Elijah WaldNorth African and Middle Eastern music
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By Elijah Wald

To most foreign listeners, contemporary Algerian music pretty much begins and ends with rai, the high-energy style that swept the dance scene in the 1980s. To Nouri Kouffi, however, rai does not even sound Algerian. "It has a drum machine, synths, electric guitars--there's not one traditional instrument,'' he says, speaking in slightly accented French. "If you didn't hear that they were singing in Arabic, you would think it was Western music.''

That is something that is unlikely to be said of Kouffi's own recordings. The singer and bandleader is a leading figure in hawzi, the deeply-rooted popular music centered in Tlemcen, on Algeria's western border with Morocco. This Saturday, he is appearing with shaabi singer Abdelkader Chaou at Suffolk University's C. Walsh Theatre.

Hawzi is a street version of Andalusian music, the classical music of North Africa. Al-Andalus, the Islamic kingdom of Spain, was a center of Arabic culture throughout the middle ages. The Andalusian musical canon consists of 24 nubas, or suites, ascribed to the 9th century Cordoban musician Ziryab, an exile from the Baghdad court of Khalif Haroun el-Rashid, of Arabian Nights fame.

Southern Spain remained an Arab kingdom for some seven centuries, until the Castilian King Ferdinand captured Granada in 1492. With the success of the Christian "reconquest,'' the huge Islamic and Jewish population of Andalucia was expelled, and settled in cohesive communities along the North African coast.

"Tlemcen was a soft, verdant area, with lots of water and trees,'' Kouffi says. "It strongly resembled Granada, so a great part of the people from Granada settled there.'' Tlemcen became, along with Algiers and Constantine, one of the three great Algerian musical centers, home of the gharnati, or Granadan school.

Tlemcen's links to the medieval style was strengthened by its proximity to Morocco, the heartland of Andalusian classicism, but over the years it also developed the popular hawzi. "The word hawzi means the people who lived outside the gates of the town," Kouffi explains. "It was the music of the people. The Andalucian texts were in classical Arabic, but Hawzi is in the everyday dialect. Also the musical structure is different, because Andalucian music was very precise, with seven or eight distinct movements which had to be respected in each of the 24 Nubas.''

Kouffi says that in Tlemcen music is an inescapable part of daily life. "It is played at weddings, outside the doors of the houses and in the big gardens, which means automatically that one is surrounded by it all year round. One could say that, without even wanting to, one lives 24 hours out of 24 in hawzi and Andalusian music.''

Though not from a musical family, Kouffi took to music at an early age. "I began to distinguish myself at family gatherings, singing the little songs I heard on the radio and here and there,'' he says. "From there I started singing in school choirs and the professor would give me little solos. Then I became part of many orchestras around Tlemcen, including great organizations like the Slam, which took first prize at the first festival of Algerian music. Then, in '74, '75, I decided to start my own professional orchestra.''

Along with his singing, Kouffi became an instrumentalist and a teacher of string and percussion instruments. On his early recordings he played the oud, or Arabic lute, and he now leads his group on the louder mandola. The mandola is one of several instrumental imports which have changed the sound of Andalusian music in this century. Kouffi's eight-piece group includes piano, banjo, violin and viola alongside the oud and the traditional drums, the derbouka and taar.

The new instruments have been somewhat controversial, expecially those like piano and mandola, which have fixed tones and cannot navigate the microtonal subtleties of the traditional style, but Kouffi feels the change was unavoidable. "We can't separate ourselves from what is happening in the outside world,'' he says. "And the world moves very quickly. To bring this music out of its shell a little bit, to make it heard, we must sound a little bit like the other styles. We put a bit more vivacity into the orchestration, in order to be accepted by the young people and by people of the 20th Century.''

Kouffi insists, though, that he has kept the roots of the music intact. "We keep the original base, the alto instruments with gut strings,'' he says. "We have the oud, derbouka and the taar, and we have the singing, which is according to what we were taught by our original masters. We remain very traditional compared with other regions. For instance, in Algiers everything is metallic. They'll have one oud in an orchestra of 24, 25 people.''

Kouffi says he has also resisted the push to become exclusively a dance band leader. Now based in Paris, he has maintained a parallel career as a music teacher, and he likes to mix concert performances with the more usual community events. "In general, all the pieces in this Andalusian, hawzi music are slow in the beginning and move in a crescendo, getting faster and faster,'' he explains. "So you can make people dance or you can make them listen. Therefore we play everywhere. We do concerts at which we play uniquely classical music, then we play weddings where we make people dance the whole night long.''


By Elijah Wald

To most Americans, the story of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel consists of
violent outbursts and nervous truces. This week, a series of events sponsored by the Abraham Fund and the Israeli Consulate is trying to show another story: the coexistence of two peoples who share a country and much of a culture.

Called "Prelude to Peace," the series includes an art exhibit at Harvard's Dudley House and the film "The Flying Camel," which will be shown Saturday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Best of all, it is bringing Bustan Abraham, a Jewish-Arab band that will visit local schools and give two concerts at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Interviewed by phone from their Haifa homes, Bustan's Avshalom Farjun and Taiseer Elias say that they never set out to make a political statement. "In the beginning, we didn't pay much attention to the idea that we are Jews and Arabs together," Farjun says. "It was not the point. For us, the point is music and only music. We are happy that people can see a group like this from Israel, but we are not showing coexistence -- we are coexistence."

Elias concurs. "Some people do this sort of collaboration for the symbol, but for us the music was primary. Because if the music is not interesting, if we create nonsense, then it is just kitsch."

Bustan's music is a fascinating blend, mixing European and Arab classical with jazz and folk styles, and the players come from a variety of cultures and regions. Elias, who plays oud, the Arab ancestor of the lute, and violinist Nassim Dakwar are Arabs whose families have lived in what is now Israel for centuries. Farjun is Jewish and also traces some 11 generations in the region. Other Jewish members have roots in the United States, France, Latin America and Turkey.

What brought them together was an interest in musical exploration. The impulse came from Farjun, a concert producer with a degree in Arabic literature who has devoted the last six years to mastering the qanoun, an ancient zither that is one of the principal Arab orchestral instruments.

"The idea was to create a new international language from music," he says. "I didn't have a real specific idea, but I wanted to make an original group that will speak to any kind of audience. So I called the different musicians and I said, 'Come to my house and let's try to improvise and see what happens.' "

The result was surprisingly organic, a sound that is unlike anything else on record without ever being forced or self-consciously innovative. This is at least partly due to the range of styles that each musician had already mastered. Elias, for example, grew up playing Arabic classical music on
violin, then studied Western classical music, becoming a virtuoso in both styles. He is now working on a doctorate in ethnomusicology, studying improvisational styles in Arabic music.

"It is interesting," Elias says, "because Avshalom's background is in Eastern music more than Western, and I came from an Eastern, Arabic base and then specialized in Western music. Every member in the group has this interaction or synthesis of culture by himself."

Elias says that at first he was surprised to find himself being regarded as a sort of ambassador of Jewish-Arab friendship, but that he has grown accustomed to the role. "I say all the time that I am not a politician," he says, "but I am part of the society and I have my own ideas about it."

Both Elias and Farjun say that social relations between Jews and Arabs are very good in Haifa. Still, there are constant minor irritations. Elias is annoyed by the tendency of some Jewish fans to refer to the group members as a mix of "Israelis and Arabs." "I am pure Israeli," he says. "Just like Avshalom. Only, he is Jewish and I am Christian Arab."

On the whole, though, he sees the situation as quite good and improving. ''One cannot ignore that there are problems, but the normal life is going very well," he says. "There are extremists from both sides, but there are also so many things that are common and shared between Jews and Arabs. I have so many Jewish friends; we lived together at university, we studied together. Now, the process of making peace causes more interaction. Everybody wants to make this mutual creating together. It breaks the psychological wall, and there is more openness."

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By Elijah Wald

One of this World Music's seasons most welcome returns is that of the Lebanese master Marcel Khalife and his quartet, who made a magnificent, but poorly advertised, visit last year. Khalife is best known as a folk singing star, often compared to Bob Dylan for his social impact. In recent years, however, he has turned his attention to Arab classical music, and he will be performing a purely instrumental concert, featuring “Jadal,” his recent composition for two ouds (the Arab ancestor of the lute and guitar), bass and tambourine.

To a western ear, “Jadal” sounds like a fusion of Arabic and flamenco styles, but Khalife points out that flamenco itself was born while southern Spain was the Arab kingdom of Andalucia. “There are no walls between oud music and flamenco guitar,” he says, speaking in French on his cellular phone while driving around Beirut. “But some of the time signatures and scales are different, are more Eastern.”

Khalife regards “Jadal” (which is available on the Nagam record label) as the first step in what he hopes will be virtually a reinvention of Arab classical music. “There is no history of Arab music,” he says. “There is only a history of Arab song. Because the word is very strong in Arab culture, poetry is very strong, and the other arts are left behind. I think it is time to bring the instrumental music forward, to show that it can stand on its own. ‘Jadal’ is unique, because there is no improvisation, it is purely written, composed music. I spent a year composing it before we began to rehearse it. And it is very difficult to play, because I have tried to open up a new universe, a new road.”

Khalife says that Arab music is a unified, inter-related form like European classical music, and that to call his music Lebanese is thus largely innacurate, but he is quick to add that its Lebanese flavor is instantly recognizable. And, despite the emphasis in the press on Lebanon’s anguished recent history, he firmly adds that “the Lebanese flavor is not the flavor of war. We have had 15 years of war, but we also have music and poetry and human feelings. Where I live, in my natal village, I get up every day and look at the mountains covered with snow, and at the sun shining on the Mediterranean, and all of that is in my music.”

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Djivan Gasparyan

By Elijah Wald

The good news is that Djivan Gasparyan is finally coming to town. The somewhat less good news is that his fans will hear very little of the music that has made him one of the world’s most respected traditional musicians.

Gasparyan is the most acclaimed instrumentalist in Armenian traditional music, winner of four UNESCO gold medals. He is reigning master of the duduk, a nine-holed member of the oboe family said to be some three thousand years old. Now in his late 60s, he has spent his life playing Armenian tunes and carrying the ancient tradition into the 20th century, working with symphony orchestras, on film soundtracks, and with modernists from the worlds of classical and rock music. Sunday night, he comes to Cambridge’s House of Blues, accompanied by an electric trio led by ambient guitarist Michael Brook.

Reached in Seattle, where he and Brook have been performing at the WOMAD festival, Gasparyan speaks in Armenian through his sound engineer, Dickran Dezirgenian, who moves a bit confusingly between translation and explanation. "He started at eight years old," Dezirgenian says, "from a very poor childhood. He lost his mother in the patriotic wars, as they say, the World War, and his father was taken as a soldier, so he was just wandering without knowing if he was going to see anybody anymore. So that kind of poor situation gave him the passion and the drive to express, and duduk was the only thing he could express it with."

As a child, Gasparyan played for village weddings and parties, and even accompanied silent films. His big break came at 16, when he joined Tatoul Altounian, a 120-member music and dance ensemble. Soon he was touring all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and his unique style was attracting attention beyond the normal traditional music circles. "He took from the popular style, which was kind of primitive, elemental compared to what he plays now," Dezirgenian says. "He added half-notes that kind of spiced and made it more flavorful, and people loved this, because it came closer to the heart. Only a few years ago, duduk was for shepherds in the villages; now it is in cities and mainstream cultural centers, with three-piece-suit people rather than just villagers."

Gasparyan first came to the United States in 1959, but his career in the West really took off after the warm, slightly nasal tone of his instrument and his imaginative improvisational style caught the ear of Peter Gabriel, who used him on the soundtrack of "The Last Temptation of Christ," and Brian Eno, who brought him to London. It was there he first met Brook, and last year they released an album, "Black Rock," on Gabriel’s Realworld label.

In Cambridge, Gasparyan and Brook will each play a couple of solo numbers, but the bulk of the concert will be drawn from that album. For anyone hoping to hear Gasparyan in full flight, this is unfortunate, as even Brook will grant. The recording had Gasparyan playing over pre-recorded tracks, then Brook reshaping the pieces in the studio until, he says, Gasparyan did not even recognize the final product. Gasparyan then had to listen to the album to learn his parts, a far cry from his normal work methods.

"Djivan's never had to cue to anybody else," Brook says. "He normally works with his musicians, who just follow him, so it's been quite a challenge getting him to, at a certain time, play something. And he feels constricted by it, and I think in some ways it wasn't the ideal way to do the concert. But we couldn't bring more musicians, so [without this approach] it would have been a rock band with him soloing on top the whole time. So we tried to add some structure to it."

Gasparyan’s reaction is equally mixed. On the one hand, he is a contemporary musician who has always worked to expand and explore the possibilities of his instrument. At home, he has trained generations of performers in his special techniques, and formed the first full duduk orchestra. On the other, he seems to have some misgivings about the way in which his instrument has been employed in recent projects with western artists.

"He respects both the original style and the new collaborations," Dezirgenian says, mentioning work with Andreas Wollenweider, Hans Zimmer and the Kronos Quartet. "He has adapted the instrument to fit western melodies, and you can hear the metamorphosis or the mixture of the cultures. But he's hoping that from now on they will be more accompanying or being in the domain of the traditional music rather than East-West collaboration or mixture. Because the thing that duduk loves is improvisation. When you put duduk in limitations, in cues and stuff, it becomes just another instrument in the orchestra."

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By Elijah Wald

These days we tend to think in continental terms, and Europe and Africa are two very different continents. A thousand years ago, to people living around the Mediterranean, things looked very different. The seacoast was the cradle of civilization, and the further inland one went in any direction, the more likely one was to encounter barbarians. Today, many of us think of Algeria as part of the Arab world, but in its music it often harks back to those earlier times.

"Kabyl music is close to European music, to the music of France, Greece, or Spain," says Abderrahmane Abdelli, the Kabyl Berber singer/songwriter who appears tomorrow night at Somerville Theatre. "In Arabic culture one can sense a distance, that it is quite different from Mediterranean music. I sing in Kabyl, the language we spoke before the arrival of the Arabs; it is completely Berber, and has nothing to do with Arabic. And in the music as well, we have kept that tradition.

"Originally, North Africa was inhabited by the Berbers. The Arabs and Islam arrived later, they have been in North Africa for nine or ten centuries. The Berber people were always tolerant of the Jews, the Christians, so they were also open to the Moslems. We embraced that culture, that religion. Unfortunately, in the end the Berbers were forgotten, we gave a great deal to the others and we have not been respected. The culture was massacred, you could say. The good thing is that the Berber people have always continued to respect other cultures, despite the hard life we have had with them."

Abdelli was born in rural Algeria, and began singing to amuse himself while he tended sheep. Speaking in French from his home in Brussels, he explains that, while there were no musicians in his family, song was common. His grandmother was a poet and his father was a muezzin, singing from the tower of the mosque to call the faithful to prayer: "He could be heard a very long way, he had a very strong voice, and I think my ability comes from him."

In his teens, Abdelli bought a mandola and learned to accompany himself. In 1978, at age 20, he made his public debut singing during the celebration of Algeria’s Independance Day, and over the next few years he took many prizes for his songs and his lovely, expressive vocal style. In 1984, he went to Europe, and in 1987 he was in Denmark, where he was arrested as an illegal immigrant. It would turn out to be a stroke of luck. His flight back to Algeria stopped over in Brussels, and in the airport he took out his mandola to relieve the boredom. A Belgian official was entranced, and offered to put him up and help him get his papers in order.

Soon, he had linked up with a Belgian producer and keyboard player, Thierry Van Roy, and was at work on his first CD, "New Moon" (Realworld). The album was actually recorded largely in Abdelli’s absence; he laid down the basic vocal and mandola tracks and Van Roy fleshed it out with North African and South American percussion, flutes, guitars, saxophone and keyboards. Unlike many European productions of Third World musicians, though, the album does not have an obvious "fusion" feel.

Abdelli agrees: "These arrangements were done with the heart. He had worked with me for years to prepare this album, so he understood very well what I am, and I find that they are exactly the same as if I had done them myself."

The sound is traditional without being archaic: "I have remained acoustic, with guitar or mandola, derbouka, bendir [two sorts of drums], ney [an Arabic flute], violin. But the lyrics are a vision of today, and I know that my vision is more universal than limited to Kabylia or Algeria."

Abdelli’s lyrics, as summarized in his CD notes, match the musical blend. They are contemporary, but within an ancient poetic lineage. Writing of his exile (he has not been back to Algeria in a decade), he says, "The pigeon knows no frontiers, it sleeps where it wants. The pigeon returns to its country, light in body and spirit."

"I often use the things of nature, in place of talking of people," he says. "I am very symbolic in my lyrics. These are my own poems, but I am writing within a tradition, within the vision of the great Kabyl poets of past centuries, and I use that language to look at modern things."

Since the release of his album in 1995, Abdelli has toured widely in Europe, and his musical horizons have continued to expand. His next album, due to be finished this year, includes collaborations with musicians from Cape Verde and Azerbaijan. "These people are very far apart, but also very close in a way," he says. "And it was very interesting for me. Our vision [shared with Van Roy, with whom he continues to work] is that each CD must be different; it is all part of the same philosophy, the same work, but it is the next step. For this one, we had not planned to use these musicians, but we were in those countries and we met the musicians and they liked some of the songs I had. We do not have any advance strategy, we follow the stream of life wherever it takes us."

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