Friday, November 07, 2008

Engaging in a bit of world music

Was Claude Debussy engaging in a bit of world music, I wonder, when on encountering gamelan Indonesian music at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle he went home and began composing the Estampes for piano? The problem seems to be with the word "world"; as an adjective it has come to mean a sort of anthropological, homogenised muddle, and so does little to reflect the careful, earnest engagement of artists such as Dhafer Youssef ...

At a time when the Arab world is enduring on the one hand the harsh gaze of Europe and America, and on the other political oppression at home, one can take heart in the fact that at least Arabic music is going through a kind of renaissance. Dhafer Youssef is part of a new generation of musicians that is as deeply rooted in its secular and mystic heritage, as it is keen to engage with international audiences. There is something both compelling and profoundly stirring, for example, in the classically engaged and intensely felt compositions of the Iraqi virtuoso oud player Naseer Shamma, or in the intellectual and emotional brilliance of the Tunisian Anouar Brahem and the experimental urgency and flamboyance of the Palestinian Kamilya Jubran (the latter's only album, Wameedd, is recorded with the Swiss jazz trumpeter Werner Hasler).

Unlike, for example, the Arabic novel, which apart from very few exceptions is struggling to gain the attention its literary heritage promises, Arabic music like Youssef's seems to have found ways to remain vital and ambitious, relevant, and engaged.

Libyan novelist Hisham Matar gives us the best article about music I have read for a long time in this week's New Statesman. Dhafer Youssef plays with the Britten Sinfonia at the London Jazz Festival on November 14, and thanks to the Sinfonia's blog for the heads up on this article. Youssef featured here recently in Avoid three kinds of master. That post was about the CD seen above which was recorded with Markus Stockhausen who is seen on the left below, and it took its title from a Sufi inspired poem written by monk, writer and thinker Thomas Merton. Earlier I had linked Markus' father, Karlheinz Stockhausen with Thomas Merton in a post about the 1960s. Many bright lights were extinguished in 1968. Among them was Thomas Merton who died on December 10, 1968 aged 53. So many of these paths are linked; the great pro-peace activist Merton was born in Prades, France in 1915. Prades was the adopted home of Pablo Casals after he fled from Spain and Franco's fascist regime in 1939. So the path comes full circle as Spain spent seven centuries under Arab rule; a period in which a truly multicultural civilisation flourished and three monotheistic religions and peoples of diverse origins lived in harmony.


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