Francesco Turrisi: In Pursuit of Ecstasy
At the time, Turrisi played on occasion with a Lebanese drummera darbuka (Arabic goblet drum) player named Fadi Hatoumand they performed together at a percussion festival organized by fellow percussionist Robbie Harris. Turrisi mentioned his idea to Harris, who recommended flautist Emer Maycock as the perfect musician for such a project, for his open-mindedness. Once again, Turrisi managed to get some funding for a one-off project: "It was with the people who are in the group now plus a guest: a kanun [zither-like, stringed instrument] player from Syria, [named Abdullah Chadeh], and a sean-nós singer [named Roisin El Safty]. We tried it as a one-off thing, and we thought there was some interesting material so we decided to keep going. We did it for a while as a quartet but got a bit stuck and didn't know where to go next."
Tarab: from left:Francesco Turrisi, Kate Ellis, Emer Maycock, Robbie Harris, Nick Roth
Turrisi didn't have to look to far from home to find the missing ingredient: "I played in a piano, saxophone and cello trio with Nick Roth and Kate Ellis. We did a gig with Tarab and asked Kate to join Tarab for a few pieces. We thought, 'Oh, my God! This is what we need.' That was the next step, and since then we've just been developing our sound, trying to merge what each of us brings to the group. Robbie [Harris] and Emer [Maycock] are trad musicians, but they've done all kinds of interesting things. Nick [Roth] is a jazz saxophonist, but he has a Jewish background and plays a lot of klezmer and Balkan music. Kate [Ellis] is a contemporary classical cellist, but she does a lot of contemporary stuff like improvisation, and specializes in 20th-century music. She's also played with a lot of great trad musicians and singer-songwriters, so she has a vast range of experience. Then there's myself. Nowadays, Tarab is a combination of all of us, with all of these elements."
Tarab is an Arabic word which means something akin to a state of ecstasy, the deepest emotional transformation brought about by music. While Tarab's debut recording, Tarab (Taquin Records, 2011), doesn't quite induce a state of ecstasy, it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted recording and has already been perceived in some quarters as one of the most significant reorientations of Irish traditional music in decades. True to the original idea behind the formation of the band, Tarab played a series of mouthwatering collaborative concerts in 2010, as part of a program run by the Mermaid Arts Center in Bray, just outside Dublin. With additional support from the Improvised Music Company, the concept was to do four tours of Ireland with four different guests. The four guests were Greek singer Savina Yannatou, kaval player Theodossil Spassov, Palestinian oud player Haitham Safiya and Iranian tombak player Pedram Khavar-Zaminiall outstanding musicians of world renown.
"It was a great opportunity playing with such wonderful musicians," enthuses Turrisi. "We played the Triskel Arts Center in Cork; we played in Belfast, Kildare, Galway; we played in Derry at the jazz festival; and we did a festival in Mayo, a smaller Arts festival in Navan; and we always finished at the Mermaid Arts Center in Bray. So it was a bit of the Arts Center circuit of Ireland."
Clips on YouTube suggest that the musical collaborations were nothing short of spellbinding. This raises the question of whether the Mermaid Arts Center might be keen to repeat the experience. "Well, understandably they want to do something different every year," says Turrisi. "This year they have a residency with a Congolese guitarist, a great guy called Niwel Tsumbu, who lives in Dublin as well. His music is a mix of all the African guitar stuff, Jimi Hendrix and jazz. It's really great. His music is really strange. I've played a few gigs with him, on accordion. Rhythmically, he's very complex, not complex in the way we play in 7 or 15, but he plays in a different meter and he doesn't write the music, so he teaches you by ear," laughs Turrisi. "He's a very interesting guy."