Mohamed Assani's Spirit of Tradition is a joy from start to finish

Spirit of Tradition (Independent)

Although I fell in love with the style within seconds of being introduced to it, I always feel somewhat foolish when reviewing South Asian classical music. It’s an idiom that uses complex techniques to convey specific emotional and spiritual content, and of these things I have, at best, an amateur’s understanding. I can say this with complete confidence, however: the release of sitarist Mohamed Assani’s debut CD coincides with his arrival in Vancouver to take up a teaching position with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s new music school, and our burgeoning multicultural music scene has a new master in its midst.

Spirit of Tradition is a joy from start to finish. The highlight, however, is Assani’s two-part rendition of “Raag Darbari”, which begins with the traditional form of the melody before moving into an up-tempo variant composed by Assani’s teacher, Ustad Ashraf Sharif Khan Poonchwala. Weirdly, the introductory alaap, or slow movement, reminds me of the British folk standard “Nottamun Town”, but while that tune tells of a cataclysm in which “10,000 got drownded that never was born,” “Raag Darbari” speaks more of psychic desolation. It’s gorgeously lonely—and, remarkably, the mood gets even darker once the tempo builds.

Coursing over Shahbaz Hussain’s assured tabla-playing, Assani sounds like he’s doing battle against sinister forces, drawing on every resource he has to pull through against shattering odds. His playing is fierce, resolute, and gripping, a hero’s journey condensed into 14 minutes and 42 seconds’ worth of unceasing invention.

Of course, this is just my morose, Scottish, Tolkein-loving interpretation; whether that’s Assani’s intent is another matter. But there’s no denying that this is extraordinary music.