Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper lurked and where on Cable St Mosley’s Blackshirts were given many bloody noses by what you might now call the Antifa, but which in 1936 probably looked more like a good old-fashioned East End mob, is one of those astonishing East End survivors of Blitz and redevelopment; an entrancing and wonderfully looked-after love-letter to the days of Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. It has been a background artiste in so many movies that it has literally added them to its fabric: its downstairs bar is built out of leftover props from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. On the 20th June this year it was the setting for Toward A New Divan, A Celebration of East and West through Music and Poetry.
The original, old, ‘Divan’ was the brainchild of Goethe, no less, and is a collection of his poems inspired by the works of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The 200th anniversary of its completion is approaching in 2019: to mark this, the Gingko Library, who are one of the most innovative putters-out of content in this area of East inspiring West and vice-versa, have created a New Divan: works from 24 of our planet’s leading international poets to continue the dialogue Goethe began. With the support of Amal – A Said Foundation project, Wilton’s is where it was launched.
Now the combination of music and poetry can be blissful, or it can be exhausting. On Thursday it was exhilarating, high-spirited, unexpected and delightful. There were just enough poems, including one by Hafiz himself – exquisite in the original Persian, memorable in its English translation – to whet the appetite and make one long for publication of the book; the real stars of the show were the musicians of ’Tafahum’.
Tafahum may be unique: Western strings, woodwind and keyboards matched with Eastern percussion, an oud (the Eastern precursor to the guitar), a qanun (like a harpsichord without the keys, laid across the lap and played by plucking the more than 70 strings), and a ney (that breathy, almost hoarse-sounding, Middle Eastern flute, that is to music from this part of the world what ras-el-hanout is to its cuisine). Their inspiration comes from everywhere – one especially charming piece, ‘Three Fishes Laughing’ was inspired by the perfect E natural note a tube-train makes coming into Highgate Station. Honours were shared between Tafahum’s two composers, Benjamin Ellin (‘a Northern lad’, as he described himself) and Syrian-born Loual Ahlenawi, virtuoso of the ney. Professor Mena Mark Hanna had already described – and illustrated, with a bit of impromptu and very tuneful plainsong – what Western music lost when on first contact it began westernizing and then making archeology of Easter music. Tafahum is part of the antidote to all of that, and part too, of a dialogue between the arts of East and West that has never been so vitally necessary. Goethe would have been captivated – the Blackshirts, spinning in their graves.
The New Divan, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson, will be published in 2019, with events at the Hay and Edinburgh festivals, among others.