on playing music from Central Asia…

Jessica and Taletha of Raks Makam dancing a Persian Dance at WorldFest in Louisville with the Crescent Moon Dancers (September 5, 2009). photo by Jon Silpayamanant

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a meeting with my partner, Jessica, for Raks Makam.  This comes on the tail end of me performing a fully fleshed out version of Kor Arab (otherwise known as Kor Ərəbin Mahnısı).  I had performed an excerpt of this within the context of a longer collage piece with one of my other dance/music duets, Secondhand, but had only worked out a version for solo cello and voice for Friday’s Terrabeat Cultural Showcase.

I’ve done a number of tunes from Central Asia with il Troubadore and Ahel El Nagam, but in those cases the tunes were either as an extension of Middle Eastern tunes for bellydancers, or Persian Pop (e.g. Googoosh).  Since Raks Makam is a project that focuses specifically on music and dance from Central Asia and the Silk Road, the material will be focusing more specifically on traditional and art music from those regions. 

Kor Arab fits in very nicely for a number of reasons.  First, it is a song written by Fikret Amirov, an Azerbaijani composer who was trained in the Soviet tradition as well as in the indigenous tradition of Mugham.  Second, the tune is, for all intents and purposes, a Mugham song.  The most recent recording of it (and the first I had the chance to hear several years ago) was by Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project.  It was sung by Alim Qasimov who is a master within the Mugham tradition in Azerbaijan.  The liner notes for the CD, “Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon,” says:

For the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, hearing the ethereal voice of Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov put their years of conservatory training into serious question.  As they delved into the mugham, they each wondered, “If this is how music should be played what have I been doing all these years?”

Really, that’s a question I ask of myself when I hear music from anywhere!

The obvious difficulty with working up solo versions of this music is distilling the music into two voices (voice/melody or voice/drum) rather than having at least three (voice/melody/drum).  One of the reasons for meeting with Jessica was to talk about our options.

Alim Qasimov and a classical Mugham ensemble. Instruments (from l. to r.): tar, gaval, and kemenche.

Having her play some simple drum lines will be much help for the musical interludes that we’ll do in between specific dances, but that obviously won’t help for the dance portions themselves.  This is a very different problem than what we deal with in Secondhand where we take an experimental approach and do more original music or modern music which doesn’t have so many specific ties to a long artistic tradition and ensemble.

We may end up using some prerecorded tracks to supplement the music for the dance–a kind of Central Asian Karaoke if you will–which would eliminate some of the gap.  Eventually, I would want to slowly migrate into using more traditional instruments as well, but for now I’ll work with what I have (cello, voice, as well as doira, daf, erhu, etc.).

We talked about alternating between a dance piece and a musical piece and have settled on an initial program of roughly 45 minutes which would serve as a great short introduction to the music and dance from this region.  We’ll probably perform individual set pieces at various events until the full program is worked up.  But the dance pieces will be from a variety of regions.  Jo Hadley, who is the artistic director of the Crescent Moon Dance (a Central Asian Dance Troupe) in Louisville had told me and Taletha (artistic director of Raks Makam) that a doira solo would be a very appropriate set piece to perform.

One piece we talked about at some length was a gorgeous Georgian tune, Jeirani, that I had discovered a couple of years ago.  It’s become something of a standard in the Georgian National Ballet mainly due to Nino Ramishvili’s influence in founding that institution and first choreographing the folk tune in the context of a fully staged folk Ballet.  This is one of the most interesting things about he satellite Soviet countries in Central Asia and the Eastern Europe, rather than adopting the Western classical culture wholesale, there was a fruitful melding of the native folk and art traditions with the Classical European culture.  The Georgian National Ballet, as well as Mugham Opera are both the results of this fusion.

While it will be tricky to turn a two-piece ensemble into a Central Asian presentation ensemble, there are also benefits–a smaller ensemble is easier to work with and coordinate.  Being the only one responsible for the music (for the most part) means not having to wait for others to learn tunes and worry about whether the arrangement of their parts has anything to do with the tradition of the musical style.  Fewer folks means not having to worry about scheduling events as well.

This is another exciting musical journey and I’m glad to be sharing it with Jessica, and appreciate all the help and advice from Taletha and Jo Hadley and other musicians and dancers I’ve met who do work in these traditions!

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