The Alim Qasimov Ensemble and Homayun Sakhi, The Barbican, 19/09/10

Alim Qasimov

How well-timed that this event as part of The Barbican’s Transcender festival, celebrating trance-inducing spiritual music from around the world, should have coincided with a visit to London from a certain someone decrying our “aggressive secularism”, while his aides deplored this country’s multi-culturalism. After the Islaja mis-step on Wednesday, here we had the real deal: traditional, devotional music, delivered by some of its finest exponents from across the globe, capable of transporting the listener geographically, temporally and emotionally. Tonight’s lineup was brought to us by the letter A, with music from Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. Rubâb player Homayun Sakhi represented the former and celebrated mugham singer Alim Qasimov, returning to the Barbican after a seemingly successful recent appearance with the Kronos Quartet, the latter.

The rubâb before is a very interesting and esoteric instrument indeed. In the shape of a short lute, it perhaps owes more to the sitar in terms of how it is played – with three melody strings, three drone strings, and 13 short sympathetic strings. Indeed, Sakhi, a student of the most famous rubâb player Ustad Mohammad Omar began by playing a long, impressive raga-type piece on his instrument, showing off its full capability. He was then joined by musicians playing tabla and doira. The doira looks like the sort of thing I used to be given to play at primary school music class (“Maybe the xylophone isn’t for you. Here, you just bang on this”), being just a membrane disc, with some bells on the back, played with the fingers. But Abbos Kosimov proved just how much it was possible to do with such a seemingly limited device, playing fast, complex rhythms (he played a savage, spitting section which sounded like high-BPM jungle), even playing two and then three doiras at once. Even having seen it, I’m still not convinced that is even possible. Under this accomplished percussion, Sakhi kept the piece anchored to a deep, minimalist, repetitive refrain, occasionally tearing into brief solos which took him down the full length of his instrument, even eking out neat asides on the instruments shorter strings to nodded approval from his fellow musicians. One of the most enjoyable support slots I’ve seen in a long time.

Musically, the Ilam Qasimov set was simpler and less dazzling – a bowed kamancheh, a plucked tar, with Qasimov and his daughter Fargana adding less showy daf percussion (another disc similar to the doira, seemingly made of snakeskin in the case of the elder Qasimov). But this performance wasn’t really about that. The strings merely provided a platform for possibly the most astonishing singing I’ve ever had the privilege to hear live in concert. Fargana’s voice was pure and expressive; only next to her father could she be considered second best. Alim’s range was wondrous, from low groans to high exclamations, every syllable delivered precisely and overflowing with emotion, thrilling microtonal trills reminiscent of qawwali artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (how many singers deserve to even be mentioned in the same breath as Nusrat?). I’ve no idea what they were singing about, but it sounded like something so beautiful that, even had it not been in Azeri, I wouldn’t have been able to fully comprehend it. Pity this poor (non-aggressive) atheist.