Jerusalem Orchestra East & West
(Barbican Hall. 5 Feb 2023. Live review by Rachel Coombes)
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“I never thought that my trance music could happen with a classical orchestra. Because of these guys, it’s happened”, claimed the Moroccan guimbri player Mehdi Nassouli shortly before the concert, gesturing as he spoke to the Israeli conductor Tom Cohen. For the last thirteen years Cohen has made it his mission to imaginatively meld contrasting musical cultures with the help of his Jerusalem Orchestra East & West. The ensemble’s name (perhaps a nod to Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra) implies an adventurous collaborative spirit – something that was showcased to extraordinary effect in Sunday evening’s concert at the Barbican Hall.
Master of the Moroccan gnawa musical tradition, Nassoulidemonstrated the mesmerizing quality of this spiritual musical style, which relies on repeated complex rhythmic patterns that encourage the listener to enter into a trance-like state. The warm timbre of his guimbri (a three stringed bass with a body carved from a log and soundboard of stretched camel skin) contrasted with the metallic chattering of the qraqab, castanet-like instruments used to propel the music forward with intricate polyrhythms. This central musical element of gnawa was provided by two Moroccan musicians known collectively as koyos; their role in underscoring a sense of musical momentum was amplified by their rocking body movements. At several moments the audience were on their feet swaying and dancing in direct response. Gnawa, after all, is a musical form at the heart of communal celebration.
Layered over these textures were Nassouli’s velvety vocals, complemented by ‘choral’ responses from the koyos. Each arrangement was anchored by a number of short melodies that were developed over the duration of the piece, and, at times, picked up and elaborated upon by another star soloist on stage: the Israeli jazz pianist Omri Mor.A moment of ingenious musical inspiration came at the beginning of the song ‘Ya’ala Ya’ala’ (an arrangement of a liturgical song by a 16th-century Jewish poet). Here, Mor treated us to an extended taksim (prefatory musical improvisation) that proved the aptness of fusing Arabic vernacular music with jazz. At other times Mor engaged in a direct musical dialogue with Nassouli, or underpinned the guimbri riffs.
The orchestra itself, whose large string section frequently moved in unison like one body, gave us glimpses of many Middle Eastern timbres – the crystalline tinkling of the qanun (a dulcimer-like stringed instrument), the elegant rounded sound of the oud and the mournful fluting of the ney were given solo roles at various point. Towards the end of the evening Cohen proved his own instrumental abilities by joining in on his mandolin for one of Mehdi’s own compositions, ‘L’kbida’ (meaning ‘Liver’ – apparently a homage to the prevalent use of metaphors relating to bodily organs in Arabic love songs).
The exuberance of Cohen in conducting mode on stage is remarkable – dancing and leaping on the podium with indefatigable enthusiasm, he imparted seriously high octane energy to both the orchestral players and the audience. The clarity of the tempi changes, smooth oscillations between duple and triple time, and sharp definition of the frequent musical pauses were testament not only to his conducting but to the synergy between soloists and ensemble.
The Barbican received some backlash, as reported in the Guardian, for hosting an event that was supported by the Israeli Embassy, and, indeed, a small protest formed outside the Barbican entrance before the show. The uncomfortable entanglement of culture in politics should be acknowledged (the term ‘artwashing’ has been applied in this particular context to imply ‘distracting’ from harmful actions through the celebration of artistic endeavours). But this music deserves to be felt and appreciated for itself, on its own terms – especially when it has as its very heart the promotion of mutual understanding. The interweaving of beautifully hypnotic Gnawa rhythms, Western harmonies, Middle Eastern musical traditions and bursts of virtuosic jazz made for a wonderfully rich cultural experience.