The New York Critic: Reviews

Near Eastern music

We have the World Music Institute to thank for making our musical world enormously richer, bringing us things we might otherwise never hear. In the past few months, they brought us two extraordinary presentations of fascinating Near Eastern music.

In the spring, WMI presented Simon Shaheen and The Near Eastern Music Ensemble in A Tribute to Muhammad Abdul Wahhab & Um Kulthum. Mr. Wahhab and Ms. Kulthum, both Egyptian, were the foremost singers/composers of twentieth-century Near Eastern music.

Some instruments were familiar, but the ensemble also included the following: the nay (like a flute, the only wind instrument used in Middle Eastern classical music); the oud (a fretless flute, the most important instrument in the Arab classical repertoire); the qanun (a type of zither); two types of drums, the tablah and the mizhar. The program consisted of mostly of songs by Wahhab and the group's leader, Shaheen, including a number of love songs with lovely, dreamy lyrics.

Most wonderful the vocals of Rima Khcheich, whose sweet, reedy voice sounds like one of those exotic instruments.

Also in the spring, WMI presented Farid Ayaz Qawwal & Brothers in Qawwali Music of Pakistan. Qawwali music is devotional. It combines textual and musical elements from many geographic regions, from Iran to India. Moreover, it combines classical and modern idioms (outraging the orthodox!). Although today it's a popular form throughout south Asia, it's traditionally part of a Sufi ritual. It's most closely associated with northern India and Pakistan.

The ensemble in this case consisted of six men, sitting on the floor of a raised platform. Qawalli refers to many religious figures, including Moses and Jesus, but we didn't need to speak Farsi to understand the opening invocation: "Allah! Allah! Allah!"

This highly animated music sometimes has a verse-response structure, sometimes a sort of staccato vocalese, here and there a subito diminuendo. It has recurring phrases. Its rhythms accelerate during the song, and then shift abruptly into something unexpected. The performers flail their arms, or point their fingers, or talk instead of sing. The whole is exciting: the audience (many of the women in exquisite saris) clapped in waves, and sometimes, when the singers spoke to us, they laughed if they understood the Farsi. It has the effect of gospel music, and it doesn't sound like gospel at all.

If my enthusiasm for this music is coloured by its exotic quality - well, my enthusiasm for Broadway show tunes is a coloured by their familiarity. We see all art from a certain perspective, and we don't appreciate this music in the same way as those who live with it.

By the way, the Qawalli concert was intended to present nine performers, but three were denied visas by the FBI. Never trust a musician.

- Steve Capra
June, 2004