Composer and violinist Layale Chaker on her new album Inner Rhyme, which fuses classical training with her Middle Eastern heritage, and why musical ideas do not obey borders.
I’ve recently become passionate about Arabic sung poetry – in spite of the fact that normally I try to avoid folklore and traditional repertoire. As a result, I’ve been sitting and listening for hours and hours to improvised oratory poetry, which is considered in Arabic culture to be the perfect musical form (Zajal).
In particular, I love the voices of Zaghloul el Damour (the Nightingale of Damour), Moussa Zgheib and Khalil Rukoz, the wedding chants and the Sufi remembrance recitations (Zikr) and Syriac rituals. If you have not heard these before I’d suggest you give them a listen: you’ll find yourself marvelling at the abundance of poetry and music in each and every line.
This new listening habit impacted on my own work, and my sonic universe became steeped in these sounds. It drove my composition process in new directions, and led to my latest project: Inner Rhyme.
I started working on Inner Rhyme from a passive, observant angle. I spent hours listening, meditating on material from different sources, and transcribing it in order to contemplate it as black ink on white paper. Then – I hoped – the process of dispossession, disintegration and re-appropriation would begin.
However, I soon found that my strong emotional ties to the music – to the Lebanese soil from which I have grown – were keeping me from adopting the necessary distance needed to dissect, abstract and recreate. I found I couldn’t create personal music because I was too concerned with preserving the legacy and soul of the original recordings.
Now I can see what caused the problem, but at the time I couldn’t grasp what was going wrong. Instead of finding a solution, I became anxious about deadlines and came close to abandoning the project altogether.
But then, after hours of additional listening, I found the extraordinary hidden complexity all this music contained. It is true that Arabic music is made of essentially monodic lines. But when listening deeper, you start to hear that harmony and polyphony are there: counter-lines, counterpoint, rhythmical expansions, metric modulations.
In this music everything is already present – all you need to discover it is your imagination.
Once I made this realisation, I found that tradition stopped being a weight that was holding me down, and instead became a force that was pushing my own musical ideas upwards. I was then able to integrate my own imagined sounds with these historical elements to create a new musical discourse.
We as Western-trained musicians of Eastern heritage tend to regard our own identity as a primitive culture that needs to be developed and saved. We also regard the act of composition as bridging the gap between two distant cultures, the reconciliation between past and present, and an eternal questioning of the simplicity of repeated musical phrases.
But what I have learned through Inner Rhyme is that heritage doesn’t need well-trained Western musicians turning its simplicity and purity into complex monuments in order to save it. It only needs to be deeply listened to.
Working on Inner Rhyme also revealed to me the striking force that a melody can have, and its ability to travel from region to region; in this case, all the way from the banks of the Euphrates to Mount Sinai and back. We are still united by melodic figures, despite the tumultuous history and partition that this area of the world has seen.
Sung texts are always subject to the ambiguity of language, and the chapters of a sung epic always witness variations in the story from one area to another. Subjects alter, accents change, dialects differ. But the melodic lines that carry these texts remain constant.
When listening to a Qarradi or a M’anna from Mount Lebanon, you cannot not help but notice a variation of that same form in a Syrian Djeriza. In the same vein, an Aleppine Qudud recorded on a summer night near the Citadel echoes another recording made in the Chouf valley of Southern Lebanon, or one coming all the way from the narrow streets of Jerusalem.
Much like our free-spirited Bedouin neighbours, our music does not recognise the disintegration of the Fertile Crescent into states or the dividing of land and history. Nor does it know about the strive for existence, identity and self dominion along those freshly drawn frontiers. Instead, it testifies to the forever-intertwined, common destiny shared by every grain of soil, every drop of water and every soul living in the different parts of that newly-minted map.
From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What else but music could so transcend modern geopolitics?
Layale Chaker & the Sarafand Ensemble will perform at Rich Mix in London on 25 November.