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Music CD/DVD Review: Kronos Quartet – Music of Central Asia Vol. 8

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Volume 8 in the Smithsonian Folkways series on the music of Central Asia pairs the Kronos Quartent with Afghan rubâb virtuoso Homayun Sakhi and Azerbaijani father-daughter singing dui Alim & Fargana Qasimov. The results of the collaborations are almost too good to be believed.

The stories of how the compositions were put together are fascinating. In the case of Quasimov, the vocalist arranged five Azerbaijani songs, adding sections for improvised vocals and instrumentals. Kronos arranger Jacob Garchik then took the constructions further, scoring the songs for the quartet and adding short intermezzos (think of them as musical connective tissue). For the title track "Rangin Kaman (Rainbow)," Sakhi composed on his own instrument, and then wrote and stored the string parts into a Casio synthesizer. Veteran Kronos arranger Stephen Prutsman wrote out the entire piece in traditional Western notation. The Casio synth being the link between the old and new worlds…talk about East meets West!

The music was obviously not "done" at this point. If you view the accompanying DVD, there is a short documentary that shows the music taking shape. It's very interesting to see the Kronos quartet, who are in my mind musically fearless, struggle with the rhythmic oddities introduced by both Quasimov and Sakhi. It was also inspiring to see the music come together, especially since the common language was indeed music and not the spoken English word.

Sakhi's "Rainbow" is over 28 minutes of pure unfolding wonderment. Accompanied by both frame drum and tablas, the quartet and rubâb seem made for each other. Sakhi's composition weaves single lines, quartet call & response, serial melodic development (a kind of world music "round"), and rhythmic interplay that fools the ear into thinking these musicians have known each other for decades. Quite a trick.

As impressed as I was with Homayun Sakhi, it was the vocals of Alim Qasimov that totally blew me away. Woah, can that man (and his daughter) sing! The scales and micro-tonalities employed in that region of the world make the music seem very exotic. More than that, Qausimov sings with a frightening amount of power and athleticism. It was great to see the quartet rise to the occasion. The looks of pure satisfaction on their faces told the story.

Even if your curiosity about music from this area of the world is low, I would bet that the documentary material will impress. I was only vaguely familiar with the rubâb (of course, now I want one) and had never heard Qasimov sing. Both of them stretched my listening horizons and made me hungry for more.

It was obvious that the musicians were affected in a similar way. That's when you just know something special happened.

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