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Cooking maqam with Kudsi Erguner & Co.

Summary: In the rarefied circles of "ancient music" and "world music," Kudsi Erguner is a star. With nearly 30 albums to his name, the Paris-based Turkish nai master and bandleader is among a few of this region's performers to have found a niche in this cosmopolitan firmament.

BEIRUT: In the rarefied circles of "ancient music" and "world music," Kudsi Erguner is a star. With nearly 30 albums to his name, the Paris-based Turkish nai master and bandleader is among a few of this region's performers to have found a niche in this cosmopolitan firmament.

He and his ensemble are back in Lebanon for Thursday evening's "Sufi Masters, Muwashahat Legends," an evening of maqam music at the Beiteddine Art Festival. A tireless collaborator, this show will see his troupe's first public performance with several Syrian musicians.

Co-headlining is vocalist and oud-player Waed Bouhassoun. Completing the 15-person ensemble are several maqam musicians from Aleppo, headed by Paris-based oud and contrabass player Fawaz Baker, who has served as director of Aleppo's music conservatory.

Both Erguner's Syrian collaborators expressed excitement about performing right now in Lebanon.


"During these two years away from Syria," said Bouhassoun, who left Syria to study ethnomusicology in Paris, "the only thing that made me feel close to home was my voice and my oud ... Kudsi, Fawaz and I will perform this concert for peace."

"In these times of war, it's very important for people to mind our culture," Baker added. "We're not just refugees. We're people and people require culture to be whole ... This is the first time the political motive to perform is stronger than the musical one."

"Usually festivals buy a project that is already done," Erguner chuckles during a break from his Tuesday rehearsals. "This time, the cooking also is being done here."

"Maqam" is the classical music tradition of the region south and east of Europe. Though it more or less corresponds to the Islamic world, its practitioners have included Muslims and non-Muslims.

Maqam is a modal music, whose practice of improvisation has intrigued some adventurous European jazz performers. Its differences from Western music cannot be elaborated here, but they stem from around the Renaissance era, when European composers developed diatonic scales -- the origin of "tempered music."

When he came to maqam as an adolescent in Turkey, Erguner recalls, it was a form of underground music. Abandoning the form, he says, was symptomatic of the Turkish cultural elite's long-standing infatuation with "Western progress." Mustafa Kemal Ataturk conceptualized it in republican terms but the fixation can be traced back to the late 18th-century Ottoman regime.

When he began to perform in Turkey's underground maqam scene, Erguner was a lone youngster among aging masters. "Now it's becoming popular," he says, "like nostalgia for the past."

Erguner first realized that there was a wider appreciation for classical maqam while touring Europe in the 1970s.

"After the romantic period, Europeans started to think about medieval and renaissance music, wanting to rediscover what they'd abandoned.

"When I was a student in France, I met people studying Gregorian chant. They came to me to learn the intervals. They said, 'I have the notes but I don't know how to play them.'

"It was encouraging to find European ears more interested in what we abandoned than in my own country, looking for authenticity without knowing what authenticity is."

The core of Erguner's practice is the Ottomans' rich maqam repertoire, going back to the 14th century. Yet he distinguishes his role as a musician from that of an archivist.

"Maqam has a form," he says, "which is the introduction, development, modulations, conclusion. Four parts, which is very important. In popular music, everything is maqam ... There's no development, no modulation. There's not the art of coming back to the initial in the conclusion.

"That's one thing. Secondly, you have different forms of composition.

"So when we play Ottoman muwashaht, you're supposed to start with the prelude and go the end with the postlude. All these pieces are joined to one another rhythmically. This whole thing, the fasl, can be 60-80 minutes of music.

"It was abandoned, of course, this classical way of maqam music."

Erguner has equated musical scores to cookbooks, a list of ingredients that the musician must complement with knowledge of the music's flavor.

"It's not the exactitude or the historicity of the repertoire that's important ... Playing with jazz musicians ... has brought me to understand how important it is to interpret.

"Interpretation is not only to reproduce something from the past, but to become the composer of the piece when you play it, to have the same emotion.

"To have the score is like having the itinerary of the melody. You are simply reorganizing it when you play it. If you play what is written, it becomes academic, something completely dry. It makes no sense.

"If you're a theater actor, you have a script. If you just say it the way the text tells you, it doesn't touch anybody. But if you say it as you are saying it at that moment, it becomes real."

While maqam became an underground form in the Turkish Republic's early decades, outside Turkey developments in the tradition were different.

Since the mid-20th century, maqam was profoundly influenced by Egypt-based vocalists like Umm Kulthoum, Asmahan and their collaborators. Maqam was arranged for Western-style orchestration -- with oud, nai, qanoun, etc, complemented by banks of strings, piano and the like.

"They wanted to modernize it," Erguner's smile tightens into a near grimace. "So the invention of quartertones, they unified the scale like in Europe. They thought that instead of importing this European music, they could transform our music into this.

"It was totally a disaster."

This bifurcated 20th-century history may help explain why there is such disagreement -- even sectarianism -- among maqam's Arab advocates and practitioners as to what authentic maqam should sound like. Disagreements about what must be kept and what can be abandoned, need not be confined to the Arab world.

Erguner is philosophical about different approaches to maqam.

"First of all, there is a sort of myopic attitude among musicians. They only see what is near and if there are divisions to be found, it should be in what is near.

"Playing with a symphonic orchestra with a oud is far away. But an Arab oud player who plays with a Turkish orchestra is very near. It is a more intimate relationship, a historical relationship. We understand the intervals and the melodies and the modalities.

"I don't believe in this ethnic idea. There is no ethnicity. Of course, there are regional, popular, folkloric musics. But there is also universal music elsewhere in the world, not only in Europe.

"It's a very complex question. There are nationalistic movements -- 'This is Syrian music.' 'This is Turkish music.' 'This is Egyptian music.' It's like saying 'This is Italian music,' and 'This is German music.'

"In this last two centuries we've developed these nationalities and we have made these distinct movements, but the starting point, the musicological base, is the same."

"Sufi Masters, Muwashahat Legends"

will be performed in the inner courtyard of Beiteddine Palace Thursday evening at 9 p.m.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jul 10, 2014
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