Members of the Dina Zarif Ensemble: Amelia Romano (harps), Zarif (vocals), Josh Mellinger (percussion), and Morgan Nilsen (clarinet), from the Ensemble’s Facebook Page
This afternoon the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) hosted a major project. Music of the Banned was conceived by vocalist Dina Zarif as a way to provide a platform for the music of countries, mostly Muslim, whose citizens have had to endure a travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump. Her idea was to invite Bay Area musicians with roots in those countries to perform music representative of their respective background cultures. The project gave its first public presentation at the Red Poppy Art House in August of 2017 as part of the Mission Arts Performance Project (MAPP).
This afternoon a similar concert was presented as part of this season’s YBGF programming. Zarif provided some introductory remarks, after which the program got down to business with performances by four groups representing countries that have experienced banned status. Three of those groups fell into the “mostly Muslim” category: the Ajyal Quartet, whose set was divided between Arabic Syrian music and pieces of Iranian Kurdish origin, Zarif’s own ensemble, whose repertoire she calls “Iranian Fusion,” and the Sudan Ensemble performing with vocalist Salma El Assal. The remaining group was a trio called Sounds of Venezuela.
The good news is that this programming offered up an impressive amount of diversity. The not-so-good news was that the slot for the concert ran for two hours and thirty minutes. Because of the diversity of the groups, a generous amount of that time was consumed by set changes, during which one group of players had to dismantle and carry off their gear while another group had to set up a new ensemble of instrumental resources. From a purely personal point of view, the feeling of too much of a good thing began to take its toll after about two hours had elapsed; and I had to come to grips with the fact that the Sudan Ensemble was not receiving the attention it deserved.
Nevertheless, before fatigue set in, there were any number of offerings that were decidedly unique in their synthesis of the traditional and the contemporary. Some of them may have simply been historical accidents. Thus, during the Kurdish portion of the Ajyal Quartet set, there was a lively 2/4 dance that sounded for all the world like a hoedown (and probably was intended for a similarly festive occasion).
Less anticipated was the polished quality of Zarif’s voice. As her background statement on the Facebook Event page for this concert explained, she is experienced not only in Middle Eastern styles inspired by her Persian roots but also Western classical singing. One result is that her approach to singing during her set featured a finely polished tremolo technique that contrasted sharply (but effectively) with the earthier rhythms of her Persian sources.
The result was a concert that showcased both cultural diversity and fundamental commonalities that one encounters in widely diverse instances of music-making. This made for any number of stimulating moments. However, I suspect that my own receptivity would have benefitted from attending two separate concerts, each of which presented only two of the four sets served up this afternoon.