Hassan Khan’s Taraban, performed at Falaki Theatre on Saturday 26 April, drew the curtain on his month-long Cairo showcase of two decades of creativity. The concert placed songs by Sheikh Yousef El-Manyalawy (1847-1911) in a new, contemporary setting.
Perhaps because classical Arab songs were merely points of departure for Khan’s performance, it would make sense that the general feel of them was different. Despite the more modern character of Taraban as a performance, the idea of improvisation is actually very closely linked to the Tarab or classical Arabic music of El-Manyalawy.
The concert was also the final stop on a month-long trail of Khan's work, starting with an exhibition  in downtown Cairo, supplemented by a series of talks, exhibition walk-throughs – featuring performances and site-specific projects, sculptures, photographs, videos, and writings – and a seminar. The events were co-organised by Beth Stryker (CLUSTER) and the AUC Sharjah Art Gallery as part of AUC_LAB, in collaboration with the third edition of D-CAF.
Khan’s interdisciplinary art projects are born out of dynamic methods of artistic production that entail research, observation, chance interactions, memories, dreams, and engagement with culture. In the Cairo showcase, it was obvious how the artist relies on the past (his own, his culture’s) in his production of something new.
It becomes natural then that the artist's musical performances combine live improvisation with old compositions. This time his source was two classical Arabic songs by religious chanter and singer, Yousef El-Manyalawy. The process of arranging the compositions included numerous steps which allowed Khan to contemporise the Tarab staples, giving them an electronic imprint.
Together with classical musicians who play oud, qanoun, violin and riqq, Khan dissected their phrases and passages, before reconfiguring and restructuring them in the studio. The new renditions were recorded over a series of sessions, and transfered to Khan's computer and then to the main mixer. He then used his own electronic system, which features a battery of feed backing mixers, filters, processors, laptop manipulators, virtual synthesisers and live mikes, which he built and has been using over the past decade. Dialogue between the pre-recorded elements and the on-site improvisation created a re-articulation of the original pieces, conjuring up a unique experience for the audience.
"Somehow the whole concert is born between the interface of these two different approaches to sound and music," Khan said from the stage on the night of the performance.
Yousef El-Manyalawy was a key figure during Egyptian music's renaissance, whose main impact lasted from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s. El-Manyalawy, a pioneer in his own right, was among the first singers to record on Shellac discs, or gramophone records, almost a century ago.
"There was an actual act of composition, based on something that existed before," Khan explained.
This performance took place in a rather dramatic setting. A large rectangular table drenched in wires stood between Khan and the audience seated on the theatre's tomato-red chairs.
Khan was animated throughout the concert, barely standing still for longer than a few seconds. At times it almost seemed that he was preparing music in front of one's eyes, and you could imagine the mixer as a stove, onto which the artist was mixing ingredients. Khan cooked up a rapturous meal for the ears.
At times there was no trace of the original songs and the set bore no resemblance to El-Manyalawy's ballads, while at other times you were thrust right into the past. Because it was only Khan spotlighted under an otherwise jet-black stage, it was easy for the imagination to run a little wild. You were in a plane about to take off, alone on a dark night overcome by nostalgia, in a kitchen, in a crumbling space.
There were moments when the music was loud almost to the point of overbearing, and it seemed as though the walls were collapsing; in these moments, Khan became an agent as if frantically diffusing a bomb.
The sound was raspy at times, evocative of the aged sounds of El-Manyalawy, and pristine and almost futuristic at others. This juxtaposition of soft and rough sounds attested to the organic nature of Khan's performances. At times the pitch was so high you speculated if this degree of invasiveness was intended or a glitch. But knowing Khan’s work, he would not mind making the audience a little uncomfortable.
The performance was very different from how you would have experienced these songs almost a century ago -- there were no instruments, only Khan and his machines.
El-Manyalawy's ensemble was composed of six musicians. Their performances were characterised by an intimate relationship with the audience, with a trance or enchantment taking place throughout the concert. It looked lonely for Khan up there, by comparison, and the congenial relationship with the audience was lost.
Meanwhile, due to the very oral tradition of Arab music, a concert in the first half of the twentieth century would typically last for several hours. When recording technology emerged, musicians were forced to alter their relationship with time, as vinyl records could only hold a few minutes of music compared to the long hours of performances. Khan’s one-hour show was much shorter than a typical four-hour concert yet definitely longer than a vinyl record.
The performance was reminiscent of a project by Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui called Revisiting Tarab, which entailed a series of performances inspired by classical Arab music held in Sharjah, New York and London, as well as the production of a film of the same name by Fouad Elkoury, documenting the initiative. Revisiting Tarab borrowed material from a collection of records that belong to Lebanese collector Kamal Kassar, and had input from international contemporary musicians. The vast compilation includes old 78 rpm shellac discs and studio tapes recorded between 1903 and 1950.
Revisiting classical Arabic music, Khan's performance preserved some of its elements (such as improvisation) and discarded others, ultimately creating a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit slightly overpowering performance.
Together with the large survey show and the series of footnote events running in April, this concert helped to affirm Hassan Khan’s place as a pioneering influence in Egypt’s contemporary art scene, particularly in the fields of experimental music and video.