By Chitra Kalyani
To recall Spain is perhaps to use too modern a name; one must recall the Iberian peninsula, Andalusia and Aragon, to evoke the intermingling of traditions that brought forth the music revisited on Friday at Cairo Opera House’s Open Air Theater.
Since its inception in 1992, the Accentus Austria Ensemble has studied and improvised the music of various traditions under the direction of Thomas Wimmer. Accentus’ repertoire ranges from music hailing from the moors of Algeria and Morocco, to the orally transmitted Sephardic romances, and the baroque music, all of which enhanced Renaissance music in Spain.
Themed “Music of the three Cultures,” the evening consisted of songs from the time “when the three religious were influencing each other in Spain, in the time of baroque,” said Natalie Kolbe, deputy director at the Austrian Cultural Forum Cairo who organized the event.
The night began with familiar oriental flavors. The music of the tabla and the tambourine, the oud and the rabab enlivened songs from the book of Moroccan poet, Mohammad El-Haik. Consisting of 11 nubas (long musical structures), El-Haik’s manuscript has been handed down for generations since around 1871, when it was estimated to be compiled.
One nuba began with the pensive self-absorption of the vihuela, a guitar-shaped instrument from 15th century Spain. The lighter sounds of the harpsichord lifted the music, and the interplay of the instruments was joined by the oud. The tabla and tambourine too made an unhurried entry and slowly, almost imperceptibly, quickened the pace of the song.
While the music sounded familiar, the lyrics of El-Haik were less so. Kolbe said the tenor César Carazo had travelled to Morocco and Algeria to be instructed on the pronunciation of the Arabic lyrics. To preserve the authenticity of lyrics, Accentus valorizes singing in one’s mother tongue; hence soloists are often from Spain or Austria.
Cazaro, who hails from Spain, sings in a voice that is clear and soft and reassuring, a voice suited to the aura of baroque order, of pews and churches. His vocals make a seamless progression from Arabic music to Sephardic songs as the viola de gamba (large viola) replaces the rabab.
At first, the transition between different styles of music is difficult to discern. In the section on music of Spanish Jews, “Hija Mia” (My Girl) still retains the strums of Eastern strings, until it later fuses it with the drums and flute of another place. Subdued notes and slow marching drums accompany “La Serena da Sawi,” with Spanish lyrics.
The music of Accentus alternates between tones of thoughtful and pious veneration to tunes that evoke the vitality of gypsy music.
“It is so rich in melodies,” says musician David Mayoral of his attraction to the music of this early period in Spain, “It’s very rhythmical, and that makes my work as a percussionist very easy.”
Even when it is not rhythmical, Mayoral, who has joined Accentus a year ago, finds the music has “much emotion.” The polyphony of four scales when put together in the Christian rhythms are “simple but they make music.”
According to the demands of the program, musicians in Accentus range from three to 17.
“There is a small music scene in Europe for old music,” said Iraqi-Austrian oud player Karim Othman Hassan. “Some people fit into a distinct program,” said Hassan, explaining the convergence of the talents of Accentus.
In studying three centuries of music, Accentus also touches on some timeless oral traditions. The confluence of language and music that shaped the Spanish Renaissance, with accents of Arabic music, Sephardic romance, and Christian hymns, spoke eloquently now to an audience in the middle of another renaissance.