Saturday, August 26, 2017

Jamming with Arabic Classical Music

Last night Moroccan-Palestinian musician Ali Paris returned to the Old First Presbyterian Church to present the last of the three concerts he prepared for the Old First Concerts series. Once again he played the qanun, basically a zither with a highly sophisticated microtonal tuning system, often singing while playing. On this occasion he led a trio, whose other members were percussionist Faisal Zedan, playing different types of hand drums, and violinist Briana Di Mara. As was the case at Paris’ second concert, Di Mara had two violins, one with the usual G-D-A-E tuning and the other tuned G-D-G-D.

The full title of the program was Arabic Classical From Morocco to Syria. The presentation itself had less to do with the origins and dissemination of Arabic music than with a sampling (without much sense of ordering) of styles from different parts of the world. Those unfamiliar with the culture (such as myself) probably had trouble recognizing the distinguishing features of those styles. However, as is the case with other accounts of “early music,” listening had less to do with notated manuscripts and more to do with a practice of making music that combined basic thematic material with rich opportunities for improvisation.

Indeed, as Paris observed in his comments to the audience, Arabic music is monodic; and harmony, as we know it, does not figure in any of the Arabic treatises of “music theory.” Thus, each piece would begin with a melody shared by both qanun and violin, after which the two performers would repeat the melody, adding new embellishments as the execution proceeded. Sometimes, but not always, there would be a back-and-forth exchange of approaches to embellishment in what might be called “dueling banjos” rhetoric. More often, however, Paris tended to dominate the embellishing processes, simply by virtue of the advanced capabilities of his instruments.

All of this activity took place against a sophisticated rhythmic pattern, based on strong and weak pulses, established by Zedan. However, once that pattern was established, it, too, was subjected to embellishment. Furthermore, because Zedan could sound different pitches on the basis of how he struck his instruments, he could also offer his own take on back-and-forth exchanges with Paris.

The result was an approach to music-making in which spontaneity was the dominant element, as much as it is when those who really know their jazz gather together in a combo. For those of us not familiar with the culture, the results were fascinating and thoroughly engaging. For others they were downright infectious. I have not idea how bubeleh would be translated into Arabic, but there were three of them sitting a few rows in front of me. They were swaying with the rhythms, smiling at the back-and-forth exchanges, and even bursting into the chorus of one of the songs. All of this more than compensated for any problems that the players had in describing what they were doing to the audience (the same sorts of problems that had surfaced during the second concert).

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