New Music from Iran and Syria: Saxophonist Basel Rajoub Discusses Sound: The Encounter

Saxophonist Basel Rajoub plays the most contemporary instrument in Sound: The Encounter, New Music from Iran and Syria. His partners, Saeid Shanbehzadeh (horns and vocals) and his son Naghib Shanbehzadeh (percussion) play traditional instruments that have been unchanged for centuries, but Rajoub says he's equally rooted in the folk music traditions of the region.

"I'm contemporary because of my instrument," he tells us, "because of how I studied music when I started. But at the same time I have this huge part inside me as a folk musician. So, yes, it may seem that I am the most modern but I grew up on this music. It's my music, too."

Sound: The Encounter mixes ancient and contemporary music as well as instruments.

"We play music from our region, which [has] the same spirit," says Rajoub. "Even though some music is from Iran and some is from Syria, there are common themes; there are some songs that have the same melody but different lyrics. It is very much the same. We took basic melodies from old Sufi music and folk songs and we developed a new way of playing [them]. We're created new arrangements for the music."

The result is unlike anything Rajoub and the Shanbehzadehs have ever performed, music inspired by ancient rhythms and themes but framed in a contemporary context .

Rajoub says the trio traveled across Europe developing the music, with practice sessions in Portugal, France and Turkey.

"There's a freedom when you play this type of music so [in the beginning] we decided to just jam and improvise, just to share ideas. We ended up creating many new ideas. It's not like what you heard in the beginning."

The final set list includes 11 tunes, four of which are new compositions by the group. And oud player Kenan Adnawi has joined the group as a guest artist performing on select tunes.

Originally set for a single concert in New York, Sound: The Encounter has extend its tour across the country. "When we started we thought we would do one concert in New York. Then we added more concerts. The New York show is sold out. This country is full of surprises for us."

Rajoub says he hopes he finds a curious audience in Houston, one that's open to new ways of thinking. "It's [not just] about music, it's also about culture and people. Maybe we speak a different language and we have different countries, different borders but we came from the same part [of the world]. I hope people who want to get an idea of that part of the world come to the concert. I believe that for people who are interested in that part of the world, not just the music but the culture, this is a good chance to come and share."

See Sound: The Encounter, New Music from Iran and Syria at 7:30 p.m. December 13. Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore. For information, call 713-496-9901 or visit the event's website. $30.

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