Ancient Sounds: Music of Iraq and India

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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 Ancient Sounds : Music of Iraq and India

> Rahim AlHaj and Alam Khan and musicians
> 19 Sept 2009
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, CA
alam khan
Alam Khan
>While this concert was hardly opera, all music is, to some degree,
> theatrical, and dramatic because it’s done with and for people in an
> audience. And time is funny. It’s slipping through our fingers, or bearing
> down on us. But whatever it is or isn’t time is here to stay and how we
> see it will change. Take the California Institute of Integral Studies
> presented concert which lasted about 2 hours and 35 minutes including the
> interval. Some of it seemed intensely long, and some intensely short.
>Classical Indian music is a serious affair, and not especially concerned
> with social niceties, like a concert of Western classical music which
> wouldn’t dream of starting with something heavy, but something reasonably
> light like an overture. Ragas ( itals ) are, of course, associated with
> specific times of day, and their concomittant moods / vibrations, so sarod
> ( itals ) player Alam Khan — one of revered sarod master Ali Akhbar
> Khan’s youngest sons — his brother Manik, on tanpura ( itals ), and Salar
> Nader, tabla ( itals ) , began with an evenieng raga ( itals ), in
> kirwanii ( itals ) mode, which he said he hoped he could get through . The
> first part, alap ( itals )? in a very slow tempo, with miniscule changes
> and timbral shifs in the repeated melodic figure in the sarod — grasping
> what it was doing required close attention — was alleviated somewhat by
> the tiime expanding rhythmic contributions of the tabla , and the
> tanpura’s unchanging skein of overtones,which provide a drone like a
> harmonium, Things didn’t really catch fire in the 4o minute raga ( itals )
> until its second part, in a much faster tempo — probably doppio ( itals
> ), or double in speed, where timbres got thicker, and the rhythmic
> interplay between sarod and tabla grew more complex, and more interesting
> to the untutored ear. Darker, fuller, richer in color and incident, though
> ragas are hardly story music in the Western sense of having an explicit
> program about something.
> And what could be more full of incident than Arabic music which Iraqi oud
> ( itals ) master Rahim AlHaj, and his percussionist, US-born Issa Malaf,
> presented after Khan’s set? It didn’t hurrt that AlHaj looked like a
> French character actor, say a rugged version of Trintingnant or Michel
> Piccoli, and was charming as hell, plus funny? — ” Come on, sweetheart “
> — he implored as he tuned his oud , which was invented in Iraq 5 millenia
> ago. Its tone is deeply resonant, and in the hands of someone like AlHaj,
> who studeid with perhaps the greatest master of the instrument, Munir
> Bashir, deeply expressive of both joy and pain. AlHaj, who knows tragedy
> first hand — he was tortured during Hussein’s regime — dedicated his
> first 2 pieces, one for the 2 miliion Iraqi children who died during the
> US sanctions 1991-2003 — and ” Dance of The Palms ” to the 2 million
> palsm destroyed in hs country — were sublte, direct, and very moving.
> Then he was joined for several other pieces by Malaf on dumbeck ( itals )
> –? goblet shaped drum, and 2 different sized daf ( tials ) — a frame
> drum, who negotiated the complex cross rhythms with ease and point. And
> AlHaj and Malaf gloried in the dramatic rests / breaks in the meoldic
> rhythms which are such a powerful and evocative part of Arabic music both
> vocal — it’s all over legendary Egypitan diva? Umm Kulthumm’s work — and
> instrumental..
>Collaborations between different musical traditions can come off like
> arranged marriages where neither partner has a say. But this one, which
> involved the 5 musicians in a? full set after the interval, playing on and
> off a 16-beat cycle provided by Khan — Arabic music has many melodic
> scales / modes, or maqamat , too — sounded effortless, each voice
> emerging distinctly, though the oud’s volume couldn’t match that of the
> far larger sarod, and the daf was sometimes overpowered by Khan’s forces
> at full bore. Yet the whole emerged balanced, cohesive, and everyone was
> obviously listening very acutely, like dancers ready to catch each other
> before an inevitable fall.? Time and space collapsed, and 2 great
> intermingled musical and spiriual tradittions emerged as one ecstatic one.
> And the not quite sell-out audience rose to its feet in fervent cheers.
Michael McDonagh

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