Friday, July 22, 2005

A Night in Baghdad, Purcell Rooms

Not, fortunately, actually in Baghdad and neither was this part of the apparently on-going attempt to bring some Baghdad life to London via the medium of suicide bombers. Instead Iraqi ex-pat Ahmed Mukhtar, virtuoso musician, played the Oud, an eleven-string fretless lute. Wearing snazzy shoes and a suit that seemed to have been made out of Plaster of Paris, Mukhtar took at first to the stage alone. Once there, he conjured music from his instrument that, while neither especially hypnotic nor beautiful, seemed still to entrance me. I became aware of sudden shifts in my attention, almost as though I’d been smoking hashish. Despite arriving with a sore back, thoughts of pain, unhappiness and discontent were momentarily unable to intrude through the music’s comforting glaze. Mukhtar explained that many of the tunes were versions of songs dating back four or five thousand years. The tunes lay on you as softly as a feather; they were there, but you couldn’t pick them out. It was gently eye-opening, the plucked strings softly resonating within me. For a moment there was danger of an impending spirituality; it was only resisted when I considered the possibility that I was indulging in this effect to stop myself from getting bored.

Ah, the turmoils of the agnostic! I needn’t have feared, since Mukhtar seemed to have a sixth sense; each time I’d consider being bored he’d be about to finish the song he was playing. After a few songs, he introduced the first of his accompanying percussionists and there was no more chance of getting bored. This guy came out in full Ali Baba get-up and proceeded to tap and subtly jangle a tambourine in a way unfathomable if you’ve only ever seen the instrument as a sop to rock stars’ girlfriends. He was soon followed by Kurdish drummer, Hassain Zahawy, wearing a kind of Kurdish kung-fu suit with white shoes like a cow’s hoof. He proceeded to batter the daff, a Kurdish drum, his fingers somehow doing the work of three or four drummers. To round off the set a third came out, this one in full Arabian headdress. With his pale face and pencil moustache though he looked curiously like an impostor, though he played his drums well enough. The three drummers showed how syncopated rhythms should be done, displaying a control of both timing and touch that puts to shame the harsh, computerised fare we generally subsist on. They finished the half with a Sufi rhythm in 9/8. When there’s a drum’n’bass tune in 9/8, then we might be getting somewhere.

In the toilet at the interval the guy next to me said “I think Bill’s right, it has been rather thrown together.” Oops, I thought, as a critic I need to keep my wits about me, rather than drifting off into a dream. The second half confirmed that Bill was right, it was thrown together, but it seemed all the better for it, as the drummers showed an exceptional ability to keep complicated poly-rhythms while taking cues, sharing solos (at which Zahawy excelled, playing a big marching drum with what looked like an umbrella handle) and all the while complementing Mukhtar and his soft, gracious Oud-playing. In fact the three drummers appeared genuinely impressed with each other, lending an extra glow to an already grand performance.