Introducing Boston College’s Astaza Middle Eastern ensemble in Gasson Hall 100 last Monday, Lebanese singer and musical director Nizar Ballout spoke of the various cultures and geographies from which the ensemble drew their material. Middle-Eastern, North-African, and Turkish musical styles were each represented by a troupe of performers from all walks and backgrounds. They included BC students, faculty members, and Astaza artists in residence.
The ensemble by no means presented their musical selection as distant or delicate specimens of a foreign culture—rather, they invoked festive chants and rhythms that warranted clapping and audience participation. The highest level of engagement was perhaps what Ballout referred to as “the tunnel”.
“The tunnel,” as described by Ballout, is when the music provokes a trance-like state in the listener, a phenomena toward which this writer was at first incredulous. Though music can certainly change the emotional state or mood of an audience, is it possible for music to change the lens through which one visibly perceives reality?
The trance, as Ballout spoke of it, indeed took precedence perhaps halfway through the performance. It was the cumulative effect of many elements: the harrowingly beautiful vocal chants, the foggy flute that evoked imagery of dune-strewn deserts, and of course the delicate and washed-out strumming which lulled the mind toward unconsciousness.
Though difficult for an outside or untrained ear to fully appreciate, the various genres which Astaza explored were each marked by their own poetic meter, signature, and style of performance. Taqtūqa is a form of Arabic music involving primarily female vocalists. Muwashshah employs a distinctive song-structure and is a musical tradition that is common around North-Africa. Qasida, which is popular in Turkey and Persia, relies on a single syllable for rhyming.
The instruments employed were appealing both sonically and physically. The concert featured the quanun, a cheese-shaped acoustic instrument dotted with star-shaped patterns. It produces steely timbres each distinct yet conducive to a reverberating wall of noise. Ann Lucas, assistant professor of music, conjured dry and mystical desert dune-scapes with the Kawala, an Egyptian flute which soars from a tranquil humming, unintrusive as the breeze, to forceful melodies that will suddenly carry the song forward. Faithfully contributing to this eclectic array of sounds and melodies were the oud-players. The oud is a lyre-like instrument that is twingy and peculiarly pitched, but which can transition from yearning high-notes to a deep and solemn bass. It conveys a wealth of emotions few other instruments can.
The songs themselves ranged from social and commanding to heartbreaking and introspective. “Marhabtayn w Marhabatayn,” a Taqtuqa song, involved a speedy and hectic beat that placed the audience in the environment of a bazaar or busy street. The lyrics refer to dabkeh, an Arab folk-dance that is performed at marriages and other significant ceremonies.
“Rah Halfak BelGhoson,” performed by Ballout, was a beautiful and dramatic closure to the evening’s event. The song’s narrator pines for a woman who is represented by a bird that flies among everyday objects littering the narrator’s view. Kawala, played by Lucas, rose and descended like the fluttering bird of which Ballout was singing. It was a perfect interaction between the evening’s extremely talented performers who sought to present an experience that was unlike most concert events, formal or otherwise, with which we’re familiar.
Featured Image by Margaux Eckert