The borders between tradition and trend locked hands in a merry dance at the opening night of Abu Dhabi’s Barzakh Festival – much like the “two seas that meet but do not mix”, which the event’s name recalls.
Over two evenings, The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi will welcome five acts from three continents, an all-star line-up likely to make any fan of “world music” swoon.
Thursday’s opening night zeroed in on the music of the Maghreb, with two acts that have built an international reputation on crossing the music of their homeland with a global rock aesthetic.
Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali began the night shy and seated, hunched over her ardin – a traditional nine-string harp – her powerful voice, warped by effects, hauntingly echoing throughout the room.
But soon the national treasure was on her feet, imploring and inciting, her griot’s wail building over tribalistic desert-worn grooves – played on electric bass and full drum kit – often based around a single, droning chord.
There are really two lead voices in this band. To Seymali’s right sits her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly, a six-string wizard – first with a customised guitar set up to play Arabic quarter-tones, and later playing a fretless instrument – spewing fountains of spiralling, far-flung phrases, at times echoing his wife’s words, at others, answering them.
Moroccan maestro Aziz Sahmaoui employs every trick in the stadium rock handbook – monster guitar riffs, Queen-like audience claps-alongs, call-and-response choruses, showy instrumental breakdowns – to present a high-octane shake-down of the region’s gnawa traditions.
Alternating between the genre’s trademark three-string gimbri and an eight-string lute, Sahmaoui led his razor-sharp five-piece band – the University of Gnawa – through a series of increasingly fervent instrumental trances. Percussive textures and melodic layers build and coil together, like a snowball tumbling down hill, growing in mass but not velocity.
By the evening’s close dozens of new converts were on their feet, a joyous dance-floor breaking out in front of the stage, and stretching into the aisles. It was a bittersweet feeling – Barzakh was originally set to be held outdoors, rather than in the seated Red Theatre – but the weather had other ideas.
The global sounds continue Friday from 6pm with New York’s bhangra-jazz party-starters Red Baraat, Cambodian-inspired psych rockers Dengue fever and Ukrainian folk-punk festival favourites Dakhabrakha.
Advance free tickets have reached total allocation, but there is likely to be stand-by slots at the door.