Review: From The Shara to Shangri-La
Spirited - From the Sahara to Shangri-La featuring Hassan Hakmoun and
To the mystics of Islamic Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism, their religions, regardless of the differences in outer trappings, are roads to the same liberating truth of oneness. Last Saturday, musical representatives of these esoteric traditions shared the stage of a sparsely-attended Troy Music Hall in a sharply contrasting split bill of world music that was often mesmerizing, occasionally repetitious, and ultimately meditative in spirit.
First up, Yungchen Lhamo (whose given name means “goddess of melody and song”), is today’s leading Tibetan singer. Born in a labor camp in occupied Tibet in 1969, Yungchen learned the by-then-forbidden devotional songs from her grandmother. In 1989 she fled Tibet on foot in a 1,000-mile trek across the Himalayas to freedom and an eventual meeting with the Dalai Lama, who encouraged her to perform as a way of life.
Standing in a white, ankle-length silk dress, with her long black hair flowing from a bejeweled topknot down to her knees, she opened the show with a set of austere, ethereal unaccompanied singing. Lhamo prefaced her oriental-sounding melodies with short soliloquies on the Buddhist themes of the universality of suffering, the futility of pursuing the ephemeral, the need for compassion, and the transformative power of inner awakening. Her voice was extraordinarily clear and resonant, and she embellished it with slow, sweeping gestures of her arms reminiscent of Tai Chi. Although the songs were all of a piece, she still evoked a serene aura that was engrossing.
Moroccan-born Hassan Hakmoun, has been entertaining since age 4, when he
started playing his native Gnawa music, a style originally from West
Africa used in nightlong Sufi exorcism ceremonies to induce healing
trance states, on the streets of Marrakesh alongside snake charmers and
fire-breathers. In 1987 he made his American debut at Lincoln Center and
later moved to the US, where he’s blended his sound with contemporary
influences including reggae, funk, and Afro-pop.
Fronting a quartet consisting of his brother Sayeed on qarkabeb (large metal castanets), Brooklynite Sean Kelly on hand percussion and drums, and Brahim Fribgane of Casablanca on percussion and electric guitar, Hakmoun sang and played the santir, a three-stringed lute-like West African instrument that is the ancestor of our five-string banjo. But all he played on it over and over in song after song was essentially the same primitive riff. The vocals also consisted of similar, reggae-sounding lines. Sufis may use such repetition to induce trance states, but a concertgoer’s ear can soon tire of it. Only Fribgane and Kelly’s spellbinding percussion prevented monotony from claiming the first couple of songs, which, like those in the rest of the set, went unnamed, untranslated, and unexplained. But then Kelly went over to the drum set, and Fribgane switched from percussion to guitar, enlivening the mix with snaky, metallically toned single-note lines.
Midway through the second set, Hakmoun called out Lhamo, who joined him for a duet. It felt unnatural, though, the two being from such disparate musical backgrounds.During the frenzied closing numbers, the Hakmoun brothers demonstrated the spectacular dancing of the Gnawa ceremony when they spun, crouched, double-leg kicked, and leapt around the stage.
Hassan Hakmoun and Yungchen Lhamo may not have delivered the most diverting evening of music, but what they offer is rare, and the spiritual paths they come from are pools of light in an ever-darkening world.
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