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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
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
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
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
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
"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
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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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
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
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
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 Algerias 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 Abdellis
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
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."
Abdellis 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
"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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