Various Venues

The 16th LIVERPOOL ARAB ARTS FESTIVAL once again brings to the city a week-long multimedia extravaganza of cultural diversity. Contemporary dance, storytelling, food trails, live artworks, photography and much music are just some of the delights on offer.

I catch up with the festival at the World Museum where, on Saturday afternoon, the LONDON SYRIAN ENSEMBLE is assembled in the foyer for one of several performances. Identifiable instruments (violin, viola, double bass) sit with an exotic mixture of woodwind (a ney, wooden flute), string (qanun and oud) and percussion. An initially small crowd is bolstered by those entering and exiting the museum, drawn by the rhythmic, vibrant percussion and bass, airy, spiralling ney and the delicate rills of the strings. They are joined by singer OSAMA KIWAN (Damon Albarn collaborator and one of many Syrian musicians currently based in UK exile), the clarity and richness of his singing drawing the crowd closer. It would be easy to fall into cliché, to evoke the minarets, shifting sands, caravanserai, oases and other mirages of popular culture – but Kiwan’s voice hints at a more universal expression of love and loss, togetherness and separation that the songs of his native Damascus must evoke for him.

"Kiwan’s voice hints at a more universal expression of love and loss, togetherness and separation that the songs of his native Damascus must evoke for him"

Up in the Egyptology section of the museum, a troupe of dancers begin to move slowly amongst the shadows, their movements considered, cautious, meditative. The five dancers are part of the JOON DANCE collective, an ongoing project which is the brainchild of choreographer Zosia Jo who regularly flits between Pembrokeshire and Cairo to breathe life into developmental community dance projects. The dancers are all Egyptian, the piece Ancient Modernity exploring the links between ancient and modern Egypt, and before long the dancers have exploded into life, breaking down the barriers imposed by identity, nation, sexuality, extremism and coming together in eddies of whirling motion or statuesque beauty. The dancers, and a continually growing crowd, move through the gallery utilising a variety of settings to startling effect. A tender and moving duet evokes the Goddess Isis before a gymnastic mix of martial arts and break dancing brings the piece to a vibrant conclusion. Paul White’s Shaker Notes soundtrack provides both impetus and space for the dancers’ interpretation, the perfect mix of beats and the traditional for this superbly realised piece. The applause is rightly sustained.

Sunday in the Palm House, and the previous day’s crowds of inquisitive passers-by are replaced by a vibrant, here-to-celebrate group of aficionados. A small child in a vivid red dress whirls around to the music in a world of her own and, throughout the afternoon, it is striking and refreshing to see how captivated children of a very young age are, clapping and moving to the sounds, mimicking without reserve the dance steps of their elders. The Palm House is packed, the heat intense, orchids and other exotica in full bloom, the air heady with their scent, the crowd alternately fanning themselves, lulled by the honeyed tones of singer REHAM AL HAKIMI, or clapping along to the boisterous Yemeni folk of the AL WADHEL BAND.

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival 2017 Image

Outside, the craft and food stalls are doing good business as people circle the Palm House in the sunshine. REEM KELANI whips the crowd up with a stirring Palestinian anthem before headliner ALSARAH AND THE NUBATONES hit the stage. A fairly minimalist line-up (oud, bass, percussion) backs Alsarah and support vocalist Nahid to potent effect, and in no time the dancefloor is once again populated with swirling, dazzlingly-attired revellers of all ages. The Nubatones’ brand of east African retro-pop marries modern beats and grooves to traditional arrangements, and Alsarah and Nahid’s soulful, rich delivery connects instantly with the audience. A skanky oud intro and dubby bassline has the elderly gentleman sitting next to me, previously outwardly unmoved, tapping his cane on the tiles – a gentle seal of approval, an all-inclusive counterpoint to the generally boisterous atmosphere.

Alsarah’s set ends with a lovely vocal fading slowly away leaving just the handclaps of the crowd, a fitting end to an afternoon and a festival that has highlighted variety, virtuosity and community.

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