Musical Cultures Merge on 'Tabligh'

A new work by American jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Kurdistan-born composer Alan Kushan combines elements of their two cultures. Their collaboration, called Tabligh, played recently in New York.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In New York and Philadelphia, musicians from different countries came together this weekend for a musical experiment led by jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Smith is both composer and performer. He's received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalists Association, and he's been honored with a concert series in Los Angeles. But this weekend's events were especially close to his heart, a musical bridging of East and West. Howard Mandel has the story from New York.

HOWARD MANDEL reporting:

Wadada Leo Smith has come a long way from Leland, Mississippi, where he grew up, to Chicago in the 1960s. That's where he was asked to run the horn section of rhythm and blues star Little Milton.

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LITTLE MILTON: (Singing) If I don't love you, baby, bricks ain't gross red, eggs ain't poultry and Mona Lisa was a man. Oh, yeah!

MANDEL: But Smith also heard something else, and he became a significant voice in Chicago's avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

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MANDEL: Ever the explorer, Smith has gone on to study musics from all over the world and to teach. He is currently a professor of music at California Institute of the Arts. But his latest project crosses new frontiers. It's a cross-cultural improvisation between his jazz quartet and an ensemble steeped in Persian classical music.

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Professor WADADA LEO SMITH (California Institute of the Arts): Originally the intention after 9/11 was to try to find a way artistically to bridge the gap between the information of those two different cultures. The Islamic culture, really right now, if they had an influx of art coming into there, a lot of things would be very different.

MANDEL: For a collaborator representing traditions from the land once known as Persia and now called Iran, Smith found Alan Kushan, an innovator on the santur, a Middle Eastern hammered dulcimer. Kushan was born in a small village in Kurdistan.

Mr. ALAN KUSHAN (Musician): Definitely I'm Kurd. My mother is a Jewish Kurd, and my father comes from Azerbaijan.

MANDEL: Kushan brought with him Amir Koushkani, who was born, raised and educated in Tehran but now lives in Vancouver, Canada. Koushkani is a virtuoso on lutelike stringed instruments such as the sitar.

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MANDEL: Combining the sounds of ancient Persia and freely improvised jazz seems tricky enough, but there's another twist. Kurdistani-born Alan Kushan is the Jewish guy who studied music in European capitals; Wadada Leo Smith, the Mississippi son of the blues, is the devout Muslim.

Prof. SMITH: I came to Cal Arts, I was Rastafarian, to tell you the truth. And then a couple of years after that I felt that I needed some former lives' way of worshiping the creator, and it changed my life completely. What I do now, I wake up in the morning before sunrise, I do prayer either in my home or I go to the mosque. From there--if I go to the mosque, I usually go for a walk on the beach because this has been instructed by the prophet Muhammad--peace be upon him--that if you walk early in the morning, you get the most vitalizing portion of the air into your system.

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MANDEL: The collaborative composition is called "Tabligh." It was funded by the Islamic World Arts Initiative and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, whose mission is to keep the arts alive in the area devastated by the attacks of September 11th, 2001. "Tabligh" is the kind of cross-cultural collaboration that bears many good intentions but, as Alan Kushan recognizes, can have problematic results.

Mr. KUSHAN: Putting this thing together, there always could also be very dangerous, very dangerous. Why? Because imagine the sound of that instrument that Amir played, the sitar, is absolutely ...(unintelligible) with the horn. Horn is louder; horn is more aggressive. But the thing is we have to be receptive to the idea that there are a number of things that we share; there are other things we can't share. But I like the idea that on the stage, we could probably find a plateau or a place that we could at least exchange some of these ideas.

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MANDEL: "Tabligh" poses the jazz quartet and Kushan's trio separately and together in 11 sections, five of which represent the Islamic call to prayer. It was influenced by Wadada Leo Smith's pilgrimage last year to Mecca but even more so by the boundary-less experience of all the participants. Sentir player Amir Koushkani likens it to a quest.

Mr. AMIR KOUSHKANI (Musician): The music starts silent, and that silence is a background of everything. And if you listen carefully to that silence, the rest and quiet moment, I'm sure we can communicate. The differences gives us better view, and it makes more beautiful moments. When you deal with music, especially in the art of improvisation, gradually something happens and you become a little bit spiritual because you believe some of this melody comes from somewhere. It's not coming from your knowledge, it's not coming from--that you can count and you have a formula for it. But, you know, when you have a pure heart and when you have a presence in this moment, suddenly you can see and you can hear something.

MANDEL: For composer Wadada Leo Smith, who's immersed himself in many cultures since playing trumpet in blues bars at age 13, the quest brings him home.

Prof. SMITH: It's one journey. I'm one human being, and whichever way I go, it's informed by my mind and my heart. And it's the same mind and heart that's beating and telling me that, `Yes, this is right,' or, `Yes, this is something else,' or, `Yes, this is another way.'

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MANDEL: Smith hopes to perform "Tabligh" again with other Islamic ensembles and perhaps record it. Alan Kushan continues his work in Manhattan, and Amir Koushkani is working on a composition for symphony orchestra. For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

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ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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