My Favorite Ethnic Recording - Resonance - Volume 7 - Number 2 - 1999
MY FAVORITE ETHNIC RECORDING - ROBERT WYATT
Le Coran - psalmodie par Cheik Abdelbasset Abdessamad
(My pressing distributed by Sono Disc, Paris and imported to England by Conifer Records, but this just happens to be a recording of the Muezzin's call to prayer to which I have easy access: any would do really, or none if you've a mosque nearby).
BY WHAT I DARED NOT IMAGINE WAS
anything but a lucky coincidence, I found I could tootle along on trumpet using some of what they call I think a gypsy scale mode (I am not a trained musician myself), from an approximate Eb (i.e. Eb, E, Fsharp, G, etc) and blow me - literally - the unaccompanied Muezzin on this record seems to tag along with me for the whole first side of this long-playing record.
I followed along more tentatively through side two until about two thirds of the way, by which time he seemed (to my irrelevantly harmonically oriented ears) to be moving around an implied tonal centre from G to D, Eb and F, in which I recognised the phrasing, the phrases and indeed the melodic twists and turns themselves. Then by some luck I was playing this section through the speakers whilst simultaneously listening to a piece which seemed to echo it on a pair of headphones: Miles Davis's rubato solo on the Saeta he recorded with Gil Evans Orchestra for Sketches of Spain.
And although the connection is obviously the Deep Song (Cante Jondo) of Andalucia, the odd thing is that despite the widely acknowledged and profound Islamic influence, it's rare to see anything more than references to generalised connect¬ions with Arabic and other Semitic culture derived from the era when Andulucia was the jewel in the crown of the Arabian Empire. Flamenco is after all as quintessentially Romany-Iberian as r'n'b is quintessentially Black American. And I suppose that, since Romany Culture is traced back primarily to the Indian sub-continent, it's only in the names Tzigan, Gitan, Gitano and Gyspsy - with their misleading but historically understandable origin Egyptian words -that the near-eastern/ north African element apparent.
The Saeta itself I've witnessed in northern Spain in one of the Andalucian 'immigrant' areas around Barcelona, Catalunya. As described in the sleevenotes to Sketches of Spain, a kind of dignified but appealingly shambolic slow marching band of drum and bugles halts in a silence - broken only by the simplest of taps on the side-drum - under the balcony of the subsequent Saeta singer, who releases a dramatically fractured chant over the whole proceedings before the band shuffles on mournfully down the street. I remember thinking then, ‘There she is up on the balcony sounding for all the world like one of those Muezzin's calls to prayer from a minaret and overlooking a whole neighbourhood.'
I've not seen any flamencologist make this direct and specific link, so I have to assume it's just a hunch, like many others, about a music without much verifiably documented history.
Luckily there are enough mosques around now for virtually anyone to be able to make the comparison, since every comprehensive flamenco anthology contains a Saeta (I've got a great one by Manola Caracol from his La Salvadora session). There's even an appealing but far-fetched theory that the famous flamenco shout "Ole!" could be derived from that other more ubiquitous evocation "Allah!"
But, you know, returning to this record of the Coran (or Q'ran) which is similar to the Coran sung anywhere (Arabic being to Islam what Latin is to Roman Catholicism and English is to transnational corporations), I can't help feeling that this is indeed evidence of the vibrant survival of 'non-European' cultural habits which illustrates a deep-rooted cross-fertilisation between Islamic and Christianised cultures -something that has all but been buried in modern European history books, which airbrush out the Arabic component of Semitic culture with exclusive terms like 'the Judeo-Christian tradition'. And it thrills me to come across a re-affirmation that Europe is not and never has been an Island continent.