I am drifting on a dhow, an Arab sailing vessel, down some exotic Middle Eastern river; it could be the Tigris or the Euphrates or the Nile, but what I do know is the wind guiding me: "New Sounds from the Arab Lands," a musical performance that enchanted a crowd ranging from students to curious off-campus patrons on Thursday night in the Slosberg Recital Hall.
The Music Unites Us series presented five musicians from Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia in collaboration with the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a program of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Theodore Levin, the Arthur R. Virgin professor of Music at Dartmouth College and senior consultant to the Aga Khan Music Initiative, delivered a pre-concert lecture about how these groundbreaking artists blend modern, improvisational and ancient Arab music styles.
This performance marked the finale of the musicians' tour, which included France, Washington D.C. and New York. In addition to a lecture and concert, Levin arranged a residency at Brandeis from Feb. 27 to March 1, during which classes in the Fine Arts, Islamic and Middle Eastern studies and other departments took part in special workshops with the musicians.
During the first piece, called "Sammai," I immediately recognized how adroit the musicians were at incorporating traditional and contemporary elements into their collective sound. In Brandeis's Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, I play tarbukah, a goblet-shaped hand drum with a distinctly crisp sound. Therefore, I was very familiar with the sammai rhythm structure, but as a student of this musical tradition, it was inspiring to see a group of young artists experiment masterfully with the traditional musical forms that are unique to their birth place.
The variety of percussion instruments that percussionist Khaled Yassine brought with him on stage attests to the range of regional influences highlighted in the performance. Throughout the concert, Yassine switched between a rich-toned bass African Djembe, a Latino Cajon, sizzling and snare-like, and the more traditional, hollow echoing Arab frame drums and the playful "tek-ing" ceramic-bodied tarbukah. His dancing fingers on the drumheads was an exciting sight.
The second song of the program, "Friggiya," highlighted violinist Jasser Haj Youssef. I could tell Youssef was engaged in a deep spiritual relationship with his music as he sat cross-legged cradling his viola d' amore in his chin, supporting the neck with his resting foot. He swooned as he bowed the medieval six-stringed instrument, heavy breaths punctuating each musical phrase. Youssef's composition swelled with ancient sounds reminiscent of a journey through the Ottoman Empire.
I will proudly admit that I was lulled to sleep during master clarinetist, Kinan Azmeh's piece appropriately called "Dream." My relapse in consciousness may have been brought on by jetlag from a recent trip abroad this February break, but I would like to think the tranquil composition thoroughly relaxed me. As I closed my eyes, I felt the undulating melody of the clarinet hypnotizing me and practically melting me into my seat.
The song is, in fact, the main theme of an original sound track for the Filipino-American film Rigodon, though throughout this piece, I was more concentrated on the traditional Arab lyre, the qanun, played expertly by Feras Charestan, than the American and Filipino influences that it boasts.
In the fifth song, "My Gypsy Home," composed by saxophonist Basel Rajoub, Charestan plucked the strings of the qanun with a technique similar to playing a Western harp. I was also blown away by the speed in which he adjusted the small levers of his instrument during his playing, producing nuanced quartertones characteristic of Arab music. The nasal cry and whimper of Rajoub's alto saxophone communicated the romantic longing for a past in a distant homeland.
The performance was surprisingly short, as there was no intermission, and many songs on the program went un-played. However, what I did hear was an adventure for my ears. In an age where the media's portrayal of the Middle East is not always favorable, this concert was a very welcome musical refreshment.
"REMIX: New Sounds from the Arab Lands," seamlessly brought together musical tradition and innovation; five artists from various backgrounds; and an American audience that praised the music with a unified uproarious applause.