Music without borders

Benjamin EllinTue 22nd March 2016

Introducing a new ensemble in which musicians from different cultural traditions play side-by-side

Louai Alhenawi (Syrian-born, London-based Ney soloist, composer, fantastic cook, wonderful selfless personality and fellow caffeine fiend) is one of my closest friends and the gentleman with whom I (Bolton-born, London-based composer and conductor with moderate cooking skills) have founded Tafahum.

Tafahum is a contemporary fusion ensemble uniting a core of 16 classically-trained musicians from Eastern and Western backgrounds, and it is a project that, after several years of work, is about to release a debut album: Osmosis. Tafahum perform entirely new music, a melting pot of styles, ingredients and tastes, and the tracks on Osmosis are a demonstration of music without boundaries, showing how music from very different origins can have so much in common.

Forming an ensemble like Tafahum has necessitated a slightly different approach to that which I have normally experienced. For example, when we say ‘classically-trained’ in the UK it often conjures up images of musicians concerning themselves with the ‘dots on the page’, the cultural references that surround the score, the technical demands of the instrument, and the emotional and academic requirements of the music. The idea of a classically-trained musician from Louai’s background is slightly different. Yes, it refers to a development of the technical demands regarding an instrument and executing any performance with as much skill as possible, but it also implies a thorough understanding of form, structure and harmonic language that can be called upon at any moment to be given over to an improvised solo; rather like a jazz musician. 

This difference, coupled with another of not regarding notated scores as the final version of a composition, are brief examples of the challenges that present themselves when uniting a group of musicians in which individual experiences and expectations are different. For many of the musicians from Louai’s team, the work of Tafahum is unquestionably some of the most difficult they encounter because the construction of what we do and the combination of skill sets is so different to their ‘norm’. Similarly, for the Western musicians the ebb and flow of every single piece Tafahum plays demands a relinquishing of control and an awareness that is more in-keeping with chamber music and free composition than anything else.

Yet all the initial differences, once embraced, melt away. Ultimately we are all reminded about the similar roots many of our own traditions have. The main challenge therefore is to allow enough time to selflessly embrace whatever is seemingly different in order to appreciate exactly quite how we make sense of it from our own cultural perspective, to respect it and, in our case, to collaborate. It seems to both Louai, myself and the players of Tafahum that this slow and genuine journey of appreciation and understanding is not only a route to great personal friendship and humanity, but it can also manifest itself in that most wonderful of human endeavours: creativity. Perhaps we can leave what parallels to other elements of human civilization could possibly benefit from a similar methodology, to you.

Tafahum's debut album, Osmosis, will be released on April 1 but is available for pre-order now: Amazon

Benjamin Ellin

Award winning and critically acclaimed British conductor and composer Benjamin Ellin is currently Music Director of Thursford Productions, Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of Focus Opera and President of Pembroke Academy of Music, London.

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