Twenty minutes later and we’re seated with 2,000 others inside a beautiful walled garden, as Parissa and the five-piece Dastan Ensemble, begin their set on a low stage under the shade of two huge trees. Turns out the Ensemble are the most famous classical Iranian group in the world and they deliver a virtuoso performance on the kind of percussion and string instruments rarely played in the West. Parissa herself is a mesmerising Arabic soul singer, totally lost in the music, hands raised heavenward in mystic praise even though no-one has a clue what she’s singing about.
‘Teleological’ is the word Brian Eno later uses to describe this Arabic musical tradition. It has little in common with the ‘verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge…’ construction of western rock’n’roll heritage. For a start they’re not big on the idea of the hit single – the first track alone lasts forty five minutes.
‘Can you believe this?’ asks Bono, as the audience rises as one to salute them at the end of their two-song, 70-minute set. ‘Isn’t that something else ?’
‘Briefly,’ says Eno, explaining the peculiar distinction of the Arabic musical tradition, ‘You could say that African-based music is generally cyclic – ideas that go round and round in a fairly straightforward way – but Arabic music generally isn’t cyclic. It’s generally a sort of narrative in that it starts in one place and ends up in another place… the proper word is ‘teleological.’
Towards a finish?
‘Yes, it has a definite trajectory and a narrative to it and it doesn’t repeat in the same way that most African-based pop music does. So in a typical pop song you will have ‘A B A B A B C A B B’ or something like that but in Arabic music you might have ‘A B C F B G F’ or something like that.
‘Basically it just goes off and what we’ve been doing here these past few days is enjoying things like that more and more, moving away from the simply cyclic way of writing things.’
So you’re trying to create a different sensibility in the songwriting here? Well, he says, put it like this: ‘Whenever there was an aesthetic decision to be made we’ve asked, ‘How would it be solved in Arabic music?’ So that gives us another frame to think in – it doesn’t mean we always do what an Arabic player might have done but it gives us a different frame of reference.’
‘I’ve had this thing about Arabic music for ages, thinking that it’s where the next big future in fusion will come from – I’ve been saying that for about thirty years and finally I think it is coming true.
‘There are things I like a lot about Arabic music which are different to what we do in western music and so we have started trying to incorporate some of those elements. It is not a question of sounds so much but of different structural decisions about how things are made.’
So, if pushed, how far along the way does he feel they have got so far ? ‘There’ll be some differences of opinion about which things will constitute a record,’ he says. ‘But we have a lot of pieces. My general rule is that I’m only interested in things I have never heard anything like before – and we’ve got plenty of those!’