Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Protoplasmic instrumentals

By David Blake

David Blake Lute recital, Nassir Shamma, Open-Air Theatre, Cairo Opera House, 25 July

It is a strange encounter. The body is neither under the wave nor with the lute. It's like an instrument without a player. And when the playing stops the body comes back. The name of the player is Nassir Shamma.

Shamma, and those like him -- here I would include Paganini, Liszt and Louis Armstrong -- make a unique show of possession. Shamma is the lute, the lute is him. The same skin covers them both, and they can change into each other at will. Their identification is total. It is a mystico-technological happening, rare in music.

In the disaster-bound society in which we live it is fashionable and fun to play around on the very edges of barbarity, as Shamma does, using his technical perfection as a virtuoso to command the lute to do almost anything. He has a strong pair of shoes -- his balance and timing are beyond those of most performers. So he manages to stay precariously on the right side. He never slips over into barbarity, part of his appeal, no doubt, to his hordes of fans and mystified listeners. They enjoy the sense of danger which pervades his music. He is, quite simply, more than a lute player.

His audience loll comfortably in the warm enveloping air of a summer night and listen to the dangers being presented, strange musical sounds from near and far.

No other musician playing in Cairo has ever had such a seemingly mystic power over such a large audience. Cairo does not always produce the best listeners. Audiences bore easily, lose the thread of what is being presented and are often distracted by the power of the city as it heaves itself around them. But Shamma's lute seemed to dominate the Cairo presence and, as an instrument, its limited voice is sharp enough to penetrate the Cairo noise barrier. These sounds draw immediate response from the audience. They become mute, lost, their heads swaying from side to side, eyes closed. Men predominate in the crowd -- why?

Nassir ShammaIn the opening song the twanging sound of the lute, echoed by long, trailing voices, showed extreme technique. Shamma's presence in a concert is extremely distant, sometimes he speaks introductions, he sits, he is the figure who will go beyond the music and not emerge until it is finished.

The audience knows the player. How do you make the lute an instrument capable of visual things? He is a ballad singer. He has so many colour touches that at times the small shell of the little lute becomes an organ. Impressive, and extremely unnerving.

The next piece is a different world because the key is major. A sort of antique dance begins, rich like a harpsichord. The lute itself is gone. Flamenco is always popular and Shamma seduces. He can even reproduce black satin from the lute, but before the flamenco can begin, the man who directs the instrument has slipped over into a different space. There seem to be two lutes, each above the other -- one a deep-down rhythm beneath, the other a soft, richly sweet commentary above. The fingers must be steel to cope with the technical problems.

In the fourth song the lute caught the light from the production unit and it shone like a fire opal, visually very satisfying. The playing became an impassioned dance -- percussive chords, impressionistic, like Debussy dreaming of the Spanish Maine at night.

Is there any heart in all this astounding virtuosity? What is the lute in the hands of Shamma? He stretches its compass from Bach Toccata, full of furious arpeggios, to Debussy in impassioned mood, and with all the richness of a symphony orchestra. Just two human hands are doing the playing.

And then comes speed. He stirs up a buzz of noise like a virtuoso on a motorbike. It goes in waves up and down the lute. Two hands are not enough, there must be something else out there. Add or subtract a body, a keyboard miracle is taking place. It is almost too quick to listen to.

The hold over the audience is mesmeric, because they are rather a noisy lot -- the audience is full to bursting point. There is no standing room, and the tracks through the crowd are full, yet the lute goes on. The crowd love the sheer thrill of being in the gang, and the playing excites a stimulus that is fun to respond to. The concert is becoming more like a revivalist meeting -- anyway, it appears more than music. There is a touch of Manichean deviltry about it.

It is the area to which Paganini once took his devotees.

The audience, who cannot find space to sit and listen, are getting noisy, but it makes no difference to Shamma. He has stopped playing, and there before us is the instigator of it all -- a small, rather distant figure hunched over his instrument and almost oblivious of the crowds seething around him. Everyone knows that when the concert is over he will stand up, listen to the shouts and bravos, bow and walk off. There are no reappearances and no repeats. But he is still sitting, so there must be more to come.

When it does it is a simple song in the major key, a shade Mexican, with chromatic runs and stabs of savage tunes. But it is not Mexican, it is an event -- part of the unhappy legend of our times. The lute goes to war, death and damnation. Police cars moan, there is a chase and a great scream. This moment it is not music. The player plays for all to see. He has come out from behind the mask of music. The huddled figure can make a huge noise. Identity is clarified at last. We know where we are and with whom, and so this extraordinary evening of music is over.

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