:: Music :: A clockwork of interfaith performance

BEITEDDINE: There’s plenty of musical miscegenation that goes on in this part of the world. Between Peter Gabriel’s Womad world music enterprise, the more hip foreign music delivery systems like the Seattle-based documentation project-slash-record label Sublime Frequencies and local explorations of oriental jazz, it’s hard to read an article on the region’s music that’s not trying to find another way to say “hybrid.”

All this began long before somebody decided it would be a good idea to fly airliners into American real estate, and various Western writers started publishing articles and books about “the clash of civilizations.”

Since 2001, though, religious – that is to say ecumenical – world music has demonstrated itself to be a marketable commodity. Where secular world music juxtaposes different sonic traditions because it sounds neat (and occasionally generates something completely new), the religious stuff can reassure worldly consumers that people who believe, and believe differently, can collaborate in making nice music.

All this business was sparkling, invisible, in the atmosphere about Beiteddine Palace Saturday evening and the scheduled performance of the “Stabat Mater.”

This title doesn’t betray much in terms of world music content, being plucked straight out of a Western music tradition so old that Latin was still the lingua franca. The “Stabat Mater dolorosa” appears to have begun life as a Latin poem about the suffering of Mary (aka “the virgin mother of God”) as she stood at the foot of the cross where her boy, Jesus (aka “the savior”), had been nailed.

The work has inspired a virtual subgenre of music, with untold numbers of composers of various eras (successful and unsuccessful) scoring different settings for it – from anonymous plainchant to Arvo P?rt’s haltingly post-modern accompaniment.

The original Latin poem was absent from the Saturday evening’s show, which is subtitled “A Christian and Muslim Homage to the Virgin Mary.” At the epicenter of the show was the Paris-born Alsatian qanun-player and composer Julien Jalaleddin Weiss and his multi-national Al-Kindi Ensemble. This 11-person band gathers musicians whose instrumental traditions span Western Asia from Turkey through the Arab lands to North India.

Weiss’ “Stabat Mater” has been staged before, at the sacred music festival in Rabat. It’s comprised of 18 distinct movements – chants, qasidas (poems), taqsims (instrumental improvisations), a maqam or two and dhikr (sufi chant, originally designed to induce ecstasy) – most of which are abstracted from various Muslim and Christian traditions. Weiss, a long-time student of, and advocate for, the sufi-inflected musical traditions of Syria and Turkey, is himself responsible for three pieces in the show – a qanun taqsim and a pair of instrumental works called “Spiritual Journey Sinfonia Sacra.”

Al-Kindi has performed in Lebanon before, during a previous edition of the Baalbek Festival, with a complement of sufi mounshids (vocalists, from the Qadiri and Rifai orders) from Aleppo, led by solo vocalist Shaykh Ahmed Habboush. The Baalbek show also featured a number of adepts of the Mawlawi order (aka “whirling dervishes”). The sufis were front and center at Beiteddine as well, with the number of Mawlawis swollen to seven.

Complementing the sufi vocalists was Athens’ 15-man Byzantine Tropos Choir and a pair of distinguished soloists – Bekir Buyukbas, an Istanbul-based muezzin and hafiz and Lebanon’s own Rania Youssef, one of only three women on stage for this homage to Mary.

All told there were 40-odd performers on stage; most of them were attired in colorful costume, making Weiss’ “Stabat Mater” as much a pageant to the exotic as it is an homage to Mary. The concert unfolded in a modular fashion, with the various ensembles performing individually, or with one group collaborating with another for one movement.

Weiss has devised a performance economy of scale, to ensure his assets are economically deployed to keep the show as eye-catching as possible.

During instrumental bits, clusters of Mawlawis were unleashed to stride to the center of the stage, bow reverently to Shaykh Habboush and the other players, audience and so forth and, eventually, to spin.

The bits involving the Byzantines and the solo vocalists – Habboush and Buyukbas being the stars of the show, with Youssef being allotted two solos – were evidently considered diverting enough for the audience, so the Mawlawis were allowed to retreat to the wings and take a breather. Even then, the Mawlawis’ tall hats could be seen swaying and nodding along to the music.

It was only at the very end of “Stabat Mater,” and the second of Weiss’ “Spiritual Journey Sinfonia Sacra,” that the Swiss master of ceremonies endeavored to get all the tops spinning at once – with all the vocalists and instrumentalists pitching in to the mix and all the Mawlawis up and twirling.

Weiss himself appeared to be spinning a little as well. Standing from his qanun to coordinate the entire cast deployed to his left and right, then joining the Qadiri and Rifai mounshids in a few of their ecstatic-looking hand gesture-vocalizations, it took some time for the maestro to return to his qanun-plucking duties.

One Beirut ethnomusicologist, who occasionally acts as reluctant informant on performances like these, appeared ambivalent about Weiss’ “Stabat Mater.”

“Musically speaking,” she acknowledged, “the musical traditions of this region are related somehow, so the performance’s different components go well together.”

This is not to say that the devotions performed for paying customers are precisely the ones these musicians practice in their respective rites. The musicologist was more diffident in commenting about the thematic premise of this particular show – that source texts confirm how Muslims and Christians love Mary and that shared veneration unites both communities.

Certainly there is a symbiotic relationship at work here, she observed. Weiss has been allowed to learn something from these musicians about their traditions. In return, he has introduced them to the world, so they can make some money.

The Beiteddine Art Festival concludes Thursday with a concert of maqamaat featuring Iraqi vocalist Farida, performing with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, with Omar Bachir on oud. For more information call 01-373-430.

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