WORLD MUSIC REVIEW
‘A Mystical Journey’
The showcase of Muslim devotional sounds had eight acts and a quick pace.
By Elijah Wald, Special to The Times
March 10, 2008
What can you say about a three-hour concert that includes Syrian whirling dervishes, a wandering minstrel and a qawwali group from Pakistan, a Bosnian choir, an Iranian ensemble, an Algerian diva and one of South Asia’s most popular rockers?
Billed as “A Mystical Journey,” the show at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday afternoon was intended to show the range of Muslim devotional music. With eight acts and more than 60 performers, it could easily have filled a daylong festival. Instead it was a tasting menu of Islamic religious music — consistently intriguing, frequently thrilling but a bit frustrating, since most artists barely hit their stride.
Sain Zahoor, the wandering bard, strummed a one-stringed instrument, the ek tara, hung with dozens of multicolored tassels, and sang in long wailing phrases.
Houria Aïchi, an Algerian chaoui Berber singer based in France, was more obviously comfortable in the concert hall atmosphere. She first sang a cappella, her undulating phrases answered by a reed flute, or ney, and a banjo-like gimbri. She swayed in time with her vocals, and as the tempo quickened, began to snap her body at the waist, her voice soaring to an ecstatic finish.
All the music was religious, but the sense of attending a ceremony came through most clearly with Tahleeleh, the Syrian group. Sheikh Hamza Chakour, a gray-bearded man with a resonant bass voice, led half a dozen singers backed by zither, oud and percussion. Starting quietly, the music grew in strength as three dervishes came forward, bowed to one another, then began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until their white skirts billowed like gyroscopic mushrooms. It was dizzying, then hypnotic, then over far too soon.
With the quick pace, one group tended to blend into the next, but each had distinctive touches. Bosnia’s Choir Hazreti Hamza built to a climax punctuated with propulsive, gruffly stressed syllables. L’Ensemble Samaa from Tajikistan had a sweeter vocal tone and arrangements that ebbed and flowed over a bed of plucked strings.
To a Western ear, Salman Ahmad’s acoustic-guitar-based rock fusion was the evening’s least distinctive sound, but much of the audience was clearly there to see him, cheering with recognition at the first notes of each song.
The final performer was Rizwan Khan, nephew of the late superstar of Pakistani qawwali singing, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan had much of his uncle’s style and energy, alternating quick, drum-like vocal phrases with Rahat Ali’s virtuosic harmonium runs.
The standing ovation was a foregone conclusion and was met with a brief encore by the entire troupe, humming behind Sheikh Chakour as the dervishes gently whirled.