It’s no accident that the cover art for Paul Ely Smith’s compact disc, Handmade, features a detail from an oriental rug. Paul, an instructor in the General Education Program at Washington State University, has been a collector of tribal woven pieces—carpets, bag faces, kilims, etc.—from places like Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey for many years. And, of course, they’re all handmade—just like the fretless gourd banjo, also pictured on the cover, which Paul himself built, and which he plays on the CD’s opening track. Paul plays all the other instruments heard on Handmade, including the guitar he built in 2000, his great-grandfather’s 1893 Fairbanks “Electric” banjo (“not in fact an electric instrument”), an 1840 C.F. Hartmann violin, a 1917 Gibson “A-3” mandolin, a 1904 A.L. White reed organ, and piano.
What holds the CD’s program together is Paul’s collaboration with juggler Thomas Arthur. The two have developed a performance repertoire combining Thomas’s “new language of dance with objects” with Paul’s compositions and arrangements. And, as the subtitle Music for Thomas Arthur 1998-2005 suggests, it’s this music that we hear on Handmade.
The connection with Thomas notwithstanding, what I find interesting about this music is that it’s pure Paul Smith. To the extent that I know Paul, I know him as a man enamored of world music. At various times, for example, he has brought to WSU such performers as Turkish musician Latif Bolat and the ensemble Shashmaqam, who perform classical and folk music of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as the liturgical repertoire of Bukharan Jews.
So it’s not surprising to me to find on Handmade a “piece,” as Paul writes in his liner notes, “made out of a few verses of the traditional Mandinka epic song, Sunjata,” combined “with the traditional American fiddle tune, ‘Sail Away Ladies,'” The magical thing is that, using just fragments of the originals, and investing the music with his own style and sound, Paul not only makes it work, but creates a piece of wistful, haunting beauty.
And so it is throughout Handmade. “Hector the Hero/Bred Dina Vida Vingar” yokes a “Scottish slow air” Paul learned from his great-grandfather despite the fact that “he taught no one in the family to play” to a Swedish Lutheran hymn which, Paul writes, “is clearly some sort of dance tune that some anonymous Swede tried to make legit.” “Nihavend/Seyhimin Ileri” couples an improvised melody with a Sufi devotional song, composed by Dogan Ergin, that Paul “learned from Turkish musician Latif Bolat.” And “Rocky Road to Dublin/Morning Dew” couples “a traditional Irish slip jig” with a reel.
Even Paul’s original compositions claim a broad cultural pedigree—such as “Spirals,” with its echoes of South African street music; “Horo,” which Paul describes as a “Balkan Scandofunk riff;” “Fatehpur,” inspired by the Indian city of Fatehpur Sikri, “built by the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar as a shrine to all faiths;” and “Three Ball,” which shares the “groove” he once heard in a village in India when an “old woman . . . pulled out a dholak barrel drum and began to play.”
But Paul is more than just a collector of musical gestures. His eclecticism is as deep as it is wide. I’m intrigued, for example, by the way he co-opts middle-eastern musical form into his own brand of musicianship, as in “Hijaz” and “Nihavend/Seyhimin Ileri,” each of which begins with a taqsim, a type of improvisation associated with Turkish and Arabic performance. I grew up in a cultural milieu steeped in the melodies and modes of Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic music. I heard them on the radio and on my family’s cherished hoard of scratchy 78-rpm recordings of old-country songs on such labels as Decca, RCA Victor, and Odeon. Whenever my parents got together with friends who, like them, had immigrated from Asia Minor and its environs, someone would unfailingly produce an oud—a middle-eastern lute—and initiate a songfest replete with Turkish and Armenian lyrics. I can even remember being present at a performance somewhere by the oud virtuoso, Hrant Kenkulian, known as Oudi Hrant, whose mastery of the taqsim, and of the oud in general, was legendary.
I’ve heard many a taqsim since then, but I’ve never heard any played the way Paul does it, first in “Hijaz,” then in “Nihavend.” He makes of each performance an exercise in adaptive re-use, bending the sonic and melodic character of the taqsim to his own purposes and gifts, but allowing it to remain in the meditative space it’s always occupied. So while remaining true to the spirit of the taqsim, he makes it his own.
He describes both “Hijaz” and “Nihavend/Seyhimin Ileri” as “a maqam, “a melody-mood of Arabic music. It turns up,” he writes, “in India as Raga Bairav and among Klezmer musicians as ‘the questioning mode.'” Does either piece sound like Arabic, Indian, or Klezmer music? Not a bit. And that’s what’s so wonderful about this music. Not only has Paul synthesized tunes and styles from around the world to make a music unique unto himself, he’s also internalized the forms of those tunes. The result is music of an almost rough-cut simplicity that retains its freshness with repeated listening—yielding the kind of pleasure you might derive from viewing a finely crafted handmade rug.