One of the most important and potentially transcendent concerts of the year is scheduled for this July 29 at 8 PM, where harrowing Middle Eastern oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran play the US premiere of their elegaic suite of settings of poems by their late collaborator Mahmoud Darwish at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College,524 W 59th St. The concert is part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 seats are still available as of today.
For the last several years of the great Palestinian poet’s life, the three brothers accompanied him onstage while he read his incendiary, poignant explorations of exile and resistance. To get an idea of what the concert could be like, here’s a look at their 2010 live DVD In the Shadow of Words, adapted from the original review at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. [To be consistent with the DVD booklet, the French spelling,“Darwich,” is used throughout the review rather than the English transliteration, “Darwish.” This blog takes responsibility for any errors in translation].
Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” whose audio is streaming at Bandcamp) was filmed at that concert.
It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.
Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice for his people. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level: through that, his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them.
Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity; iot ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.
The concert begins with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance, a characteristically understated requiem. A stately, portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signal the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”
“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses sardonically. “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.
There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside.
It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra.