Qantara fuses musical cultures

Special to The Times

Often spoken of, rarely experienced in convincing fashion, global music fusion has proved to be an elusive goal. One of its rare successes turned up Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall in the form of Simon Shaheen and his ensemble Qantara. The performance took place one night after Zakir Hussain's Tabla Beat Science had largely failed to bring together elements of Indian classical music and electronic pop in the same hall.

In both cases, the centerpiece was the virtuosity of the primary figures -- Shaheen performing on violin and oud, Hussain on tabla. But the music of Qantara was convincing on many other levels as well: the superb flute playing of Bassan Saba, the multihued percussion of Jamey Haddad and the collective capacity to move easily from propulsive rhythms to floating, contemplative melody-making.

Shaheen's success in combining characteristics of Middle Eastern music, Western classical music, jazz and Latin rhythms into a gorgeous tapestry can be traced to his capacity to find their common threads. In the taqasim passages, for example, the similarities between Middle Eastern improvisation and jazz improvisation simmered through Shaheen's articulate violin and oud soloing. In "Al Qantara," his oud took on the characteristics of a flamenco guitar. "Blue Flame," the title track of the group's latest album, was an ensemble display of virtuosity, and "Waving Sands" offered a folk-like theme that might have surfaced in a work by Aaron Copland.

But the most important aspect of the performance was the way Qantara moved beyond artificial notions of fusion, offering a vision of the commonality, rather than a juxtaposition of the differences, among the world's many musical cultures.

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