sun 19/11/2017

Songlines Encounters, Kings Place | reviews, news & interviews

Songlines Encounters, Kings Place

Songlines Encounters, Kings Place

Pure poetry from Highlands fiddler Duncan Chisholm and Iranian singers Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat

The Vahdat sisters from TehranHaydn Wheeler

The fifth Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place brought together artists from around the world, offerering a powerful cultural kick-back against all manner of extremist positions. The opening Thursday featured young Portuguese Fado singer Gisela João, with Cypriot trio Monsieur Doumani, and the closing Saturday paired the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars with the Anglo-Bangladeshi Afrobeat Latin grooves of Lokkhi Terra.

But it was Friday night’s coupling of Iranian singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat with Highlands fiddler Duncan Chisholm that showed how striking and creative these Encounters can be. The Vahdat sisters are only allowed to perform in Iran to female audiences, though that hasn't stopped them recording for the Norwegian KKV label, and they came to international attention with the 2004 project, Lullabies from the Axis of Evil (its US distributor, Valley Entertainment, was subsequently "blacklisted" by the Bush administration).

Chisholm and his trio preceded them with music from his superb, evocative Strathglass Trilogy. The Chisholms have lived in the Glens of Farrar, Canaich and Affric for 700 years, and the reels and airs and tunes Chisholm brings to the stage with Jarlath Henderson on uilleann pipes, flute and whistle, and guitarist Matheu Watson was music for synaesthetes, the great peaks and troughs of a musically recreated Highland landscape rising and falling with the scales Chisholm climbs as he plays his fiddle through a series of beautiful, fragile and enduring airs.

The Vahdat sisters performed at the Arts Depot in North Finchley a few months ago and word had spread as to the power and beauty of their voices. That word was on the money. Whether solo, a capella, singing together or declaiming ancient Persian poems of spiritual love against the spare, skeletal notes of the setar lute and hand percussion, the audience reveled in the purity and emotion carried by their voices, lapping and overlapping like so many layers of beautiful silks, folding over the verses of Hafez and Rumi with a delicacy that belies their great inner strength and power. These are voices you listen to and follow, as if they were voices of the pre-monotheistic gods, ancient mythic music from the bicameral mind.

Duncan Chisholm and the Vahdat sistersThe 14th-century poet Hafez, as Mahsa Vahdat pointed out while introducing “Morning Sun of Hope”, also lived and worked under the rigours of censorship. Seven hundred years on, his poetry is still suffused throughout Iranian culture, turned to for divination as much as inspiration. These old poets have stronger voices than any ayatollah. The Vahdat sisters take the words of Hafez, Rumi and others from the page and give soaring voice to a bottomless longing and ardour and connection through love. Theirs are songs and voices drawn deep from the well, and the performance was spellbinding.

Chisholm’s Highlands ancestors would have first settled in Strathglass around the time Hefez composed “The Moon of Our Beloved”, 700 years ago, and the flute, fiddle and guitar introduction in the first of two closing on-stage encounters between Chisholm’s trio and the Vahdat sisters – a delicate Scottish air fused with Persian love poetry – blossomed into the kind of encounter that brings its audience to a standing ovation, the voices of the sisters entwined and reverberating with a very basic truth about connection, tenderness, understanding and empathy in human as well as musical encounters.  

Theirs are songs and voices drawn deep from the well, and the performance was spellbinding

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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