limited. I only act as a guide for other people to learn more about what I describe. Perhaps I can be the catalyst that speeds up that learning process. What I do in that song is merely to try to express that period through music. I wanted to remind people that the period of Mehmet II (the Conqueror) was a special period, and a sort of renaissance period in art.
Your song ‘Sacred Shabbat’ again incorporates a melody that is very familiar from the Turkish song ‘Katibim’ (Üsküdar’a Giderken, immortalized by Eartha Kitt in her 1952 hit ‘Usku Dara’), and, as far as I know, you make reference in that song to the last period of the Ottoman Empire. What is the story behind that lovely song?
The original of the song may be very different, but I first heard it in Greece, in Athens. Later I encountered the same song in Spain. It may have some connection with the Spanish Jews since so many of them fled to the Ottoman Empire. For me the song has Mediterranean associations. It may have different stories and different historical connections in all these countries, but I used the melody as one familiar to the entire Mediterranean region as a way of shedding light on a particular period in history.
Is your interest in Istanbul and Turkey merely derive from conviction that the ancestors of the Celts once inhabited these lands?
I’ve traveled to many places in Turkey. The roots of Celtic history interest me a lot, but I have also been very impressed by Turkey in general, from Ephesus and Cappadocia to Safranbolu and Konya. In particular, the caravanserai I visited between Ankara and Konya was spellbinding. The hospitality, the shops, the caravanserai--they all left a deep impression on me. We also shot some footage in Cappadocia. It’s an amazing place.
You latest album makes references to Mevlana Jalaleddin Rumi as well. As a songwriter, how have you been influenced by Mevlana and Sufi culture?
In the same way that I’ve been influenced by Celtic music. As if I was instinctively prepared for it. Mevlana and the Sufi outlook are universal and very powerful. Pure and full of love. What I felt was love. I can’t describe it any other way.
How does your own personal awareness help you in your albums? Is it that your albums are you in some sense? Or are you still searching for yourself?
There are actually mysteries that are not apparent to us. We have only to accept all the richness and mystery of this world. I merely use the means of this mortal world to reflect what already exists. I discover, and I am continuing to discover, by my own methods what I want to share with other people. There are mysteries beyond our own power to perceive.
You have traveled to many cities. Which ones have inspired you?
That’s difficult to say, but very multicultural cities and cities with very different faces and their history tend to have an impact on me. But still, what I am most influenced by are my personal experiences when I live there. In Turkey the sounds of the birds in the environment have affected me as much as the caravanserais. Sometimes a museum in a city, or an experience of living just outside a museum, can have an influence on me. My music is actually an extension of my life.
You have been in Istanbul before and I know that you have even visited the Yerebatan Cistern. Where did you feel most inspired?
I toured Istanbul’s historic markets. I was very much moved by the Hagia Sophia. I had a chance to see the Whirling Dervishes and that for me was an extraordinary inspiration. The light in Istanbul is very beautiful, the light in the streets. Istanbul is an enchanting city.
You’re giving a concert in Istanbul on 13 June. And immediately afterwards you are going to be a guest of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on 16 June at the 13th Magusa Festival. Are there any surprises in store on stage?
The songs in my Istanbul and Magusa concerts will be from my album ‘Ancient Muse’ especially. I’d like to invite a few surprise Turkish musicians to appear in the concerts. I can’t promise, but we are making contacts and I’m hoping for such a surprise on stage. There are going to be songs that are very close to you and musicians that are very different, all at once. On stage a Greek musician is going to play the lyre, which resembles your ‘kemençe’. Hugh Marsh is a very good musician. I’m picturing very beautiful concerts on stage.