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Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Fusing the Mediterranean

New York World Festival, Music Around the Mediterranean, presented by the World Music Institute and Center for Traditional Music and Dance, New York City, September 20-22, 2002.




What is Mediterranean music? The question inevitably provokes other ones: What do we mean by “Mediterranean culture,” or the more recently coined term, “Mediterraneanness”? And where does Mediterranean music fit into the broader phenomenon of world music? Is it a sub-genre, or simply a convenient geographical limitation? At the World Music Institute’s first New York World Festival on September 20-22, titled “Music Around the Mediterranean,” Roberto Raheli, leader of the group Aramirè, which performs traditional music from Puglia, in southern Italy, suggested that the “Mediterranean voice” was a form of opposition to the “European Union voice.”

Like a number of performers at the weekend festival, Raheli has researched and revived a style of music that was all but extinct when he became interested in it. Inspired by the revival of folk music in Naples in the 1980s, Raheli went back to his native Puglia and listened to old singers who still remembered the type of music associated with a healing ritual used to counteract the poisonous bite of the tarantula, the pizzica tarantata. The original instrumentation had been forgotten but was known to include tambourines. Raheli and his group of musicians use flutes, an accordion, tambourines, and a loud, rough vocal style that gives an impression of authenticity. “Raheli is passionately committed to preserving his musical culture,” the program notes explained, and “to that end, Aramirè performs with a minimum of contaminazione, or mixing of styles.” This sounds remarkably like the rhetoric of the purist flamenco revival of the 1960s or the authentic rebetika revival groups of the 1970s in Greece. If it is possible to generalize about the extraordinarily diverse musical styles represented at this festival, it is that most belonged to two distinct types: purist revivalists like the Puglian ensemble and unashamed fusionists like the Spanish group, Radio Tarifa.

In terms of purity and impurity, no two groups had less in common than Radio Tarifa and Aramirè. There is a growing literature in ethnomusicology on the phenomenon of musical style-mixing. Groups like Radio Tarifa are considered performers of “hybrid,” “world,” “mélange,” or “fusion” music, and, depending on your point of view, they either represent what is innovative and healthy in “ethnic” music or its opposite. Such a discussion may seem trivial in North America, where national identity is not generally centered on the question of musical purity, but it is taken very seriously in other cultures, and nowhere in the world have the arguments been fiercer than in Spain.

From its emergence as a commercially successful genre in the 1860s, through Federico Garcia Lorca and Manuel de Falla’s Concurso de Canto Jondo in the 1920s, to the debate between Antonio Mairena’s “authentic” gypsy style and fusions with American jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, flamenco has been the focal point of Andalusian and, more broadly, Spanish identity for more than a century. By the 1980s, when record companies introduced the term, “new flamenco,” to market the experimental “impure” flamenco music, it merely reflected what had been going on for two decades in Spain. Whether we consider this a form of “globalization” or a reaction in some way to the particular political conditions of Spain, where “pure” flamenco had become institutionalized as an affirmation of conservative nationalism, Spanish groups were among the first and most successful musical style-mixers in Europe. They picked up whatever appealed to them – jazz, rock, salsa, classical, and ethnic music from Morocco and other countries – and mixed these styles with elements of flamenco to create a wide variety of new Spanish music that thumbed its nose at purity.

Decades of disdain for purity may be why Radio Tarifa stole the show at the Mediterranean festival. Led by Fain Duenas, Vincent Molino, and the wickedly talented singer Benjamin Escoriza, the group has not turned its back on traditional music. Both Duenas – who performs on lute, guitar, and percussion – and Molinas, a French-born flute player, have done a great deal of research on Arab music, incorporating contemporary North African elements into their music in a gesture that retraces the historical trajectory of flamenco. The end product, however, is not the recreation of a traditional style, but, as Duenas explains it, a “borderline, a no-man’s land, and most of all, a balcony over the Mediterranean.” However much it may draw on older styles, it is also the unashamedly commercial product of a group of professional musicians with a degree of showmanship that makes them an impossible act to follow at a folk festival.

Radio Tarifa’s success raises the question of what world music is up to. Does the World Music Institute of New York represent the remarkably successful international business of selling world music or does it seek to celebrate and encourage the cultural richness of New York City and its boroughs? According to its directors, Robert Browning and Ethel Raim, who also represent the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, Astoria was chosen as the location for the weekend festival partly because it had been the site of the Queens Ethnic Music and Dance Festivals, held between 1976 and 1991, and partly because of its ethnic diversity. Many of the people who attended this year’s event were the sort of New Yorkers who love folk music of almost any variety and have been attending such events for years. Wearing embroidered blouses, Balkan sandals, and hoop earrings, they greeted each other fondly and participated with experienced good cheer in the Greek dance workshops. The other main contingent consisted of members of the various ethnic communities of Queens, who had come to hear music from their own countries. They clearly felt a sense of national pride as an Italian brass band, a Bosnian singer, or a Croatian male chorus performed. Approximately half of the musical groups were based in New York City, and others had traveled from Connecticut or New Jersey. Considering the festival’s location, it was not surprising that Greek music and dance were heavily represented, with Grigoris Maninakis and his Mikrokosmos musicians performing mostly rebetika, Ilias Kementzides playing Pontic lyra, and an assortment of Greek dancers teaching and performing folk dances.

The festival organizers are familiar with the local musical scene and they chose their performers well, but there is an inevitable downside to juxtaposing, say, a Serbian brass band with a performance of Yemenite song. The Mediterranean might have some kind of abstract cultural voice, but its traditional musical voices are as heterogeneous as any in world music. Lumping them together for a festival is bound to give all but the hardy folk-festival regulars musical indigestion, while detracting from the “pure” folk music. Take the case of the two Sardinian launeddas performers who were unlucky enough to follow Radio Tarifa. They played a type of folk clarinet from Sardinia that consists of three single-reed cane pipes played with the technique known as “circular breathing.” The sound produced is more like a bagpipe than a clarinet, and the musicians, Roberto Corona and Stefano Pinna, played their instruments with great skill, but on a large open-air stage, following the electrifying ethno-chic of Radio Tarifa, they were doomed to the shoals of quaint revivalism.

To some extent, the Mediterranean music festival succeeded in being both an international and a local folk festival. The main events were staged in the beer garden of the Bohemian Hall, with dance workshops and panels taking place inside in an auditorium. Tasty food of various ethnic varieties was available and, since it was a warm weekend, the audience and musicians from a dozen different countries mingled cheerfully, balancing their plates of falafel and plastic beer cups in the sun. If there were some musical events that were less appealing, one could always attend a panel in the adjacent hall. One of the more interesting panels was led by the master ‘ud player and violinist Simon Shaheen, and was called “Stringing Across the Mediterranean.” It included demonstrations on the ‘ud, kemenje, Cretan lyra, and bouzouki. Shaheen is not only a leading figure in the Arab music world of New York City but a musician of world renown. He is one of a growing number of ethnic-music performers who like to have their musical cake and eat it, too. He plays and records traditional Arab music with his New York-based group, the Near Eastern Music Ensemble, and at the same time plays and composes for a fusion-music group, Qantara, which he founded in 2000. Shaheen has written and performed on a number of film soundtracks, including The Sheltering Sky and Malcom X. He is not only a brilliant musician, but one who moves effortlessly back and forth in musical time and space, confirming the possibilities of maintaining traditional form while allowing for all kinds of experimentation.

The current political situation deprived the festival of what would certainly have been another highlight: Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, the Al-Kindi Ensemble, and the whirling dervishes of Damascus were to have been the event’s closing act, and anyone who’s seen their international performances is aware that they are spectacular. Unfortunately, both they and the male members of Zakia Kara-terki’s Algerian ensemble were denied visas. Zakia Kara-terki’s group reinforces the notion of the Mediterranean as cultural conduit, with centuries of interaction from north to south and east to west. Kara-terki was born in Tlemcen, Algeria, center of a rich Andalusian culture established by Muslims and Jews who fled there during the fifteenth-century Reconquista of Spain. Coming from a family of master musicians, she plays and sings in what is called (after the city of Granada) the Gharnati style. Despite her colleagues’ absence, Kara-terki’s presence was an important addition to the festival, reminding us that the brilliant musical heritage of medieval Andalusia moved south as well as in every other direction.

Such moments of musical enlightenment were reserved for the relatively small audiences that attended the panels. Generally, the festival was an unself-conscious blend of musical styles, many of which live on in communities like Astoria after they have faded from the countries in which they originated. The festival reflected both changes in the world-music scene and the steady demand for ethnic music of any variety. The World Music Institute initially responded to the growing demand for that elusive commodity during the 1980s and 1990s by bringing a series of spectacular performers to New York from India, Damascus, Tehran, Africa, and Istanbul. Their concerts, held in Symphony Space and Town Hall, were the first place that New Yorkers could listen to such music regularly in a central location, instead of sporadically at small venues that were hard to find. As someone who loves many kinds of what is generally called “ethnic music,” I am grateful to the Institute for bringing so many outstanding performers to this country, but I am also aware that many of these performances depend, as they should, on a very particular context for their real impact to be felt.

This is, perhaps, the biggest problem in presenting ethnic music to a broad audience. Traditional folk music is not performed for entertainment. It is usually deeply embedded in a particular culture, often within a ritual or rite of passage outside which it is never performed. This ritualistic dimension of the music is completely lost when it is played in a concert hall, even for an audience from the culture that produced it, let alone one that understands nothing about it. It is not the fault of the world-music industry that local styles are presented out of context. For half a century or more, countries with a living folk tradition have themselves been marketing their music to a broad audience and staging it as entertainment, often with strong state support. In Romania and Bulgaria, state-sponsored festivals of regional folk music were so tied to state policy in the postwar period that a generation of young people reacted against their own music and turned to Western rock as a form of protest. In Greece, promoting local music went hand in hand with the rise in tourism, and it is still a hugely successful industry. The world-music business has simply created and catered to a demand for more exotic forms of music. It might also have encouraged musicians to experiment with traditions far removed from their own.

The problem of marketing the authentic without violating its essence is probably insoluble. However, what the Mediterranean festival demonstrated was something musicians have always known: that the authentic has never been “pure.” If, as a Greek musician, you listen to Bosnian or Turkish music, you understand immediately that musical interbreeding has been taking place for centuries. The same is true of Spanish and Algerian, Syrian and Lebanese music. It is also obvious that festivals, religious and secular, have always been occasions on which musicians from adjacent cultures have met and exchanged ideas around the Mediterranean. Perhaps this Astoria festival will even generate some new musical hybrids.

Since Greek music is what I know best, I am always most critical of hearing it in the wrong context. Grigoris Maninakis is one of my favorite Greek musicians, and he can always be relied upon to present the best of rebetika. The configuration of the Mikrokosmos ensemble for the festival was excellent, with Glafkos Kondementiotis on keyboards, Kostas Psarros and George Hajimarkou on bouzoukis, and Ioannis Moutsakis on percussion. The fine young clarinetist Lefteris Bournias joined them for a bracket of folk songs. Bournias, like the Pontic lyraris Ilias Kementzides, illustrates some of the changes in the ethnic-music scene. Since they play largely for Greek events where they are paid to be showy, they have learned to be crowd-pleasers. Sometimes their music loses much of its effect by its display of dexterity. Maninakis is a relentlessly modest performer, however, a quality that shines in a small space and may have caused him to forfeit a larger career. This is something I have always liked about the Mikrokosmos ensemble – which needs a smaller venue to be appreciated. The popularity of rebetika on the world-music scene has demonstrated that this music has universal appeal, but it works best in a small venue.

In Greece, the notion of semnotita (modesty) once defined a great performer and distinguished him from lesser ones. This was as true of dance as it was of musical performance. Not only is this quality no longer appreciated in most Greek venues, but, on a larger stage, small gestures are lost and performers begin to exaggerate their style in order to impress. They know they have to be more than just purveyors of the ethnic music on which they were raised. Whether we like it or not, world music has become show business.

Gail Holst-Warhaft teaches at Cornell University and is the author of The Road to Rembetika: Music of the Greek Sub-Culture.
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