Boston Creative Music Alliance
Cultural Constructions V:
Diverse Voices of Islam

The Institute of Contemporary Art
Boston, MA

June 11, 2005

The Boston Creative Music Alliance can always be counted on to present a performance that educates, elevates the understanding of the diverse musical cultures that it promotes, and - quite simply - entertains. The four outstanding musicians featured at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art on June 11 shared their unique backgrounds and their love of their musical heritage in a performance that should be required listening for governments that just can't seem to work together. This performance was all about sharing and celebrating differences.

Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, Boubacar Diabate, Raqib Hassan, and Tanya Mohammad Jacobs all come from diverse Islamic backgrounds; hence the title Diverse Voices of Islam. As part of the Cultural Constructions series, the four musicians rehearsed together for a month prior to the concert, which featured each artist in a brief individual set in the first half and then brought them together as an ensemble in the second half. Kayyali opened the first set by speaking about the oud, the traditional guitar-like instrument on which he was classically trained, and the instrument's history in the music of Islam. The oud's bowl-shaped body gives it a rich reverberating sound, and the rhythmic complexity of the first tune, written in 1990 by an Iraqi composer, demonstrated Kayyali's command of the instrument. Kayyali continued with a work that branched off into improvisation. One note served as both the impetus of and the conclusion to the improvised melodic lines, all of which were marked by a relaxed rhythmic fluidity.

Diabate represented the West African nation of Mali. He described Mali's music as songs of fighting and democracy that tell the story of the nation. Diabate's guitar - all black and without a center hole - had more of a twang than the typical American guitar; the sound can be compared to that of the banjo. Like Kayyali's pieces, each improvised musical line generated from and ended on the same note.

The musically diverse Hassan - a Sufi who overcame serious illness to be a part of the performance - opened his portion of the performance with a prayer: "May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation, oh God." At Hassan's request, the audience recited these words while he improvised on a variety of instruments that included wooden flutes, bells, recorders, and the tenor saxophone. This joint musical adventure created an interesting cacophony, yet the audience always managed to unite rhythmically while reciting the prayer, which both opened and closed the improvisational exercise.

Vocalist Tanya Mohammed Jacobs combines her Portuguese and Pakistani cultures when performing with her group Nazranah. Her Ghazals - traditional Pakistani love songs with a name that translates to "to talk to women" - make use of vocalizations that would be considered extended techniques in contemporary music but are par for the course in music of the Middle East. Jacobs is blessed with a voice that is comfortable in a variety of ranges, and when combined with Nazranah's upright bass, guitar, and drum, the effect is a satisfying mix of musical cultures.

Kayyali, Diabate, Hassan, and Jacobs pooled their talents for the second set, a wonderful combination of traditional Islamic music and contemporary works composed specifically for this ensemble. Composer and guitarist Michael McLaughlin, one of the curators of the Cultural Constructions program, joined the group for his original setting of a poem by a Lebanese woman who at one time held the title of Miss Lebanon. The work sounded deceptively like a country music tune at the outset, but Jacobs' dark, jazzy vocals - sung in French - created a unique contrast that gave the melody a cabaret feel. A series of Ghazals followed. The plaintive, emotional quality of these melodies combined with Hassan's tenor saxophone formed an unusual but effective timbral contrast.

Ellen Band - also a Cultural Constructions curator - composed a work for the ensemble that was truly a union of past and present. Band utilized taped excerpts of each of the musicians to create an original collage of sound. As the musicians sat and quietly listened to Band's work for the first time, it was clear that they enjoyed her sonic interpretation of their musical traditions. The performance ended with an Iraqi love song that the ensemble selected, according to Kayyali, specifically for its "catchy melody." Kayyali was right; the melody was an infectioius one that featured each of the individual musicians in solo sections. That said, by the time the work came to a close, the audience was vocalizing right along with the ensemble.

The Boston Creative Music Alliance's Cultural Constructions series is outstanding in its ability to bring together diverse performers in programs of the highest level of musicality. Diverse Voices of Islam was both musically fulfilling and proof positive that different cultures can work together to be agents for change, cultural exchange, and peace.