In the Persian tradition, the term ghazal refers to a genre of mystical odes or love poems that celebrates both sex and God. In India, popular semiclassical ballads known as ghazals also explore the seemingly paradoxical union of the sensual and the spiritual. For centuries in the East, blurring the distinction between corporeal desire and ecstatic adulation has been a kind of serious play among poets and musicians who've wished to challenge audiences with thoughtful ambiguity. The master improvisers in the group Ghazal — Kayhan Kalhor, Shujaat Husain Khan, and Swapan Chaudhuri — draw from this tradition in the spontaneous synthesis of their respective Iranian (Persian) and North Indian musical cultures, which has earned them worldwide renown.
The bandmates first performed together three years ago at a one-day recording session, which yielded Lost Songs of the Silk Road, an improvisational ear-opener rife with the fire and synergy of a new combo on an inspired mission. The trio's use of streamlined instrumentation — kamancheh (an upright, violinlike four-string), sitar (a deeply resonant, long-necked lute), tabla (classical Indian hand drums), and minimal, meditative vocals — created a spaciousness in their extended songs for the silences to resonate on par with the sounds. Part devotional, part visceral, and deeply soulful, this music revels in a sacred space. Its virtuosic, emotion-rich beauty is clearly heir to the ecstatic traditions of the ancient East. Ghazal's two outstanding follow-up albums — As Night Falls on the Silk Road and last year's Moon Rise Over the Silk Road — extend their ambition to unify supposedly disparate worlds. The value of this vision is immeasurable.
Ghazal appears on Sunday, March 26, at 6 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), S.F. Tickets are $18-50; call 978-2787.