From my internship year onwards, as soon as I got my salary, I’d literally sprint straight from work to VP Sinari and buy at least one audio cassette, sometimes two, every month. And the range was necessarily eclectic, because there were comparatively few classical albums available, and much more in the popular repertoire.

One of these purchases was titled “Music for an Arabian Night” featuring Ron Goodwin and his Concert Orchestra. It caught my fancy as much for the implied exoticism of the music it contained as for the pretty dark-haired girl on the cover, seated crosslegged on a diwan and looking intently at me. I was sold.

But the music was remarkable; played by a ‘western’ ensemble, it was unmistakably Eastern, with tracks titled ‘Bazaar’, ‘Old Beirut’, ‘Arab feast, and ‘’The cedars of Lebanon’. It evoked an old-world, innocent Lebanon before war and divisionary forces tore it asunder. The pieces were composed by names I had never come across before: Rahbani brothers, Filmon Wahbi, N. Al-Basri. Each tracks had percussion and rhythm at the fore, clearly music meant to be danced to, in some cases gradually accelerating to fever pitch as in ‘Arab feast’. It was my first taste of ‘Arabian’ composers, albeit of light music.

marouan benallah arabian knight

Pianist Marouan Benabdallah’s recital in the city recently reminded me of this. With his French-Hungarian-Moroccan descent, he thoughtfully included all three strands of his heritage in his programme. So we had Claude Debussy (Reflets dans l’eau from his first book of Images; Clair de la lune from Suite Bergamasque; and all three movements, Pagodes, La nuit dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes); and for the Hungarian component Béla Bartók’s Hungarian peasant songs (and Franz Liszt’s La Campanella, the third of his six Grandes études de Paganini, as the much-clamoured-for encore).

But occupying the very heart of the programme was for me the highlight: the focus on the Middle East and Africa. And what made it even more significant was Benabdallah’s eloquent speech introducing this segment. It was his contribution in countering the barrage of negativity and Islamophobia we are bombarded with in a relentless media storm, and his attempt to open for us a window to the region’s soul, its creative pulse.

First we heard ‘Night of Destiny’ (1978) by Syrian-French composer Dia Succari (1938-2010). The title refers to Laylat al-Qadr, the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Mohammed. It is the night angels are believed to descend from the heavens. And as Benabdallah explained, it is a wonderful example of pluralism and syncretism, as Succari was himself not Muslim. The piece has a central improvisatory (taqsim) section (evocative of descending angels?) where the piano almost becomes a percussive santoor-like instrument before returning to an altered version of the opening theme, and concluding with an elaborate trilling run (or should that be a running trill?).

Next up was Algerian Miniature no. 2 (Zaydan Dance) by Algerian doctor-turned-composer and ethnomusicologist Salim Dada (b. 1972), followed by Mouwashah no. 3 by Lebanese pianist-composer Zad Moultaka (b. 1967). Mouwashah refers to the characteristic form of Andalusian poetry, recited and sung, and still alive today in the Arab world.

Benabdallah concluded the first half of his programme with his own arrangement of French music doffing its cap to Africa; Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantasy Africa, begun by the composer in Cadiz in 1889 and completed in 1891, while on a recuperative cruise (recovering from illness and the death of his mother) that brought him as close to us as Ceylon.

This work was originally scored by Saint-Saëns for piano and orchestra, and arranged by Benabdallah for solo piano. For all the breath-taking pianistic brilliance of the piece, and the Oriental references and quotations (the climax is based on a Tunisian folk tune), it still sounds very much like what it essentially is: an European taking a metaphorical ‘cruise’ into Eastern waters, skirting the coastline occasionally but not alighting long enough to really experience the ‘other’ perspective. So many sections of the composition could have easily fitted into, say, another piano concerto, without seeming at all out of place. It is as if Saint-Saëns has to occasionally remind himself to insert an African motif in the orchestral interludes. It is a ‘Fantasy’ in more ways than one. It is a great work, to be sure, but it has much less authenticity than the works of Succari, Dada and Moultaka, and understandably so.

But here is the interesting thing: all three, Succari, Dada and Moultaka could also be said to represent the ‘French’ part of the programme as they all have some French connection. Succari and Moultaka studied at the Conservatoire of Paris, where Succari counted Olivier Messiaen among his composition teachers. Dada is more of an auto-didact, but between 2002 and 2005 he studied music writing (harmony, counterpoint and analysis) through distance learning with French composer Jean-Luc Kuczynski. All their websites are in French. This is not surprising, given that all their countries (Syria, Algeria and Lebanon) have had a French colonial past. Indeed, this is the reason why Saint-Saëns visited the Middle East.

It is worth remembering the past very much in the Middle East in general when wringing our hands at the present turmoil in the troubled region. Many of the present problems can be traced back to their root to this past, when borders were summarily drawn by imperial and colonial powers when carving up the region, with no regard to the wishes of the people. Those arbitrary ‘lines in the sand’ continue to keep the whole region ablaze, lining the pockets of the weapons industry that fuels all sides of any conflict. It is easy to conveniently blame a people or a religion without remembering this. This was once the cradle of several of the world’s earliest civilisations. These are the lands of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates. To think that such a fertile region could ever be bereft of culture, or that the unhappy violence that currently pervades it is its only notable feature is absurd.

As I joined the small but fortunate audience in giving Benabdallah a standing ovation, I realised I was applauding not only his staggering technique and phenomenal musicianship in the final pieces on offer, the formidable Variations (25 of them!) and Fugue on a theme by Handel opus 24 by Johannes Brahms and the Liszt-Paganini Campanella. Benabdallah had just joined the hallowed ranks of Shostakovich, Casals, Rostropovich and Menuhin in using his music to make a wider socio-political point.

Benabdallah has been able to find seventy composers from the Middle East, composers of what could be considered ‘serious’ music in the classical music idiom. He plans to devote more of his focus to showcasing their work, a project he has aptly named ‘Arabesques’. We have heard Benabdallah several times before, as a Chevalier for French music; it is so wonderful to hear him now, as an Arabian Knight.

(An edited version of this article was published on 2 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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