Música Antigua deliver the goods
CAIRO: For concert-goers accustomed to guitar amps, vocal mics and slamming sound systems, a live performance by the Spanish quintet Musica Antigua can require a slight adjustment.
Not only does the group – which was formed by musical scholar Eduardo Paniagua in 1994 – forgo amplification in favor of natural acoustics, but they perform their mixture of Christian, Jewish and Islamic medieval music on traditional instruments and base their programming on obscure historical figures.
Think of a Música Antigua show as a history lesson – with flutes.
Still, given all the bookish proclivities, it might be easy to peg these guys as a crew of pretentious scholars masquerading as musicians. And in the hands of lesser players, the whole setup might end up conceited, stuffy and boring.
Thankfully, however, the group’s talent, cohesion and dedication to authenticity made Monday night’s performance at the Al-Ghouri Center for Musical Heritage the most pleasurable history lesson Cairo’s seen in a very long time.
The first of four local shows, the group based Monday night’s concert on the life and times of Ibn Khaldoun, a historian and scholar who was born in Tunisia and traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean as a diplomat for the king of Spain during the 14th century.
After traveling widely and compiling works of historiography, Ibn Khaldoun died in Cairo about 600 years ago.
Similarly, the group began their performance with a haunting piece of Tunisian music called “Circumcision Feast, which featured delicate melodic interplay between Cesar Carazo’s fidula (violin) and Paniagua’s qanun – an Iranian instrument that resembles a giant, wooden triangle with dozens of closely spaced strings.
On the downside, while Al-Ghouri’s acoustics were crystal clear and the venue’s opulent, medieval interior added to the evening’s authenticity, the lack of amplification meant that during quieter moments, Cairo’s deafening traffic noise occasionally leaked in and detracted from the performance.
Still, given the music’s beauty, it was easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself traveling back in time to a king’s court of the 14th century.
Also impressive was the band’s ability to use dynamics to build cycles of tension and release within the songs.
After a trio of restrained instrumentals, the quintet started into “Console Me at Dawn Girls, which began with a rich duet by oud player Wafir Sheik and Carazo. Starting softly, the piece built slowly until percussionist David Mayoral picked up his tar drum – a giant, circular instrument lined with small pieces of chains – and literally dropped the beat, creating a captivating, swooshing sound that was breathtaking and incredibly effective.
The song also featured Jaime Munoz’s ajabeba – an Arabic wind instrument similar to a clarinet – which had both the sound and the effect of a snake charmer’s.
Along with using a plethora of vintage gear, the band also flexed their prodigious musical talents with just the right amount of restraint and virtuosity. While the lightning-fast triplets employed by Mayoral on his drums were impressive, perhaps the most striking moment of the concert came during multi-instrumentalist Carazo’s extended vocal solo.
Using a series of stunning, virtuoso scales and flourishes, Carazo’s vocal soared several octaves, pushed his impressive range into the superhuman during the “The Corsairs, a 13th century Spanish tune.
It was a stunning moment and the audience, which had been restrained for most of the night, erupted into rapturous applause when the song finally finished.
After a pair of numbers where the members switched instruments and displayed their abilities as multi-instrumentalists, the band closed the set’s journey with “The Egyptian Girl, a song that picked up speed and climaxed with a cacophonous bashing of drums.
Catch them if you can.
Catch Musica Antigua in Cairo this week:
El-Genaina Theater at Al-Azhar ParkThursday, October 179:00 p.m.
Al-Ghouri Center for Musical HeritageFriday, October 209:30 p.m.