Skalli and Asil Ensemble breathe new life into the ancient

Mustafa Said and his Asil Ensemble showed a packed London audience how Arabic music is evolving, at an intensely spiritual concert with Moroccan star Karima Skalli

An enthusiastic London crowd got a taste of the innovation happening at the forefront of Arabic music on Saturday at Burda, a concert at the Barbican Concert Hall on the opening night of the Shubbak festival of Arab culture.

Shouts of appreciation and spontaneous applause broke out after virtuoso vocal performances from the renowned Moroccan singer Karima Skalli and from Mustafa Said, the musicologist, composer, singer, oud player who formed the Asil Ensemble more than a decade ago in order to breathe new life into ancient styles of music from the Middle East and North Africa.

Surrounding them on stage were eleven other white-clad, barefoot members of the group, playing instruments including ouds of various sizes, violin, cello and qanun, a type of large zither.

Said gave a short talk in the venue’s foyer before the show, in which he paid tribute to Sami al Shawa, the “Arab Paganini”, before giving a short performance of some of al Shawa’s music with  members of the Ensemble and the acclaimed violin player Ahmed Al Salhi.

We are trying to develop classical Arab music from within itself

Mustafa Said

“Sami al Shawa is an idea, a thought,” he said, “not to stop developing, not to remain at the same place as our ancestors were. He never tried to imitate – he wanted to develop, but he wanted to develop from inside.”

This sums up the philosophy of Said himself, who creates bold new compositions using traditional Arabic instruments, inspired by music from all over the region, from sea shanties to devotional songs.

In an interview with Jane Cornwell for the show’s programme, Said says that, within Arabic music in general at the moment, “the prevailing attitude is one of copying… What we are trying to do is develop classical Arab music from within itself.”

Asil Ensemble
The group play instruments that include ouds, violin, cello and qanunImage: Shubbak Festival/Michael Brydon

Another speaker at the pre-performance talk was Kamal Kassar, director of the AMAR Foundation, which works to preserve and promote classical Arabic music from its headquarters in Beirut. He talked about making AMAR’s archives available to contemporary groups like the Asil Ensemble, so that the music continues to inspire musicians who are pioneering new sounds.

He also explained the ways in which the Arabic tradition differs from the Western classical canon: Arabic ensembles tend to be small and to operate “like an ensemble of soloists” who “play the tune with a free will and join together at the beat.”

The concert itself was a mixture of old and new music, finishing with a 55-minute song cycle composed recently by Said, which combined moments of quiet intensity with rousing, melismatic, trance-like vocal solos. Earlier on, the audience were treated to the 14th-century Burdat Al Busairi, as well as Nahj El Burdah, a song popularised by Umm Kulthum, performed here with passion and deep spirituality by Skalli.

“The world needs healing”, Skalli was quoted as saying in the Shubbak blog, and the devotional words she sings on stage come “straight from the soul and the heart.”