Culture & Conversation

Harmonies at the cultural crossroads

What better way to pass a rainy, windy Halloween evening than sitting in the intimate Salle Bourgie listening to haunting and evocative Persian melodies. As part of the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal, Montréal group Constantinople played a selection of original compositions as well as a couple of traditional Persian tunes to a hugely appreciative audience.

Although at first glance a concert of Persian music doesn’t obviously fit into a festival of Arab culture, the cross-cultural musical tendencies of Constantinople correspond perfectly with the Festival’s goal of bringing together different cultures for dialogue, exchange and creativity. The musicians of Constantinople “make migration and mixing of cultures our territory . . . this awareness of belonging to several space-times is as basic to us as respiration, as inspiration.” The group’s very name was chosen for the ancient city that straddles and illuminates East and West. Members come from Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey; migration is part of their personal and artistic aesthetic.

The group is known for its ability to bring to life different times and places, and to imagine sounds that were never written down or recorded. From Andalusia to Mexico, from Versailles to China, from baroque to medieval to klezmer, Constantinople creates and re-imagines the meetings of different cultures through music.

Apart perhaps from the lute-like oud, played by Charbel Rouhana, the instruments on stage Wednesday night might not be familiar to the average non-Persian concert-goer. Cofounder Kiya Tabassian played sétar, a string instrument; Neva Özgen played kemençe, a small bowed instrument, played between the legs cello-style, that sounds uncannily like a human voice; and Didem Basar played kânun, a zither-like instrument. Both Rouhana and Tabassian also sang.

Strong musical communication and ensemble playing make Constantinople a pleasure to hear live. Most of the pieces tend to feature solo improvisations over a sort of vamp played by the other musicians. But the improvisatory sections are always framed by periods of tight synchronicity. Some of the pieces are introduced by free, fantasia-like passages that transport the listener to another world, then bring that world into sharp focus when the rhythms come together again.

A few of the pieces had a mournful quality, at least to the Western-trained ear. The lamenting, even wailing sound of the kemençe was particularly moving. But many of the tunes were bubbling over with joy, sometimes so much so that the musicians couldn’t contain their smiles nor the audience its applause. The concert ended with the world premier of “Caravan,” an original composition of Didem Basar.

What a pleasure it was to visit, on the cusp of another Montreal winter, a warm desert landscape brought to life by this talented ensemble.

Constantinople played as part of the Festival du monde Arabe de Montréal, which runs until November 9 at venues across town. For more on the festival, visit their website.

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