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World Music Review Print

If Only Music Could Calm the Savage Breast

April 18, 2002 - Durham, NC:

The final concert in the Duke University Institute of the Arts in this season's Living Tradition Series was a glimpse of what today seems impossible on any but the most personal scale: the collaboration of Jews, Christians and Muslims in publicly presenting their shared culture. Moroccan born countertenor Emil Zrihan, who as a child immigrated to Israel along with most of his co-religionists, assimilated North African Arab, Jewish and Spanish musical culture. Zrihan performed songs in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, sometimes a mixture of all of these, illustrating how intricately interwoven these three cultures once were. Now a hazan (cantor) at the main synagogue in Ashkelon in Israel, Zrihan travels all over the world with instrumentalists who are mostly Muslims of North African origin.

The songs and instrumental pieces, performed by Zrihan and 'ud player Nabil Khalidi, accordionist Sameh Sidhom, drummer Mustapha Ettamri, and violinist Charlie (Shalom) Edry, a last-minute replacement from Montreal, contain both fixed and improvisational elements. To the untrained ear, the music sounds typically North African. But that fact only points up how intertwined the musical traditions of the inhabitants-both past and present-of this part of the world really are. Zrihan and his instrumentalists are representatives of the cultural mixing resulting from cultural coexistence that has been going on from Spain to Syria since the Arab conquests of the 8th century.

One serious lacuna in the performance was that there was no list of the pieces, much less translations of the songs and no program notes. The absence of these supports makes it difficult to write in any depth about the music, except to comment on the virtuosity of all the performers. Zrihan is an engaging singer who readily makes contact with the audience. Unlike the cantors of the Ashkenazi (European Jewish) synagogues, who are generally tenors or baritones, Zrihan is a true countertenor and employing a vocal technique quite different from what we are used to in any kind of music in the western European tradition. Zrihan sings completely without vibrato and the incredibly long notes in the improvised passages are actually subtle ornaments around a focal pitch. Included in the program were two unaccompanied psalms from the North African Sephardic tradition. The accompanied songs were generally strophic, with long improvised passages for both singer and instrumentalists between the verses.

While the audience sat quietly through the first half of the program, Zrihan insisted that they participate during the second half, by clapping, swaying or even dancing (One woman and a three-year-old both took him up on that challenge.) Once the audience had broken the ice, drummer Mustapha Ettamri had some fun with the clappers by introducing syncopations and intricate new rhythms in an unspoken contest to see if they could follow him. He won.

These days, it seems that vocal groups cannot do without amplification, and such was the case with Zrihan and company. Only in the religious, unaccompanied pieces did Zrihan step away from the mike, allowing us to hear him as if we were in synagogue. The wonderful solo by 'ud player Nabil Khalidi was marred, we felt, by making the instrument sound more like an electric guitar than an ancient ancestor of the lute. And if you've ever heard a miked fiddle, you know what a disastrous sound that produces. The ensemble didn't need amplification in order to fill page Auditorium but that's the fashion, and we can't fight it.

The fallout from 9/11 presented a last minute crisis as two of the five musicians who were supposed to perform with Zrihan - Moroccans who now live in Paris - could not get US visas. But that glitch didn't seem to affect the quality of the performance. Fine artists in improvisation, like the best jazz musicians, know how to jam, and these guys were pros.