Mediterranean Music Unites Artists Across Cultures in Madrid Concert

By 
Kimberly Ashton
December 11, 2018
From left to right: Matthew Nicholl, Brigitte Sosa, guest pianist Alfonso Pérez, Aliya Cycon, Nella Rojas, Javier Limón, Javi Limón Jr., Shilpa Ananth, Tali Rubinstein, Layth Sidiq, and Israel "El Pirana" Suárez, at Madrid's National Auditorium.
Vocalist Nella Rojas
Violinist and vocalist Layth Sidiq warms up for the night's performance.
Vocalist Shilpa Ananth
Flautist and vocalist Tali Rubinstein
Berklee graduate student and oud player Aliya Cycon
Berklee City Music student Javi Limón Jr. on the melodica during rehearsal
Nella sings at Spain's National Auditorium.
The Original Quartet, with guest instrumentalists Matthew Nicholl (piano), Brigitte Sosa (bass), Aliya Cycon (oud), and Israel "El Pirana" Suárez (cajón)
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques
Image by Eva Marques

For about 700 years, until the end of the Middle Ages, Spain had been among the most multicultural countries in Europe, with robust Christian, Muslim, and Jewish populations, and a growing community of gitanos.

In homage to Spain's heritage, and in celebration of new connections, a small group of musicians from around the world took the stage at Madrid’s National Auditorium on November 24, recapturing this vibrancy by blending sounds from across the Mediterranean and beyond.

Spanish composer and guitarist Javier Limón and his Original Quartet (OQ)—with Indian vocalist Shilpa Ananth B.M. ‘13, Israeli flautist and vocalist Tali Rubinstein B.M. ‘14, and Iraqi-Jordanian violinist and vocalist Layth Sidiq B.M. ‘14 M.M. ‘16—led the show with a set of folk songs, some hundreds of years old but sharing a history as the roots of Mediterranean music—gypsy, Arabic, Sephardic, and Greco-Roman. Ananth, Rubinstein, and Sidiq all sang songs in their native languages, to enthusiastic applause.

Ananth said that when she first studied Spanish music, in Limón’s class at Berklee, it felt like home. “And then I understood why, which is that these gypsies, they traveled from Rajasthan, North India. They traveled with the music, with the food, the culture, everything they had. They went all the way to Sephardic regions, they went to the Middle East, and they settled down in Spain. So that’s why we all kind of feel super-connected to this music,” she said.

Indian vocalist Ananth said that when she first studied Spanish music, in Limón’s class at Berklee, it felt like home.

Accompanying them was American pianist Matthew Nicholl, who also serves as the executive director of Berklee’s Mediterranean Music Institute. Later in the show the ensemble would be joined by bassist Brigitte Sosa, American oud player and Berklee graduate student Aliya Cycon, Spanish flamenco percussionist Israel “El Pirana” Suárez (recipient of a Master of Mediterranean Music Award), Venezuelan vocalist Nella Rojas B.M. ‘15, and Berklee City Music student (and Limón’s son) Javi Limón Jr., who performed an original piece on piano.

The concert was produced in collaboration with Casa Árabe, a Spanish organization that seeks to raise awareness of Middle Eastern culture. The National Auditorium show was the last in a weeklong series of concerts the OQ played in Spain.

“I think the audience needs to hear something like this, especially in our time today,” said Sidiq, citing worldwide cultural divides. “At one of the concerts someone told me, ‘I’ve never heard Iraqi songs. I’ve never heard anything about Iraq, and today I want to learn more about your country.’ So it’s small things like this, small steps, that I think make a big difference.”

A New World Voice

Limón, who is the artistic director of the MMI, said while the first half of the show explored Mediterranean music, the second half united the old world with the new, represented by Nella, the mellifluous vocalist from Isla Margarita, Venezuela.

“I believe OQ is the perfect example that music has no borders; my Venezuelan roots find a common ground performing with them thanks to Spain serving as a cultural bridge between the Mediterranean world and Latin America,” Nella said.

Among the pieces she sang were “Volando,” a song she and Limón developed for Iberia Airlines, as well as  “Volver,” and “El Fin de Fiesta,” two songs Limón wrote and Nella performed for the Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem film Everybody Knows, in which she makes a cameo.

“This concert is about all we’ve done in past year,” Limón said of the MMI and alumni he’s worked with. "We could play for 20 hours, not playing one song twice.”

Watch the music video for "Everybody Knows" featuring Limón and Nella: