“Listen, O drop, give yourself up without regret,
and in exchange gain the Ocean.”
Kayhan Kalhor and Erdal Erzincan. Iran and Turkey. Lands of forest and sacred mountains whose borders dissolve at first contact in the chemical solution of this musical collaboration. The sound of Kalhor’s kamancheh (spiked fiddle) somewhere between an erhu and lyra, thus hinting at even deeper crossings; Erzincan’s baglama (lute) the jangle of a horse’s reins, ridden through eons of time to reach him. Each instrument a feather dipped in the ink of melody, inscribing the other’s parchment for want of peace until a composite script emerges.
It’s impossible to listen to their dialogue passively. It actively embraces us in welcoming spirit. Nothing is secret between them: their art speaks openly, every utterance a verse of the most direct poetry. The same note evokes a tear in the comportment of a smile, a tragedy in the language of ecstasy. Such contrasts cease to be dichotomous in the duo’s space, cohering instead by ethereal design. To call this “world music,” then, is to acknowledge it not as music of but about the world. It tells stories of strife and resolution—the reigning leitmotifs of a history in which we are all entangled.
All of which became clear in a rare stateside concert at New York City’s Schimmel Center, where on May 19, 2018 Kalhor and Erzincan opened gates into one of the most astonishing sonic gardens I’ve ever had the privilege of wandering. Erzincan set the tonal scene before Kalhor led us by the collective ear, although at any time those roles were reversed as they traded motifs like old friends sharing stories of days past. With a depth of response and dialogue all too rare in today’s blaring din, they proceeded through an hour and a half’s worth of uninterrupted improvisations around music from their respective countries. They pulled a thread that in any other hands would’ve snapped, but which in theirs held taut like their very strings. When one was resting, the other was his pillow, their reciprocation so equal that after a while our bodies struggled to discern where one note ended and the other began, for each was a drop giving himself up to the ocean.
Kalhor’s creativity shined through bow and fingertips alike. By tapping and plucking, he revealed the kamancheh’s percussiveness. Erzincan meanwhile treated the body of his instrument as a drum, laying down an underlying beat to guide us through the night. Together they navigated a seascape of dynamic spectrums, sometimes speaking loudest at a whisper. Their most virtuosic runs felt like explosions of grief rather than jubilation, cries begging to be recognized. Erzincan’s dizzying finger-tapping was therefore the patter of heels fleeing oppression, Kalhor’s flights likewise an expression of survival over joy. There was love in and around these songs, wordless but filled with enough meaning to last a lifetime.
Yet the mastery of both men was obvious in what they didn’t play. The way in which they listened to each other was the deepest music of all. A mode of communication that took nothing for granted, least of all the opportunity to be heard. It was all I could do to join in the applause with any feeling of adequacy, when all I wanted to do was close my eyes and open my heart with gratitude. Sometimes the most potent archives are those beyond the grasp of preservation, and these words are indeed a fragile cage. - Tyran Grillo
Further reading: Recording reviews:
Here is an earlier perfomance by the two artists, recorded in Kurdistan in 2013
Kalhor and Erdal Erzincan: Kula Kulluk Yakisir Mi
Kayhan Kalhor, Aynur, Salman Gambarov, Cemîl Qoçgirî: Hawniyaz
Photo: Gökalp Boĝazkesen