Nowruz, the debut album of the Aga Khan Master Musicians from Smithsonian Folkways, represents the culmination of a pioneering collaboration between six artists whose music crosses cultures and continents. While drawing inspiration from traditional sources, it still sounds exuberantly contemporary in its mosaic of styles and sensibilities.
The Aga Khan Master Musicians, or AKMM, was the brainchild of the Aga Khan Music Programme, whose mission is to support contemporary expressions of Muslim musical heritage. (The program also administers the Aga Khan Music Awards, given every three years to recognize exceptional musical talent from across the Muslim world.) The idea behind AKMM was to offer gifted musicians with roots in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and East Asia an opportunity to revitalize the historical legacy of cultural contact between these regions by merging their respective musical languages.
These languages, however, weren’t limited to traditional styles and genres. How could they be when the members of AKMM are cosmopolitans whose own life journeys have been shaped by displacement and migration?
Saxophonist Basel Rajoub was born and raised in Syria and now resides in Europe. Pipa maestra Wu Man left her native China to live in the United States more than thirty years ago but regularly returns to China to teach and perform. Sirojiddin Juraev, born and raised near the ancient city of Khujand, in northern Tajikistan, is a virtuoso performer on the two-stringed Tajik-Uzbek dutar. Paris-based Tunisian violinist Jasser Haj Youssef took up the Baroque viola d’amore as an ideal expressive vehicle for classical Arab maqam music. Feras Charestan is from the city of Al-Hasakeh, in the northeast of Syria, and studied qanun at the High Institute of Music in Damascus. Abbos Kosimov, a master of Uzbek frame drumming, divides his time between Sacramento, California, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Their participation in a multitude of international arts projects has exposed them to a panoply of musical influences from around the globe.
The impact of this collective transcultural mobility comes through clearly in AKMM’s music. Memory and nostalgia entwine with fresh inspiration produced by encounters with new places and people. Take Charestan’s “Jul Dance,” for example. His instrument is the qanun, a trapezoidal zither with roots in ancient Mesopotamia, which he studied at the High Institute of Music in Damascus, in his native Syria. He is equally at home performing with orchestras and contemporary music ensembles as he is accompanying traditional Syrian muwashshah singers. Unable to pursue his musical career in his war-torn homeland, Charestan immigrated to Sweden and now makes his home in Stockholm.
“Jul Dance” (pronounced “yule”) was inspired by folk music—specifically, Swedish folk music. Charestan composed it as his contribution to a Christmas concert at the Swedish university where he was then studying. Introducing “Jul Dance” in a concert, he noted that it starts out in 7/8 time—common in Syrian music—but switches in the middle to 2/4, a meter characteristic of Swedish folk music.
“It’s not from my culture. It’s very far from me,” Charestan said of the square 2/4 beat. “But I’m starting to feel these influences.”
Charestan shared the principal melodic themes of “Jul Dance” with his fellow ensemble members. Each of the musicians had to find their own place in the musical texture of the song, and as they did so, the arrangement recorded on Nowruz emerged. Participating in one of these sessions, Rajoub longed for a deeper drum timbre than could be provided by Kosimov’s frame drums, and thus they invited Turkish musician Levent Yıldırım on the doholla, a goblet drum with ancient roots in the Middle East and now associated with musical traditions of Egypt.
If “Jul Dance” celebrates Charestan’s new life in Sweden, his other composition on Nowruz, “Awdeh,” evokes his Syrian roots. In Arabic, awdeh means “return.”
“I wrote this piece in a state of nostalgia for the homeland I left, and the melody expresses my longing to return,” he explains.
The second half of the piece becomes delicate, ballad-like, drawing on the language of maqam, a sophisticated form of classical music cultivated in various local “dialects” by professional musicians in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia for more than a millennium. Maqam calls on performers to improvise within a rule-based system that dictates pitches, intervals, characteristic melodic motifs, and emphasized scale degrees, and requires extensive musical training.
By contrast, Wu Man’s sprightly “Teahouse” is an homage to the traditional silk and bamboo instruments played in teahouses in her hometown area of Zhejiang Province, in southeastern China. The five-pitch (pentatonic) scale of “Teahouse” sets it apart immediately from the seven-tone maqam-inspired music on Nowruz. Yet when Wu Man taught the melody to Charestan, the beautifully integrated timbres of pipa and qanun seemed so natural that a listener could be excused for thinking they have always been played together. Indeed, in a sense, they have: the pipa traces its ancestry to the Persian barbat, the short-necked lute with a bent scroll that may well have also provided the prototype for the Middle Eastern oud, and the melded sound of lutes and zithers is at the very center of traditional music from Iran and the Arab lands.
AKMM’s mash-up of musical styles and instruments may suggest that Nowruz represents “fusion music” or a cross-cultural jam session, but the group’s work goes deeper than that. At its root, it’s an experiment in musical pluralism in which each artist approaches the music of their fellow band members with an eagerness to embrace new sounds and sentiments and, in so doing, expand their own musical world. AKMM’s fervent hope for their music is that it will encourage others to seek out their own path to pluralism by learning to savor the music of other times, places, and cultures and what it has to tell us about our collective humanity.
Theodore Levin is an ethnomusicologist, the Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music at Dartmouth College, and senior advisor to the Aga Khan Music Programme. His collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways has spanned seventeen albums, from recording and compiling Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia in 1990 to co-producing Nowruz in 2023.