"Arabesque": Art at the Crossroads

By Keating, Michael | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2009 | Go to article overview
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"Arabesque": Art at the Crossroads


Keating, Michael, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


FOR THREE weeks-Feb. 22 to March 15-the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC hosted "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World." It was a spectacular event, showcasing music, dance, poetry, and theater from the 22 nations of the Arabic-speaking world, as well as art exhibits, lectures, a marketplace, a walk-in kaleidoscope, and displays of traditional wedding gowns.

But "Arabesque" wasn't like the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival, with its displays of folk art and traditional music. It was all about contemporary high art and its inspiration. It was more about challenging and rethinking traditions than repeating them.

Take, for example, Amine and Hamza M'Hraihi, two Tunisian brothers who appeared on the Millennium Stage with an oud and a qanun (zither), two of the major instruments of classical Arab music. What you saw, however, is not what you heard. Thoroughly trained in traditional Arab music, they are just as thoroughly trained in European classical music and American jazz.

Rather than delicately plucking the oud, Amine M'Raihi's approach is much more physical. His aggressive neckwork is more commonly associated with electric guitar. Similarly, anyone used to the metallic tintinabulation of the qanun was in for a surprise as brother Hamza attacked his instrument with relish. But throughout, there was perfect control, the music clearly growing out of a classical Tunisian tradition-but radically re-envisioned.

Similarly, choreographer Abou Lagraa has his roots in North Africa, but his classical training was at France's Conservatoire de la Danse de Lyons. The dancers of his company, Cie la Baraka, dress simply; their costumes are not elaborate. Yet their movements function as a thousand tiny mirrors that glint recognizable gestures from ballet in the concert hall, belly dance in the smoky bar, and the defiant machismo of hip hop performed on the streets of New York.

Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh maneuvers between New York and Damascus, living part of the year on the Upper West Side, other times in Syria. His music is definitely a product of full-on American jazz, and it's clearly also a product of the Middle East. All but one of the musicians-who play percussion, viola, bass, oud, clarinet, and piano-with whom he appeared are from the Levant. In an Azmeh composition titled "November 22" (as in the day after Thanksgiving, not the Kennedy assassination), the music rolls out from the stage like an autumn fog, then is suddenly cut short by a melancholy oud.

To introduce "Airports," Azmeh described landing at JFK Airport, where there is one lane for citizens and another for visitors.

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