Gulf sounds

Exploring Iran/Iraq traditions, new and old

Night Silence Desert (Traditional Crossroads), the album by singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian and kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle) master Kayhan Kalhor, is an ambitious collaboration between two of Iran's leading musical lights. Subtitled "Khorasan Suite," it's an homage to the music of the Khorasan region in the northeast of the country, often described as the cradle of Persian art and literature. Its links to different peoples over the centuries results in it incorporating three major influences: old Persian, Kurdish and Turkish.
Tehran native Kalhor, who last year composed for and performed with the Kronos Quartet, has long been fascinated with Khorasan, and he conceived the suite in instrumental terms, using a number of existing melodies and maqam (folk) motifs. He was delighted when Shajarian, who hails from Khorasan and whose career goes back 40 years, accepted his invitation to contribute vocals to the project.
The dozen players here are classified as being either "instrumentalists" or "folk musicians." In the latter category we have musicians performing on lutes, double-reed flutes and percussion which are particular to Khorasan, and in the former category the more familiar classical Persian instruments, including the barbat — known elsewhere as ud — and tar (both members of the lute family), santur (zither), daf (drum) and nay (flute). Helpful notes as well as pictures are provided for each instrument, which reveal that Kalhor's kamancheh is the precursor to most bowed instruments in Europe and Asia. Held vertically and secured to the ground by a spike, the instrument is rotated to meet the bow and wrist when playing different strings.
Merging the usually disparate folk and classical styles, and even the instruments themselves, provided challenges from tuning to phrasing. Digital samplers and other enhancements were used at times to help to bridge the gaps between the two idioms, though the casual listener will not be aware of this. Overall, the sound is lush, disciplined and classical. Shajarian's soaring voice sounds magnificent on thousand-year-old poetry by Baba Taher and modern ghazal lyrics by Houshang Ebtehaj, and the stately pace of much of the music is occasionally interrupted by a festive, almost bagpipe-like sound which reflects one aspect of the folk tradition of Khorasan.
The Impossible Love (Mondo Melodia) album by Kazem Al Saher marks a major push for U.S. exposure from this unabashedly romantic Iraqi who claims to be the Arab world's top-grossing singer in terms of album and concert ticket sales. Al Saher's rise to fame has been gradual, starting with some video-enhanced hits in the late '80s that were frowned upon by the authorities on account of their unorthodox mix of classical and pop structures, followed by a remarkable song called "La Ya Sadiki," whose recording in Cairo took a year to pull off, and whose length (a full hour!) and lack of accompanying video understandably led to limited exposure anywhere.
The Gulf War resulted in Al Saher resettling in Canada, but he made frequent trips back home and even more visits to Egypt, where he was embraced by the music industry and marketed as a superstar. Today, his North American concerts are pirated and sold throughout the Mideast, the lyrics for the title track of his new album were specially written for him by the distinguished poet Nizar Qabbani and his hit "La Titnahad" was remixed by Transglobal Underground (also included on The Impossible Love).
While Al Saher has distinguished himself from the main thrust of the current Arab pop scene with an orchestra-driven, classical-based style associated with masters such as Egyptian Mohammed Abdel Wahhab (1901-1991), the new album is actually a reasonable compromise of the new and the old. Unfortunately, no studio or musician credits are listed, but lyrics in Arabic and English are provided.
As an unofficial but highly-visible spokesman-in-exile for what's been called "the human face of Iraq," Al Saher walks a fine line. Most of his songs appear to be romantic, but are they actually thinly-veiled love songs to, and commentaries on, the plight of his native land? With plenty of family still in Iraq and a complex relationship to the Baghdad political regime that includes an obligation to help celebrate presidential birthdays, clearly Al Saher isn't saying. Now that he's based in Cairo, he also has to worry about the ever fickle Egyptian-Iraqi relations.
Some of the song titles, such as "I Woo You," "The Despotic," "And You Dare To ... " and "Who Are You?" — not to mention the album's title itself — hint at the dichotomy. One of the least ambiguous songs, "Waledee Al Tayeb" (The Good Father), is a song of praise and tenderness for his father, who died just before a concert he performed in Las Vegas last year. "Mustakeel" (I Give Up) is also pretty direct; in it he sings, "My home is not my home anymore, and the land of slaughtered love is not my land anymore ... /My heart needs a reason to beat." Despair aside, there is little doubt that the man who made The Impossible Love has a heart that beats.
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