Elliott Sharp: “Tarab” in Beirut, New York, and Sharjah

May 16, 2012
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A commission from the Performa Festival in NYC to take part in Tarek Atoui's project "Visiting Tarab" brought me to Beirut in August 2011 to do research at a private archive of Arabic classical music run by Kamal Kassar. This opportunity came right in the middle of the overdubbing sessions for the new Terraplane CD for Enja, Sky Road Songs, but I could not turn down this incredible opportunity. Took off for Frankfurt from JFK with my first flight on the super-jumbo Airbus A380 then three hours of layover in Frankfurt and then another three-and-a-half hour segment to Beirut, the plane passing near the city on its approach. I was surprised to see rustic makeshift housing built right along the runway—apparently a national scandal. Guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui picked me up at the airport and after I checked in to the hotel, he and Tarek and I had a fine lunch at a street-side cafe before heading up to the archive for the first session. These initial conversations on the drive from the airport and at lunch set my head spinning: among other deeper and darker revelations was the fact that Lebanon's money is linked to the $US and dollars are used as general currency there. Over three days, our long sessions with Kamal gave us a a concise overview of the evolution of Arabic classical music starting with it's "Golden Age" in the 1920's. Besides discussion, we heard lots of incredible music encompassing singers, small heterophonic ensembles, larger orchestras, as well as numerous examples of solo taqsim played on violin, oud, and q'anun. The music was all extraordinary but the vocalists and the oud players stood out for sheer inventiveness and outrageous technique. At the end, we each took back huge files of music to be used as source material for "remixing" for the "Visiting Tarab" concerts.

Sharif also arranged a concert at an old silk factory, now owned by a longtime theater director. Soundcheck was complicated by power outages, but things stabilized by the time of the concert. First up was the trio of Lukas Ligeti on drums, Tarek using many home-built controllers as well as Lemur to manipulate samples on a laptop, and myself with the solidbody 8-string processed through my laptop in Ableton and amplified with a silver-face Twin Reverb. We played an intense 20-minute improvised set with kaleidoscopically shifting textures and densities and layered rhythms and noise. After the break, I joined The Johnny Kafta’s Anti-Vegetarian Orchestra which included Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet & objects), Charbel Haber (electric guitar), Sharif Sehnaoui (electric guitar), Raed Yassin (keyboard and electronics), Tony Elieh (electric bass), and Malek Rizkallah (drums). Charbel had a Fender Jaguar and a magic carpet covered with pedals – Sharif used a fine-sounding Japanese knock-off of an ES-175 and just a few effects. The music was improvised and drone-oriented with lots of noise interruptions and microtonal Arabic-scale synthesizer filigree from Raed and with a very heavy groove that positively glowed with a sense of location—of being Beirut. It was exciting and hypnotic. For an encore, we played a two-chord punk song about a giant robot from manga cartoons. This song had a special significance for those whose childhood coincided with the Lebanese civil war: this character was one of the only cartoons that was on during the limited time of electricity and even-more limited time of broadcasts. The audience was all invited guests and friends and extremely enthusiastic. After, Kamal hosted a gathering where the fun continued until late, including spontaneous performances on oud by some local masters.

The next installment took place in New York in November, with a gathering of the various musicians who had either gone to Beirut to study tarab or received the information and sound files second-hand. The manifestation of our research in Beirut and Tarek's vision for an interface of Arab classical music and contemporary Western improvisation was presented in a marathon five-hour concert as part of the Performa Festival, a biennial of international performance art in many forms. For more info: http://tarekatoui.com/projects/visiting-tarab. Tarek organized the event in three suites or wasla, with short small-group improvisations acting as segues between the longer featured segments. Underlying everything is the notion of tarab, which may be described as a long-form development with the goal of producing ecstasy through sound. The evening opens with Tarek's high-speed, high-density piece using a variety of his self-constructed sensors and controllers to modulate a torrential flow of samples. Different artists form a progressional transformation of sound onstage. At one point, saxophonist John Butcher, Tarek, vocalist/synthesist Robert Lowe, and I are improvising together. For the improvising, I've brought my solidbody 8-string and a few pedals with my Rat distortion and Boomerang III receiving special attention. Harpist Zeena Parkins leads a group with her sister Sara on violin and Ikue Mori on electronics. I join in with them before playing my solo piece "Ganging Tarab" on tenor sax using the sound of the horn in Ableton Live to convolve spatialized 4-channel soundfiles that I've prepared from samples of taqsim from the Tarab collection. In making my soundbed, I concentrate on glissandi from oud and violin, often massively time-stretched or pitch-shifted down and then filtered. The saxophone envelope in the convolvers creates a 'ghost' of its sound in the prepared sound files. At the same time, I'm processing the sound of the horn in realtime in my Live patch using GRM Tools and other plug-ins, plus allowing the acoustic sound of the horn in the room to remain in focus.

Finally, in March 2012, Visiting Tarab is presented at the Sharjah Art Foundation Biennale in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. On the day of my departure, I have a rehearsal with the ensemble Alarm Will Sound in the afternoon as they will perform "Coriolis Effect " on March 19 in NYC. After, there's a few minutes to do my idiot-check then it's out to the car to LGA to fly to IAD for my flight to Dubai. Before takeoff in the small Embraer jet, the pilot tells us that because of weather conditions our flight will be at 6,000 feet, unusually low, and that it will be quite turbulent. There's a visible stir of consternation in the cabin as we start the trip but the flight turns out to be quite tranquil albeit low and slow. As we cross Delaware there's an intense thunderstorm visible about ten miles to our west with lightning flashes looking like globular thermonuclear explosions in the clouds below left. The sky is clear as we approach Washington and there's an incredible view of the planets Jupiter and Venus convergent in the evening sky. The extremely smooth flight to Dubai is over 13 hours, but the time passes quickly for me, horizontal in a comfortable seat up front. I wake just as we're passing Turkey to continue along the Persian Gulf and catch views of the border between Iran and Iraq and note with amusement that the plane's progress map omits any place names that might give discomfort to American travelers, only displaying obscure towns. I had some apprehension about immigration and customs at Dubai airport but except for one "steerer" who kept asking/telling me: "Russian? Russian! Russian?" until I produced my US passport for his inspection, the process was fairly quick and easy. A driver for the festival met me and I was soon in dense traffic heading to my hotel in Sharjah. The next morning a few of us take a brief tour of the city by car. It's mostly built in the last 20 years with lots of the usual multinational fast-food culprits. Sharjah is where many of the workers live who serve the wealthy residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. That day at 18:00 I go to the performance site to set up my rig and do a basic stage placement and sound check. Jupiter and Venus are very visible behind the stage and the night has a damp chill with condensation rapidly appearing on any horizontal surface. For hardware I've brought a tenor sax with clip-on Beyer dynamic mic, Digitech RP250 as USB interface and limiter, Zoom Power Drive (my secret weapon: the poor man's Klon), Eventide PitchFactor, and Celmo compressor. The festival has rented a new Fender Standard Stratocaster for my use in the concert and it's quite a playable instrument, though the pickups don't have much personality—bland and vanilla.
Given how often baggage is delayed, if I have to play both tenor sax and guitar, then I take one as carry-on on the plane and ask that the other must be supplied by the local promoter. This way, even if my electronics are wayward, I can still perform a concert with what I have at hand. My Ableton patch for the composition "Ganging Tarab" is running on a MacBook Air, fast and lightweight, though missing the port capabilities of the bigger machines.
 
The performance is in a large enclosed courtyard in the Heritage Area near the shore of the Gulf where wooden dhows and large cargo ships are docked (this was known as "the Pirate Coast" until the early 20th century). Spacious stage and great crew make for a quick setup though there's a 15-minute "prayer break" when the recordings of muezzin are played throughout the city (this begins at 5am making for an unwanted "wakeup call" and continues at intervals throughout the day). My patch is meant for a 5.1 sound system which was not possible for the festival to mount. Instead, I run two of the outputs into Roland keyboard amps onstage behind me and the other two to the house PA. The sound is not exactly as intended but still gives some of the spatiality that is an important part of this piece. Return to the hotel and run into Lukas and Robert and we wander back towards the water until we find a highly-touted Iranian restaurant where we have fantastic aubergine, kebabs, and flatbreads. A glass of Shiraz would have been most welcome, but Sharjah is completely dry (ironically, Shiraz originated in Iran—now also dry.) We cover quite a bit of territory in the town on our walk there and back and passing through the qasba, I purchase a dawa and a package of Rio Turkish Black ground coffee so that I can cook up Turkish coffee in the kitchen of my suite. More reunions at Sunday's breakfast and a day free for working, writing, reading, and walking around Sharjah before we all convene at the beach near the border with Ajman for a dinner. All are in attendance now including Raz Mesinai, KK Null, Joss Turnbull, Uriel Barthelemi, John Butcher, Takuro Mizuta, Mustafa Said, Ghassan Sahhab, Mohammed Antar, the members of Anti-Pop Consortium, Raed Yassin, and filmmaker Fouad Khoury, Kamal Kassar from the Tarab Archive in Beirut, plus some of the wonderful people from the festival. The night is unseasonably cold as there was a two-day sandstorm fueled by chilled winds from the north. Roiling waves and high wind do not at all diminish our enjoyment of this incredible Iraqi-style barbecue with huge river fish cleaned, splayed, and seasoned then placed directly on the glowing coals to roast. We eat the fish with flatbreads and various pickled vegetables and wash it down with hot tea.
 
After dinner, a number of us go to the emirate of Ajman where we're taken to a complex of depressing bars called Baywatch, just a few kilometers up the road but a different planet. If Sharjah is Salt Lake City at its most sanctimonious, then Ajman is Sin City, Reno to the max. For the concert day, we assemble in the late afternoon and go by bus to build up all of our equipment on the stage and do line checks. There's a prayer break to throw off the sked and then a reception with snacks and juice and at 2015 the marathon wasla begins. Some of the audience sits on chairs arranged in rows but the bulk settle onto cushions and mats in the courtyard. The sandstorm has passed and the night is warm and comfortable. There's a huge variety to the performances including prepared pieces by individuals and groups as well as ad hoc combinations programmed by Tarek. A notable trio is that of Mustafa Said, Ghassan Sahhab, and Mohammed Antar from Beirut who perform in the classical style on ney, oud, and q'anun but take the music very out—really exciting. I perform the 20-minute "Ganging Tarab" on tenor sax convolving my collage of oud glissandi and as it finishes I'm joined by Tarek and percussionists Uriel, Raz, and Lucas for four additional minutes of orgiastic playing. I later join q'anun player Ghassan for a delicate duet and then improvise with Ikue, Zeena, and Sara. The wasla continues non-stop until 2am finishing with Anti-Pop Consortium's mix of Arabic music with hip-hop and experimental sounds. We return to the hotel in shifts where I change and pack then join a few of the others for our 05:30 drive to the Dubai airport, where I catch a flight to Munich and then a short one to Berlin for an appearance with Zeitkratzer at the MaerzMusik festival to premiere my piece Oneirika.
 

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