Friday, March 25, 2011

Azerbaijan's incomparable and unique Natig Rhythm Group

Last night, Washington's refurbished (with historical correctness made possible and inspired by the cultural re-invention of the nation's capital beginning in the 1980s) Lincoln Theatre, was the venue for an extraordinary double-barreled concert of Azerbaijani music. The theatre, opened first in 1922, and thereafter Washington's equivalent of New York's iconic Apollo Theater as the premier public home for the city's African-American cultural events during the following decades of American racial segregation, was closed in 1968 following the devastating riots which followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Lincoln Theatre was reopened, fully restored, in 1994, and I find it quite moving that the multi-culturalization of Washington made the theatre a worthy venue for a major concert of the contemporary music of Azerbaijan--one of the many newly independent nations to emerge after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I also find it wonderfully exciting that the first half (more on the second part of the evening to come in a later post) of last night's performance by the astonishing "Rhythm Group" of Natig Shirinov (see picture above by Zanyasan Tanantpapat, used with permission, courtesy of the Karabakh Foundation)--which stunned me with its bone-shaking energy and brain-teasing precision--was available (potentially) in video and sound to the entire world only six hours later on YouTube (see my initial posting this year on the wonders of the Internet. . . .) There were several fixed video cameras in the auditorium last night, as well as a single balletic videographer (doing a pas-de-deux with the stubbornly independent SteadiCam as a mechanical dance partner, the two weaving among the performers on stage with feline grace) felt a special frisson this morning when, on a hunch, I began a search on YouTube for some trace of last night's musical miracle, and found that I was able to be the first to view, not one, but two video clips (see them here, and, yet again, here) put up by a YouTube entity known as "Ambrosian Beads" (more to come of my related identity search later).

If you see the video clips, you'll be able to capture some of the galvanizing effect of Shirinov and his troupe of amazing drummer/musicians. And speaking of the wonders of the digital age, you can see them not only in a 480p setting, but in an even higher resolution setting on DivX HiQ.

Shirinov's primary instrument, the nagara, is said to be the national drum of Azerbaijan. (I had previously encountered a cognate Indian drum, the naqqara, and discover that the instrument occurs widely in the Middle East and Central Asia as well. ) As you can see in the videos, it is a percussion instrument of rather simple cylindrical structure. The first notes played by Shirinov, after the house lights had dimmed, were highlighted (literally) by a bright electrical bulb inside the drum, whose heat is used in many Middle Eastern drums to maintain the tension--and hence the pitch--of the instrument's animal-skin head, and whose brilliance in this case inaugurated with a magical luminosity the ensemble's subsequent performance. As for the technical brilliance, the virtuosity of Shirinov and his colleagues, I can only continue the metaphor by saying that it was nothing short of electrifying.

I have heard many (and have had the good fortune to perform with a few) of the best Indian and Pakistani masters of the tabla and pakhawaj--the two drums used in classical Hindustani (northern South Asian) music, and have not often enough listened to masters of the mrdangam--an essential part of any Carnatic (south Indian) classical ensemble--and have no doubt that they may be counted among the world's best percussion artists. And I've savored (and experienced as a player) the mystical ambiance created by the Persian daff (large frame drum, often with a haunting chorus of metallic jingles), the subtle cross-rhythms of the Persian tonbak (hourglass drum), and the electrifying crispness of the Egyptian riqq (tambourine with tiny brass cymblets). But I must say that hearing Shirinov and his colleagues last night blessed me with experiencing one of those nights of musical epiphany that stay forever in the memory.

I'll await access to some video clips to hold forth in greater detail on the beauties of the group's performance. Suffice it to say for the moment that the rich rhythmic textures of the music were embroidered with additional melodic dimensions by the oboe-like zurna (which along with its Armenian cousin, the duduk, has been increasingly used of late to capture a haunting and uniquely Middle-Eastern ambiance in film and television soundtracks), and what I gather to be the Azerbaijani "accordion"--but so much more than the conventional "Lady of Spain" accordion, with a razor-sharp tone, and a breathing, primal sensuous resonance similar to that of the Argentinian bandone├│n),

The evening's primary sponsors--the Washington-based Karabakh Foundation, and Azercell Telecom (see also here), the leading cellphone company in Azerbaijan, and the second largest taxpayer outside the country's oil industry--are to be congratulated for making available to all interested listeners free access (with no ticket cost) to this extraordinary, luminous music, whose magic in the darkened auditorium was further enhanced by a subtle but gradual change of rich color washes in the lighting on the wall behind the stage--something we had last seen in the illumination of the organ pipes during the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Oliver Messiaen's epic Turangalîla Symphonie exactly two weeks ago as part of the maximum INDIA celebrations (see my posting on the inaugural concert)--but which here functioned as a more integral and captivating enhancement of the tapestries of rhythmic and melodic colors we all shared from the extraordinary performance of the Nadig Shirinav Rhythmic Group.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent review!