Q&A with guitarist/composer Okan Ersan - Mediterranean roots and mindset have provided the springboard for a successful international career

"Futuristic music drew me because it broke the rules and made me think outside of the box. I believe in the use of technology in music however I never want us to reach a point where AI takes over and music is composed by computers. As I said before, I believe that music is the perfect combination of emotions and maths – computers can provide the maths but they can’t provide the emotions!"

Okan Ersan: Futuristic Jazz Fusion

Okan Ersan’s Mediterranean roots and mindset have provided the springboard for a successful international career as a guitarist and composer. His innate ability to create complex harmonies that fuse into smooth melodies provide an inspiring experience for the listener. His work has earned accolades from his peers and across the music industry and his high-energy electric fusion appeals to audiences all over the world. Cyprus born Okan has headlined at prestigious International Jazz festivals. A respected artist, he has collaborated with outstanding musicians such as Dave Weckl, Ernie Watts, Billy Paul, Rex Richardson, Fazıl Say, Joe Lynn Turner and Volkan Öktem. Okan Ersan is an experienced recording artist who is about to release his third album. Each album has pushed the musical boundaries for the next. From traditional jazz fusion from the first album of his early years To Whom It May Concern fiery solos tinged with a distinctly eastern shine in his second album A Reborn Journey.                         (Okan Ersan / Erdal Kaş Photography)

Inspired to think extra terrestrially by the 1977 ‘wow’ signal, believed to be the first alien radio transmission, Okan’s latest album showcases futuristic jazz fusion with no limits. Featuring NASA recordings of space blended with sophisticated harmonies and solid tonality, his album Nibiru (2019) presents music that is ahead of its time. Okan has been a Yamaha Guitars performing artist for almost two decades using his role as a successful musician to inspire guitarists and upcoming talents through workshops with Dave Weckl and Rex Richardson and as a music teacher.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz and World music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I first discovered World music through the records that my father played to me as a young child, it had an impact on me then and continues to do so throughout my life. In particular, I was influenced by the Beatles, Cliff  Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Marley, Salvatore Adamo, Demis Rousos, Abba and Enrico Marcias – as you can see, this is a truly international representation which inspired my dreams. This was in the years following war in my county and there were a number of political and economic events that affected my childhood. Jazz and blues music grew out of suffering and although my circumstances were different, I could relate to the feelings conveyed by this music. Despite the difficult times, Jazz and World music allowed me escape and see the world through different eyes. It helped me become a positive person using music to breakdown cultural barriers. As a result, my view of music guided my views towards life; the most important thing I started to realize was that the whole world belongs to the human race and all life forms equally, and that music/ art was a balancing force…

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

When creating my sound, I try to listen to my feelings and emotions as well as going wherever my fingers take me.  It’s not something I plan; I just go with the flow in the initial stages before finding ways to turn these sounds into music using a scientific approach. I work systematically to edit these sounds. My musical philosophy is the blending of emotions and maths. I modify my music until these reaches optimal point. Eventually, if the music is good enough it finds a way to my album or, if it’s not, it goes in the trash! My creativity is driven by the need to release my thoughts as music or to arrange the sounds in my head. This is what keeps me going and I can be inspired by the most unexpected events for example my album NIBIRU came about when I read a book about the Sumerians.                                 (Okan Ersan / Erdal Kaş Photography)

"I want to use music to unite people of different backgrounds and cultures. Music should be the tool that draws people together and opens the door to the universe. I tried to do this with my album NIBIRU by opening minds to an understanding of our existence beyond our experiences. I believe that all humanity (and lifeforms) should exist as one and in my second album A REBORN JOURNEY I created melodies that fused the emotions of Eastern music with the structure of Western music."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

20 years ago, meeting Thomas Capellmann, the Yamaha Artists’ Manager, is one of the most important experiences in my life. His endorsement as part of the Yamaha family meant that I could attend workshops, meet international artists and share my music internationally via a respected brand. The best advice I’ve been given was from the Leverkusen Jazz Festival promoter Eckhard Mezselinsky, he told me to always be true to myself when playing – to draw experience from what I know and from my roots – ‘don’t try to be someone else or play like someone else’ he made feel that I should be my own inspiration and that I had more than enough in me to produce music that people would want to listen to.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I was due to support legendary guitarist Al di Meola as part of Okan and Noise Adventures. Before the concert, we completed our sound checks and were waiting backstage. We were due to play one of my pieces that the audience always enjoys, and we enjoyed playing – Istanbul without Midnight. We were going over the performance and I was going to perform a solo in the second part – I asked them to play the first part in the buildup quietly ‘piano’ building to a crescendo which would climax with the peak of my solo. During the concert, everything was as we discussed – it was going perfectly – the quiet, then the buildup, we were taking the audience on a journey, teasing them to the point when we would surprise them with a powerful solo. My moment came and as I was due to burst in – I pressed my pedal but there was no sound. I looked around in a calm panic – the rest of the band continued to play so I knew the problem was with me – I started discretely checking my cables and connections without letting the audience know that there was a problem. However, this went on for about 15-20 seconds and of course the audience noticed. I was stunned to find that they had started applauding me in support, I was moved by this gesture and put my guitar down to salute them. I was ready to end the piece and needed to give the rest of the band the cue to move on but something moved me towards a random cable that I had already checked – I wiggled it and incredibly it worked!  I couldn’t believe it – I leapt forward and gave the cue to play the second part with the solo again.  It was electrifying – the audience were on their feet and did not sit down until the end of the solo.  I played better than I had ever played it and the audience were more appreciative – we formed a real connection through this joint misfortune.

"I’ve learned to trust my instincts both with my music and with the logistics associated with being a musician. I try to live in the moment, if I’m inspired by something, I try to make a note of it straightaway.  I have learned to be easy going but always prepared." (Photo: Okan Ersan & Al di Meola)

What touched you from the futuristic music/culture? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Futuristic music drew me because it broke the rules and made me think outside of the box. I believe in the use of technology in music however I never want us to reach a point where AI takes over and music is composed by computers. As I said before, I believe that music is the perfect combination of emotions and maths – computers can provide the maths but they can’t provide the emotions!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths? 

I’ve learned to trust my instincts both with my music and with the logistics associated with being a musician. I try to live in the moment, if I’m inspired by something, I try to make a note of it straightaway. I have learned to be easy going but always prepared. 

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I want to use music to unite people of different backgrounds and cultures. Music should be the tool that draws people together and opens the door to the universe. I tried to do this with my album NIBIRU by opening minds to an understanding of our existence beyond our experiences. I believe that all humanity (and lifeforms) should exist as one and in my second album A REBORN JOURNEY I created melodies that fused the emotions of Eastern music with the structure of Western music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would like to go back in time to spend the day with Albert Einstein to see how his mind worked – perhaps it would inspire my next album!

Okan Ersan - Home

(Okan Ersan / Erdal Kaş Photography)

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