Abdullah Chhadeh, with Nara
at the National Centre For Early Music,
York, England
(23 May 2004)

Sometimes you go to a live gig with a hunch you might just chance upon something very special. This performance by Abdullah Chhadeh and the four accompanying musicians of Nara was truly exceptional. Exceptional because of the powerful, unspoken communication that simmered between the band and much of the audience, outstanding because of the seductive, almost mystical lyricism of the music. The band created the most hypnotic, exotic dance grooves, and the impact on the audience was palpable (something you don't witness every day). This was real "edge of your seat" music -- it shimmered with dramatic tension!

Chhadeh is a virtuoso musician and composer, hailing from the Golan Heights and growing up in Syria. He plays the qanun, a multi-stringed descendant of the harp tuned an octave higher to allow for greater musical exploration. His dexterity on the instrument is dazzling. He sat quietly in front of the audience, his manner both engaging and unassuming (there was no stage -- the band were at eye level with us), the trapezoid elegance of the qanun resting across his knees. With two plectra on his index fingers, he astonished us immediately with three outstanding "quieter" compositions -- the slow, Middle Eastern grooves of "An-Salaam Alikum," a stunning piece called simply "Solo Qanun" and the heavily jazz-inflected "Hijaz-Car" (again solo) where the passion behind Chhadeh's playing became all too apparent.

It was when Nara re-joined Chhadeh that you started to sense an electrifying undercurrent running through the music and its impact on the audience -- it was powerfully moving to witness this. The tight, percussion-dominated grooves of the chilled, haunting and sultry "Keif" were mesmerising, and fellow Syrian Loui Al-Hinawi's swirling, seductive nay playing interwove the qanun exquisitely (as it did through so many of the compositions). Palestinian Numan Elyer was an inspired darbuka player, pounding out hypnotic, lightning-quick rhythms. Bassist Bernard O'Neill (from Ireland) and British drummer Simon Webster provided tight, very sensitive accompaniment -- their restraint was exemplary during the agonising, tension-building lulls, whilst they effortlessly created pulsing, resonant grooves at the climactic, more thrilling moments. These musicians are masters of the art of dramatic suspense! Many in the audience clearly felt unable to remain seated, and Chhadeh's invitation to come and dance to the alluring, heady rhythms was eagerly accepted by many. It was a real pleasure to see such sensual enjoyment within the walls of this converted church.

Much of Chhadeh's music is inspired by his home city of Damascus -- exotic titles like "Bab-Tooma," "Bab-Al Salaam" and "Bab-Al Jabi" (named after the Gates to Damascus) evoked vivid images of his homeland as he introduced each piece of music. Many of the tunes conjured images of travel, mystery and exploration. The rhythmic, sensual delivery of pieces such as "Assaf" and "Nashweh" bathed us all with an unstoppable, sublime feeling of Middle Eastern promise! It was incredibly hard to shake off those rich images of dusty Damascene streets and sun-scorched desert landscapes once the music had stopped.

The band received a richly deserved standing ovation for their outstanding performances -- there were few who were not moved and thrilled by their magnificent musicianship. Performers such as these communicate their passion for their culture through their playing -- words seem utterly superfluous.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 31 July 2004