By Azad F. Kurd
This interview has been transcribed and translated from Kurdish (Kurmancî) to English.
1) How would you describe Mem Ararat to those who don’t know him?
I recommend to those who do not know Mem to listen to my songs rather than my words. It is more valuable for me to be able to sing with music than to talk. Because I am a musician. Music is a tool for me in this regard. What I can’t articulate, I can express through music. Sometimes speaking is useless when trying to express your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. That’s why I turn to music. This has been a method of mine since childhood. That’s why music has always been with me, ever since I was a child.
I was born in 1981, in the ancient Mazi mountain of Mêrdîn. I am Kurdish. To be honest, I love music, I love people, I love nature. I enjoy nature very much. I would like everyone to be happy. I want everyone to live freely, in peace, and beauty. But unfortunately, this is only a thought. In reality, we live through terrible experiences.
2) During one of your concerts, you stated that “There is freedom in love.” Can you please elaborate?
The word “love” is being attached to everything in modern times, making it complex. When people do this, one wonders whether to love is to love or hostility. As mentioned, there is freedom in love, if there is no freedom, surely, we cannot call it love. Why am I saying this? Well, I don’t know where humanity is heading in the 21st century. Many statements have lost their meaning, they have grown far too apart from their actual meanings.
3) Where does the name of Mem Ararat come from?
In my identification card my name is listed as “Mehmet”, but in Kurdish it is pronounced as Mem or Memo, which is how my family refers to me. I believe that an individual is entitled to identify and make decisions related to themselves as they please. This is my view of life. Thanks to my family, I have a beautiful name. Mem is the hero in the tale of Ehmedê Xanî’s “Mem û Zîn (Mem and Zin)”. I like my first name and I chose my last name. Ararat as you know, is a sky-high mountain in Kurdistan. Being a mountain-Kurd myself, I really liked the name, so I wanted my last name to be Ararat.
4) When was your first interaction with music?
Honestly, I don’t really have a professional experience with music. Our first album was released in 2004. But music has always been with me. I say this in every interview, I did not choose music, the music chose me. I started performing professionally in 2004. My most popular songs are old-time songs. For example, the song “Were Delal” is a song I wrote when I was 14 years old, I used to sing it to myself when I lived in the village.
I didn’t attend music schools, I didn’t choose music as a profession. Until the release of our second album (Kurdîka), we were not making a living off of music. Unfortunately, the situation in Kurdistan is very sad, when you are making Kurdish music, many obstacles appear in many ways. You cannot survive economically. We were making a living from farming until the second album, “Kurdîka”. We were doing many different kinds of work, I worked at many jobs.
My thoughts on life as a person is that people should be self-sufficient. In every respect, a musician should not be content with only music. How did people survive in the past? I should be able to do what they were doing. How did our father, our great-grandfathers live? They were living in nature. I believe that one should be able to do other things while making music.
5) Do you write all your songs yourself? If so, where does the inspiration come from?
As I told you in the beginning, you cannot verbalize everything, you cannot explain everything in words. There is a certain point and when you reach that point, you have to use art to express your feelings. There are a lot of different branches in art, for me it is music. Inspiration comes from life, daily issues. If it is happiness, it is the happiness of our community, you cannot be deaf to this happiness. Inspiration derives from life.
6) What do you think are the weak and strong points of Kurdish music today?
Kurds as a nation is an ancient nation. As historians say, Kurds have been living in Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Great treasures and skills derive from the historical memory of Kurds. Music is a part of this treasure and is common amongst Kurds. Unfortunately, Kurds live in four different countries and face heavy assimilation. To be honest, this negative effect of assimilation is not just on music, but it is on other branches of art as well. The assimilation policy in most ways is successful. For example, some musicians sing in Kurdish on stage, but off the stage they do not live as Kurds. Kurdish is cut out from our daily lives, it is restricted. This has an overall negative effect on the Kurdish language. Because of such assimilation policies, many Kurdish children do not speak Kurdish anymore. Most of the problems of Kurdish musicians are financial, when we organize concerts, they get cancelled by the state.
Some problems also originate from us, the musicians. What I mean is that there are those who went to school for music and those that have learned music by themselves. Because I did not study music, I cannot do deep research in musicology. This is why you need the support of organizations, such as from the ministry of culture. But unfortunately, the ministry of culture in Turkey does not provide support in Kurdish music studies. On the contrary, they place a lot of barriers on those who do. Also, Kurdish organizations are really weak in this field, amongst them there is a wrong mindset of studies about Kurdish music.
Therefore, the burden of doing research on Kurdish music falls on artists who lack education in music. Many Kurdish musicians are now hopeless in this regard. Due to assimilation and economic problems, many Kurdish musicians have lost their faith. Many of them even gave up Kurdish music and started to make music in other languages. I understand them too, but they have placed this burden on the rest of us. You can take this as a message from me to those Kurdish musicians: be a little more patient, be a little more resilient, the burden on us Kurdish musicians is a historical responsibility.
As a Kurdish musician, I want to make Kurdish music, I want to continue my life as a Kurd. I would like to be in touch with other peoples, the Americans, the Greeks, the Spaniards, the Europeans, the French. Although we differ in terms of our languages and nationalities, the world is our home, we are actually one big family. We [Kurds] would like to have a connection with other nations, in peace and love.
7) Who are your favorite artists? Is there anyone you listen to regularly?
Let me tell you that I listen to Mem Ararat the least. Not only do I listen to Sakiro, but I can count hundreds of musicians I have listened to, be it a Kurd or anybody else. In Kurdish, I listen to most of the notable musicians in both classical and modern music. I am very happy when Kurdish musicians are successful in this field. My chest swells with their success. At the same time, I listen to various other musicians. Since this interview will be published in the United States, I can tell you the artists I listen to from that region if you would like, such as Louis Armstrong, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and so on. I really like their music. I’m a fan of them. I also listen to Spanish and French music, Èdith Piaf would be an example. I honestly can’t count, there are many musicians I listen to. I see them as great treasures.
8) Can Kurdish music help resist against the systematic assimilation in all parts of Kurdistan?
I can tell you that this cannot be achieved with music alone. It is a fact that music is a field of resistance against assimilation. But music alone is not enough, a collective and systematic resistance is required against assimilation. When speaking of Kurdish, I am not only talking about Kurmanci, but I am also talking about Zazaki, Sorani, Kelhori, and so on. The Kurdish language has many dialects. We live with different kinds of peoples in the region, such as Turks, and Arabs. I would like to voice out a message for them from this interview: Kurdish is a very beautiful and rich language, there is nothing about the Kurdish language that harbors hostility. We want to communicate with these nations in our own language, with Arabs, Turks, Persians, Armenians, and Assyrians. We need to live in this land in peace, in an equal and fair way.
Kurdish is an ancient, rich language. I love Kurdish very much. I can express myself most easily in Kurdish. I can make the most beautiful music in Kurdish. According to my observations, many people from other nationalities, such as Arabs, Persians, and Turks follow my work, this makes me happy. I send my greetings to them. We have an alternative other than hatred and war. We can live in peace and happiness.
9) Can you share with us an unforgettable memory of yours?
There are so many, but I would like to tell a story about one of my concert journeys. I was going to perform in Êlih for the first time, people knew of my voice, but they didn’t know me. I was living in Mêrdîn, Qoser, at that time. I took the Mêrdîn-Amed bus. There was no place to sit, I was standing until I got off in Bîsmîl, then waited for a bus to Êlih. All the passing by buses were full, so I had to keep waiting by the road. I was late as time was passing by. A bus came and stopped, the driver said there was no room on the bus, but that there was room in the trunk. He said I can take you if you want, and I said okay.
I went to my first concert in the trunk of a bus. The trunk was large, the truck’s battery was there too, which I sat on. I still laugh at this memory every time I remember it.
This is not a sad memory for me, I remember it with joy. I have been doing this job for many years and I take my job very seriously, I’m very sincere when I say this. I have been doing this for years and I have never been late to any of my concerts. I have great respect for the people who come to the concerts. That’s why I go early and make my preparations. For me, this is a sign of respect for the people who come to listen to me. One has to be very sensitive about this. It would be disrespectful to make people who come there wait. This is my way of showing respect, I will continue to be this way, so as long as I do my job. I think about how I can improve this. I think the world has shrunk, becoming crowded, it is not possible to live in peace and happiness without respecting each other.