by Daniel Hathaway

Shamma-NaseerNow that United States forces have ended their occupation of Iraq, oud virtuoso Naseer Shamma has returned to touring in this country after a ten-year, self-imposed absence. He brought his excellent Al-Oyoun ensemble to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium on Friday, March 15 for a remarkable performance on its VIVA! & Gala series that included one dramatic testimony to the events of the last decade during an 11-piece set that otherwise treated the large audience to both strange and familiar sounds and a wide range of musical forms.

Once a rarity, the expressive voice of the oud has become better known in the West — it recently evoked the Arabic music of Spain in the late fourteenth century during a performance by the Broken Consort at St. John’s Cathedral. In the hands of Naseer Shamma, it speaks eloquently both as a solo instrument and as a member of the traditional Iraqi takht or ensemble, which in Gartner last Friday included the Qanun, an 81-string zither, the Nay or end-blown flute in several sizes, the Riqq or Arab tambourine, a bass viol and two violins (19th century latecomers from Europe).

Shamma took the stage alone for an opening solo that showed the amazing range of sonic possibilities his instrument offers for a player who has unlocked its secrets. Among Shamma’s episodic flights of fancy came an impressive left-hand solo passage. His colleagues joined him for an ensemble piece featuring the pulsating sound of the Nay (masterfully played by Hany ElBadry) and a peppy number that showed off Saber AbdelSattar’s amazing digital skills on the Qanun.

A Sufi-inspired tune paired oud and zither, then oud and violin and ended in a vigorous tutti and on an ascending scale. We didn’t catch the title of the piece that followed, but it must be a favorite of the Iraqi diaspora, judging from the happy sounds of recognition in the audience; here for the first time the American bassist Miles Jay emerged as a soloist.

Shamma turned to a dance tune for his next solo, then the ensemble joined him in a slow piece from the Andalusian period with a long lyrical melody and a highly decorated final chord. The second song that followed featured the Nay in an arresting staccato passage.

The emotional center of the program came with an expressive oud solo Shamma dedicated to the 800 Iraqi children who were killed in 1991. At first sweet and elegiac, the mood turned to chromatic keening then to violent gestures before the piece ended with an upbeat gigue.

For the dazzling grand finale, like jazz men, every member of the ensemble enjoyed a solo break. Some, like AbdelSatar, took off on wild flights of fancy, while some seized the opportunity to spin lyrical lines. Before that began, Shamma thanked the museum staff for the “nice lighting and sound”, details that — beyond the spectacular performances — helped make the evening a delight.

Published on March 19, 2013

Click here for a printable version of this article.

Return to the website.