SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: Set amid restored heritage structures in the heart of the old city, Calligraphy Square is one of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s favored venues for musical performance. SAF’s administration center is nearby, in fact, and many of the restored buildings – including SAF’s village-like sprawl of custom-designed galleries – serve as exhibition venues for the Sharjah Biennial.In the gap year between biennials, SAF hosts March Meetings, a smaller event comprised of exhibition openings (featuring the work of contemporary and modern artists from the region and beyond), themed panel discussions and performances.
Calligraphy Square witnessed the regional premiere of Wael Shawky’s latest performance work, Saturday evening, which reframes one of the founding tales of European history.
The lights rose to reveal a stage whose background was adorned by a landscape in medieval European style – castles, rivers, fields and cities rendered a bit too close together for realism, and in a manner indifferent to the principles of false perspective.
Upon the stage sat 19 gentlemen in white turbans and colorful silk attire. Some sat behind clay pots, two-headed drums or frame drums, and before the night was out there’d be a great deal of clapping.
“The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version” is true to its title. Shawky has taken the text of the 11th-century French epic “La Chanson de Roland” – mythologizing the Emperor Charlemagne and his nephew Roland’s 778 battle against the armies of Muslim Spain – and translated it into classical Arabic.
The work was co-produced by SAF and a number of European cultural centers and festivals, including Hamburg’s Theater der Welt, where it had its world premiere in May, 2017. In Sharjah, it was performed by 19 vocalists and musicians collected from Sharjah and Bahrain, all practiced in fidjeri, a style associated with the Gulf’s pearl harvesting tradition.
“The musicians are not a musical group,” Shawky says in a post-performance interview. “I collected them, mostly from Bahrain, because the tradition is still strong there – along with Kuwait and Qatar. It’s not really a form in the UAE, [which has] other things. We worked with three-to-five musicians from the UAE, one of them originally Bahraini.
“If you ask most of the performers, they’ll tell you this tradition is dying. No one is learning it anymore. Nobody cares who they are or works to conserve the work. They perform but they don’t believe they can reach the quality of their ancestors.”
It’s an incongruous pairing – Gulf Arab performers telling the story of a European hero’s defeat of a Muslim army – but then incongruity is a major feature of Shawky’s work
In narrative terms, this “Song of Roland” echoes the artist’s “Cabaret Crusades,” a trilogy of videos (“The Horror Show Files,” 2010, “The Path to Cairo,” 2012, and “The Secrets of Karbala,” 2015) that use marionettes to recount the story of Christian Europe’s first military intervention in the Muslim Middle East.
Formally speaking, “Roland” resembles his 2013 work “Dictums 10:120,” which saw the artist take shards of curatorial-speak, have them translated into Urdu and performed as qawwali (a form of Sufi devotional music popular among Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in India and Pakistan).
“This performance is a bridge between two projects,” Shawky says, “‘The Cabaret Crusades’ and my current project that I call ‘The Gulf Project.’ It deals with the history of the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia, let’s say the GCC – when they started as tribes, what is the relationship between them and the Anglo-American oil companies. What happened?
“It’s a process of research ... but this piece is a result of that beginning. This type of music was, of course, part of the culture of the Gulf because it was part of the pearl fishing industry, but after the discovery of oil this whole culture collapsed and there’s no one now depending on pearl fishing for the economy. So I’m trying to see this area from a different point of view. I try to connect it to the history, as if it’s another type of Crusades history.
“The other layer is how to see European Christian history and this idea of Christian jihad with a new eye. Now you hear ‘The Song of Roland’ with a classical Arabic accent, and react to the same history as told with the Islamic-Arab language, music etc.
“It’s a bloody, violent, very racist but at the same time it’s interesting to try to see it, to begin to analyze it when you make it from an Arabic perspective. I didn’t make this translation. We just found it in books. Sometimes it feels wrong,” Shawki smiles, “but I just put it as is.”
Said to date back over 800 years, fidjeri music is known for its call-and-response choral structure, punctuated by solo voice and informal choreography. As such, it resembles certain types of Sufi dhikr, though Shawki himself says he’s unaware of such a connection.
“I’m not sure but I don’t think so. I think [the music] has African roots but nobody is really sure where it came from. If you ask the Bahrainis, they’ll tell you they don’t think this is human music. It originated from jinn [who] taught some people in Bahrain. This is the old story. The other story is that it has African roots, that it relates to history of slavery.
“I ask them, ‘What do you think?’” he continues. “They give me these ideas, but if you listen to the music, it has African roots, for sure, as does Omani music. There’s obviously some connection.”
Fidjeri is an oral tradition and Shawky finds a level of complexity in the structure that suggests a level of sophistication not necessarily associated with the folk traditions of fishermen and seamen.
“This music is very repetitive,” he says. “It looks very simple but it’s actually extremely difficult ... When I speak to specialists about fidjeri they become very excited because it doesn’t make sense that this type of music comes from primitive or Bedouin or local people. It’s too complex for that.
“They call it ‘sea music’ because a large part of it was made on ship when they travel for three or four months at a stretch. Naturally they make a type of music to help them keep up their energy, but there’s another kind of music for when they’re back on land.
“For some reason what survived from this tradition was seven or eight types of fidjeri ... I decided to put all of them in this play,” with the musicians moving from one form to another in the different chapters of the story.
Shawki says he was surprised to find his Muslim performers had no real problems performing a story that sneers at Muslims and dismisses Islam as wrong-headed.
“When ‘The Song of Roland’ was being written, no one [in Europe] knew how to pronounce the name of the Prophet Mohammad,” Sahwki notes, “so they called him Muhanad.
“I had asked the musicians, ‘Do you think it’s okay that we keep it Muhanad?’ I don’t want to insult anyone. In the end, most said they wanted to keep it as is in the original text.
“We need to show how the European text was written, so we don’t interfere to make it nicer.
“The Bahraini authorities tried to convince me to change a few things in the text, to make it more politically correct. But how can you make it politically correct?” he laughs. “It’s a big, human, bloody mess. You have to take it for what it is. It’s a history of all of us.”