Old rousing tunes from Persia

Alim with his daughter and fellow performer Fargana Qasimov performing mugham, a classical Azerbaijani folk music art form.
Alim with his daughter and fellow performer Fargana Qasimov performing mugham, a classical Azerbaijani folk music art form.PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

The yearly A Tapestry Of Sacred Music festival features music steeped in tradition and history from around the world

From classical Azerbaijani folk music which originated in ancient Persia to Buddhist music passed down for 27 generations in China, audiences can immerse themselves in world music, steeped in tradition and history, at the Esplanade this weekend.

These performances are part of its yearly A Tapestry Of Sacred Music festival, which runs from Friday to Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, musicians from Beijing's Buddhist Music Ensemble of Zhihua Temple, swathed in monastic robes of tawny orange, will perform at the Esplanade's Recital Studio.

The Zhihua Temple was erected in the 15th century by a powerful eunuch who set up an orchestra and introduced music from the imperial courts to the monks there.

This music was merged with elements of religious music to produce music of the Zhihua Temple, played on an assortment of instruments - Chinese oboes, flutes, gongs and drums.

The ensemble will play six pieces in total, with the final piece being 40 minutes of excerpts from a suite used at Buddhist events such as funerals and rituals since the Ming dynasty.

  • BOOK IT / A TAPESTRY OF SACRED MUSIC 2016

  • WHERE: Various locations, the Esplanade

    WHEN: Friday to Sunday, various times

    ADMISSION: $25 to $30 for ticketed events, from www.esplanade.com

    INFO: Go to www.esplanade.com/tapestry

Head of the Beijing Cultural Exchange Office Xue Jian tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview: "The instruments are created by our people and the sound is both expansive and calming at the same time."

On Sunday, audiences can venture into Central Asia through the sounds of mugham, a warbling, rousing musical form native to Azerbaijan, a country that borders the continents of Asia and Europe.

Mugham can take the form of lullabies, prayers, worship songs and folklore. It is recognised as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco.

The performances begin slow and quiet, with the singer improvising with notes and gradually building up in volume and pitch to emphasise certain emotions.

In an e-mail interview, singer Alim Qasimov, who will perform at the Esplanade on Sunday, says the hardest part about mugham is ensuring the voice is in perfect condition to convey its beauty.

"Each concert is the result of a long and challenging journey. We study poetic texts and repeat them over and over to memorise. Our goal is to achieve a special state of mind and soul called 'hal'," he adds.

There will be two other ticketed events - qawwali music, a type of devotional music from South Asia, as well as a showcase of gospel classics by Glory Gospel Singers, an American ensemble.

There are also free programmes at the Esplanade over the weekend, from meditation sessions in the morning to night prayers and music, dances and ritual demonstrations in the evening.

Festival programmer Tan Xiang Hui says: "Sacred music is not widely heard or accessible unless you are part of the religious communities which practise it. We hope this opportunity of exposure to such music will help us understand and cherish our diversity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'Old rousing tunes from Persia'. Print Edition | Subscribe