Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, 6-18 October, 2009 - What do nineteen musicians hailing from eight countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Eurasia have in common? That was the question that participants in Remix Asia strove to answer during an intensive, fortnight-long workshop and concert tour that ended in Aleppo, Syria on October 18.
The participants included sixteen young composer-performers and three master musicians who led Remix Asia’s programme of rehearsals and performances of new works inspired by traditional musical forms and styles. The master musicians were renowned vocalist Alim Qasimov (Azerbaijan), popular composer, oud player, and leading music educator Charbel Rouhana (Lebanon), and award-winning film composer and performer Khaled Mohammed Ali (Iraq).
Conceived as a collaborative project of the Aga Khan Music Initiative and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy, an innovative Cairo-based NGO whose Arabic name translates into English as “Cultural Resource,” Remix Asia is the fifth iteration of a musical forum originally launched by Al Mawred as the Arab Youth Music Platform. With the involvement of the Music Initiative, the geographic and artistic scope of Remix Asia was expanded to include Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. The musical logic of this expansion is rooted in history. While Uzbek and Azerbaijani music nowadays sound quite different than Arabic music, they are rooted in a unitary tradition of musical scales and modes, rhythms, compositional forms, and instruments that by the mid-thirteenth century was already highly developed.
Remix Asia is just what its name suggests: an attempt to reassemble disparate elements of this millennium-old musical legacy within a new frame provided by contemporary cultural globalization. Remix Asia unfolded in two parts: a five-day workshop period, and a series of four concerts that featured musical works rehearsed and developed during the workshop. Cairo’s El Genaina Theatre, located in the 30-hectare Al Azhar park created by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, was the venue for the first two concerts. For the third and fourth concerts, the Remix collective traveled to Syria, where concerts were organized by the High Music Institute in Damascus and the Aga Khan Development Network in Damascus and Aleppo, and presented in the Dar al-Assad Centre for Culture and Arts and Rajab Pasha House, respectively.
Each concert featured a mix of newly-created works by young musicians and the three mentors. Many of these pieces follow a similar procedure: a melodic theme introduced by a small consort of instruments playing in unison becomes a vehicle for improvisation in a sequence of virtuosic solo breaks accompanied by sustained drones, percussion, and spare vamping on stringed instruments. No wonder Arab music melds so felicitously with jazz, as strikingly demonstrated in Remix Asia by the sinuous melodic arabesques of Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub. Occasional jazz-inflected harmonies, finely etched exchanges of percussion timbres and rhythms, and filigree ornamentation on the ney, oud, violin, and qanun provided a freshness and intense focus on sound color that has much in common with the work of jazz composers.
“Remix Asia is the ideal framework for a musician with talent and ambition,” said composer Charbel Rouhana. “The most important thing is that it creates the right atmosphere for a collective musical experience. While creativity is an individual and personal process, it’s very useful for musicians to exchange ideas and be exposed to new work.”
Fairouz Nishanova, director of the Aga Khan Music Initiative, echoed Charbel Rouhana’s enthusiasm: “For the Music Initiative, whose mission is to develop indigenous artistic traditions in a direction that validates local identities and cultural heritage while also forging an internationally recognized artistic modernity in its regions of activity, Remix Asia has been a remarkable experience. Working with Al Mawred Al Thaqafy and with our other partners, we assembled a group of musicians whose exceptional talent was matched only by their open-mindedness and eagerness to learn from one another."
It was one of the young musicians, however, whose contribution to Remix Asia most persuasively made the case for common musical ground. Mustafa Said's "Bashraf and Qassida Fi Rahat al-Arwah" interwove Tunisian and Azerbaijani vocals, Central Asian and Middle Eastern percussion, and Arab and Persian-Azerbaijani instruments in a spirited exercise in extemporized composition.
Azerbaijani vocalist Alim Qasimov summed up the results succinctly: “We’ve planted a seed. Now we have to make it grow.”
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Articles in the Press
Al-Ahram Weekly, October 29-November 4, 2009
The magical mix ..This is what happens when musicians from different parts of Asia come together
Sana, 14 October 2009
Agence France Presse, 4 October 2009
Al Watan, 11 October 2009
Baladna In the paper edition.
Al Abraaj, 5 October 2009
Al Eqtisadieh, 4 October, 2009
Al Hayat, 8 October, 2009
Al Khaleej, 6 October, 2009
Al Manber Al Arabi, 7 October, 2009
Discover Syria, 7 October 2009
Masrawy, 4 October 2009
Syria steps, 15 October, 2009
Syrian Days, 9 December 2009
UCIP Liban, 8 October, 2009