Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 13, 2012

Shalom, Salaam

As much out of curiosity as anything, husband Art and I attended last week's performance of the Yuval Ron Ensemble. All I knew about the group was on the colorful postcard that had come in the mail. It had a photo of a Whirling Dervish and promised "Mystical Music of the Middle East."

I donít know much about Middle Eastern music, other than that I have always found it beautiful and a bit haunting. But since Art and I are always looking for opportunities to learn about different cultures, we were intrigued. Somewhere I read that Ron was an award-winning composer and, since I hadnít heard of him previously, my curiosity was piqued. Learning the performance was free sealed the deal. Mom decided she'd come along too.

Maybe we are just out of touch or maybe it was the same with others. But whatever the reason, there was no shortage of people in the audience when the ensemble's six musical members took the stage at Kansas State University's McCain Auditorium.

None of the instruments used during the opening number was familiar, yet they all appeared to be close cousins of ones we usually see in Western music.

Ron spoke briefly about the beauty of the Middle East - its people, food and landscapes - then added, "but there is also much darkness."

Then a broad and friendly smile lit up his face and in a calm soft voice he said, "We are here to help bring light."

The group, formed in 1999, combines the sacred musical traditions of Judaism, Sufism - the Islamic mystical tradition - and the Christian Armenian Church, emphasizing the connection the three share. Ron said it was a good time to have the concert because it was right before the Christian Easter holiday, the Jewish celebration of Passover and a little-known Muslim holiday that also recognizes Passover.

Even the stage design emphasized unity. Three tear-drop shaped pieces suspended above the ensemble formed a circle. Quotes from the Quran in Arabic, the Bible in Greek and the Torah in Hebrew were carved through the pieces so the light would shine through. I later learned from an article in the K-State Collegian that a group of K-State interior architecture and product design students had worked with Ron to fabricate the pieces.

The instrument Ron played was the oud, a Middle Eastern lute. Norik Manukyan played woodwinds, including an Armenian duduk made of apricot wood. But on occasion, he played the common clarinet. Virginie Alumyan played the kanoun, a Middle Eastern instrument that might be best described as a two-handed zither. Jamie Papish played various drums and tambourines. Sukhawat Ali Khan played the harmonium, an instrument that appeared to be a small organ, but generates sounds in the same fashion as an accordion and is powered by a hand-operated bellows. Ali Khan, Ron and Najwa Gibran provided vocal accompaniment.

Aziz supplied the anticipated Sufi whirling, a graceful circular dance that caused his robes to swirl around him. It is a ceremony performed to reduce the awareness of the world about the dancer and allow him to retreat into his inner self. I was completely mesmerized. My eyes kept moving between his feet and his undulating robes.

When sampling anything unfamiliar, it is normal that some will like the experience and some will not. So as the program progressed, here and there, some folks left. At the same time, the response from those who remained became more enthusiastic. We were in the latter group.

We were encouraged to clap, dance, jump or even stand on our heads if we wanted. I found myself clapping. At one point, Art, Mom and I swayed side to side to the music.

The ensemble has performed all over the world. They were invited by the King of Morocco to appear at the International Sacred Music Festival of Fez. They also headlined the benefit concert for the Dalai Lama's "Seeds of Compassion" initiative, participated in the International Peace Festival in South Korea, and were featured at the World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles. The free concert as well as several free workshops in Manhattan, Kan. is a testament to their generosity of spirit and desire to bring unity and peace to audiences around the world.

The concert ended with the audience singing a chorus with "Shalom" and "Salaam" - the Hebrew and Arabic words for "peace." We were surprised that it was after 10 p.m. as we made our way from our seats. The time had passed quickly.

Art went ahead to get the car and was startled by Ron in the hallway, who gave him a big smile and said, "Hello." But Mom and I had an even bigger surprise. While we were waiting on the car, Ali Khan came down the corridor toward the lobby. He hugged Mom and me and said, "Blessings to you."

And I felt blessed, indeed. The music was beautiful and I learned just a bit about Middle Eastern musical traditions. Growing up, I had frequently heard the cautionary saying that curiosity killed the cat, but this time it just brought a great night of entertainment.

Top, Aziz performs the Sufi whirling ceremony; bottom from left: Najwa Gibran, Norik Manukyan, Virginie Alumyan, Yuval Ron, Sukhawat Ali Khan, Jamie Papish. These pictures are from the ensemble's website and except for the design in the background, they reflect what we experienced.

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