It is no secret that The Forge is long one of my favourite venues in inner London. Thus, it was a great pleasure to return a second time within a month for the World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang last night, on 22nd March 2012.
However, I have been remiss so far in failing to mention that the attached bar and restaurant have changed from the Caponara to The Foundry, and with this change the menu has also changed, from Italian to - more or less - traditional British. This looks no less excellent, the prices seem very reasonable, and as before you are under no obligation to have a meal to attend a performance but of course are welcome to if you wish. However, you must book in advance to do so. Perfect! And the coffee is probably the best in town.
The atmosphere at The Forge is always wonderfully relaxed and laid back, the architecture is perfect for a modern music venue, and the acoustics are just about perfect! Oh, and the piano is probably the best in town, as head sound engineer Adam is one of if not the very best in town. (Forge management, do you know what a real treasure you have in Adam? Hope you're paying the man decently, he's half of what makes The Forge what it is. Just ask any musician performing at The Forge.)
Anyway, Forge aside, when just short of a couple of weeks ago an invite and details for World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang came through my email or text message asking if this might be interesting to me, late or not late, I practically screamed back 'interesting? Bl***y fascinating! Yes, p-l-e-a-s-e!'
This was something I'd been waiting for practically all my life, so I really did not want to miss it for all the world. A co-operation between North Indian and Chinese musicians is a concept about as fascinating as can be. (And with some Western Early music thrown in for good measure!) While Chinese music, especially Chinese classical music, is as deeply spiritual as Hindustani classical music, and possibly even more contemplative much of the time, the musical traditions per se share very little. There is more commonality with Chinese folk and other traditional music, especially in some of the pentatonic scales used. These often not only are the same scales as also found in Northern India and Hindustani Raags, but even share very similar and even identical melodic patterns.
What both Chinese and Hindustani musical traditions also share is a strong Persian influence, though in the case of the Chinese one this is mostly limited to instruments brought back to China by Chinese travelers. These include most Chinese members of the lute family, and the yang-quin ('foreign zither'), the Persian santoor.
All too often I hear from Westerners something like, 'Chinese music? Can't understand that at all, it's just too strange/weird.' This makes me very sad, for it means that people are not listening properly, not listening with open ears but rather with preconceived ideas and prejudices clogging up their ears. If they were to get rid of these blockages, they would not only find music of great beauty but might also realise that much of Chinese music is much closer to the Western traditions than any other Eastern musical tradition. For example, they might even discover that much of Chinese classical music uses a kind of tempered scale, not dissimilar to the Western tempered scale and developed by the Chinese around the same time as the latter. Keep an open mind - and an open ear - and you will always find something that you share with 'the other.'
To return to the World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang itself, when I said I had been waiting for a Chinese - Indian musical collaboration all my life, I am well aware of the mid-1990s recording Tabula Rasa by Vishva Mohan Bhatt (specially adapted Indian slide guitar), Béla Fleck (banjo) and Chen Jie-Bing (erhu, a Chinese fiddle) and indeed this sits in my collection. However, this was never a head-on Chinese - Indian or Chinese - Indian - Nugrass meeting, rather this was more of a mainly Fleck / Nugrass driven affair with mainly India-meets-Nugrass and Nugrass-meets-China sections, dominated by Fleck compositions and with very little improvisation taking place. However, for its time this was an extremely adventurous album in its own right, and it does indeed still stand out as one of the most interesting world music collaborations not only of its time but beyond. Indeed, almost anything that Fleck has ever come up with has been and remains of great interest in its own right, in all fairness.
For a true head-on Indo-Chinese musical 'confrontation' based mainly on improvisation, one at last can look at the World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang.
Billed as a World Lute Encounter, the lutes here are the North Indian sitar (a descendent of the Persian Setar, merged with aspects of the indigenous North Indian rudhra been) and two Chinese lutes, the zhongruan and the liuqin. Both originally came to China from Persia as a result of the legendary pilgrimage of the monk Xuanzang at the beginning of the first century C.E. The zhongruan is a mid-sized member of the ruan family, in the West also known as a 'Chinese moon guitar' - a description derived from the instrument's circular body, while the liuqin is a soprano version of the larger and perhaps better known pi pa. Both were likely derived from some ancient form of the oud, with the zhongruan acquiring a long neck somewhere along the process.
However, in addition to the lutes, extensive use was also made of the exquisite voices of both Mehboob Nadeem, an uncommonly rich tenor given the Indian tradition, and Cheng-Ying Chuang (or to give the name its proper Chinese form placing the family name first, Chuang Cheng-Ying), an unusual, often richly vibrato-laden countertenor that easily stretches into the alto.
Both players/singers are highly distinguished. Nadeem is the fifteenth generation of his illustrious family, part of the highly regarded Agra gharana of vocal music, and he is also one of the most distinguished younger sitar players of the revered Vilayatkhani gharana - named for the grandfather of the present senior Ustad Vilayat Khan of that family - which originally developed the technique of 'gayaki ang,' the close imitation of the human voice on the sitar. ('Gharana' roughly translates as school or house, in this musical context.) Now based in London, Nadeem is in constant demand as a performer in India, the UK, Europe, and beyond. He is also a much in-demand teacher both in vocal and sitar. Beyond Hindustani classical music, Nadeem is also engaged in a number of fusion-based projects, covering blues, jazz, and more.
Chuang is no less distinguished, having studied both Chinese and Western classical music and having won numerous awards. His preference in Western music is Early and Baroque Music as well as contemporary and classical, which give the widest scope to his countertenor voice. In Chinese music, his repertoire covers the seventh century C.E. to the present, often in his own new arrangements. Chuang is also experienced
and engaged in numerous multi-cultural and multi-artform projects. He performs widely internationally and is now living in London.
Nadeem and Chuang were joined by special guest, the outstanding tabla player Hanif Khan, son of famed tabla player Ustad Hidayat Khan, and trained in the classical Delhi gharana of tabla playing. In addition to Hindustani classical music, Khan has also widely participated in cross-cultural collaborations. He is in wide international demand and also lives in London.
A fair crowd had gathered at The Forge last night for the World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang. From the first piece on, Jasmine Flower And Raag Bhopali, a mix of the traditional Chinese song Jasmine Flower and the pentatonic Hindustani raag Bhopali which coincide perfectly, performed by Chuang on zhongruan and voice and Nadeem on sitar and voice, the performance was sheer magic throughout. The fusion of Indian and Chinese elements was completely unforced and instead natural and completely organic, Just sheer beauty!
This was followed by a zhongruan and voice solo by Chuang, the traditional Moon On High, and a number of liuqin and zhongruan solos, all equally delightful, hauntingly beautiful and breath-taking in their virtuosity and musicianship. Chuang was as remarkable for his instrumental performances as for his beautiful countertenor voice.
The first set then continued with an electrifying, gorgeous performance of a Hindustani classical raag by Nadeem and Khan that first seduced with the contemplative, hauntingly beautiful alap, jorh and jhala sections, then stole the breath and left one at the edge of one's seat with its ghat and ever more soaring improvisations, leaving one excitedly counting the beats till sitar and tabla came together again on the sam, the main beat of the rhythmic cycle (tala). The set then concluded with a full-on Chinese - Indian fusion based on the Uygur tune Awariguli and Raag Kafi, both of which are of Arabic origin, and which to the Western ear seem similar in scale to the Western Dorian mode. This made full use of both voices and zhongruan, sitar and tabla and was again mainly improvised. A more exciting conclusion to the first set would have been hard to imagine, and one was constantly kept on the edge of one's seat.
The break was certainly much needed after so much high-energy tension. Anything more should have been almost unbearable, too much of a good thing, surely.
The second set continued in much the same vein as the first, with mainly Indian - Chinese co-operations and fusions, all heavily reliant on improvisation. The excitement kept on mounting throughout, and the sheer beauty of these performances was haunting indeed. They culminated in a rendition of the 'Queen of Raags,' Raag Bhairavi, by all performers, with a beauty and excitement that were just intoxicating and which closed the evening's recital in a high octane climactic fashion.
Surely one did not wish for the World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang to end! This music and performance was simply glorious and awe-inspiring. The deep musicality and exquisite virtuosity of all three performers shone brightly. Both of the exquisite voices complemented each other perfectly, as indeed did the distinctive timbres of sitar and zhongruan on the one hand and sitar and liuqin on the other. The music was inspired and inspiring, as well as highly innovative and inventive. This was a meaningful encounter between East and Far East resulting in deeply meaningful music and musical interchange.
World Lute Encounter Featuring Mehboob Nadeem And Cheng-Ying Chuang was surely the most significant, exquisite and meaningful cross-cultural encounter based largely on classical music traditions in a very long time. It succeeded where most other such encounters - in particular, classical East-West - have failed, and one of the elements contributing to this success must surely be the strong reliance upon improvisation.
This evening was truly and entirely magnificent and awesome, revealing entirely new and haunting beauty that can result from such musical interchange when, as here, 'done right.'
Hopefully, an extended tour will materialise soon. Equally, one would most fervently hope for a recording of such glorious music. Regardless of whether you approach this from a world music or classical angle, it works and will strike awe into the heart of any true music lover.
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