February 29, 2020, by Steve Capra, World Music Central
Even the instruments were beautiful at The World Music Institute’s presentation of Sahba Motallebi and Rahim AlHaj in concert at Merkin Hall on February 15th. Ms. Motallebi, who is Iranian, played the tar. A tar, she explained, is any stringed instrument. Yet the term seems to apply more narrowly to her instrument, a classical instrument with adjustable frets. It had a lovely hourglass shape, with six strings, made of mulberry wood, walnut wood and camel bone.
Mr. AlHaj, who is Iraqi, played an oud with a neck that curved backwards at the top, where the tuning pegs are. An oud is fretless, with six double strings. He told us the oud is “the king of the string instruments”.
The first song began with a solo from Mr. AlHaj, whom Ms. Motalebbi joined in the song. From time to time they’d double on a line – four pitches. As the concert progressed, they moved on through various rhythms and moods, one frantic, the next dreamy.
The highlight of this terrific concert was a song for which the audience was invited – indeed, taught – to clap. There were ten beats to a line, and we learned to clap on one, four, six, seven and eight. We grew accustomed to the rhythm and by the end of the song we were clapping effortlessly. What’s more, Mr. AlHaj sort of sang for a passage, in vocalese: dum – dee – dum…
It’s not clear how this music should be classified. The musicians mentioned both classical and folk music in the pre-concert discussion. They wrote at least some of the songs themselves, but Ms. Motalebbi told us “Persian music is also based on improvisation.” The piece to which she was referring followed, a solo which she she dedicated to mothers everywhere. It would fade and then revive, with sudden changes in tempo and magnificent riffs. The audience gave her a standing ovation for the song.
A song called “Dream” was written by Mr. AlHaj for the two million Iraqi children lost due to sanctions. That evening he told us twice “Remember love, peace, compassion”.
These musicians are the masters of their instruments. Through the discussion (actually, it was an interview conducted by the Director of WMI) we learned that Ms. Motalebbi had what seems to have been an obsession with the tar at an early age, and that she formed an ensemble of Iranian women. Mr. AlHaj partners with artists of the caliber of Yo Yo Ma. Both artists, of course, have been extensively honored.
Ms. Motalebbi looked striking, with long black hair and a long peach-colored dress. Mr. AjHaj wore a striped suit and groovy white socks with grey and black diagonal stripes.
The concert was great, with spontaneous clapping from the audience on a few songs. Describing the tar, Ms. Motalebbi said “You can cry with this – you can laugh with this instrument.” And both she and Mr. AlHal showed the emotional range of their stringed instruments. I’d like to hear them with a contrasting tone, perhaps a ney.