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Photo credit: Stephen de las Heras

Concert Review: ‘Early Music of the Maghreb’ – Traditional Music of Northern Africa (NYC, 12 Dec 2017)

The phrase “Early Music” usually refers to early European music, while the term “Afro Roots” generally means music from sub-Saharan Africa. Salon/Sanctuary Concerts teamed with Afro Roots Tuesdays to challenge both those assumptions with “Early Music of the Maghreb,” a concert of music from northern Africa. Though played on mostly traditional instruments, the pieces did not all date from centuries ago. But each was at least rooted in forms that go back 300 years or more.

Five musicians going by the collective name of Sharq Takht treated a full house at the Bernie Wohl Center Theater to an evening of joyous rhythms and spicy melodies from Tunisia and Algeria. Intricate polyrhythms, sparkling unison passages, and dizzying improvisations coalesced into a sequence of fascinating pieces with a variety of moods but a continuously vigorous spirit.

As if to further emphasize music’s pan-cultural nature, only one of the musicians has personal African roots – Algerian-Hungarian Fatima Gozlan, a brilliant percussionist and player of the ney, an end-blown flute hailing originally from ancient Persia. (Yoga practitioners will be familiar with the breathy sound of the ney, even if they don’t know it by name.)

The program credited Gozlan as a vocalist as well, and described a number of the pieces as having been written or popularized by singers such as the well-known Algerian rai singer Khaled, but there was no singing at the concert, one of the factors that made it hard to follow which piece was which. Yet this was not an event where one wanted to spend one’s time peering at small print; it had instead the feel of an organic happening.

John Murchison plays the qanun (Stephen de las Heras) early music of the Maghreb Salon Sanctuary Concerts Afro Roots Tuesdays
John Murchison plays the qanun (Stephen de las Heras)

Brian Prunka is a most impressive oud player. The oud is very similar to the European lute (“L’oud” -> “Lute”). The excellent violinist Marandi Hostetter conveyed the spirit of the music with enthusiasm, and bassist John Murchison switched between the bass viol and the qanun, a plucked-string instrument that looks a little like a hammered dulcimer.

Most impressive of all to me, surprisingly, was Simon Moushabeck’s exquisite timing and sonic variety on a small percussion instrument resembling a tambourine. He made the humble-looking device speak with uncanny eloquence.

I recently had the opportunity to hear groups of musicians perform “trad” Gaelic music in several pubs in Ireland. This concert had much the same vibe. Music has been called a “universal language,” but it’s more than that, for its messages reside in a deeper layer of consciousness than the merely verbal. It reminds us that the human spirit is everywhere alike, and if more of us made the effort to experience music from disparate cultures we’d come closer to peaceful coexistence.

For information on Salon/Sanctuary’s current season visit its website. Afro Roots Tuesdays announces upcoming events on its Facebook page.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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