Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hearing global history

I had the good fortune to attend a concert by the Palestinian-American composer, violinist and oud player Simon Shaheen this past weekend. It’s not the first time I experienced his music. Over a decade ago, he was touring with his fusion band Qantara and I had the privilege of introducing him to the audience at a world music festival less than 10 days after the September 11 attacks. More recently, an orchestra that I worked for presented the Chicago premiere of his Oud Concerto, and I conducted a Q&A with him and the orchestra's conductor prior to the concert.

Both of those were great experiences, but neither prepared me for this weekend.  Simon and his traditional ensemble of string instruments, flute and hand drums performed at the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music before a predominantly Middle Eastern audience. And while it was traditional in the sense that it was acoustic and the selections performed included many older songs, the approach was thoroughly modern, involving new compositions written by Shaheen, a high degree of improvisation and much instrumental wizardry. 

I knew that Shaheen played the violin and was considered a virtuoso, but I had never heard him play it. When I saw Qantara, with its mix of instruments drawing from Arabic, African, Latin, jazz and pop sources, he led on his oud. And, of course, his Oud Concerto featured his solos accompanied by a Western style orchestra. 

In the years since I first heard Shaheen play, I became friends with a violinist who is well versed in classical and jazz improvisation who further incorporates his Afro-Caribbean heritage into his approach to jazz. So, when Shaheen picked up his violin and began to play on the third song, I was almost shocked to hear what sounded like my friend’s playing. The deft improvisation, the insertion of space between notes, the playing inside and outside of the rhythm, and all of it built on a foundation of pan-Arabic music.

And then I heard something else, for in fact pan-Arabic and pan-Latin music share the same source and are merely different stops on an ever continuing journey. Several years ago, I read a book called Cuba and its Music by Ned Sublette. On the first page of the first chapter, Sublette references the Phoenicians.  A people of Semitic origin, they arrived in what would become the Spanish port city of Cádiz in 1100 B.C. (and North African port cities like Casablanca and Algiers).  Over two millennia later, that port would be the European gateway to the “New World”. In between, the Muslim empire grew to encompass the Iberian peninsula, but by 1492 both Muslims and Jews were being expelled as a nascent Spanish identity took hold. The Spaniards began to colonize the Americas, bringing with them a culture heavily influenced by the Arab world. And they also brought slaves from Africa, including North African Muslims and sub-Saharan Yoruba peoples. 

This mix of Spanish and African cultures met various indigenous peoples first in the Caribbean islands, then Central and South America. Arabic musical instruments like the oud had already begun a transformation into guitars, lutes and mandolins. In Cuba, the oud became the laud.

I heard it all at once this past weekend, and it was triggered by not by Shaheen’s oud, but by his violin. He explained that this particular violin was from 18th century Italy, and to hear Shaheen coax sound out of this very European instrument was akin to hearing my friend coax sound out of his of similar origin, but both serving a non-European purpose. Both musicians are classically trained, and both use that training to express something of themselves and, by doing so, their heritage. All of a sudden, I heard the continuum that connects the Phoenicians to the Spaniards and then on to the Americas, absorbing African sounds, mixing with indigenous traditions, becoming jazz in the U.S., reaching back so that jazz becomes a universal language used by many cultures… well, it was kind of mind blowing. 

My violinist friend James Sanders plays on March 7 at Constellation Chicago with his new ensemble Proyecto Libre (Free Project). In his various musical endeavors, Sanders is a member of an orchestra, leads a Latin jazz band, plays mainstream, composes music for a dance company and collaborates with improvisors from the avant-garde wing of the house of jazz. 

He's trying to bring all of that to Proyecto Libre.

When I attend, I'll also be listening for the Phoenicians.

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