Mercan DedeIt is the last night of AWME – the Australasian World Music Expo – and the Arts Centre’s Playhouse Theatre is packed for one of the expo’s most renowned international acts.

“Please welcome,” says the clearly excited MC, “Mercan Dede!”

A man takes the stage and begins sawing at a Kemane, a traditional Turkish spike fiddle. Is that him? Now another man comes out and starts playing a long-necked baglama, electrified like a rock ‘n’ roll guitar. Maybe that’s him? Or maybe the new arrival, the drummer with hands like a whirlwind?

Turkish musician Mercan Dede deliberately cultivates an air of mystery. Splitting his time between Istanbul and Montreal, he performs under four known aliases and reportedly has at least five other secret ones. Born under the name Arkin Ilicali, he is also a visual artist and started DJing under the handle Arkin Allen while studying multimedia in Canada in the 1980s.

When he does finally come to stage, he looks every inch the club DJ, with an asymmetric spray of spiked hair. He stands up the back live mixing, adding beats and samples, overseeing the energetic performance of his troupe like an affable ringmaster. Occassionally he joins in with a bit of percussion or some notes on a ney, a Middle Eastern flute.

Behind them a large screen plays digital animations, also Dede’s work. Music and animation both have a feeling of flow to them. This is music to drift away and daydream to.

Modern and ancient trance come together with the arrival of a whirling dervish dancer. Up close, the dervish whirl proves to be an artform of clockwork physical precision, so stunning that even the band look a bit gob-smacked when it’s over, unsure what to play next.

They are half improvising as they go. Dede explains that he doesn’t believe in set lists or rehearsals; he basically sees his performances as big jam sessions. Someone in the audience calls out a suggestion and the band go with it, the music starting to pick up the pace now, with jaunty strings and the drummer pattering even faster. The audience, who have been clapping and whooping from the get go, now go wild. There is literally dancing in the aisles. Dede ushers dancers down the front, forming a mini moshpit where people try out dervish whirls of their own.

The show is admittedly an odd proposition – Turkish folk plus club trance – and some of Dede’s DJ stylings feel a little retro, particularly the use of repetitive voice samples, but the crowd is having delirious fun and it is unquestionably a unique and uplifting performance. Those who don’t get on their feet to dance do so by the end to applaud.

With AWME only running for four days, the show’s a one off. However he will be appearing at Kensington venue Revolt on Saturday 26, where he appears to be doing sets as both Dede and DJ Arkin Allen. As for appearances by his other seven alter egos, who can say?

Mercan Dede

Venue: Playhouse, the Arts Centre
Date: 20 Nov 2011
Tickets: $25.00 - $59.00

Venue: Revolt | 12 Elizabeth Street Kensington
Date: Nov 26, 2011
Time: 7.30pm
Tickets: $20 – $25

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