Feature A preview of the spectrum of sounds on offer at this year's world music series at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation.
A world of fusion
When you hear about a jam session, you probably don't think of star musicians playing the qanun, the baglama and the clarinet. But that's exactly what's on offer from the Turkish group Taksim Trio, who will open the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's new series of world music concerts tonight. The three men, Aytaç Dogan, Ismail Tunçbilek and Hüsnü Senlendirici are all well known names in their native Turkey and their most recent 2007 self-titled album stayed at number one on the Turkish charts for three months. The musicians first met as friends before eventually deciding to combine their musical talents. Each of them is considered to be a headliner musician in his own right, with Dogan on qanun (an instrument in the zither family), Tunçbilek on electric saz (a cross between guitar and lute that's also called a baglama) and Senlendirici on clarinet.
The group's name comes from both a busy public square in Istanbul and the Turkish term for "improvisation", which is what the Taksim Trio specialises in. The trio plays in fits of improvisation interspersed with thick silences and lilting solos that sound amazingly harmonious. Dogan, Tunçbilek and Senlendirici musically respond to each other so well and so organically that it's hard to believe they are actually improvising. Chalk it up to years of friendship and musical collaboration.
The three musicians combine the musical traditions of the ancient East with modern jazz, Arabesque and ambient sound to create soothing music that floats lightly into the air like incense smoke. While these elements certainly make the group unique, they also make Taksim Trio's music hard to categorise. Though this may be tricky for their label's marketing people, it is the exact reason why the group was chosen to open Abu Dhabi's new world music programme that begins today and will continue with two to three concerts each month until the end of May 2009. The programme will feature up-and-coming artists like the British saxophonist Denys Baptiste, as well as Alim Kasimov, a crooner of Arabic-language songs from Azerbaijan. They aren't too well known outside their respective musical circles yet, but the festival looks set to change that.
"We thought that there was a lack in Abu Dhabi of international music that is not mainstream pop," says Abdullah al Amri, the director of arts and culture for ADACH. "Abu Dhabi being the multicultural hub that it is, we felt it was very important to bring to our audience the incredibly rich and varied sounds of world music today." "It's a project we are trying to programme from different sectors of the world: Latin, European, African and Middle Eastern-Arabic," he says. "I think what we are choosing is unique and we are doing our best to bring to Abu Dhabi the best music and artists. "
The featured musicians were chosen for both their musical talent and their ability to fuse cultures and traditions. Isadora Papadrakakis, the art advisor for ADACH says, "These musicians are not megastars, but will be very soon, so it's a great opportunity to introduce them to Abu Dhabi audiences. This new wave of artists and musicians collaborates more and travels more, listens more to what's happening around their world, so they incorporate those influences into their musical style." Though these featured artists make what is called "world music", they don't rigidly define themselves by any one genre.
The performers all have an element of fusion in their music, and most of them are highly aware of Middle Eastern musical traditions as well. Many of the artists are multi-instrumentalists, able to change from guitar to oud (the Arabian lute) to the mandolin. A good number of the performers hail from the surrounding regions, if not GCC countries. And yet, has anyone heard of these world music artists in the UAE? In the case of Kamal Musallam, the answer is a resounding yes. Musallam is a Jordanian expatriate who has lived in Dubai since 2002 and performs regularly in the UAE. A perennial favourite, he's scheduled to perform as part of the series in November.
A shaggy-haired 30-something, Musallam is part performer and part mad musical scientist, describing his music as a unique combination of Arabic and jazz. "What I'm trying to do is to present a new style of mixing Arabic music with jazz and other Western music, maybe even rock sometimes, to keep the freshness of Arabic sound going. Some people call it 'Arabic fusion'." This time, Musallam will not only be playing with his two other band members, who form the Kamal Musallam Trio, but also with the German saxophonist Volker Schlott, a special guest coming to the programme courtesy of Abu Dhabi's Goethe Institute.
Musallam says that he's proud to be a part of this programme because it brings "another dimension to this region", a part of the world that is often forgotten when it comes to contemporary musical ingenuity. "It's a cultural exchange and it should be enhanced even more," he says of the programme. And enhanced it will be. ADACH has asked a number of the world music programme's featured artists to spend some time at the Bait al Oud, the music academy in Abu Dhabi. Jam sessions with the school's advanced students and the visiting musicians will be open to the public, though the date for the first of these collaborations has not yet been confirmed.
Musallam is also planning on holding a workshop, though his will be less musical, more informational. "[We] will explain how we work as a band and the saxophonist from Germany [will] explain how he fuses his music to ours," he says. Other artists in the line-up might seem like a surprise at first, since their music doesn't immediately link to the Middle East. One of these is Liu Fang from Kunming, China, who plays the pipa, a traditional Mandarin instrument that looks and sounds like something between the harp and the mandolin.
Liu, 34, is an elegant sylph of a woman who plays the pipa at breakneck speeds. Though her music has been described as sublime and she has garnered rave reviews from all over the world, her connection to the Arabic-speaking region is unclear - until she takes out her other instrument of choice, the guzheng - which is a Chinese zither similar to the qanun. Another featured musician, the Greek chanteuse Savina Yannatou, sings aching, emotional tunes from the Mediterranean. "We have some songs from Arab countries and all countries of the Mediterranean," says Yannatou. "There is a connection, of course."
Amri says that ADACH initiated the to move beyond mere musical labels to "offer a really enjoyable live experience to everyone". Abu Dhabi residents already expressed strong interest in world music by showing up en masse to last year's Sounds of Arabia series, also sponsored by ADACH. The series was deemed a smash hit, and Papadrakakis says she was thrilled when crowds started queuing up outside of the cultural foundation, banging on the doors to get in.
"Every time I play there, I notice something special about Abu Dhabi audiences," says Musallam. "They really come to listen; Abu Dhabi audiences really want a good show." Papadrakakis says that the Culture and Heritage Authority is focusing so heavily on music is because of its ability to fuse enjoyment with understanding. "Music has a huge advantage over other art forms in that it doesn't require language to be understood and enjoyed. Because Abu Dhabi's such a multicultural society, with every tribe under the sun converging here to make a life, it's really the most immediate and the most organic art form for people to come together."
For more information, visit @email:www.adach.ae/culture-calendar/performing-arts/en/