I’m not sure if it was the music, but I was surrounded by four sleeping children.
It was a cool late-summer eve and a low, steady voice was seeping over the amphitheatre, lulling the children present – and a few of the adults – into a state of narcosis.
The lady responsible was Syrian singer and oud player Waed Bouhassoun, performing at El-Geneina Theater on Friday. The event was the fourth installment in the “Hayy series of Ramadan evenings organized by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (The Culture Resource).
Bouhassoun (whose first name means “promise ) studied oud under the Azerbaijani master Askar Ali Akbar and opera singing at the High Institute for Music in Damascus. Her debut album “A Voice for Love was released in 2008.
The core concept of the album is a compelling one. Bouhassoun hand-picked a selection of verses from the oeuvres of the great Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi and two 11th-century Arab Andalusian poets, Ibn Zaydun and his inamorata Wallada. She then set them to her own compositions and sang them in the classical Arabic tarab tradition.
This is a slow and ponderous form: a few lines of lyrics are recycled over and over again, with small melodic variations, for the entire duration of a (usually lengthy) song. It takes an artist with spirit and passion to guide a lay audience through this labyrinth of incessant repetition and sometimes oblique lyrics.
The album description promised a voice that “intensifies emotion and meaning to the point of ecstasy. I was ready for a night of the sublime.
The audience hummed in expectation at the single empty chair on the softly lit stage of El-Geneina Theater. Bouhassoun strode on, head high and shoulders back, somber and composed. She took her seat, settled the pear-shaped oud onto her lap, and began a three-minute instrumental prelude to the first number. Head bent in concentration, her fingers rippled over the neck-strings of the oud, coaxing from it that familiar mournful tremor.
In an unfortunate stroke of irony, the first number was called “O You Who is Sleeping. As Bouhassoun began to sing, her voice rich and reassuring, I saw the chins of children around me start to sink into their chest.
The number was not, in fact, a lullaby – far from it. It was a song of love and longing based on verses from Ibn Zaydun, who uses paradox and antithesis to reproach his oblivious beloved, “O you who are sleeping, whose love has kept me awake…You laugh in love and I weep.
It was clear from the first sung words that the oud is a mere backdrop to Bouhassoun’s primary instrument: her voice. Powerful and with a distinctively deep timbre, it was wielded with a great deal of technical dexterity and control.
But was her restrained approach enough to convey the hungered yearning of Ibn Zaydun’s words? As she sang, Bouhassoun’s eyes were closed; whatever she was experiencing was internalized. It all made for a rather introverted “performance that threatened to leave much of her audience out in the cold.
The second number, “I am Jealous, was almost a response to the first. Here, Wallada flaunts the very playfulness, the “laughter in love that Ibn Zaydun accuses her of. Wallada’s poetry is delightful in its wordplay and trail-blazing boldness: “I let my lover sample the dish of my cheek / I give my kisses to whomever savors them. It’s difficult to tell, but it seemed that Bouhassoun may have enjoyed it too, as she made the concession of allowing a tiny smile to skip across her lips.
Next came Rumi, and again – and especially then – Bouhassoun’s reserve did the words no justice. True, it is sacred poetry that requires a measure of reverence, but Rumi’s sacred ghazal borders on the profane, as he speaks, with the passion of a lover, of his desire to submerge himself and be at one with his Creator.
If the word passion itself comes from the Latin “pati, meaning to suffer, to submit – then where does that leave Bouhassoun’s almost steely steadfastness?
The audience grew ever more listless, and more and more straggled out as the evening wore on. Only a core group of devotees soldiered on through the remainder of the set: a couple of classic Arabic songs (including a couple of Om Kulthoum numbers), and a cappella version of a song written by Egyptian poet Bayram El-Tunsi, a short improvisation on the oud.
After the show, audience opinion was divided. A few – such as Emanuelle Grisez, an attendee from France who came with her family – were impressed. “Magnificent voice, she said, carrying her sleeping daughter. “We didn’t understand a lot of the language, but we found it very beautiful.
Others, such as 26-year-old Lina, had a different take. “I liked the verses she chose, but.I don’t know. I didn’t really feel her much.
It is hard to fault Waed Bouhassoun. Her finger work was precise, her voice unwaveringly strong. On the whole, it was a polished, by-the-book performance. But if this is a voice for love, it seemed to me love of a rather abstract and academic kind.