Mix ‘n’ match: jazz plus Sufi, East Africa plus the oceans

Now in its fifth season, The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has built up an impressive reputation for its programming – and especially for finding eclectic pairings that don’t immediately seem obvious but do work well.

Award-winning Egyptian jazz with Sufi mysticism delivered mostly as chanting? No problem. Last year musician and composer Fathy Salama teamed up with Sufi chanter Sheikh Mahmoud El Tohamy in one of the most unusual but effective musical collaborations to come out of Egypt, and their concerts sold out.

Salama was something of a musical prodigy, playing keyboards in Cairo clubs when he was 13 and studying jazz in the States before returning to Egypt, developing a jazz style that merges modern and traditional music.

He’s always been interested in mixing genres: his CV includes an early flirtation with punk and a stint with a Swiss rock band, and an occasional project with Norwegian jazz saxophonist Trygve Seim, which among other things has produced the Source of Christmas project (a total of 70 musicians reproduced Christmas carols using jazz, classical and Oriental stylings) and the follow-on Source of Summer. As well as regular concerts, Salama has arranged for Cesaria Evora, composed film scores, played with Swiss rock band The Maniacs, gets involved in the Remix music workshops for young Egyptian musicians, and accompanied Youssou n’Dour on most of his massive Egypt album (2004).

He started his own group Sharkiat at the end of the 1980s, and he still plays with this ensemble – which provides most of the musicians for Sufism vs Modernism, the project that he developed with El Tohamy for a series of gigs in Egypt last year.

It might sound like a clash of cultures, and the use of ‘versus’ the title could imply a degree of antagonism, but in practice the rhythms and Tohamy’s clear, strong voice work well. And Fathy Salama is a good advertisement for genre-melding: “in my opinion, music doesn’t have a compass, it’s either good or bad …”

Tohamy himself has excellent traditional credentials. He’s the son of pioneering Sufi chanter Sheikh Yassin El-Tohamy, has been performing Sufi poetry chants in traditional events across Egypt since boyhood, and is currently head of the Egyptian Association of Religious Hymns and Litanies. But he clearly shares an all-embracing view of music without boundaries, and has been quoted as saying “Islamic chanting must interact with international music, otherwise it will remain in the shadows”.

He’s certainly no stranger to collaborations – last year for instance he featured on a couple of tracks of pianist/songwriter Elise Lebec’s interesting Origin: One World Turning Project. He’s also released an album of Islamic folk poetry with contemporary commercial pop arrangements.

This should be an interesting gig, celebrating different styles (check out the rock input on this track) and demonstrating that the power and value of music transcends easy definitions. Which might sound like PR babble, but is always a worthy aspiration. As Rumi puts it, “all religions, all this singing, one song. The differences are just illusion and vanity …”

We can only hope for a closing jam featuring the other half of the Arts Center’s double bill, the teachers and students of the Dhow Countries Music Academy.

The Academy, the only music school in Zanzibar, was established in 2002 to preserve and promote the musical heritage of the countries along the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf – the dhow trading routes from Zanzibar and Comoros to Oman, the UAE and on to Kuwait, Iran and India. More than 1,500 students have passed through its doors.

The DCMA’s Zanzibar Taarab/Kidumbak Ensemble

The Academy specialises in the East African styles of taarab and kidumbak. Taarab, the music commonly performed at weddings and other celebrations on the islands of Zanzibar, is a clear example of cross-fertilisation; it draws obvious influences from the Arab world and India but also Indonesia and the West, and blending these with local rhythms and the traditions of Swahili poetry.

Taarab orchestras look like classical Egyptian orchestras – you’ll see oud, qanun, tablah, violin, double bass – but also feature the accordion. Kidumbak is a more percussive style, popular in the villages and based on (or maybe just influenced by) taarab; outside the cities, local musicians had to improvise their own instruments, and kidumbak typically features drums, shakers and the sanduku – a one-string bass made from a wooden box.

The word taarab apparently comes from an adjective meaning to be moved or agitated. As Roots magazine put it, “there’s hardly anything in the whole of Africa as uplifting as the swelling sounds of a full taarab orchestra in full sail.”

The double bill of Sufism vs Modernism with Zanzibari Taarab & Kidumbak is at The Arts Center’s Red Theater on 26 September for one night only. Tickets are AED 150 (half price for anyone below the age of 22). More information here.

And try to make it: the Dhow Countries Music Academy is threatened with closure and needs to raise $70,000 by the end of the year. Bookings like this will be essential to keep the place going.

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