It’s tough for a white kid out there. Well, not really. But it is tough for a white kid to pretend to form an educated opinion about cultural traditions with which he’s completely unfamiliar.
That is why a proper “review” of the Cal Poly Arab Music Ensemble’s (AME) folk music performance, accompanied by the Chookasian Armenian Music Ensemble, Saturday night is simply out of the question for someone like me. Were complex musical arrangements performed with passion and skill? Definitely. Have I ever heard Arab music performed another way? Not at all.
In this performance, the term “Arab” was used a bit loosely. The songs performed came from a number of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including Armenia, Greece, Egypt and Syria, but they all shared plenty of musical characteristics. Before the show, AME Director Kenneth Habib said, “We wanted to show that the cultures are all very interconnected, and you can hear that musically.”
For a newcomer to the genre, the concert was an explosion of new sounds. Tracing back to its ancient roots, Eastern Mediterranean music shares very little with its Western counterparts. A host of ancient instruments, including the guitar-like buzuq and oud, and the harp-like qanun, are capable of producing a bevy of notes that simply don’t exist in the Western repertoire. Habib explained that these notes create a mood in the music that say “something that other notes can’t say.”
The differences don’t end with the instruments. Many of the pieces performed followed time signatures that sound completely obscure to Western ears, which must be far more difficult to play.
Enough of my under-educated expression of awe. What did it sound like? The first thing I noticed was that this Arab folk music did not rely on assigning each musician a strictly defined function. The diverse sounds were instead woven into layer upon intricate layer of aural cohesion, to the point where it became nearly impossible to discern from where any particular note came. When the entire ensemble played, there did not appear to be “lead” instruments or “backing” instruments. Each seemed to contribute equally to the atmosphere in Harman Hall.
During the pieces which involved vocals, the singers melded their words into that same style, weaving those musical layers even more tightly together instead of allowing the lyrics to stand apart, as is the norm in the West.
As impressed as I was, it was difficult for my untrained ear to pick up on the significance of each song. Much of the audience appeared to be of Eastern Mediterranean descent and were familiar with the melodies. One such audience member, George Hamalian, was briefly transported back to his childhood.
“I grew up with Arab music and culture, and (the performance) brought back some of those memories,” he said. “It was very touching.”
As is traditional in many forms of Arab music, members of AME and the Chookasian Ensemble both performed examples of taqsim, which are improvised solos that precede the main body of a song. These were absolutely mesmerizing to watch and listen to. AME oudist Peter Sumic and bassist Troy Hanson both stole the show during their respective taqsim, and Chookasian Ensemble oudist Peter Dorian plucked his 11-string instrument with a haste that far surpassed that of even the quickest modern guitar solos.
Hamalian’s wife, Magda, was surprised by the quality of the taqsim despite her familiarity with the style.
“They were very complex songs, but the solos were really amazing,” she said, with emphasis on “really.”
Even with the incredible displays of individual skill, the folk music theme was prominent. When Habib invited audience members onstage to learn the basics of traditional Arab line dancing with the help of AME dance directors Saundra Sarrouf and Jenna Mitchell, at least 30 people rushed up to participate.
The Hamalian family was most dazzled by the final number, which put both ensembles and the audience to work simultaneously. Approximately 10 audience members were so captivated by the energy in the room that they got up in the middle of the song to execute an impromptu line dance which circumnavigated the auditorium. Nobody in the room seemed the least bit surprised.
A cultural education indeed.