I heard an extraordinary concert recently that was a breath of fresh cultural love and harmony in the midst of all the hate and violence in the world now. It was a collaboration between: al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, an instrumental band playing Arabic music, Dalal Abu Amneh, a beautiful and mellifluous Palestinian vocalist in the tradition of the great Egyptian pop singer Umm Kulthum, and The Crossing, an American choir specializing in new, commissioned music with exquisite, eclectic taste and skill. The program featured instrumental pieces, including an amazing solo by percussionist Hafez Kotain, several traditional songs by the band and Dalal, and two original pieces for everyone, settings of Medieval Arabic poetry from the Islamic empire in al-Andalus, Spain. It was a tribute to the flourishing of that culture around the 12th Century.
I was attracted to this event for several reasons. My wife knew of The Crossing through a colleague who has sung with them. We had heard them sing David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion on a frigid winter night where the subways were filled with the homeless; at the end of this beautifully performed, but austere requiem for the Little Match Girl, my heart was in such anguish that I sobbed uncontrollably.
Also, for the third book in the 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles I did vast research into Arabic literary history of 10th Century al-Andalus and Baghdad. So besides my interest as a composer in world music, I wanted to hear an authentic performance of that musicalized poetry. Book Three is about the outlawing of fiction in early Islam, but poetry and revelrous music always rocked the courts. As it did at the concert!
Finally, the premise of the qaraq’s adventures in the next book is that they collectively incarnate into that time as a group of story collectors. They construct a special version of The Thousand and One Nights, a subversive, multi-cultural version that brings together stories from many cultures. So of course I loved the concert’s East meets West mission.
What astounded me most of all was how the event was a cultural healing without any overt political commentary or mention of recent inflammatory tragedies. The hope that diverse cultures can co-exist was simply displayed by the attention to detail that the performers had for each other. From their first entrance, The Crossing worked hard to capture the vowel sounds and diction of Arabic; later the leader of al-Bustan joked with them about their efforts. The music clearly used a special intonation system different than European tempered harmony, and the singers had to match the instruments’ intonation, a perfect example of being in harmony despite fundamentally different backgrounds. The instrumental ensemble had to accompany the dissonances and complex textures of European composition with grace and support. And the two composers had Middle Eastern backgrounds, so they synthesized the two musical traditions while creating a new sound. What a sensitive coming together of worlds!
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