Even centuries after an empire's fall, traces of that civilization can be found throughout the geographical area that it once occupied. Roman ruins dot the landscape from Great Britain to the Middle East; the decorative arts of the Ottoman Empire can still be seen throughout Spain; and the Taj Mahal in India is a permanent reminder of the Mogul Empire. However, if you want to see examples of the influence that's still being exerted by some of these great powers, look at the similarities in traditional music among the countries they once occupied or that came under their sphere of influence.
This is especially true of the various cultures that at one time or another were ruled by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. Aside from any of their own musical traditions that they might have carried with them as they expanded across Europe and the Middle East, they also brought with them any impressions they may have absorbed along the way. From Egypt to Spain and throughout the Balkans, enough similarities in music can be found that it's possible for contemporary musicians with roots in any of the cultures touched by the Empire to feel comfortable playing and adapting the music of another region that had come under their influence.
This was really brought home to me when I listened to the self-titled CD by the duo who make up Teslim. While violinist Kaila Flexer draws upon a background in Jewish music, oud, and a multitude of other plucked string instruments, player Gari Hegedus combines his Eastern European heritage, Hungarian, with a love for the traditional instruments of the Middle East. As a result, the music on Teslim not only reflects their individual heritage and interests, but is an example of the common ground that exists between the music of different cultures.
Would you have considered it possible for a traditional Sephardic Jewish melody in praise of God, "El Meod Na'ala" ("God Is Very Divine"), to be played in such a manner that it would be reminiscent of Turkish Sufi music? Maybe not, unless you happen to know that the Sephardic Jews inhabited the Iberian peninsula, Portugal and Spain, in relative peace when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. While it's highly doubtful that they would have written music that was in that style, the music that they developed during that time would have reflected the culture around them.
Listening to "El Meod Na'ala," you'd never know that it hadn't been originally written the way it's performed on Teslim, as it sounds perfectly natural. There's none of the forced sound that you so often hear when people try to combine musical traditions that have no business being put together. In fact, unless you knew that it was comprised of a melody from one culture and the rhythmic pattern of another, you likely couldn't tell since they fit together so seamlessly. While not all the of the songs on the CD draw upon multiple traditions, each of them could very well have its origins in one or another of the countries that at one time was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire.
While that may explain why the divergent styles being played on this disc work so well, it doesn't even come close to describing the experience of listening to the music these talented musicians and their occasional guests perform. I have listened to any number of CDs by extremely talented musicians playing all sorts of music on an incredible array of instruments, but very rarely have I heard music that has managed to affect me in the way this disc did. There is a haunting quality to everything they played that seemed to speak to me on an emotional level that nothing I've heard before has done in the same way.
Have you ever been somewhere — for me, it's usually somewhere in nature — like deep in a forest or by a large body of water early in the morning, where you're reminded of just how truly magical the world is? Where for a few precious moments you are able to forget everything about the mundane reality we usually live in and are transported outside of yourself? Listening to this CD had a similar affect on me. There was something about the sounds of the instruments and the rhythm they followed that elicited the same sensation of being part of something far bigger than my own life and its trivial concerns, such as when I'm surrounded by the wonders of nature.
It's not like the songs are about great spiritual matters or anything like that, or even that there has been any attempt on the part of the musicians to create that type of atmosphere. I think the closest they come to writing about spiritual matters would be the aforementioned song, "El Meod Na'ala," and another one, "Knight Of Cups," inspired by the Tarot card of the same name. Most of the other songs are about more average matters, like Gari's granddaughter learning how to walk in "Kiana's Waltz;" or they're inspired by the rhythmic patterns of other songs, as was the medley of "Elk"/"High Tide"/"Yetierre," where the first two pieces were inspired by the time signature of the last.
It's not even as if the music is able to overwhelm you with its power either, as there only (at most) four people playing at once, and the majority of the time only two. Perhaps, though, that's part of the answer; the simplicity of the sound allows it to be a more direct and personal experience than we're used to having with music today. With the most elaborate arrangement on this disc involving three violins, a couple of different plucked instruments, and a frame drum, there is an immediacy to this music that you don't often experience anymore.
Normally we are listening to multiple sounds that we have to sort into a form inside our head that will allow us to comprehend them. Whether we want to or not that means we are bringing our intellect into play and erecting barriers between our emotions and the music. Here the music has the opportunity to speak directly to us on an emotional level as we are not having to interpret or rationalize it. For instance, haven't you ever noticed how much more powerful a solo instrument can be, even though its quieter than an entire band or orchestra? Such is the situation here, but for the entire length of each song instead of just for a moment or two during the piece.
Of course, if the two musicians weren't as incredibly gifted as Kaila Flexer and Gari Hegedus, this might be a different album altogether. For not only are they technically skilled at what they do, but they also have an amazing ability to transmit emotion with their playing. At the same time, they never exaggerate the significance of what you're hearing, but instead are able to communicate the feelings that are generated by life's simple pleasures — like watching your grandchild take her first steps — in such a way that it captures the true sublime nature of the moment.
Teslim is not only unique because it allows us to perceive the common musical heritage that so many different cultures draw upon, but also because the music on this disc brings the magic of the world alive. This is a beautiful collection that will remind you of what power music can hold in the hands of skilled artists whose love for what they do comes through in every note they play.