It is difficult to think of a more fitting venue for a festival of Muslim Cultures in London than Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in the west of the city. Leighton House was designed by the architect George Aitchison in the 19th century for one of the greatest-ever British lovers of Arab visual arts - the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1839-1896). The building is especially famed for the exquisitely-decorated Arab Hall (pictured) with its domed ceiling, marble-clad walls, mosaic floor, columns, fountain and more than 1,000 decorative tiles, most of them brought from Damascus.
The one-month festival was held at Leighton House throughout June. It started with a full-day conference on the theme Islam Today: Rich Past, Progressive Future. The topics included Islamic Art and Architecture; Science, Philosophy and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition; Educating for Inclusive Citizenship, and Islam Today. Among the speakers were Professor Robert Hillenbrand, Dr Nader El-Bizri, Dr Dina Kiwan and Professor Mona Siddiqui. Another major event during the festival was an afternoon on Iraqi Art Today addressed by two leading Iraqi artists, Baghdad-based Hana Mal Allah and Rashad Salim who lives in London.
For those with an interest in Arab music, the Afternoon of Middle Eastern Music was a particularly memorable part of the festival. The afternoon featured two London-based women singers from different parts of the Arab world. Houria Niati was born in Algeria, while Palestinian Reem Kelani was born in Manchester, England, to a mother from Nazareth and a father from the village of Ya’bad near Jenin, and grew up in Kuwait.
The singers performed in the first floor music room which has a gilt dome over the performance stage. The room is an intimate space that was Leighton’s studio, and where he held his famed musical evenings. The terracotta-colored walls are hung with paintings by Leighton himself and by contemporaries from his artistic circle which included Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, George Frederick Watts and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. A plaster cast of the Parthenon frieze runs along the upper section of one wall.
In Niati’s recital of Arab-Andalusian songs she was accompanied by the Spanish guitarist Miguel Moreno, who has studied under the legendary flamenco guitarists Geraldo Nunez and Eduardo Rebollar. Niati and Moreno often perform as a duo, under the name Habiboun. After the interval Kelani performed with the talented jazz pianist David Beebee whose inspiration lies in classical music, world music and modern jazz.
When Niati was growing up in Algeria her father was a music lover with a substantial collection of recordings of singers. “They were the top names of that time, but all have now passed away,” Niati said. “The women singers were like my heroines”. Niati trained in Arab-Andalusian singing in Algeria. She then studied art in London, at Croydon College of Art and Design and surprised her fellow students one day by breaking into an acapella (unaccompanied) rendering of a song from her native country.
Niati is now an installation artist, who combines painting, drawing and digital art, and her singing is an integral part of her art installations. She has exhibited her work in the US, Jordan, North Africa, the UAE, the UK and several other West European countries.
Niati’s repertoire is drawn from the compositions of singing, instrumentation and poetry known as nouba. Her music is indebted to the great ninth-century composer Ziryab (Arabic for ‘blackbird’) Ibn Nafi who was born in Iraq but forced into exile in Spain. The accomplished guitar playing of Moreno blended effectively with Niaiti’s sweet, expressive voice in the fusion of Arab-Andalusian and Spanish music. Niati explained to the audience that Arab-Andalusian music travelled to Algeria with the exile of Muslims and Jews who fled southern Spain during the inquisition.
Reem Kelani’s CD “Sprinting Gazelle” was released in early 2006 to much critical acclaim. The CD comprised traditional Palestinian songs and Kelani’s settings of works by Palestinians poets. In her recital she performed compositions from this CD as well as from her second CD which is dedicated to the work of the great Egyptian musician Sheikh Sayed Darwish of Alexandria. He died in 1923 at the age of only 31.
Kelani began her recital in a whirlwind of clapping, yodeling and foot stamping as she performed a wedding song from the city of Acre. The audience was amused by her comment: “The family of the bridge tells the groom’s family that because you accepted our daughter in marriage, we are going to make you ruler of all Arab tribes. Mind you, if you had rejected her we would have made you clean up after our cattle.”
After this boisterous beginning, David Beebee jangled cow bells from the Khorasan region of Iran in the gentle introduction to a Galilean song, a setting by Kelani of a work by the late Palestinian poet and politician Tawfiq Zayyad. The song tells of the singer’s loved ones moving away. “My heart has never stopped shedding tears for them…if you see the cameleer of the caravan stop him to tell my loved ones in their deserted homes that hardship shall never last for ever.” The song was juxtaposed with a contemporary lullaby and with a 19th century lullaby in which Muslim women in Bethlehem ask the Virgin Mary to protect their babies while they are sleeping.
Niati had performed muwashahat from North Africa in her recital, and Kelani’s recital included a muwashaha from Egypt. Kelani observed that Western music abandoned quarter-tones but that they remain in Arab music. In her arrangement for piano of the muwashaha, “I’d like to pay tribute to the meeting point when quarter tones were still not dropped - and hopefully we’ll put the notion of a clash of civilizations into the dustbin, at least for this afternoon.”
Kelani then moved on to a song by Sheikh Sayed Darwish in a 17/8 rhythmic pattern known in Farsi as “khosh rank”, meaning “beautiful color.” The intricate dynamic rhythm carried the listener along with its syncopations and Spanish-type inflections. She also sang the Darwish composition “The Porters’ Anthem”. Darwish studied Italian opera, and also wrote a song for almost every manual profession in Egypt at the time. In his porters’ anthem he incorporates the porters’ cries of “Hela hela” that he would hear in his area of Alexandria.
Kelani’s next number was a love song she described as “’mellow,’ a sanitized way of saying it’s a wrist-slasher”. It was her setting of the qasida “Yafa!” written by Yafa (Jaffa)-born Mahmoud Salim Al-Hout in 1948 when he lost all his manuscripts while fleeing the city. He compares Yafa to a beautiful woman. David Beebee seemed to utilize the entire length of the piano keyboard in his solo introduction to the piece, which was tinged with sorrow and captured the depth and movement of the sea.
Kelani compared the qasida to Niati’s style of singing which is called in Spanish “canta hondo”, meaning “deep singing.” She observed that the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca had written much about canta hondo and had paid tribute to the poets of Seville and Granada at a time when there was not much recognition in Spain of the influence of Arab music and Andalusian culture. Kelani said that Lorca had influenced many Palestinian poets after 1948 and that Samih Al-Qassem and Tawfiq Zayyad had dedicated poems to him.
Niati joined Kelani on stage for a rousing rendering of one of Darwish’s most famous songs “Zourouni kull sana marra” or “Visit me once a year”. As an encore Kelani performed Palestinian poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s translation into English of Love Poem by Samih Qassim.
Saudi Gazette June 25 2007