Arif Mardin

Profile of an arranger and producer

Where would American pop be, asks David Barchard, without Arif Mardin, who left his venerable Ottoman family for a mixing desk in the US?

  • Photograph by Ara Güler

Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins, Carly Simon, Bette Midler and Manhattan Transfer are just a few musicians who, apart from fame, have something extra in common: their arranger and producer is the award-winning, Turkish-born aristocrat Arif Mardin.

Without Mardin, American pop culture and light music might have been different: probably much less smooth and sweet. It is an extraordinary feat for a man born into the Mardinzades, an İstanbul aristocratic family, sixty-four years ago. For centuries, the Mardinzades were Ottoman notables, belonging to the select group of families called “Seyit” who trace their line directly back to the Prophet and seventh-century Arabia. Under the new republic the family owned and still has shares in the oil company Türk Petrol.

Mardin was educated at the English High School for Boys in İstanbul, read Business Studies, and went to the London School of Economics. At 24, he was back in İstanbul preparing for a comfortable life as an oil mogul.

Then one day, in best Hollywood fashion, America called him. Mardin takes up the story: “I had grown up in the Western jazz and pop tradition. I bought my first Duke Ellington record when I was ten and my sister was always listening to American pop – Bing Crosby and Swing. I rejected everything old and wanted only the new.”

Mardin had no formal musical education, and realised he was a better arranger than performer. “I was a lousy piano player,” he says with a laugh. So he sent some of his own arrangements to a friend at Voice of America who passed them on to the jazz musician Quincy Jones. He liked the tapes and decided to perform them himself. Mardin recalls his surprise when he discovered the artists that Quincy Jones had got together: Art Farmer, Phil Woods and Hank Jones - “an unbelievable array”.

An offer of a musical scholarship in America instantly followed. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m sorry, I have to go,’ and he was stunned.” His young wife, Latife, stood by him and a few months later, in 1958, they were in Boston.

“My first job was to sort out unreleased tapes and learn how to mix them and use the desk, twirl the knobs, then I started to mix and prepare albums,” he says. “It was like a dream working with those tapes.”

Fame came when he produced a group called the Young Rascals whose record Good Lovin’ went to the top of the US charts in 1966. In demand ever since, he has picked up six Grammy awards, including last year’s Best Musical Show Album with Smokey Joe’s Café. His son Joe has joined him in the business with his own label, Nu Noise. Mardin still arranges and produces and his interests have grown. “I try to recharge my batteries by composing classical music and I’ve put together some pieces for a CD,” he says.

It is unlikely that anyone will be able to fathom the enigma of an Ottoman aristocrat who has become a guardian angel of American pop. But Mardin remains proudly Turkish. He returns five times a year to visit his family and he has watched the flourishing of Turkey’s own pop music industry.

“There is an incredible explosion of talent at the moment,” he says, “and some great voices around. İbrahim Tatlıses, for one, has a fantastic voice. Some people condemn his music as arabesk, but what’s wrong with it? This man is selling a popular song and selling it to millions.”

He looks solemn as we talk about the current shift Westward in Turkish pop. “I hope we never lose our heritage. It is vast and great and something we must protect. Some musicologists say that it is a dead end. I don’t think so.” He believes Turkish music can be taken to new areas if makam meters are used contrapuntally, combining contrasting rhythms and tunes. “There will be resistance from the purists but it may be the way ahead.”

Arif Mardin died in June 2006.
The Arif Mardin Music Fellowship has been established in his honour by the American Turkish Society and Berklee College of Music

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