The question of whether music is an “universal language” or not has always been, for me, an interesting one, even if it is more often than not framed in the colonialist discourse that essentially equates ‘universal’ with ‘European’. Yet, here we have two non-‘Western’ musicians who specialize in comparable instruments from very distinct contexts (Issam Rafea on the oud and Gao Hong on the pipa, both being sort of lutes) coming together in the United States to improvise an entire album’s worth of gentle folk pieces. Life as Is: The Blending of Ancient Souls from Syria and China stands as a testament in which what is ‘universal’ is not a set of principles, forms, emotions or expressions coalesced into music, but a commonness, an altogether ordinary relationship to all those events that accumulate into our experience of the everyday.
The duo did not plan the recording sessions out, resulting from an academic encounter at Minnesota in which Rafea taught Hong’s students about Arabic music. Make no mistake, however – this is not free improv, a vanguardist thrashing of the constraints of tradition, particularly because improvisation is not alien to Arabic music, and neither was it for Chinese pipa styles before the Cultural Revolution modernized folk music into the systems of the ‘West’. Instead, it is the able merging of two traditional sounds subsumed by centuries of folk, two ways of living finding support upon each other to express altogether familiar approaches to life in an unfamiliar manner. “Summer Rain” begins with Rafea’s oud wonderfully working out a speedy cadence (reminiscent of Spanish flamenco, itself the product of cultural fusion) to which Hong’s fast pipa riffs add a particular dash of urgency, in which the homogeneity of the obvious analogy between notes and raindrops cedes to the sense of many different kinds of drops, of many different ways in which the wind blows those drops away. There might be one sky, but there are many ways of looking at it.
All the pieces refer to something common, from the sad, slow tinge of the pipa and the serene harmonics of the oud that accompanies it in “Homesick”, to the sweet contrast of the pipa’s speedy riffs and the oud’s grounding melodies of “Chance Encounter”. There’s no grand meaning to this blending of ancient souls – its joyfulness arises from the mundane interactions of creativities at work, forever inscribed in our worlds through the anonymity that in the end threads all of us together. Even if both musicians are masters of their respective instruments, what matters here is not their virtuosic display, but that the intertwinement of these two traditions does not communicate an exclusive uniqueness. Instead, like the perfect complementarity of each instrument’s potential in the threading of alternating speeds in the shared rhythm of “Childhood”, they express, simultaneously, what makes them close and what makes them distant.
Life, as it is, becomes the common ground from which a complementary organization of sounds can emerge, from which different traditions can be not made into one but shared. After all, we’ve all stood beneath the summer rain, we’ve all been homesick, we’ve all suffered from heavy hearts, and all of those common experiences are also radically different in each and every one of us, depending on where we’ve stood, what we’ve called home, who our hearts have been heavy for. It is truly a gift that Hong & Rafea show us just how simple it all really is. (David Murrieta)