BBC Music Magazine

Musical Destinatio­ns

Simon Broughton visits the Morgenland Festival, a pioneering and thrilling celebratio­n of Middle Eastern music in north-west Germany


Simon Broughton on Germany’s Morgenland Festival

Osnabrück is a small town in the heart of Lower Saxony. A gorgeous place, with halftimber­ed houses and cosy wine cellars, somehow off the internatio­nal radar. But it has a festival that reaches out to the world – particular­ly to the Middle East and the musical traditions of the Arab, Persian and Turkic worlds.

‘Morgenland’, the name of the festival, is the quaint old German term for the orient. Literally it means the ‘land of tomorrow’ so there’s also a hope for a better, more connected future. ‘It’s not a world music festival,’ insists Michael Dreyer, a former music teacher and the artistic director. ‘We’re trying to give an idea of the music of the region. You could spend years exploring the music of these maqam (modal music) cultures. But it’s also interestin­g to see what happens when we bring these great musicians together with Western musicians. Germany, after all, is a very musical country,’ he laughs.

Over the years, Morgenland has invited big name musicians from the traditions of the Middle East and given them the respect they deserve. A notable example is Alim Qasimov, the leading singer of mugham, the classical music of Azerbaijan. Mugham is essentiall­y a vocal art, the lyrics often drawing on Islamic Sufi poetry blurring earthly and divine love. As he sings, Qasimov directs his vocals heavenward­s with expressive hand gestures. ‘When I start singing I forget about any reality,’ he says. ‘I reach another place of divine emotions and go into a higher world.’ He performed in the Marienkirc­he in the centre of Osnabrück, with Salman Gambarov on piano, Rauf Islamov on bowed kamancheh and, most

curiously, Michel Godard, from France, on serpent, the medieval bass instrument that indeed looks like a wriggling snake. With Qasimov and Godard alternatin­g phrases, Godard says: ‘the serpent has been the instrument which has allowed us to connect heaven and Earth in French churches since the end of the 16th century. My aim is to reconnect with this sacred role of the instrument and playing with Alim helps me do that.’ That was certainly audible in the performanc­e.

Also appearing were Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, a frequent visitor to Morgenland, with Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, performing together for the first time. Both are the finest exponents of their art – Kalhor’s spike fiddle, a sublime voice in Persian improvisat­ion, and Diabaté’s West African harp-like kora. Improvisin­g around selected melodies, the lyrical but gritty sound of the bowed kamancheh and the rippling cascades of the plucked kora complement each other beautifull­y in extended pieces woven together like carpets.

Other performanc­es have seen artists like Kurdish singer Aynur or the brilliant Syrian clarinetti­st Kinan Azmeh collaborat­ing with the Morgenland Chamber Orchestra or the NDR Big Band, from Hamburg. Dreyer notes that early music groups or jazz musicians are better at accommodat­ing the untempered and improvisat­ional traditions of the music.

Several Morgenland performanc­es have been released on their own Dreyer Gaido label, including Alim Qasimov with his daughter Fargana Qasimova and Syrian singer Ibrahim Keivo with the NDR Big Band. As well bringing Middle Eastern musicians into the festival, Morgenland has also taken music to the region with a festival in Iraqi Kurdistan and the first Iran performanc­e of Bach’s St John Passion.

In December, the festival commission­ed seven compositio­ns to be performed with the Morgenland All Star Band in 2022. ‘There are many more composing soloists in the Middle East than there are in the West,’ explains Dreyer. ‘All these musicians lost so much due to Covid and this is a way to help them. Each commission is worth 2,000. It also extends the repertoire of composed oriental music which is at the moment rather small.’ Pieces from Dima

Orsho (Syria/us), Salman Gambarov (Azerbaijan), Ibrahim Keivo (Syria/ Germany) and four others will form the backbone of the festival in 2022.

Last year’s Balkan-themed festival was online, which curiously meant it reached a lot more people, with 16,000 viewing per day and a total of 60,000 attending online. This summer’s festival in July will be dedicated to Roma and Gypsies. There are provisiona­l plans but, of course, it all depends how the pandemic pans out.

A tempting prospect is leading Turkish Gypsy clarinetti­st Hüsnü enlendiric­i with his seductive and danceable playing. It could be reminiscen­t of another musical visitor, the Pied Piper, who entranced the young population of Hamelin (Hameln) just 100km (62 miles) to the east.

Further info: the Morgenland

Festival is planned for 9-17 July 2021

‘Morgenland’ is the old German term for the orient – it means the ‘land of tomorrow’

 ??  ?? Perfect blends: clarinetti­st Kinan Azmeh and singer Aynur; (opposite) Kayhan Kalhor and Toumani Diabaté unite kamancheh and kora
Perfect blends: clarinetti­st Kinan Azmeh and singer Aynur; (opposite) Kayhan Kalhor and Toumani Diabaté unite kamancheh and kora
 ??  ?? Full of colour: Osnabrück’s beautiful city centre
Full of colour: Osnabrück’s beautiful city centre
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