Dying to Hear Him Play
The irony of writing an article for the Artist of the Month section in This Week in Palestine about a Palestinian artist who passed away last month did not escape me. Of course, there is comfort in continuity achieved by inserting, in a casual, almost leisurely frame of time, reflections on the musical explorations of an enchanted being, who broke out of the fabric of time. Perhaps more urgently, there is timeliness in sharing words rushed by his untimely departure. The explorer in question is Mohsen Subhi Abdulhamid, who died in Ramallah on 2 August 2009, having charted, over decades of single-minded dedication to the purifying of soul and sound, a wondrous landscape for all of us to explore after him, with him (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohsen_Subhi).
Personally, I would have preferred that this window convey, in a coherent way, the eloquence of Mohsen’s latest, now last, adventure in composition and arrangement, a forthcoming body of work dedicated to silence. Instead, the happening shall write itself in the fragmentary state provoked by Mohsen’s sudden, and seemingly permanent, Silence.
Once again Mohsen Subhi commends surrender, this time to writing about music, silenced, as he did to listening in the silence of music, performed. Once again he sets the tone, the beat, albeit harshly this time, this only time, this last time. Words wrote themselves to approximate in speech the impact of Mohsen’s music, its infectious, ecstatic effervescence; words write themselves to postpone the impact of a loss unexpected.
Mohsen folded and distorted time to his liking. His rhythms embodied knowledge gleaned from early, passionate, thorough, and largely auto-didactic explorations of percussion, its varied instruments and bewildering techniques. Thus empowered, he could effortlessly permute over cycles, layer them, shift seamlessly from one to another, then back again, freely breaking the flow with calculated intervals of expressive silence.
Mohsen would regularly immerse himself in musical traditions, soaking up their typical motifs and carefully registering subtleties in their execution. Zaghareed is the fruit of one such immersion in Palestinian folklore; it gave form to his skills as a composer and arranger of forms traditional, to his ability to ingest, dissolve, then reconstitute a body of work which, while fully rooted in folklore, flows with an aesthetic vibrancy and coherence that is all Mohsen’s.
With rhythms hardwired and folklore absorbed, Mohsen took on the maqam and with it the oud, the ultimate medium of its expression. Formal methods enforced by technicians in conservatories were systematically un-learnt, then reinvented by Mohsen in his striving to express what remains to be said, after all is undone. On Mawasem, Mohsen announced, with confident mastery over the untapped secrets of his oud, the shimmering results of his convincing deconstruction of the maqam tradition. With Mawasem, the ground was set for further breakthroughs and their generous dissemination, through exacting oral apprenticeship of accompanists, turned accomplices in the act of creation. The messenger went silent having shared his secrets with dedicated followers.
In the act of performance, Mohsen would wrap himself around the belly of his oud - holding on to it as much as holding it - close his eyes, and let hand-plectrum-fingers-string-nerves-flesh-wood fuse into a continuum of vibrations, which entrances as it grips the listener in its resonance. It is our contention that Mohsen dedicated his living to the search for that one Tone that embodied all tones, a search which put him in a state of continuous readiness for the execution of that Tone. In this perpetual search, Mohsen was to music what a samurai is to death.
Mohsen came from far, from a (no)where, a where which is perpetually, irrevocably annihilated (in vain, I should add). He was wrapped in the “absenciation” of this somewhere, and painstakingly sculpting, for himself and others, a time and a geography to take refuge in. He courageously allowed pain within him, and distilled it into heavenly marvels for the living.
Much remains to be said about Mohsen Subhi, an enchanted and enchanting master who readied himself in silent labour to express faithfully that which mattered, that which remains.