Emrah Kotan brings world rhythm to Atlanta Jazz Fest
Bo Emerson      May 21, 2015
Atlanta jazz is international jazz, as the tunes pouring from the bandstands at Piedmont Park during this weekend’s Atlanta Jazz Festival will attest.
Artists imported from afar, including Cuban-born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, Greek composer Magda Giannikou and Brazilian singer-songwriter Fernanda Noronha, will spice up the three-day event.
But our local flavors are equally exotic. Atlanta has its own diverse pantry of international sounds, and sometimes you’ll find them all packed into one ensemble. (The Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra comes to mind.)
Sometimes you’ll find them all packed into one guy.
Emrah Kotan, native Turk, transplanted to Atlanta, classically trained percussionist, player of traditional Arabic music, blues, Cuban-jazz, and other hyphenates, could be found on a recent Monday evening at the Red Light Cafe in Virginia-Highland, matching flamenco guitarist Cristian Puig measure for odd-metered measure.
Puig strummed and slapped his red guitar as he and dancer Julie “Moon” Baggenstoss plunged pell-mell through a 12/8 thicket, her ruffled peach dress flying above the knee. The hawk-eyed Kotan, on hand percussion (cajon, bandir and djembe), cornered and turned with the duo, pushing the dynamics to a peak and suddenly, at some invisible signal, stopping on a dime. The crowd bellowed for more.
“It’s kind of like a code,” smiled Kotan, 37, speaking about the performance the next morning while sipping coffee at McLean Hall on the Agnes Scott College campus in Decatur. He’s dressed in his usual all-black habit. “There are certain gestures they do that tell you what will happen next.”
Though he had performed with Puig only once before, Kotan had apparently broken that code. “A woman came up to me afterward and said, ‘You must be from Seville,’” he said.
Part of his fluency in flamenco comes from his ability to find common elements in the full-throated melisma of flamenco vocals and the Middle Eastern sounds of his homeland. “That singing?” he says. “That’s the same way we sing in Turkey.”
And then there is his thirst to simply drink down music from every corner, as a habit of mind. “You feed yourself,” he explained.
Kotan has been teaching at Agnes Scott for 10 years, and directs the school’s jazz ensemble and world percussion ensemble. He also performs on many different stages. During the week of this interview, he was playing with vocalist Philip J. Rogers, with the Traci Wynn Trio, with James Schneider at Sufi’s Kitchen, and at such diverse locales as the Havana Club, the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta, the Eclipse di Luna restaurant and the Velvet Note jazz club in Alpharetta.
“Someone’s busy,” noted Atlanta vocalist and fellow Jazz Fest performer Julie Dexter, commenting on Kotan’s Facebook page. “Thank God!” Kotan responded.
For the past three years or so, Kotan has served as the percussionist and drummer with Atlanta star India Arie, whose tours have taken him as far afield as Singapore and Indonesia.
But he is particularly excited about bringing his own band onto the International Stage at the Jazz Fest at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 24, to play selections from his debut album, “The New Anatolian Experience.” It will be his first time at the Jazz Fest as a leader.
He describes the music on that album as “Turkish rhythms with jazz harmonies and world music elements,” though it’s not quite as simple as that. “Istanblues” is a Turkish melody, set to a blues form. Plus there are some Balkan, gypsy and African flavors. In short, the record represents “my experiences in music, everything I’ve put my hands into and played.”
Those hands have stayed busy. At age 21, Kotan graduated from Ankara State University after studying the classical repertoire and being offered a job as a symphonic percussionist back in Turkey. He was more interested in pursuing new music in the U.S. He came to Atlanta to stay with a friend of the family while working at McDonald’s and taking English classes.
He cobbled together an audition tape and entered Georgia State University, earning a master’s degree in jazz. He will tell you, however, that his real education has come from playing with the musicians in his adopted hometown. “The talent here — there are amazing people here,” he said. “Musically speaking, you’ve got everything.”’

The Enriching Rhythms of Emrah Kotan

Yvonne Grays Nathane        January 30, 2014
Drums, percussion, cymbals.  They all give voice to a magical beat – one that can transform music into a lively crescendo, or a shimmery stroke across the cymbal.  These are the varying moods on Kotan’s debut CD, The New Anatolian Experience, where the well-versed percussionist offers a spectrum of invigorating beats and soothing ballads, fused with modern jazz, Latin rhythms, Turkish connotations and more, all creating an innovative take on classic jazz.
It’s the striking compositions as, “Tanya” – dedicated to his wife – to the upbeats, “Ottoman Slap,” “Istanblues,” “Odd Time Is It,” “Nardis (Miles Davis),” and the soothing ballad, “Yemen Türküsü” that showcases his range with cultural and [legendary] influences, making The New Anatolian Experience a sophisticated work of art.
Following up on an introduction to Emrah Kotan,(EM-rah ko-TAHN) – via my January 1st “Links to Excellence” series – I am pleased to close out this month with an interview on Kotan’s music and cultural heritage; his playing for India.Arie; and his sacred advice to aspiring musicians.
Interiors of Man: Your debut CD is titled The New Anatolian Experience.  Tell us a little about Anatolia … its history, music, culture, and the modernization you’ve inscribed to Anatolian music throughout the CD.
Emrah Kotan: Well, Anatolia is another name for Asia Minor, the land that separates Asia and Europe, and is regarded as the gateway between Eastern and Western cultures. My country, Turkey, is situated on this land.  Asia Minor was home to many great civilizations such as the Hittites and Lydians as well as grand empires such as the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire.  The land was eventually conquered by my ancestors, the Ottoman Turks, and the Ottoman Empire was born.  When the Ottomans took over, they did not force Ottoman culture or Islam on the inhabitants of Asia Minor.  We brought our culture from Central Asia, they already had theirs, and the Ottoman Empire expanded to include parts of North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.  This infusion of cultures is what I believe makes Turkey interesting and unique. We are a mixture of cultures, religions, races and ethnic groups united under one flag.  The richness of our diversity can be heard in our music.  
The reason why my project is called The New Anatolian Experience is because it is a musical interpretation of my new and exciting experience as a Turk living in the United States.  I tried my best to bridge my culture with American culture, and by “American” I don’t mean only The United States of America, but The Americas, which includes the Caribbean and South America as well.  There are so many American musical genres that I wanted to explore in this album, but I settled with the ones that resonated with me the most, which were modern jazz, Afro-Cuban, funk, and jazz fusion.  The background vocal part in “Odd Time Is It” is meant to be reminiscent of traditional chanting that can be heard in Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.
IOM: Your experience as a percussionist encompasses classical training, to an exposure of various cultures from Turkish roots, to living in Atlanta.  How do all of these experiences define your rhythm?
EK:  I connected all of my education and experience to create a rhythm that is my own. My music is a rhythmic exploration that crosses cultures and mixes styles.  With that said, I would define my rhythm as being classically eclectic and a bit unconventional. However, that is just my opinion.  The listener may hear something totally different.  
IOM:  What or who was your key influence to becoming a drummer?
EK:  There was no one key influence.  My teachers/mentors were my greatest influences.  I have been blessed to be taught by such an inspiring group of music educators.  They are (in chronological order): Phillippe Garcia, Hasim Yedican, Jack Bell, and Sonny Emory.  I also learned a lot by watching great Turkish percussionists such as Yener Erten and Soner Ozer.  Some notable influences from America are Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, Dennis Chambers, Steve Smith, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Chris Dave and Jeff “Tain” Watts.
IOM:  And how did your collaboration with India.Arie come about?
EK:  God put me in the right place at the right time.  Khari Simmons (India’s bass player) is a friend of mine. He and I have worked on several performances and studio sessions over the years.  I have known him for a long time. He and I had a recording session, and we were talking.  Somehow, our conversation turned to India’s latest project, SongVersation.  He mentioned that she recorded some of it in Turkey, and she was looking for a percussionist who can play Turkish and other world percussion styles as well as drum set.  He referred me to India and her manager.  They checked out my work on YouTube and scheduled a percussion audition and interview at India’s house. They were happy with me and asked for a second audition on video playing drum set, and then I got the gig.
IOM:  ... Amazing.  In Chicago’s inner city – as other urban communities – one can hear the “beat” of a culture with young men impressively drumming buckets on the streets.  This is raw talent that can be developed or sadly, lost.  What suggestions would you offer to cultivate such talent, and what advice would you impart to these young men?
EK:  Pray to God and thank God because the talent comes from Him.  Don’t forget that. Always play with love and passion, respect the music, be musically diverse, get educated to develop your musical vocabulary and find your own voice on your instrument. Always be an open-minded musician.  Keep learning, and be humble. Try to become an artist and a well-rounded musician, not only a great performer.
IOM:  Indeed.

The Entertainment Bank

Charles A. Smith    June 26, 2013

Emrah Kotan has released his debut CD, "The New Anatolian Experience". Kotan, a classically trained percussionist from Turkey, has created a sound that blends world music along with jazz with his rich percussion and drum input takes the listener on a voyage of pure melody magic. Many musicians play on various cuts from this oustanding CD, with standouts being Emrah Kotan himself (very strong on drums), David Springer (guitar), Matt Stallard (bass) Marla Ferney (sax) and others. With many musical changes from Classical to funk within the jazz realm, this groove delivers.

I like musical changes when I am listening to jazz sometimes and this CD is full of surprises. "Istanblues" is a swinging number with Marla Ferney starting things off hot, then giving up a brilliant change to the blues with a strong piano solo by Darrin Ginn. Then there's another change into a faced pace duel between sax and drums with the drums finishing it all up. It's an outstanding first album as Kotan demonstrates why he is so bad (GOOD) with a strong drum solo, doing every conceivable thing you can do on the drums. Then the group comes back together and swings it on out with very nice work and high energy.

"Tanya", an original by Kotan, is a slow change and a very romantic work with a deep resonance about it. Pianist Jose Manuel Garcia plays well on this piece. Kotan's musical expression is deliberate and wonderful with a refreshing air about it bringing all he has to the table and that seems to be a complex musical genius. Adding international flavor to his music makes it stand out musically and is a real treat. "Nardis" (Miles Davis) was arranged by Kotan and is a real demonstration of his abilities and a sign of things to come in the future. Adding plenty of music from his own experiences is what he has done with this work, and the result is phenomenal. I highly recommend Emrah Kotan's "The New Anatolian Experience" for a very new, yet nice experience!!

Midwest Record

Chris Spector    June 09, 2013

EMRAH KOTAN/New Anatolian Experience:  The Turkish native that’s currently tearing it up in Decatur, GA rolls out the classic American fusion like he was hanging around the studios when it was first invented.  Putting being entertaining first, the drummer/leader knows his stuff and knows how to make solid music that stays buoyant without ever becoming lighter than air.  Propelled by a fearlessness that keeps his music bold, Kotan likes to change things up along the way but never with the jarring kind of impact that makes you reach for skip or eject buttons.  It’s tempting to say he’s playing at the top of his game but he still has many years ahead of him and you can expect chops to get honed tighter along the way.  A winning date throughout.


Music Is Life Entertainment

Chuck Francis    January 29, 2012

Q. So, how did it all begin for you/what was your first show?
A. I started when I was 8 years old on a string instrument called the Mandolin and a Middle Eastern string instrument called the Oud. I was somewhat of a natural, being able to play by ear. Then at age 11, I left home and studied at Ankara State Conservatory for 10 years. I learned orchestral percussion, Turkish percussion, and drum set. My first time playing in front of a large audience was at a recital at a conservatory. I was 11.

Q. What is your favorite group and solo artist?
A. Earth, Wind and Fire, Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Michel Camilo, Fazil Say, the list can go on for pages…

Q. What was your first song that you dropped?
A. Ottoman Slap was my first full composition.

Q. What were you before a full fledged artist?
A. When I first came to Georgia and was learning English, I worked at McDonald’s for a good while to make ends meet.

Q. Who inspired you and pushed you to become an artist?
A. My parents. They believed in my talent, and I am so grateful that they did.

Q. How many songs do you have completed?
A. My debut album will have 9 songs on it. I’ve written a few other tunes, but they haven’t been recorded yet.

Q. What is your real name ?
A. My name was, is, and always will be Emrah Kotan.

Q. Where are you from and how is the music scene where you are from?
A. I am from Turkey. I was exposed to the music scene in Ankara and Istanbul. The music scene is vibrant and diverse. Eastern culture meets with Western culture in Turkey – so you know the music is unique and hot.

Q. Who would you like to work with?
A. I’d like to work with Sting or Stevie Wonder someday.

Q. What would you tell youngsters trying to break into the business?
A. Practice, be determined, and be honest with yourself because it all shows in your music.

Q. What was your greatest accomplishment?
A. Establishing something out of nothing here in the U.S. I came here with nothing, zero. Now I’m part of the Agnes Scott College faculty, I have a great family, and I do what I love full time – music. That’s my gretest accomplishment to date. I’m still looking forward to the future.

Q. Do you think that music with a meaning will emerge again?
A. I hope so, but I think in order for that to happen our music culture needs to find a meaning first. That means educating ourselves, our children, and each other. That also means learning from the musical greats of the past, applying what we’ve learned to our music today, and being innovative enough to create high quality music so those that come after us can learn from tomorrow.

Q. If you had one wish, for anything at all in the world, What would you ask for?
A. I would wish that my mom would come back. She passed away when I was 13, and it hurts to think about it.

Q. Any links, media players any song we can highlight right now for you? Any shout outs to anyone?
A. Yes, you could check out my YouTube channel at You could also check out my website’s media page at I’d like to make a shout out to my family, my colleagues and students at Agnes Scott, and all my friends/fellow musicians in Turkey and the U.S.

Great interview, much respect to you and we hope for good things for you… MILE

Creative Agnes - Spotlight

Lauren Welch & Tatyana Adams    February 14, 2011

Emrah Kotan is the percussion artist affiliate in the Music Department.  At Agnes Scott he leads the World Percussion Ensemble and the Jazz Ensemble, while also teaching individual drum lessons.  The following was recorded during an interview between Emrah Kotan, Lauren Welch, and Tatyana Adams.

I’m not sure why I am drawn to music; it’s just something that is in a person.  For me there is no one reason why I am in music, it’s just always been a part of me.  When I was eight years old I started playing the mandolin.  I took private lessons when I was in elementary school and for some reason, I loved to practice and would practice really hard – between my homework, whenever I would get a break – I would take up my mandolin and begin playing.  If there was music on the radio, on the television, I would start playing; I guess to develop my ear.  I began to get so good that my teacher actually started using me as an assistant.  In a couple of years I was playing concert duos (two mandolins) with my teacher while I was still in elementary school.

I was born in one of the coldest areas in the Eastern part of Turkey.  I don’t even remember what it was like where I was born because my family migrated to the third largest city in the Western part of Turkey when I was only five years old.  I received my Bachelor’s degree at AnKara State Conservatory in Turkey in percussion and orchestral performance.  When I moved to the United States I got into the Master’s program at Georgia State University for jazz studies and percussion.  I graduated with my Master’s in 2003.

Since then I have been a freelancing drummer percussionist.  I’m also in the process of working on my solo CD project right now, which is exciting.  I play with a lot of different jazz singers, plus different world music styles like Brazilian, Cuban, and other different drumming techniques.  I’m part of a wonderful percussion trio and we do a young audiences program where we play for little kids and teach them about percussion, geography, and music through drumming – I really like to do that.  Other than Agnes Scott I teach privately at Ken Stanton and in the Woodstock location on Saturdays.  I also pretty much gig all over with performances, concerts, events, etc.  Occasionally I am called for tour, but I can’t go at this moment because of commitments to schools.

Other than music I’m crazy about soccer.  Besides my family, kids, and wife, soccer is my number one interest.  I follow as much of it as I can, especially one of Istanbul’s teams as well as the Spanish, Italian, and English premier league.  I used to like motorcycles, but I phased out of the choppers and all of that.  Music and sports are my two main passions.