Arab Music Days in Berlin, an Omphalos of Being at the Pierre Boulez Sal

The chill sky above Berlin was heavy as granite. The rumour of war was everywhere, and it loped alongside me as I entered the Pierre Boulez Saal. I was there to see the performance of the Tunisian Gharbi Trio and the time spent there was a blessed pause from the dark stories of our constant news feeds. 

First some context. The Abu Dhabi Festival was the principal partner of the week-long Arab Music Days celebration at the Pierre Boulez Saal. The founder of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, Her Excellency Huda Ebrahim Alkhamis-Kanoo states that ‘the power of the arts to build bridges between peoples and nations makes progress possible.’ At a time when so many bridges, both metaphoric and actual are being destroyed the work of ADMAF shows that there are forces in the world that champion art and music, as precious and essential utterances. 

The Gharbi Trio comprise oud player Bechi Gharbi, violinist Mohamed Gharbi, and the Tunisian qanun, played by Sami Gharbi. To sit for an hour watching these men perform is to be transported to the heart-space of Arab musicality. Their virtuosity begins with a formality that quickly glides into elaboration and improvisation. It is mannered and restrained, while, at the same time, passionate, melancholy and joyful.  Whereas western music is so much about the performer and the triumph of the ego, it seemed to me that the Gharbi Trio are servants to their art. Bechi and Mohamed are twins and they possess a kind the soulful synchronicity typical of close siblings.  

Speaking to Bechi after the performance was a great pleasure. The conversation ranged from the Iraqi and Turkish musical traditions to wider Indian and Spanish influences on their music. He told me that while classical Arabic forms underpin all their work, they are constantly open to new ideas. ‘There is not ultimate purity in music,’ he said. When I asked about the sublime aspect of performance (as in the Spanish concept of Duende) Bechi thought for a moment and then put his hand on his heart. ‘Music makes you think and feel at the same time. Music is both science and art. It reminds us that we are human beings before everything else,’ he replied. 

The exquisite performance of the Gharbi Trio was a rare moment of omphalos, a centring of being and possibility; pause made in a troubled time.

By Steven O’Brien

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