Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The lure and lore of Andalusia, and a haunting song from the aether of the Internet

Andalusia: A name, a magical concept with a fantasia of historical and cultural resonances. While generally connected with the province of that name in Spain, it also associated with the dominant strain of classical music in North Africa. In my own world, dreams of Andalusia were first awakened during my years as a Flamenco guitarist back in Denver, Colorado, where I was fortunate to serve as one of the two Flamenquistas (the other being the late Vaughan Aandahl) for the large Hispanic community there. So many of the names of songs or genres in our music, or the cities of master performers, came from Andalusia: Seville (Sevillanas), Cádiz, Málaga (Malagueñas), Granada (a beloved piano solo by Isaac Albéniz, 1860-1909). . . .

After numerous visits to India and Pakistan in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, I found that the country I most longed to discover next was Morocco, largely from following the writings of Paul Bowles (1910-1999), that extraordinary American who achieved legendary fame not only as a expatriate writer (The Sheltering Sky, his first novel, being his best-known work, with a subsequent film version directed by Bernardo Bertolucci), but also as composer/musicologist, whose achievements in composition were celebrated at a major three-day festival at Lincoln Center in 1995 (I'll be posting at a later date portions of an interview I did with Bowles at the time), and whose recordings of music from all over Morocco constitute a definitive collection at the Library of Congress. Samples of his readings and music can be heard on a number of CDs available from Amazon.com.

In 1986, during my last months at Duke University, I taught a course in "Music of the Islamic World" for the University's Study Abroad Program (of which I was outgoing Assistant Dean) in the wondrous city of Marrakech. In the midst of my teaching, I took a chance flight to Tangier to meet Bowles (I say chance because he had no telephone, and the best address I had for him was "behind Tangier Socco. . . .") After persistent inquiries here and there in the city, I was able to spend a full afternoon with him talking about music. I'm certain that Bowles' generosity with his time with me grew from the fact that it was not drugs, but our common interest in music that I was pursuing in our conversation, whereas most of his visitors apparently sought to meet him because of his seminal role in 20th Century literature, and his interest in altered states of consciousness. As Norman Mailer wrote, in “Advertisements for Myself”: “Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs . . . the death of the Square . . . the end of civilization" (quoted from a fine biographical sketch of Bowles by Allen Hibbard on www.paulBowles.org, his authorized Website with a veritable treasury of Bowlesiana.

I again visited Morocco in 1994 for a sitar performance at the annual International Cultural Festival (Moussem Culturel) in Asilah with Shubha Sankaran and Ustad Zamir Khan, as well as collaborative experiments with local musicians. Both on this trip, and during the previous visit in 1986, my appreciation of traditional Andalusian music--with its serpentine melodic and narrative development, addicting rhythms, and richness of voices, both human and instrumental, in solo as well as ensemble--grew immeasurably.

So it was yesterday that memories of this wonderful tradition were awakened by yesterday's visit to Washington by my old friend and fellow ethnomusicologist, Philip D. Schuyler, whose areas of expertise include Morocco and its music. Our discussions ranged from contemporary genres, with hip-hop and rap adopted by young Moroccans, back to the living music of the past. Our discussions reminded me of a sublime performance in Washington earlier in the year by the Chabab al-Andalous Rabat Orchestra, with vocal soloists Mohammed Bajeddoub (male) and Bahae Ronda (female).

Happily, the performance has been archived in its entirety (albeit with a small video picture) at the Millennium Stage's extraordinary Website.

Mark Jenkins, the most reliable of world music reviewers in Washington, wrote a beautifully perceptive piece on the performance. (Sadly, Post reviews of world music are now generally relegated to the newspaper's Website under the category "PostRock"!)

As a matter of interest (moving out on a bit of a tangent . . . ), in this era of "new media" and "social networking", it is worth noting the existence of three relevant FaceBook groups: The Andalusian classical music of Morocco (199 members, with a total of 59 links, mostly of quality performance videos, last updated 8 June 2009); Andalusian music - Musique andalouse (275 members, with a total of 35 links, the last relevant posted in January 2009), and Moroccan Andalusian Music (60 members, with three video links, last updated in 2008).

It is indicative of the unique power of music to transcend borders, as well as of the comparatively tolerant ethos of al-Andalus (and of coures, Morocco), that my browsings yielded (on the second site above) a link to one of several videos of L'orchestre Andalou d'Israel, with soloist Emile Zrihan (who is also a cantor), as well as a full-gesture conductor (not traditional), and a full mixed-gender ensemble (again, not customary), with many of the men wearing yarmulkes!

Pursuing this fascinating cultural continuity, I discovered a Web page, including CDs by the above ensemble, dedicated to an Israeli label, Magda Records. The hosting Website, cdRoots.com ("music from the road less traveled . . . "), promises to provide material for future VOAWM musings. As noted under FAQs: "cdRoots is a one-man show, so please be patient. It may take a day or two to respond to your e-mails, and may take three to four days to ship an order (I do take days off, and there is no one else to cover for me!). Please be patient."

More CDs can be found on the Magda Website itself ("Sounds from Another Middle East; Israel's leading Ethnic and World music Label. . . . ")

And yet more distractions: A sub-page (which, sadly, I can no longer locate. . .) connected to the basic "Listen" tab on the cdRoots main Web page, and listing on-line stations of interest.

And the soundstream of the "Listen" tab leads into a haunting song emerging mysteriously from the aether of the Internet, "Guide me O thou great Jehovah" (lyrics on www.cyberhymnal.org!), sung in what sounds like a Scottish brogue against a slow ostinato of just two alternating clustered piano chords, presently joined by a languid drum set background accenting the third beat of four, then moving into a luminous improvisation on the piano of melting jazz harmonies. . . .

The song takes possession of me, and my old compulsion resurfaces: I MUST find out who the artist(s) is(are), WHERE I can find the recording, WHAT inspired the artist(s). (I do find out at last, enough for a listen after I get home, but that must wait for a later post. . . . )

For, again, comes the official end of my day at VOA (the first four hours devoted to learning Final Cut Pro editing skills in order to post original video footage on these pages), and I've not yet gotten down to my original basic purpose when I began this entry: to write a brief but informative review of the Chabab al-Andalous Rabat Orchestra's extraordinary Kennedy Center performance.

At this point, you'll just have to listen for yourself.

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