Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Just when the Middle East seems about to slide into one of its reptilian-macho phases, burdened with too many bloody and violent conflicts, the independent Oud Festival of Jerusalem draws an almost utopian vision for this piece of land.
The Middle East, according to this optimistic view, is in fact a very close and open-minded musical neighborhood where traditions rely upon, borrow from, and exchange ideas and themes with each other, and beneath the conceited poses of the region's hollow leaders, we are much more alike than what these leaders would like us to think.
The Seventh international Oud Festival [held in Jerusalem, Israel, from November 2 til November 16 2006] , conceived by the artistic director of the Confederation House in Jerusalem, Effie Benaya, brought together Jewish, Palestinians, Armenian, Persian and Spanish musicians who represented the different as well as the similar facets of the glorious, multifaceted culture of the Arabic world.
A few weeks have passed since the final concert of this festival, and I am still trying to reconstruct this rare musical and spiritual experience.
With no oud on stage, the Lian Ensemble, a Sufi-Persian aggregation composed of four Iranian exiles who are based in Los Angeles and augmented by an American percussionist, delivered a hypnotic set of their interpretations of the poems of well-known Sufi masters such as Jellaluddin Rumi, Farid al-Din Attar (whose text, Conference of the Birds, inspired bass player Dave Holland's album of the same name, ECM, 1972) and Sheikh Javad Nurbakhsh.
Tar player Pirayeh Pourafar usually began each piece with focused and economic playing; santur player Mahshid Mirzadeh soon interlocked with Porafar's nuanced ruminations; and after these two women outlined the exquisite theme, the percussionists—Houman Pourmehdi, who alternated his tonbak and daf frame drums with the ney flute and the stringed setar, and Randy Gloss—added momentum and infectious rhythms. But the magic began when their vocalist began to sing.
Naderi Veseghi Soleyman, a dignified-looking white-haired gentleman in his sixties, seated in the center of the stage, was gifted with a warm and expressive voice, but it was his delivery of the Sufi texts that made the difference.
When he sang, you could understood why the Sufis believe and they are able to approach God through truth and love.
Soleyman's sincere and humble affinity with the messages of the poetic texts—none was translated—and his joyous, total belief in these texts, together with the rich tonal ornamentations of the ensemble, captured the audience's attention again and again.
The devotional approach of this excellent ensemble, with their imaginative arrangements of complex Sufi texts, all executed in a refined yet virtuosic manner that never lost momentum, contributed to the feeling of elation that accompanied me many hours and days after this concert.