A Tapestry of Sacred Music 2016

Oh, we had a divine time this weekend at The Esplanade’s current performing arts festival, A Tapestry of Sacred Music! I saw two ticketed performances, Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Voices from the Land of Fire: Mughals and Ashiq from Azerbaijan by Alim and Fargana Qasimov, and my family joined me for three free performances, Kirtan: Devotion of the Sikhs by Gurmat Sangeet Academy, Turkish Sufi Music by Şimdi Ensemble, and Qasidah: Islamic Devotional Poetry by Madeehul Mustafa.

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FRIDAY

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal‘s music sits between the Subcontinent’s Hindustani classical (Khyal, Dhrupad, and Thumri) and rich folk traditions. While their viral YouTube hits, recorded at Pakistan’s Coke Studio, have catapulted them to ce-web-rity status and introduced the timbre of their voices to a new generation, the brothers trace their roots to the Qawwal-Bachcha gharana, or house of music, which was established in the 12th Century in Delhi by one of South Asia’s most renowned poets, Hazrat Amir Khusrau.

On Friday, the ensemble sang in multiple languages, including Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Farsi, among others, and their soulful singing was accompanied by a chorus, clapping hypnotically, and a group of percussionists playing the dholak and tabla. Both Ayaz and Muhammad engaged listeners by explaining the layered nuances of Sufi poetry (but only in Urdu, which I can understand much of, thankfully).

Towards the end of the concert, the audience became an essential part of performance as we, collectively, engaged in a dialogue with the musicians to shape and uplift the performance—repeating couplets or melodic patterns and taking the performance in and unexpected directions, for example.

Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal was the best concert I’ve seen in Singapore since 2011 when I attended Dhrupad: The Dagar Legacy by Ustad Hussain Sayeeduddin Dagar with Nafeesuddin and Aneesuddin Dagar. My only lament was that the performance seemed truncated due to time constraints imposed by the venue. Outside such a formal performance space, a concert like this would continue for hours and hours until the musicians retired from exhaustion. Along the way, the music would reach ecstatic heights. And while Friday’s performance had moments of transcendence, wherein I forgot where I was, I wanted more!

SATURDAY

sikh-kirtans-singing-to-the-divine-01I’ve witnessed the Sikh tradition of kirtan, or Gurmat Sangeet, having grown up in and out of gurudwaras my entire life. (Sindhi Hindus, like my family, have established unconventional practices and heritage in the context of their diaspora.) Kirtan pairs call-and-response chanting with musical accompaniment; its devotional lyrics and a gentle, rhythmic ebb and flow help devotees center their thoughts to meditate with a clear mind and establish a connection with the Supreme Being. Gurmat Sangeet Academy’s performance included its ensemble’s youngest performers. I was bowled over by a gifted singer, no older than six- or seven-years-old, who commanded the stage with her talent and presence. 

Co-founded by singer and composer Bora Uymaz, one of the most prolific figures of the faith in Turkey, and harpist Şirin Pancaroğlu, Şimdi Ensemble focuses on the Sufi tradition in Anatolia. Their repertoire consists of taqsims (melodic musical improvisations), ghazals (Sufi love songs), and kasides (odes), compositions both from the traditional repertoire as well as music composed by its band members. On Saturday, Uymaz and Pancaroğlu were accompanied by Mehmet Yalgin on kemence, a pear-shaped bowed instrument. Uymaz had a strong and unforgettable voice, and I appreciated listening to a musical genre that I was unfamiliar with.

madeehul_mustafaI’ve never seen the Esplanade’s Concourse so full of music-lovers as it was for Saturday’s performance of Qasidah: Islamic Devotional Poetry by Madeehul Mustafa. Qasidah traces its roots to pre-Islamic Arabia and remains the oldest and most revered forms of poetry in the Islamic world. The poem has a single elaborate meter and every line is a couplet; each poem typically runs more than 50 to 100 verses. Madeehul Mustafa is a Singapore-based nine piece group founded in 2005 when its members met as students in Damascus, Syria. Their sung poetry, with verses taken from original long-form qasidahs, was accompanied with frame drums (daff/rebana) and lutes (gambus). I now know why Madeehul Mustafa has such a following; their performance was excellent.

SUNDAY

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Alim Qasimov is one of the foremost mugham (one of the many folk musical compositions from Azerbaijan) singers in Azerbaijan. According to The New York Times, “Alim Qasimov is simply one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation.”

And while his vocal skills were certainly on display this evening, his performance, overall, was rather perfunctory, IMO. His ensemble of young accompanists—on the tar (a long-necked plucked lute), kamancha (a stringed bowed instrument), balaban (double-reed wind instrument), and drums—didn’t have a chance to showcase their skills during this 80-minute performance. Still Qasimov received a standing ovation and returned to the stage to perform a short encore.

Lastly, the concert was advertised to feature his daughter, Fargana, but she was unable to perform due to health reasons. I wonder how different this performance would have been had she been healthy enough to sing!