Among the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But what is the role of a cyclops in a night of a thousand eyes? With nothing but a darbuka, the French-Lebanese percussionist Wassim Halal sits in the midst of an eight-piece gamelan orchestra. A lonely drummer, beating the skin of his instrument lying in his lap with dry dum and tak, while all around two huge hump gongs tuned in fifths make the whole boiler house tremble and the metallophone rows of the reyongs begin to buzz and whirr under hammers and mallets.
A festival bell that runs in rhythmically precisely defined cycles, controlled by the darbuka and accentuated by the hand cymbals of the Balinese Ceng Ceng, which tears open the ringing eyes with its impure sounds and beats, flashing and glistening.
“Polyphème” is the name of Halal’s project, with the German premiere of which he opened the 14th Franco-German Jazzdor Festival in Berlin on Tuesday, which, after a two-year corona break, has sought Dresden as an additional venue. Polyphemus like the cannibalistic, one-eyed giant who, according to Greek mythology, was blinded by Odysseus, incurring the bitter revenge of Polyphemus’ father, the sea god Poseidon. Polyphemus also like polyrhythms – or like morpheme, the smallest meaningful unit of a language, which is formed here from the immovable melodic scales and beats added together.
But what does the term jazz mean here? And isn’t the word also outdated by world music? Wassim Halal takes over an ethos of improvisation from jazz, which, like in traditional gamelan music, only refers to the inner and not the outer processes: the variation never explodes the form. And the merging of Arabic and Indonesian traditions (the Berlin embassy provided the instruments) does not erase the contours on either side until this music becomes cheaply consumable. She is looking for an amalgam that cannot be attributed to either folklore or art music.
Halal’s triple CD “Le cri du cyclope” (Buda Musique), the middle part of which is the collaboration with Gamelan Puspawarna, is above all suspicion of cultural appropriation, as it was raised against Claude Debussy: He grasped his enthusiasm for Javanese music , which he met at the Paris World Fairs in 1889 and 1900, in the “Estampes” for piano as one of the first in tones. “Polyphème” has also freed itself from the collision character that characterized Don Cherry’s “Eternal Rhythm” at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1968. It keeps this music alive in all its stunning sensuality, and it’s thanks to Philippe Ochem, Jazzdor’s artistic director, that he keeps an attentive ear to these developments.
Idiomatically much more at home in jazz is the other formation of the opening night, which, as announced in the program, can be broken down into the trio of tenor saxophonist Sylvain Cathala with Palestinian singer and oud player Kamilya Jubran, but also into the extended duo that she has been forming with double bass player Sarah Murcia for years. Again and again the three unite in delicate, expansive, oriental-sounding unison themes, which drummer Christoph Lavergne charges with edgy, thundering beats and leads through solo fields.
Not a piece that would not be a song of pain if Jubran’s Arabic lyrics could be understood beyond their sheer quality of expression. In the sparse interim announcements, Cathala gives no indication of this. So the whole thing remains a largely instrumental experience, from which Sarah Murcia in particular stands out: with what highly flexible, voice-like intonation gift she traverses all registers on her bass at lightning speed, her deceased teacher, the great Jean-François Jenny-Clark, would have been proud of.