When Issam El-Mallah was commissioned by Sultan Qaboos of Oman to organize a music festival in Muscat, he made a conscious decision to concentrate on the traditional, "old-school", Arabic musical traditions. Stefan Franzen reports
Why a festival in Oman – a country that is not exactly considered the center of the Arab music scene? "The idea came from Sultan Qabus Ibn Said himself," explains Egyptian musicologist Issam El-Mallah, who teaches ethnology at the University of Munich, Germany, and was responsible for the conceptualization and realization of the festival.
"The Sultan is a heaven-send for us musicologists. I am not saying this as political propaganda, but because it's a fact. Oman was almost a world power from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, but thereafter the country went into a phase of total international isolation.
"Then this young man came back home, after finishing his education at an English school, and brought back completely new ideas. His father initially had him arrested, but he was able to pull off a putsch with the help of the military. Since 1970 things have been moving ahead again in terms of infrastructure and the education system."
Recalling the old traditions
It is thanks to the Sultan's love of Western and Arabic art music and traditional music that El-Mallah was able to record the music history of Oman over the past few years. And now all kinds of music from jazz to symphony orchestra and opera are part of a lively cultural scene.
With such a wealthy patron backing the festival – one who was also willing to allow its organizers full artistic freedom in the planning – El-Mallah was able to work under optimal conditions, he said. How did he, then, use this freedom to lend a new note to the old idea of a lute festival?
"At the previous festivals devoted to oud, well-known soloists were invited and each one played for about half an hour. My idea goes a great deal further," explains the musicologist.
"We showed soloist performances on the one hand, and then also lutes combined with song. The aim was to recall the old traditions. Because if you see a concert today on Arabic television, a vocalist will appear with at least 60 to 80 instrumentalists behind him, a third of them rhythm instruments, which creates a kind of disco mood. And further, I shifted the perspective forward by having compositions for oud and symphony orchestras.
"The Egyptian composer Amar El Sherei was even commissioned to write new material. This combination ensured that we were able to revive old traditions yet also to open up future possibilities. The oud, being the central instrument in Arabic music, is best suited for all these interests."
In his conceptualization of the festival, Issam El Mallah was well aware that almost none of the musicians – with maybe the exception of Moroccan Saïd Chraibi – were known in the West. And even among the musicians he chose, there would have been many others who were better known in the Arabic world.
But that was not his focus.
The chosen artists had to fulfill the criteria of being at once a vocalist and lute player, and they also needed to be able to improvise over many maqammat (scales), even quarter-tones – something that has often been pushed from the foreground in recent attempts to conform to Western music.
But the most important aspect for the professor was yet something else: Creating tarab." Tarab is an emotional state of "enchantment" which means communicating joy and sadness to the audience in a deeply-felt, spontaneous, heart-gripping manner.
"Many lute players are excellent virtuosos, but they still can't create tarab. Ultimately, I wanted to have representatives from Morocco to Oman in order to show the different facets of oud playing within the Arabic nation: the delicate, soulful sound from the Maghreb, where the oud is also smaller, and the more powerful, technical sound from the Middle East and the Arabic peninsula."
The untrained Western ear will probably not recognize all these nuances, but hearing the concerts on the CD box set "Al Tarab," produced by ENJA Records, one does note some differences between the sounds from various geographical areas.
For uninformed listeners, El Mallah has included a thick booklet in four languages (English, French, German and Arabic) that elucidates the music's theoretical underpinnings, including rather dry lists of the different scales, detailed analyses of various works, and a discourse on the relationship between Western music history and Arabic history.
Tschaikowsky and Wagner citations
The musical realization of this relationship, namely orchestral works, leaves a mixed impression: While Atiyya Sharara's 20-year-old concerto for oud and orchestra sounds somewhat crude and a bit like heavy-handed military music, the Occident and Orient meld better in the commissioned composition by Ammar El Sherei, despite the flashy eclecticism of its Beethoven, Tschaikowsky and Wagner citations.
A nice side-effect has emerged from this event for Oman. The opulent CD set documenting the festival is available on the European market, which has helped this up-and-coming country to unexpected PR. El Mallah, who is already mentally at work on further festival editions and has recently received a request from Germany, feels satisfied when he considers the results:
"My main goal has been reached, namely to show the wealth of Arabic music, its respectable, non-pop side, which of course also has its place. In the Muscat Oud Festival, I think a bit of education was accomplished that I did not want to undertake as a professor at the university, but rather with something practical, with a live sound. This is much more effective and does not end in dry, empty instruction."
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Christina White
Muscat Oud Festival, "Al Tarab", diverse interpretations and the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra led by Hasan Sharara, released by ENJA Records (4 CDs).