“Sayir” – a short story by Ron Perovich

March 12th, 2024

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“Sayir” was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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User-duck, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sayir

by Ron Perovich

 

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   …..    It was the first Friday in months that we didn’t both have our own gigs lined up, so my friend Paul invited me out to one of his favorite haunts on 8th Avenue. He promised me the food was good, but told me that the real draw was the live music. Honestly, I tried not to roll my eyes when he dropped that detail on me in the cab. I mean, I love music and all–I’d have to if I was going to work this hard at it–but I kind of was looking forward to giving my ears the night off.

…..    “No, man, you gotta hear this cat play!” Being a working musician himself, Paul aptly predicted my reaction. At least it sounded like it was just a soloist and not a whole band.

  …..     “So what’s the deal?” I dug further, “this ain’t some kind of piano bar you’re taking me to, I hope?” Paul laughed.

  …..       “Not even close! You know anything about Arabic music? Or you ever hear of something called an oud?”

  …..      “Ood? Like, isn’t that one of the bad guys on that Doctor Who show my kid made me watch?” I knew that wasn’t what he meant, but everything was a joke with Paul so this was just the common language.

    …..       “Funny, but no, though sometimes it might sound like it’s from outer space.” That I didn’t know just hyped him up further, judging by his face. He explained what I’d probably heard before, in a forgotten college music appreciation class somewhere. “It’s this middle-eastern lute, the guy who plays weekends here is originally from Lebanon, and plays it like you’re not gonna believe.” He clearly wanted to go on about it but cut himself short, like he didn’t want to spoil it. “Just wait, I don’t know how to describe it any better than just hearing it.”

…..        I was still a little apprehensive, but I nodded along and figured Paul knew me well enough. My only prior experience with supposedly Arabic music wasn’t the best impression. I had flashbacks of a wedding I’d played sax at a couple years ago. After our band’s set of standards, the second half of dancing was for the groom’s Egyptian side of the family, and involved a keyboardist and a singer. Just sounded like typical pop music to me, all boots and cats just with singing in a different language. I wasn’t that impressed and left as soon as I got paid (and had a piece of cake). It didn’t sound nearly as much like “Caravan” as I’d been led to believe.

  …..        We pulled up around nine, Paul paid the cab, and we got a table near the corner of the restaurant that passed for a stage. About one hour and two glasses of wine later, the oud player arrived and started setting up. He was about the same age as my dad, maybe older, though he looked like he took better care of himself. His black shirt and slacks made the gray in his hair stand out like silver. Despite apparently being a little late for his set, he didn’t appear to move with any great haste. Each mic and speaker was set up with the deliberateness of a routine done a thousand times. Finally, he brought out a fat little guitar case and began snapping open the little brass latches all around it. Out came a beautiful string instrument that he sat back and began tuning via nearly a dozen wooden pegs.

    …..        It looked a lot like the lutes I’d seen in “early music” ensembles and medieval movies. It had a short neck with a severely angled headstock, and a curved bowl-back body of wooden staves. The inlay-dotted front contained elaborately carved screens over the sound holes, like the rosette windows of a cathedral. But unlike the lute, there were no frets to guide the notes along the narrow ebony fingerboard. It was a work of art, and sitting close enough to hear him tune, I could tell from the rich, deep tone that this was going to be very different from that wedding already.

      …..         While we waited for the music to start, we caught up in conversation and enjoyed our plate of alternating flaky and oily appetizers. I assumed he’d introduce himself or something, but instead he just eventually went right into playing. The other patrons at first barely noticed and kept talking, but that was pretty typical for the “mood music” jobs I’d done myself at places this size. The sound was fine, appropriately loud enough to compete with the murmur and clink of the dining room. It at first reminded me a bit of flamenco guitar, like the slower stuff before they start trying to saw the instrument in half with their fingernails.

  …..     The warm up was short, and after a resolution even an outsider like me couldn’t miss, he launched into what was clearly somebody’s greatest hit. He wasn’t more than a few bars into it before half the audience was clapping to the beat. When he started singing as well, so many joined in that I almost couldn’t hear his voice. But that’s not to say he couldn’t sing! For a guy who was maybe pushing seventy he could belt out enough energy to drive a whole room’s chorus. I was clapping along too by then, but I still felt a bit out of place in a room full of people singing a song I’d never heard, in a language I didn’t understand. But I right away admired how well he knew his audience, this was clearly a well chosen opening number. I was also a bit jealous of the enthusiasm he received for what I had perceived as just an ambiance gig!

  …..        Paul hadn’t been kidding about this guy’s chops, either. Granted, I’m no expert on this instrument, or what it sounds like in the hands of whoever the masters are; but the complexity and density of music that wove through the whole night was mesmerizing. And from just one guy! He used ornamentation like an artist, picking exactly when to pluck out simple ostenatos to carry the rhythm, or when to dress it in more elaborate curls and flourishes than an oriental rug.

…..       What I first thought was maybe too foreign for me to get into, ended up having at least one very clear avenue for me to connect with: this was like jazz music. But it was also folk music? And also pop, and classical? Again I felt a touch of envy. Here was a style that seemed to enjoy the best features of all those genres. The communal joy of folk, the infectious groove of pop, the technical prowess and beauty of classical, and most of all to me, the improvisational freedom of jazz.

  …..           His set lasted about two hours, though when I looked back at the end there were less “songs” than what I would’ve thought for a show that long. The tunes he sang didn’t feel especially lengthy, though some sounded like he was repeating sections on the fly or even improvising non-lexical vocal solos, to keep the dancing going. It was hard for me to tell; when you don’t speak the language how do you know what’s a new verse? Seeing dancing spontaneously erupt at concerts always made me happy, doubly to see it across such an age range. It made me think, when was the last time I saw teenagers singing along with the same tunes as their grandparents?

  …..       But it was between the singing that got my attention the most and probably what made those two hours fly by: the improvised solos.

  …..       Some breaks I could tell weren’t entirely improvised. There was a couple instrumental numbers that clearly had an underlying meter pushing the melody, and kept coming back to a refrain phrase, like a chorus. The notes wrapped around the rises and falls in that asymmetrical pattern, again displaying a wealth in ornamentation and variation. Interestingly, at least one followed some kind of ten beat rhythm that felt as stately and inertial as a waltz. I made a mental note to try and find out what that was and borrow it.

  …..       But there was one solo near the end of the set, before the last song, that had its hooks deepest in me. Listening to it was to fall out of time, like drifting through outer space, as Paul may have been alluding to. By my watch it was nearly ten minutes long, but I couldn’t tell. There was no doubt this was improvised, and the way it played with expectations and built up energy and intensity almost imperceptibly, without any accompaniment . . . I knew I had to try and talk to this musician afterward. I wanted to know what trip he was on in that journey.

…..      After his last song slowed to a thunderous, applause-driven conclusion, he stood to give a short bow and then leaned back down to speak into the microphone.

…..     “Thank you, shukran,” he said in an accented but gentle voice over the PA, sounding still slightly breathless from the song’s final dramatic fermata. “Have a good night and everyone be safe.” He bowed again, smiling with the ease of a performer who visited this feeling almost too often, before turning to return his instrument to its case beside him. I cheered along with the room and returned to my drink but also kept an eye on him packing up, waiting for a more relaxed moment to approach him to chat.

   …..      Luckily, once he was done he went to the restaurant’s bar to sit and the owner brought him a plate of hummus and a drink. There seemed like no better time, so after giving him a few minutes to himself, I headed over to try and meet him.

  …..       “Excuse me, sir,” I began, trying to catch him between bites. When he turned to look, I continued, hoping I wasn’t overstepping, “that was a fantastic performance, I’ve never heard anything like it! I’m a musician too, I wish I knew more about what you played!”

  …..      To my relief, his face flipped in an instant from post-show settling to a warmer greeting than I think I could’ve mustered after two hours of hard playing. “Oh, thank you! You’re a musician? That’s wonderful, what do you play?”

…..     “Saxophones, a little clarinet, maybe enough piano to hide in nothing smaller than a quintet,” I said, in what was definitely a generous estimate of my keyboard abilities. I didn’t want to talk too much about myself, so I steered back to him. “My friend comes here a lot and brought me to hear you play. He said you’re from Lebanon? Was that where the music you played comes from?”

  …..       “Yes, yes, Lebanon,” he said, “my daughter helped my wife and I come over when the civil war started because she said it wasn’t safe for us to stay in Beirut. I’ve been here in New York ever since.” He paused for a moment, perhaps side tracked by a thought, before seeming to remember the second question. “Oh, yes, most of the songs were from Lebanon. Anything Fairuz touched are always a big hit here, plus a couple of the old Egyptian cinema songs.” If he noticed the name didn’t register for me, he wasn’t bothered by it.

…..       He brought the subject back to my side of the scene here, asking about what kind of work I did, where I went to school, what my experience was with other cities or venues. We talked back and forth about music and the musician’s life for nearly a half hour, as he slowly worked his way through the bread and dip. It was inspiring to hear how similar our experiences were, that in a vastly different field, different generation, sometimes even different country, the business of making a living (or almost) with music still sounded familiar.

…..      By then the restaurant was clearing out. It was quiet enough by then that I noticed there was music coming out of the kitchens in the back along with the clatter of dish washing, not quite audible enough to tell which language’s version of Top 40 pop it was. I realized I’d left Paul alone for all that time, but glancing around I spotted him in the corner. He was sitting with a tall, expensively-dressed young woman with long black hair and heels sharp enough to draw blood, so I suspect he didn’t mind my absence. I wondered if the music and food maybe weren’t the only reason he came here so often.

   …..      I knew I should probably let my new friend get on with his night (had I really forgotten to ask his name?) so I brought it back to the part I wanted to know about most.

    …..       “There was one section you played tonight that I’d really like to know more about.” He raised his dark eyebrows as he took one last bite of oil-dabbed pita bread. “Near the end, you did this big solo. It wasn’t set to any rhythm I could hear, and it sounded like it modulated all over the place, but still felt completely anchored underneath. I didn’t understand where it was going when it was happening, but when you reached the end it was just, like, knowing that you’d heard a full story and had reached the end. I’ve never heard a solo sound like . . . or feel like that. What was that? Or, like, what was that following?”

     …..        Before I’d finished he started to nod slowly and began a slow inhale, like he was preparing to give a hard to word answer.

   …..        “I think you mean my taqsim,” he said, though the word was unfamiliar to me. “That’s what those kind of solos are called, in our musical system. I’m very happy to hear you call it a story, that is a very good way to describe it. It is very technical in the choices and paths that it follows, but a good taqsim also brings you along from one place to another and another. They are like a story, it’s very true. With a beginning, a journey with many turns, and finally an ending when the story reaches its destination.”

  …..    “Did your . . . taksim? have a specific story?”

  …..    He looked downward, weighing an answer for just a moment. “I think . . . perhaps it did. Though I may not be as aware of it anymore when I play. But there is a story in it.” Looking up, he added, “each part is a story, and the change from one to the next is a story. And when it goes to one segment and not another that is definitely a story!” He laughed a bit to himself, amused that the metaphor was tidier than he perhaps at first thought.

…..       “The last few songs were in Beyati so my taqsim started in that mode, to keep our ears in that world. I think perhaps you’d have recognized it by how the second degree sounded to you? It has that half-flat there, about halfway between the notes. At any rate, we started at the bottom, with its root note on D echoing between each phrase as we worked our way up and away from it. If we’re talking about this like a story, then maybe I was setting up our scene? Those melodies make me think of Lebanon, especially when I’d get out of the city into the country and farmlands. It is not a sad sound to me, the phrases there were often quotes I’d learned from my own oud teacher when I was young. They were lines probably from his teacher as well, and maybe even further. I think that’s why we play such old music, yes?”

  …..   I thought of my own late night dorm room hours, spent listening through headphones to scratchy records of old horn players that died before I was ever born. He wasn’t wrong, there was a special feeling of being part of that kind of chain.

   …..       “We worked our way up to the next part of the scale,” he continued. “After we passed G, the sixth degree was revealed as very flat, as if the fifth was pushing out rather than a new step. It being that low told my listeners that we were not going up all the way just then. We fell back down to the root, as if we were not ready to leave our home yet. When we ascended again we briefly rolled back, not onto the F but to an F-sharp. The leading tone re-centered our focus for the moment on that G, this point between our old home and the future ahead. In these longing phrases there were flashes of the C and D above, but they were only glimpses and we were held at this median, this checkpoint. A pattern was repeated, once, twice, three times, then like breaking free it changed that B to a high half-flat and kept going up! Finally, we reach the high octave and this became our new anchor, as melodies joyous and proud circled around it, like dancers in lines, orbiting a camp fire. Amid echoes back and forth in the upper and lower house, one lower answer turned into a full run of the octave: the low root through the F-natural and the G, over the raised B, till we were singing out at the top again. What seemed like an echo in the bass, turned into another run upward. When it peaked with a turn instead–another classic from my teacher–we fell back down the scale. Ah, but here was my next change in our story! We kept falling, past the low D, and landed with another turn on the C below it, our new tonic.”

  …..       I remembered that point in his solo, not just because I caught the modulation too, but that I heard some of his most attentive listeners in the audience gasp in delight or call out their approval when it happened.

…..         He went on to describe the mood of that section, a mode called “Rast,” and how it allowed him to slow back down and reset for another buildup, while still keeping everyone’s interest. In this story it was the moment of comfort, of safety. He talked about quoting a folk song there, about rising patiently through the octave, this time to a high tonic on C. Once there, he said more important choices of pitch came up again, on the same note as before.

…..      “In the upper house of Rast we had more flavors available again, to hint to our audience that we are not done,” he explained. “With the half-flat B they knew our home was the high C. But then the B sharpened again, to a full natural! The melody found the E above now flat as well, which let us recall the phrases played earlier on G. From there we fell, flattening the note below that high B, the A, as we descended. This was just a taste of Hijaz, like a dash of spice to push our center back to G for a time. Finally, the original A and B-flat appeared again, before the avalanche. Down over F, over E-half-flat, down with thunder upon D, as if we never left Beyati!”

  …..    He slapped his hand on the bar with that, mirroring the applause I recall erupting at that point in the solo. Was it over, I thought then and now? But like then, he still had more to share.

…..     “I’m trying to keep this in the context of our story idea,” he said after a moment. He was quieter when he continued. “But I know what story I was thinking of in the notes that followed. My oud spoke in short sentences, recalling the very beginning of the taqsim, until I revealed a new note. The third, the F, slid toward G but instead fell flat. Over and over, I rocked over the half step, like waves of crying. When I leapt past it, jumping to the A, then B-flat, then C, I similarly found the octave out of my grasp. The D-flat moaned in echo of the G-flat just heard below. Meanwhile, the D-natural in the bass hummed back jarringly in memory of home. That is Saba, and it always now makes me remember my wife.”

    …..       I stayed silent. I think his gaze was on himself in the mirror over the bar. I’ve always been better with music than words. Anything I could have said would have felt inadequate.

   …..      His thoughts were only momentarily blurred however, and before I could find something to say, he forced his eyes back to me. “Okay, so what was next?” It took me a second to realize he was asking himself and not me. “Right, we are lost in Saba.  So, Saba is a good branch to a very different yet connected tree called Ajam. This color would have stuck out to you, I think, given it is very close to the western major scale!

…..     Just as we did elsewhere, we hooked upon the D-flat over and over until on one repeat the D-natural appeared instead, like a ray of sunlight through the clouds. Suddenly our tonic spun to B-flat, and we flew down and up through Ajam–or, B-flat major, to you–and the whole mood of the room followed us!”

       …..      Mirroring the music, a spring had returned to his voice. He resumed. “Our singing touched that high third, over and over, until one hung in the air a heartbeat longer. Then, we revealed above, an E-half-flat, an F, and quoted some of our first melodies, now an octave higher! We were back in Beyati! Keeping up the intensity, we drove downward with sequences, end over end, until landing triumphantly on our low D again. But! We held that note in tremolo, as the audience was now waiting for what they knew was about to happen. We had played many small qafla along our journey–that is, the little phrases we capped each paragraph of melody with–but now we were to give our biggest and best one.

…..    From that hold we unleashed into a staggered climb through the full octave, reaching the top just to fall like the arc of an arrow, back down through the scale. We raced to the floor in a thousand notes, pausing at the door just shy of the bottom, then . . . ba-ba da-bum!” He sang the cadence like a horn fanfare. “We are home and the story is done!”

   …..     His recollection of the performance and enthusiasm in the telling was such that the ending was difficult not to clap and cheer for all over again. I thanked him for sharing his music and time with me, and especially for indulging my questions. He assured me it was his pleasure to help someone enjoy it more deeply. “It’s hard being Arabic in America sometimes,” he said, “but whenever I meet someone who is falling in love with this music for the first time here, it gives me a bit more hope for the future.”

   …..    And finally, I remembered to get his name. “Please, call me Sammy,” he said, enthusiastically shaking my hand.

  …..    We rose and collected our things and began walking to the door. “Looks like I’d better go get my friend’s attention before they have to kick us out,” I said in parting.

…..      “Yes, good idea. Especially before my grand-daughter’s boyfriend gets here!” At that he burst into laughter that rang his voice through the room once again. I laughed too, though a bit nervously, and hurried over to politely interrupt Paul.

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Ron Perovich is an American artist, musician, and poet, creating work inspired by his love of science and history, international music and cuisine, and a plethora of nerdy pursuits. His poetry was most recently seen in Syncopation Literary Journal and Horror Library Volume 8. He currently lives in a sweltering and/or freezing Texas apartment with his wife and some very noise-tolerant cats.

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Listen to the “Master of the Oud,” Riyad Al Sunbati, perform a song recommended by the author

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Click here to read “The Old Casino,” J.B. Marlow’s winning story in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Click here to read The Sunday Poem

Click here for information about how to submit your poetry or short fiction

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