Instructor, India Arie drummer fuses beats

Musical arrangement is “a lot like painting,” says Emrah Kotan, director of the jazz and world percussion ensembles at Agnes Scott College. “It’s this line here, that color there.” Kotan brings more colors to the classroom than most— his music fuses Afro-Caribbean, Middle Eastern, classic jazz, funk and soul. One moment you’ll find him at a grand piano, the next coaxing complex rhythms from a Peruvian cajon or a West African djembe. There’s a reason one of his former bands was called the International Groove Conspiracy.

And when was the last time your teacher came to class fresh from touring with a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter?

Kotan, a native of Turkey, was picked last year to be the drummer for multiplatinum recording artist India Arie and spent part of 2013 on the road on her North American tour. But he’s lived in Atlanta for more than ten years and has taught at Agnes Scott since 2004.

“I was offered the jazz ensemble in 2007,” he says. “There weren’t too many players then. People tend to be intimidated by jazz, even if their background is in music. But if I see potential in a student, an incredible ear maybe, I’ll take advantage of that. If there’s a light, I’ll work with it—that’s my job as a teacher.”

And his other job lets him add experience to theory. Kotan’s students get an instructor who’s also won the Future of Jazz competition, recorded an album (The New Anatolian Experience) and played New York’s legendary Blue Note.

Kotan started his musical learning journey early. He spent ten years at the Ankara State Conservatory at Hacettepe University in Turkey, beginning at age 11. “I’m so glad my parents trusted me to be who I wanted to be. I lived in Izmir, a coastal city, and every week my mother would drive nine hours to visit me. I had the best parents.”

Similarly as a teacher, he says, “I try to use everyone where they can best realize their potential. It opens up everyone’s talent when they’re in the right spots. But I’m very open to my students’ creativity. I tell them if they have original material, I’ll be glad to use it.”

As for the feel of his classes, Kotan says it tends to be relaxed. “You need a positive vibe to create something. If they’re not enjoying what they’re doing, it’s not going to work.”