x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Global classics

Many of the world's lesser-known musical traditions can make for rewarding and challenging listening.

There is far more to classical music than the most well-known national and regional musical traditions. Many of these fascinating styles languish in obscurity outside their own countries, the subtleties and conventions which help us to make sense of them frequently lost on listeners unfamiliar with the cultures that created them. However, listened to with an open mind, the world's "other" classical musics are often stirring, exciting and passionately alive. Here is a round-up of some of the major traditions out there to be discovered.


Compared to the antiquity of Japanese classical music, Bach was born yesterday. It is believed that Japan's oldest ongoing art-music tradition - called gagaku - dates back 1,300 years, a genre which has changed little in the past millennium. Translated literally as "elegant music", gagaku is a striking, rather eerie form (to non-Japanese ears at least) played by an ensemble of string, wind and percussion instruments. The invariable components of a gagaku orchestra are the ryuteki transverse flute, the tall thin sho mouth organ (used to create a consistent background drone), and the hichiriki, a small double reeded instrument that is similar in construction to an oboe but can sound something like the bagpipes when played at high volume.

With its combination of wailing flutes, irregular-heartbeat rhythms and siren-like hichirikis, gagaku has a sound that is both infinitely stylish and ominously sombre. Like much East Asian music (gamelan included) it is based on a five-note scale and is often used as an accompaniment to exquisitely graceful performances of traditional court dance. Its influence has crept into the work of many 20th-century western composers seeking inspiration from outside the confines of their own tradition, perhaps most notably in Benjamin Britten's Noh theatre-inspired opera Curlew River, where the organ part mimics the harmonies of the sho mouth organ.

Where to hear it: Personally, I find a little gagaku goes a long way, but this intriguing, intense genre is well represented on the CD Gagaku: Gems from Foreign Lands by the Tokyo Gakuso group. For an interesting example of the style, visit YouTube and search for the posting entitled "Gagaku:Etenraku".


Once the soundtrack to a huge empire, the classical music of Turkey's Ottoman court shows evidence both of a refined culture and of a sponge-like ability to absorb influences from its neighbours. Arriving in Anatolia from Central Asia just before the Renaissance, Ottoman musical traditions merged over time with those of the Arabs, Armenians and Byzantines conquered by the empire, creating a style of music in the royal court and Mevlevi (dervish) lodges that possesses an intoxicating, inward-looking timbre. Over time, the key instruments of what is now called Ottoman classical music became set as the long-necked tanbur lute, the breathy, woody, end-blown ney flute, the bowed kemenche lyre and the zither - though the western violin is often added nowadays. These instruments are often used as part of the fasl suite, a series of short, musical movements similar to the Arabic nawba, which are integrated with each other through the use of recurrent, elaborated themes. Arguably more accessible to the outsider are the haunting, minimalist creations of the lodges of the Mevlevi order, where the ney flute comes to the fore in weightless, meditative music with the spare, clean quality of western Gregorian chanting. The music's influence can also be found in the sort of watered down, pseudo-oriental slush you sometimes hear in western relaxation CDs. Where to hear it: There's an overlap between Turkish classical and popular music: top pop singers such as Bülent Ersoy started out as classical musicians, while the word "fasl" increasingly refers to the pop-folk musicians who play in Turkish inns. The true classical tradition is still alive and well, however, and, in fact, now experiencing a revival. You can find examples of traditional Turkish music, including Ottoman music, on the website of Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism at www.kultur.gov.tr. For a beautiful piece of Mevlevi-style ney music, visit YouTube and search for the posting entitled "Kudsi Erguner & Süleyman Erguner - Zikr".


Apparently it was partly Debussy's amazed exposure to Indonesian gamelan music at the 1889 World Fair that pushed him towards the floating, non-linear pieces of his later music. Composed of bands of musicians with gongs, flutes, drums and metallophones (large metal xylophones struck with a mallet), the eerie, delicate bell-like sound of gamelan ensembles has indeed proved a major influence on many 20th-entry composers, from Bartók to Philip Glass. Originally developed as a ceremonial entertainment at the Javanese royal court, gamelan does not necessarily make for easy listening to the novice, as its five-note scale and apparent lack of linear development from the beginning to the end of a piece present a challenge to anyone expecting easy melody. However, it is dreamy, hypnotic stuff and the orchestras are often a remarkable sight in their own right, dressed in lavish traditional costumes and boasting drummers whose hands twist decoratively as they play.

While gamelan is by far Indonesia's most influential musical export, the country has other wonderful classical traditions, such as the lyrical and arguably more accessible tembang sunda. This is poetry in blank verse sung accompanied by a plucked dulcimer and flute. Tembang sunda has an elegiac, tender tone and a sadness that somehow gets under the listener's skin, even if the meaning of the words themselves remain a mystery.

Where to hear it: Gamelan's subtle influence is found across 20th-century western classical music, but for a taste of the authentic version the Dutch/Indonesian ensemble Marsudi Raras' rendition of Javanese gamelan (a more stately style than its Balinese counterpart) is a good place to start. Visit YouTube and search for the posting entitled "Javanese gamelan: Kebogiro". While still largely unknown outside Indonesia, Amazon.com offers a small selection of tembang sunda compilations and albums, or you can listen to a short, evocative sample by visiting YouTube, searching for the tembang sunda and playing the first posting.


Despite its name, Andalusian classical music is no more Spanish than couscous. Granted, the genre was developed back when the Moors governed Spain - in fact it's credited with introducing both the lute and the rabab, the first forerunner of the violin, to Europe. But the music is nonetheless a predominantly North African affair, found all the way across the Maghreb and also in Syria, spreading from the region's royal courts and Sufi lodges. Still a vibrant tradition in many countries, a standard Andalusian classical suite contains five separate rhythmic sections played by an ensemble that includes the lute, zither, two-stringed rabab, the bowed lyre and percussion instruments, with the frequent addition of western violins played rested on the knee. With a remarkable rhythmic diversity, poetic vocals and richly coloured, weeping strings, it is an appealing and vivid classical tradition. It's not been without its hard times, however: while the French accepted its performance in Morocco and Tunisia, they tried to crush it in Algeria. None of this has destroyed the music's vitality, with Morocco's Andalusian classical scene especially lively at the moment.

Where to hear it: Morocco has produced a host of excellent performers in recent years, with such ensembles as the Orchestra Otmani of Fes and Orchestra of Tangier performing internationally. Visit YouTube and search for the posting entitled "Orchestra Otmani of Fes". Meanwhile the Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui's stunning pipes and crossovers into Iberian musical styles have gained her a growing reputation. Her album Gharnati (derived from the word Granada) is worth acquiring. You can also catch a glimpse of her by visiting YouTube and searching for the posting entitled "Amina Alaoui - Bitto Ashku".


With its long occupation by Spain and the US, it is little surprise that western influence is much stronger in the music of the Philippines than that of its neighbours. While the islands have an indigenous gamelan-like music tradition called kulintang, the influence of light classical music such as Spanish zarzuela and Argentine tango has also created home-grown music styles that possess a familiar western melodic structure. Filipino bands playing Latin-influenced folk music have long been popular across East Asia, but it's in the kundiman form that the fusion of local and European musical traditions is at its most sophisticated.

Developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, kundiman songs are sad, anthemic love melodies, accompanied by western instruments and displaying clear operatic influences, while moody solo guitar serenades are also common. Despite the western traits of the music, the genre remains hugely popular as an expression of Filipino identity. The sentimental lyrics of the most famous kundiman songs - generally about the trials of love - were written by major national poets (usually in Tagalog) and promoted a coded anti-colonial nationalism, the undying love declared by a singer for his girl hinting at a thwarted but undimmed love of homeland. While some of the best kundiman exhibits a restrained, evocative melancholy, the heartstring-plucking and sometimes syrupy mix of passion and nationalism in many songs inevitably has greater significance for people who know something about Filipino culture and history than for complete outsiders. Nonetheless, the genre remains an interesting example of the way western music has been adapted and customised as it travels around the world.

Where to hear it: Kundiman is still performed regularly at Filipino cultural centres around the world, with singers including Cenon Lagman and Ric Manrique being good names to look out for on CD. Meanwhile, the links below are excellent examples of both sung and instrumental kundiman. For a fine display of Kundiman guitar, visit YouTube and search for the posting entitled "Kundiman in D by Jose Valdez". Meanwhile, for a vocal interpretation, visit YouTube and search for the posting entitled "Bayan Ko".