Early music groups gear up for Alexander the Great

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      Advance word on Alexander the Great: Hero, Warrior, Lover is that it’s a collaboration between an acclaimed early-music group, the Boston Camerata, and an equally admirable Turkish-American ensemble, Dünya. The truth is a little more complex than that.

      Further research reveals that the Camerata’s Tom Zajac, who plays such odd contraptions as serpent, hurdy-gurdy, and bagpipes, has on occasion been a Dünya member. And the Dünya collective’s nominal leader, singer and multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Sanlikol, is listed on the Camerata website as a key player in that group, too. The two bands are very different: Dünya sometimes ventures into jazz improvisation, while the Boston Camerata specializes in historical music from the European tradition. But in this instance they’re working on shared and shifting terrain, as they switch between styles, languages, and continents to tell the story of Alexander, who is both a hero to Europeans and something approaching a saint to Anatolian Muslims.

      The enduring power of Alexander’s legend is apparent in the strange fact that certain tribal peoples in the European hinterland—the Scots, for instance—are still naming their children for him, almost 2,335 years after he died in a Babylonian palace. Closer to his ancestral home, and perhaps even more remarkably, the Macedonian conqueror has been adopted by those he once subjugated.

      “You think that Europe viewed Alexander the Great as an important figure? Well, think again,” says the Turkish-born Sanlikol, on the phone from his Boston home. “According to the Muslim literature, he was even considered a prophet for a long time.”

      Sanlikol, who recently published an academic history of music in the Ottoman Empire, reports that he kept finding Alexander stories while working on his book. “In my opinion,” he explains, “it is possible to see that the Ottomans used the figure of Alexander the Great, and his place in the Koran, as a way of showing the Greeks and the people of Asia Minor back then, ‘Look, we have this in common, and in fact Islam gives this guy even higher credit than you do.’ They were kind of trying to use that as a way of giving Islam more credibility to these people that they were becoming the rulers of. I’m talking the 14th, 15th century—the early Ottoman period.”

      Anne Azéma, the Boston Camerata’s artistic director and vocalist, encountered a parallel fund of Alexander myths while researching early European song. Both she and Sanlikol contributed material to Alexander the Great: Hero, Warrior, Lover, a blend of song and narration that features both ensembles playing individually and together—the latter made possible by Dünya’s fluidity in the language of early music.

      “The people in Dünya are bilingual, if not trilingual, musicians,” Sanlikol explains. “All of us, we play jazz; I also have a career as a classical composer and pianist. So we regularly perform different kinds of music—and I don’t mean that world-music thing where some musicians from different traditions will come together and because they’re talented enough they’ll be able to play together. I mean that we’re really able to speak the language of a different style of music.”

      Alexander was mostly known for his military prowess; in contrast, next Friday’s concert will showcase vocal and instrumental expertise. But it, too, promises to be great.

      Early Music Vancouver presents Alexander the Great: Hero, Warrior, Lover at Christ Church Cathedral next Friday (April 20).