World brew

Artists tap traditions of Islam for unique sound

Boston Globe, June 10, 2005

Musicians hailing from around the world bring something in common - Islam - to a concert tomorrow at the ICA. At left, Tanya Mohammad Jacobs of Pakistan. At right, Abdul-Wahab Kayyali of Beirut.
Musicians hailing from around the world bring something in common - Islam - to a concert tomorrow at the ICA. At left, Tanya Mohammad Jacobs of Pakistan. At right, Abdul-Wahab Kayyali of Beirut. (Globe Staff Photos / Justine Hunt)

For the past three years, Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art has played host to the groundbreaking series of concerts dubbed ''Cultural Constructions," held twice a year. Four Boston-area musicians from different backgrounds are given a month to create a concert drawing on their traditions to make a new musical amalgam. Past concerts have featured blends of, among others, Asian, Latin American, and Turkish music, and have incorporated genres from klezmer to bluegrass, free jazz to hip-hop.

Tomorrow's concert is subtitled ''Diverse Voices of Islam." The participants hail from four far-flung corners of the Muslim world: Boubacar Diabate is a singer and guitarist from Mali, West Africa. Singer Tanya Mohammad Jacobs is from Pakistan, and brings with her a wide experience in world music, from French chansons to Balkan brass bands. Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, born in Beirut, to a Jordanian family of Palestinian descent, plays oud, the classical Arabic lute. Free-jazz saxophonist and Dallas native Raqib Hassan is noted for playing double-reed instruments from around the world.

We recently spoke with Diabate, Jacobs, and Kayyali about music, Islam, and collaboration.

Q Many Americans look at Islam as though it's monolithic. Yet you all come from very different cultures and musical traditions within the Muslim world.

Kayyali: The philosophical message of this concert I think is very important, because people don't understand the geographic vastness of the Islamic world, that it spans from the Far East to Western Africa. It's impossible for anything but religion to be in common between all these places. It's a huge common denominator, but it's the only common denominator. And people don't understand that within these countries, other religions exist and flourish.

Diabate: I'm from Africa, [Kayyali's] from Jordan, [Jacobs is] from Pakistan -- so far away, so so totally different. But with improvisation we agree, get together, create a new thing.

Jacobs: Abdul and I actually have a lot in common because of our modes [traditional scales] and how we use microtones [notes in between the half-notes of the Western scales]. We found that when we were playing together we were like, ''OK, no problem, we understand." But then the challenge was how to fit with Boubacar.

Q What attracted to you to this project?

Jacobs: I like to try new things, and I'd never played with other Muslim musicians before. I didn't know too much about the other traditions.

Kayyali: I played once before with this sort of collaborative project last November at Club Passim with a flamenco guitarist. And it was amazing, a great experience. I was hooked in by the improvisation.

Q What degree of improvisation is present in the musical traditions you come from?

Jacobs: There's a lot of improvisation. The thing that I do the most is a song form called the Ghazal. We might begin with an improvisation, but then there's a song, very structured. In between there might be an improvisational section.

Kayyali: In respect to Arabic music, it's very melodic and it's very modal. I probably know 60 modes, but there are maybe 3,000 modes to Arabic music. Basically, improvisation is the benchmark for how you measure the skill of the musician, how swiftly he moves between modes and then returns to the original mode that he started from. I think it's the defining characteristic of a musician.

Diabate: I can play traditional style, the music from my country, that language. But my music, that's my improvisation, my composition.

Q What strategies have you used to create the pieces?

Kayyali: It was a bit of a challenge, but it moved much faster than we anticipated. The first song we worked on, Boubacar introduced it and all of a sudden . . .

Jacobs: . . . We just started playing it.

Diabate: Coming from Mali to United States, I got a job like that playing with people from different countries, from everywhere. That's why first day we meet together, I say ''Abdul, Tanya, can you play that? OK, try that." Beginning coming so easy; I trust my brother, I trust my sister.

Kayyali: We spent so much time on this song. We could probably play it for like . . .

Jacobs: . . . the whole concert!

Kayyali: It's continuous, it doesn't end anywhere. You can begin and go for 45 minutes, improvise as much as you want.

Q What hopes do you have for this performance?

Jacobs: The first set is going to be where we showcase what we do apart from this group, so I'll bring in my Indian band, Boubacar is going to bring in a percussionist, and Abdul's going to do a solo piece. And the second set will be what we can create together. And I think it just sends a message about -- maybe it sounds cheesy -- the importance of working together with people, and uniting.

Kayyali: For me, the purpose of the first set would be to reflect an accurate picture of Arabic classical music, because amongst the stereotypes that exist about us is that our music is all belly-dancing, exotic, and sexy. There is that aspect to Arabic pop, but it's a huge oversimplification. We also have classical, respectable, concert-style music. I enjoy both, but they're different. With regards to our collaboration, it's just been a blast trying to see what could come out of this strange-sounding mix.

Diabate: I need to show to people African music is many different ways, because we don't all play the same.

Jacobs: I think that maybe we can't even articulate everything that we're bringing because it's just beyond words. The music is the international language, so we connect that way. Also, this isn't really religious music: It's just cultural. That's a nice thing.

Diabate: I think we will continue to work together, learn together, be together, and that's going to be a great thing.

The Boston Creative Music Alliance presents "Cultural Constructions V: Diverse Voices of Islam" at the Institute of Contemporary Art Theater, tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets $10. Advance tickets at Twisted Village at 617-354-6898.