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Orient Occident: East meets West through music

By Alison Hird

Orient Occident, a six-piece ensemble from Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Switzerland and France, releases its eponymous debut album today. Banishing all notions of a 'clash of civilisations' their mutual respect of one another's cultures of origin, and the ability to listen, has resulted in an exciting and moving collaboration where music is the only language that counts.

“Every musical instrument can play every music,” says Aurore Voilqué, the band’s (French) violinist.

She’s a ‘yes we can’ kind of person and has found kindred spirits in Mahmoud Chouki (guitar), Misirli Ahmet (percussion), Eleftheria Daoultzi (qanun), Stephane Chapuis (accordeon) and Samuel Pont (double bass).

Accomplished musicians in their own countries, they met in 2015 in the Swiss town of Sierre at the Rencontres Orient Occident: a celebration of Arab culture bringing together spiritual leaders, intellectuals and cultural figures from both sides of the Mediterranean.

The festival's artistic director, Mahmoud Chouki, asked each of them to bring along a piece of music. They rehearsed together for a week and gave a concert at the end.

“We didn’t know each other,” says Voilqué, but something geled. She describes the experience as "totally magic" and  “very deep”.

Orient Occident/Veronica Elena

They were well aware of their cultural differences: “Switzerland is not Morocco!” explains Chouki on the band’s video clip. But the love of music overtook all other considerations.

“There’s a lot of love and peace and we never thought [about] what’s happening in our countries,” the violinist continues.

“At the end of the week, of course we wanted to continue this beautiful adventure and to make a CD.”

Less than 18 months later, the album Orient Occident is out, thanks in no small part to the patronage of Bernard Milléquant from French insurance company SMA.

They interpret traditional pieces from Armenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Israel and Morocco, along with several original compositions: Mechul (Misirli Ahmet), Arrows (Mahmoud Chouki) A deux doigts de te dire “oui” (Jacques Mandrea/Voilqué).

The ten tracks give space for each musician to shine individually, and then come together as a sextet, creating moments of intense emotion. "I often have tears in my eyes when I play with these musicians," admits Voilqué. She's not alone.

As Shakespeare would say: “if music be the food of love, play on”.  And he knew a thing or two about the importance of patronage!

Orient Occident play Paris’s Café de la Danse on 2 February.

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