Naseer Shamma’s First US Concert in Ten Years: Transcendent and Cutting-Edge
There was a point during oudist Naseer Shamma’s sold-out show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night where in the middle of an expansive, bucolic theme, he suddenly transformed it into a menacing raga, wailing and then sirening downward on the high strings against an ominously reverberating low note. It was one of many such moments for the Iraq-born, Cairo-based virtuoso, performing with a seven-piece version of his extraordinary Al-Oyoun Ensemble and earning a standing ovation from a crowd that throughout the show spontanteously broke out into clapping and singing along with Shamma’s instrumentals.
His music is as cutting-edge as anything in the Arabic-speaking world, yet remains rooted in ancient traditions and often in familiar themes. Shamma began the concert judiciously with a solo improvisation that rose and fell dramatically, using his fret hand to tap out rapidfire clusters with a precision that was both spectacular and uncanny. The show ended with the ensemble hamming up a bright pastoral theme, nay flute player Hany ElBadry firing off a wildly trilling, buffoonishly masterful display of chops that drew the most explosive applause of the night. In between, the group – which also included Saber AbdelSattar on qanun, Hussein ElGhandour and Said Zaki on violins, Salah Ragab on bass and Amro Mostafa on riq frame drum – made their way through an eclectic program rich with emotion and intensity. Shamma and AbdelSattar engaged in several wryly adrenalized duels and exchanges, while a long, droll call-and-response between the oud and drum grew more amusing as it went on. But as much fun as the band and audience were having, the majority of the themes were sober, even severe, marked by a shared terseness and restraint that often spilled over into unselfconscious plaintiveness as the group mined the microtones of the maqams (Arabic scales) with a sophistication that was stunning both for its technical skill and emotional attunement. This pensive, raw quality may well have had something to do with the fact that this was Shamma’s first American concert in over a decade since he’d boycotted this country throughout the Iraq war.
Opening act the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble (better known as the Alwan All-Stars) were just as cutting-edge and intense. Bandleader/santoor player Amir ElSaffar, who brought this bill together, also programs the music at Alwan for the Arts, the downtown hotspot which has become a home for paradigm-shifting Middle Eastern sounds much as CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s: if you’re somebody in that world, you want to play there. In a set that could have gone on for thee times as long as it did without losing any interest, the group – also including ElSaffar’s virtuoso sister Dena on violin and jowza fiddle, Lety AlNaggar on nay, George Ziadeh on oud, Shusmo bandleader Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Apostolis Sideris on bass, Zafer Tawil on qanun and percussion, and Johnny Farraj on riq – played variations on an Iraqi repertoire that has all but disappeared since its heyday sixty or seventy years ago. Stately, steady themes were interspersed with solo passages that in the band’s epic second number had been devised to represent the individual styles of the various regions in Iraq. Amir ElSaffar also took care to mention that the mini-suite also memorialized the ten-year anniversary of the Bush regime’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which may have accounted for the understatedly brooding, lingering effect of a purposeful but mesmerizing santoor solo, ElSaffar’s sister raising the ante with an edgy intensity before Ziadeh took it back down with a shadowy unease. Let’s hope that it isn’t another ten years before another such a riveting, exhilarating doublebill as this one happens on American turf.
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