Tuesday, December 11, 2007

East Jams With West at Breakneck Speed

Five guys from Palestine and one from Morocco took to the stage at the Jazz Performance Space at 55 West 13th Street in November. In short order, they jumped into an improvisation of Van Morrison's "Moondance."

The jam was a long, freewheeling jaunt, but this time it featured no lackadaisical riffs of an electric guitarist who is, presumably, very high. Rather, John-Robert Handal tapped his fingers energetically against a traditional Arab drum called a darbouka. Moroccan Tarik Hilal plucked a flamenco guitar. Joseph Duqmaq blew into a saxophone. Zafer Tawil drew a bow across a violin. Tarek Abbushi fingered the fretless, stringed buzuk. And, as if in a trance, Wissam Murad played a wild solo on an old brother to the lute, the oud.

The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, working with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, put the ensemble together. Tawil and Abbushi are both based in New York, but the State Department brought Handal, Hilal, Duqmaq, Murad and vocalist Fatima Abdeldayem here from abroad. The musicians led a series of workshops about Middle Eastern music. "Moondance" was a treat at the end of a day trading percussion techniques, Arab musical traditions and jazz standards with the Jazz program's Middle Eastern Ensemble.

After the improvisation, the Middle Eastern Ensemble got on stage with Abdeldayem and the other visitors. An East-meets-West supergroup, armed with drums, more darbouka, violins, flutes, clarinet, more flamenco guitar and voice, suddenly formed.

Harel Shachal, a saxophone player from Israel who teaches at The New School and plays in a local, nine-piece "multicultural ensemble" called Anistar, led the ensemble. He conducted three ten-minute expressions of Middle Eastern songs arranged with Western instruments. He joined in on a Turkish clarinet with a G tuning, which plays quarter-tones.

These were exercises in worldly ambition. Performing Arabic melodies on Western instruments is no easy feat, Abbushi said after the show, since Arabic music does not use harmony and the timbre of many Western instruments tend to sound bizarre when they merge with traditional Arab instruments.

"It's possible, but it's difficult to bring in Western or modern sounds," he said.

The World Music Ensemble and the visiting musicians still put on a thrilling show. They first played "Lama Bada," written in the 18th century by Syrian composer Salim el-Misri. The supergroup launched into a whirling melody at breakneck speed. Adbeldayem sang one chorus in Arabic, then Mika Hary, a Jazz student from Israel, sang another in Hebrew.

The second piece, "Longa Nahawand," which Shachal described as a "dance number" from the Asia-minor part of Turkey, began with a percussive boom-chuck that grew in intensity. Then the group burst into a wild 16th note melody, led by flute, violin and the two vocalists. A few minutes into the song, the group took up a catchy dance beat with a salsa-esque syncopation. Then Handal started tapping his darbouka with greater intensity, this time accenting the beat with his palms to produce a juicy boom.

26 people sat in the audience, including a cameraman and a photographer—not even double the size of the group on stage.

Martin Mueller, Executive Director of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, told the Free Press before the show that the school had not publicized the event as much as it could have, to avoid arousing the indignation of Israeli students.

Shachal also wanted to keep the night on the down-low, he said over the phone last week. The concert came at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are "at war," he said, and bringing up political tensions is often unavoidable.

"If I was living [in Israel], I wouldn't have this chance to play with them," he said. "Not even to meet them, ever."

The performance, Mueller and Shachal both said, was about the music. And music, they agreed, is a great way to overcome irreconcilable differences.

"Music is an amazing thing to connect," Shachal said. "If there were performances like that arranged for the cultural department in Israel or something, there would be peace."

This article ran in this week's issue of the New School Free Press. Photo: the visiting musicians embark on their Middle Eastern moondance, courtesy the New School.

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