The temperature was close to 100 degrees. It was probably even hotter on stage. I shifted, the backs of my thighs peeling off the seat of the metallic folding chair, which had been baking in the afternoon sun. The audience around me fidgeted, fanning themselves with the program.
Once the music started, though, I stopped noticing the extreme heat. It took me a few minutes to realize that the audience had quieted down too, equally as engaged in the sounds of the kamancha and the tombak on the stage as I was.
Imamyar Hasanov is a master of the kamancha, a bowed stringed instrument of Azerbaijan. His performance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Washington DC mall was the first time I’d heard the instrument live. The show, which also featured Persian-born Pezhham Akhavass on the percussive tombak, was nearly full, despite the heat.
As the concert unfolded, my attention – and literally my head – shifted back and forth between the two virtuosos seated opposite each other on the stage. Their instruments were in dialogue with each other – the kamancha asking a question and the tombak responding.
Formally trained in the tradition of Western European classical music, my ear tends to assume that a drum functions solely as the rhythmic foundation of a song. Popular music that floods the radio corroborates this approach.
In contrast, traditional Azerbaijani mugham – a style of music and related set of musical theory of the same family as the Arab maqam – places emphasis on the drum as both a rhythmic foundation and a melodic counterpart.
Fingers flying across the drum head in his lap, Akhavass shifted seamlessly between melody and rhythmic accompaniment; sometimes the drum seemed as melodically versatile as a clarinet, and other times as full and rhythmically rich as full drum set.
The thick and layered texture emanated from his fingers, each of which seemed to move independently, as if he was playing a piano. They maneuvered across the drum sensitively, creating a nuanced and tonal line that wove around the melody, supporting it and filling in the gaps.
The interplay between the musicians was rich and vibrant – the type of transcendental experience that draws your awareness into the music so fully that your peripheral awareness disappears temporarily.
It was only once the audience started clapping, shattering the crystalline atmosphere, that I realized the hot and stagnant summer air had forced me into a sweat.