Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bluegrass? Here?

Seriously? We'll have to see about this...

Friday, April 1, 2011

An Evening of Malhun at Jnan Palace

Abd al-Lawi of Meknès (far left), wrapping up last night's event with a good dose classical Moroccan wit
Last night I had the honor of attending the latest event put together by the Club Khamis Tourat, a Fessi organization that works to preserve traditional music and arts in throughout the city. The concert was the most recent of the monthly events at the Jnan Palace Fès Hotêl, and this edition featured five malhun singers from the city and nearby regions.

As soon as I walked into the wide hotel lobby, I recognized a number of musicians from the official radio station, people I had only met the day before. In good Moroccan custom, they approached me as an old friend, with wide, brightly lit smiles, excited that I was able to attend the show. I sat and spoke at length with some of the violinists, oud players, and singers who filled the stage, dressed in the clean lines of traditional jallabas and deep red fesses. Also in good Moroccan custom, the music failed to get underway until at least an hour after the scheduled time. (Similarly, the concert ended after 11:00, when the 7:00-9:00 written on the ticket was fading into distant memory.) Members of the group introduced me to visiting artists, explaining the not-so-subtle shifts forced upon them for the sake of their guests. Abd an-Nabi, for example, an upright bass player from the previous morning at the studio, opted to play cello, allowing an esteemed colleague from Meknès to step in on his preferred instrument.

Mohammed Sousi and Abd al-Ali Talibi, comfortably chatting as the 'ud players prepare for the performance
The event begins with a prayer, the musicians waiting patiently on stage. Not much later, a group of singers arrives, women who are learning the art of the malhun from Mohammed Sousi, one of the featured performers. As they ascend and take their places behind the musicians, you notice their caftans (elegant dresses), hair and makeup. Their dress emphasizes the importance of events like these - they would make any bride jealous.

After a series of introductions and blessings, the music bursts from the speakers. Immediately cameras pop up from the crowd as seated spectators race to capture the moment with point-and-shoot videos or makeshift iPhone photography. The hum of conversation continues under the strength of the sound reinforcement.

Abdellah Chakroun (center, facing away), the honored guest, receives one of his many congratulations and thanks during the intermission
Malhun is a genre of Moroccan music that straddles the divide between sacred and secular, just as it seamlessly moves from popular to art music, residing in a space between these (sometimes less than useful) labels. Songs are actually poems (qasdia, pl. qasa'id) with a refrain (harba) divided into long sections and sung by the munshid. Last night's event featured five munshids, some of the most prominent in this part of the country. The poetry is in Moroccan Arabic, not the classical Arabic or Egyptian that you hear in most forms of "imported" music. Subjects range from the religious (even borrowing from sacred qasa'id), to the comedic. The munshid alternates his long verses with the harba, sung by the full group, including musicians. Instrumental solos, based loosely on the main melodic content of the song, punctuate each 20-minute performance. Like much Arabic music, all the musicians on stage ebb and flow around one melodic idea, ornamenting it freely, creating a dense, yet somehow very simple, texture of overlaid sounds. (For an example of malhun recorded just the other day, see my last post and the story that goes along with it.)

Hiya bu-Khris takes the mic and commands the orchestra through her qasida
The ensemble was quite large, filling the stage with the stark white/red of the traditional outfits. Just under 30 musicians, including singers, percussionists (darbouka, riqq, and the dreaded electronic drum pad), 'uds, violins, and cellos were joined by the more traditional ginbri, an instrument often seen in Amazigh music, different Moroccan Sufi traditions, and elsewhere. The strings held a low pitch, giving a footing to a young virtuoso violinist as he opened the second song with a taqsim, an improvisation exploring the melodic mode, the scale, introducing it to the singers and the crowd. He, like all the fiddle players, held the instrument upright, setting it on his knee. The bow is held underhand, in a grip akin to the "German bow" used by many classical bass players. While he draws the bow across the string, he actually twists the instrument in order to change which string he's playing on, a technique specific to malhun and other Andalusian violinists, one probably based on the rabab, an older spike fiddle seen across the Middle East.

Mohammed al-Nahbiwi (third from the right), featured in "Dir ma'ya l-hsan"
As Abd al-Ali Talibi wipes his forehead, removing his fes to clean the sweat from his marathon that opened the concert, Mohammed Sousi dives into the second qasida, "Zaynib." The meter shifts seamlessly between 4 and 5 beats per cycle. The 5-count has an off kilter feel to it, yet it's slow enough that you don't quite notice until you try and pay attention. Multiple percussionists and singers beat interlocking simple rhythms on small clay drums until the sum of the parts is a tightly-knit dense layer, over which the singing and string players set their simultaneous melodic ornamentations. After the qasida runs its course, the ensemble picks up the tempo, the crowd beings clapping in line with the different percussive hockets, and the energy tugs the song to a close. This is the standard ending for the malhun, and sounds familiar - it's a practice that's repeated throughout much of Morocco's spiritual music.

The evening was dedicated to researcher and author al-Ustad Abdellah Chakroun. He was the center of attention during a prolonged presentation between the second and third performers. Speeches, a short film, and awards found themselves directed toward one of the men to preserve and present the malhun, other Andalusian music, and, if I understood correctly, intellectual property law in Africa.

Those who made it to the end were treated to high energy finales, enough to get people on their feet
The second half of the concert featured two women, Hiya bu-Khris and Fatima Zahra al-Wazani, a welcome programming choice in the masculine world of Moroccan professional musicians. However, the difference between the two could not be more striking as Hiya's poise and power carried the ensemble in new directions, a diversion away from the opening (male) voices. Yet Fatima Zahra lacked the courage necessary to lead, and in the delicacy of her voice one could hear the struggle in performing malhun. Those who have listened to flamenco may recognize the raw tonal quality desired, something halfway between singing and shouting. The inexperienced singer, unable to maintain the stamina necessary for pushing out an entire qasida, falls prey to the difficulties of rising above such a large ensemble. Fatigue is audible, inconsistencies arise, pitch falls, the munshid loses control. It is an important reminder of the physical and mental strain inherent in performance.

Mohammed Abd al-Lawi of Meknès closed the performances with a qasida, "Hasan al-Kharbiti," dripping with wit. As it begins: "Have you heard the poem about Hasan? The day of his wedding was coming..." Those to stuck it out to the end were rewarded with this story, poor Hasan's trials in preparing for his wedding night.

Mohammed Sousi (center, grey jallaba) with the singers and event organizers from Club Khamis Tourat