London Syrian Ensemble at Frome Cheese and Grain

SYRIAN music is not something most of us have the opportunity to hear live, at least not on our native soil. The last time I had the chance to hear anything remotely similar to last night’s concert was almost 30 years ago now – just outside Aleppo in fact – but that’s another story.

Suffice to say that Louai Alhenawi and the London Syrian Ensemble brought the memories flooding back. The musicians who make up the ensemble, whether newly-arrived or long-term residents of the UK, have all studied or taught at the prestigious Damascus Con­ser­vatoire. Between them they brought the sounds of Syria to a capacity audience at the Cheese and Grain with a wonderfully diverse repertoire of classical, traditional and more modern music. It was the culmination of a day of music making and, for those lucky enough to have secured a ticket in good time, the chance to sample Syrian cuisine prepared by Frome’s local Syrian families too.

Alongside the familiar violin, viola and double bass were a number of more mysterious instruments. There was the ney, played by Louai Alhenawi the group’s musical director, a long end-blown flute made of reed-cane and curiously held at a slightly oblique angle during performance; the glamorous qanun, a large zither capable of playing very rapid, repeated notes, and different sorts of drum. Although the most exotic looking was the darabukka or goblet drum, which the percussionist actually played inside as well as out, it was his virtuoso performance on something far more familiar, the humble tambourine in fact, that had me on the edge of my seat. It was quite astonishing.

Joining the instrumentalists for the occasion were two utterly charismatic singers, one male, one female, both of whom sang with a richness and intensity that must have come from their very souls.  There was love and passion, sorrow and regret, joy and maybe a hint of anger too as they gave heartfelt expression to their feelings for the country they had left behind and to its culture, clearly so full of energy and humanity.

Although the subtleties must have been lost on the uninitiated, including me I hasten to add, I found the structure of the music endlessly fascinating. Firstly, in terms of texture, there was little harmony, at least not in the western sense.  Instead, for much of the time, the various instruments were used heterophonically, the musicians playing variations of a single melodic line simultaneously. Secondly, the music tended to be far more repetitive than most western music, the repeated phrases quickly taking on a hypnotic mantra-like quality. Added to this, although there was almost always a sense of key, the scales used were not the same as ours.  Alhenawi in fact informed us that Syrian music has up to 340 (!) different maqam as they are called, each associated with a particular mood or emotion, and further characterised by distinctive quarter tones, methods of attack, frequently used melodic shapes and certain ornamental patterns. The result of all this was both haunting and intoxicating, and, for those of us prone to flights of fancy, most likely transporting us to some distant and vibrant caravanserai.

Although many of the pieces accelerated as they progressed, often ending up in a state of near frenzy, it was the preludes that I found particularly fascinating.  These took the form of free, sinuous improvisations and, to use western terminology, seemed to be a sort of cross between recitative and cadenza. Such an introduction, known as a taqsim, allows the instrumentalists the opportunity to explore the characteristics of the particular maqam being used.  Although all the melodic instruments played at least one taqsim during the course of the evening, one of these was particularly beautiful, taking the form of an intense emotional dialogue between the ney flute and the female vocalist.  The applause which followed was richly deserved.

The excitement of the strong, highly rhythmic music that generally followed these preludes formed a highly effective contrast and we, following the lead of the Syrian families in the front row of the audience, were quick to join in, not only clapping along with the beat but dancing in the aisles too – a truly joyous experience for all.  Not that clapping was desirable or even possible all the time.  One memorable piece featured what Alhenawi referred to as a broken rhythm, the steady two-beats in a bar suddenly giving way to something I am pretty sure was in 11/8 time!

The last number of the evening gave all the instrumentalists the opportunity to demonstrate their musicianship. Featuring a remarkable four-beat bass riff (again using western terminology), the piece allowed each of the instrumentalists to take centre stage in turn and for us to show our appreciation.

This was the first time the six instrumentalists and two singers that make up the London Syrian Ensemble had visited the south west and judging by the smiles on their faces and the enthusiastic response of the audience I am more than hopeful it won’t be their last. I for one left feeling uplifted and refreshed.


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