Power of myth fuels Songs for Scheherazade at Indian Summer fest

Composer and sitar virtuoso Mohamed Assani reflects on the strength of Middle Eastern women

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      Scheherazade had 1,001 stories while Songs for Scheherazade has only a handful, but we’re betting the latter has better music. Of course, we don’t know what kind of musicians the fictional King Shahryar had in his court, only that he was a homicidal despot until the lessons encoded in his wife’s bedtime tales taught him to be a just ruler. But we do know that sitar virtuoso Mohamed Assani is composing most of the music for Songs for Scheherazade, and that he’ll be joined by the all-female Allegra Chamber Orchestra and soprano Heather Pawsey—a sure recipe for success for this Indian Summer Festival presentation.

      The program grew out of discussions between Assani and Indian Summer artistic director Sirish Rao: the two wanted to celebrate the North Indian classical-music tradition, but in a new and cross-cultural fashion. And since Indian Summer’s theme, this year, is the power of myth, The Thousand and One Nights seemed like a good place to begin.

      “One of the essential themes was clear, right from the beginning: this was going to be a representation of women in history. The project is about how women have been ingenious, and how they have changed things and left inspiration behind them,” Assani tells the Straight, reached on his cellphone while running errands in Mount Pleasant. “I’ve taken inspiration from Scheherazade, but Sirish also wanted to represent how Scheherazade comes from a Middle Eastern culture.…Often we hear stories about how women are treated unfairly [in the Middle East], and that’s a reality, but we miss out on some of the ways how strong women in those cultures have made landmark contributions. Like there was a character called Fatima al-Fihri, in Morocco, who founded the first-ever university in the world—which still stands in Fez.…Also there is an amazing woman called Rabia al-Adawiyya, who was born in Iraq, in Basra. She’s considered a qalandar, or one of the supreme saints in Sufism, which is all about love, the doctrine of love.”

      The sitarist points out that one of his three compositions—the fourth has been written by Allegra’s composer in residence, Elizabeth Knudson, who has studied North Indian music with Assani—is based on the traditional Hindustani melody Raag Saraswati, dedicated to the goddess of music.

      And there’s another woman that Assani especially wants to honour. “There is one piece which is a lullaby, and I’ve written it for my mother,” he explains. “My mother always sang me lullabies, and she passed. And a lot of these wonderful stories, I heard of them from my mother. Nobody else would have told me those stories—and those stories, they do shape your mind and thinking from a very early age.”

      Scheherazade’s instructive tales are one example of that, Assani adds. But in the 21st century it’s not enough to simply keep ancient legends alive. “You know, this festival is not just about ‘Here’s a traditional thing preserved,’ ” he says. “It’s about moving forward, presenting things in a different way, and telling stories that people have never thought about before.”

      Indian Summer presents Songs for Scheherazade at the Ismaili Centre Burnaby at 4 p.m. on Sunday (July 15).