While the streets of Isla Vista pulsed with hip hop and EDM on Friday evening, a different sort of heart-pounding vibe came from within the MultiCultural Center. It was an amalgam of wildly disparate cultural sounds, rich with bass and drums as well as elements of traditional percussion.
On Jan. 26, Armenian-American composer and master percussionist Souren Baronian brought his Armenian and Middle Eastern jazz ensemble, Taksim, to campus in a performance hosted by the UC Santa Barbara MultiCultural Center (MCC).
Naia Al-Anbar, a fourth-year anthropology major, identifies ethnically as Southwest Asian/North African (SWANA). As one of the audience members at Friday’s performance, she appreciated the representation of her culture in campus performances.
“I’m always down to support SWANA music,” she said. “It makes me feel closer to home, so I always want to attend these musical concerts whenever I can.”
Tickets sold out online the day before the show; waitlisted guests resorted to sitting in the aisles or standing in the back.
From the very first notes, Taksim captured the attention of the entire audience. Feet tapped softly in the aisles to the percussion, and heads rocked steadily to the strong sax solos. Everyone sat at the edges of their seats, leaning forward so as not to miss a single beat. The MCC’s theater flickered with well-timed colored lights to complement the swells of the music.
Born in 1930, just at the tail end of the Jazz Age, Baronian’s unique music has roots in both the traditional Armenian music of his family as well as the revolutionary jazz movement of New York City. Baronian was raised in East Harlem and, in his youth, infamously snuck into performances on New York City’s jazz center 52nd Street.
It was under furtive entrance to those clubs where he discovered jazz legends such as Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Young and Holiday ultimately served as some of Baronian’s greatest influences on the music he has been composing and performing since 1975.
Baronian is the bandleader of Taksim, which features instruments both achingly familiar — the clarinet, the bass, the sax — and keenly exotic —the duduk, the riq, the dombek.
Kara Newman, a fourth-year microbiology major, was one of the students in attendance.
“I love sound, and this is a very distinct sound,” she said. “I love it. They’ve got a really interesting blend.”
At one point during the show, oudist Haig Manoukian pulled out what appeared to be a wooden recorder.
“I’ve got this instrument here; paid three dollars for it,” he said. “Let’s see what it sounds like.” The band picked up a slow, dramatic prelude.
“Sounds like a funeral march, doesn’t it?” joked Manoukian.
He began playing the instrument, immediately enrapturing the crowd. Eventually, the notes grew too high for the whistle, and Manoukian compromised by singing the notes in “doots,” drawing roaring laughter from the audience.
Good humor like this took the concert’s atmosphere a step up from that of a mere musical performance, as did the clear camaraderie between the band members. As they played, Taksim’s performers weren’t looking at sheet music. Instead, they made frequent eye contact with one another and with audience members alike, nodding to the beat with appreciative smiles and full confidence in their performance.
Such chemistry among the band members was particularly delightful.
“I’m loving the way they feed off each other,” Newman said. “It’s great to watch them and see the conversation in their eyes.”
The concentration of each performer was clearly intense. In a brief break between songs, bassist Sprocket Royer paused to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Drummer Mal Stein frequently closed his eyes as he played, fully immersed in his rhythms. The conclusion of each song was met with enthusiastic applause punctuated with the occasional appreciative whistle.
As a jazz fan, Newman liked seeing elements of jazz shine through in each song.
“You get a lot of great improvisation and a lot of great call and response, which I love to see,” she said.
A handful of times throughout the night, Manoukian would pause after a song and look around at his bandmates for prompts on what to perform next. Taksim’s easy-going attitude toward playing music and performing for a crowd made the entire performance truly unique.
“We’re not always sure what we want to play,” he said.
With the ringing conclusion of their final song almost two and a half hours after they began, Taksim’s performance prompted a well-deserved standing ovation.