Before discussing the extraordinarily beautiful and uplifting music on Taqasim
, a last minute, odds-on favourite for the best of 2006 lists, a little background on the oud, taqasim and oud player Marcel Khalife (you can hit fast forward if you know it).
Born in Lebanon in 1950 but now living in exile in Paris, Khalife's work is shaped by both classical Arab court music, of which he is a master, and today's Palestinian diaspora. In the 1970s, moved by the Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut, he became an eloquent supporter of the nationalist movement. Much of his work has since been inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Meanwhile, fundamentalist zealots have three times tried to have Khalife imprisoned on the charge of "degrading Islam" (for including a couplet from the Koran in one of his songs). There's much more to his brave and principled story. In 2005 he was named a UNESCO Artist For Peace, but it's no longer safe for him to live in his own country.
The oud, from which the European lute derives, is an eleven-stringed instrument with a Rubenesque, pear-shaped body. Crucially, the curves produce a richly resonant sound box. The oud's fretless neck allows the player to use the slides and microtones also found in Indian sitar music. At the top end, it is pretty and filigreed; in its sturdy middle and bass registers, the beating heart of the instrument, it can be intensely driving and mesmeric.
There are raga connections too in taqasim, a complex, precisely detailed framework for improvisation. In a taqasim, a musician plays a series of improvisations, separated by moments of silence, on different aspects of an opening modal theme, to which he periodically returns.
Which brings us to Taqasim. There are three taqasims on the album, each lasting about twenty minutes, and each offering a musical cosmos to get lost in. Moods and colours evolve, but the underlying effect of the first is beatific, the second darker, and the third urgent and visceral. In each, the oud's lyricism flows like a river. The improvisations are as architectural and expressive as those in elite Indian raga.
Whilst not ignoring the crystalline upper reaches of the oud, Khalife concentrates on the middle and bass registers, supported by Peter Herbert's sonorous bass, in a stream of gorgeously melodic, melismatic improvisations. Sometimes the music sounds characteristically Middle Eastern, at others unexpected cross-cultural influences take hold. The oud, by turns, takes on the guise of a sitar, a Spanish guitar, a lute, a bouzouki, even a drum.
Taqasim is music of the most elevated, Sufic complexion, transporting and cleansing, delighting and reviving, and a hotline to something beyond words, something unmistakably higher.