Often considered a Lebanese counterpart to Bob Dylan, oud virtuoso and bandleader Marcel Khalife has been a freedom fighter for decades, even before founding the Al Mayadine Ensemble in 1976. Jailed and exiled for championing peace and human rights in the Middle East, his stance has never wavered. Today, his work continues to inspire fellow activists as the Arab Spring spreads around the world. For decades, he maintained a close friendship with the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, turning many Darwish poems into songs that would become anthems throughout the levantine world and beyond. It would not be an overstatement to compare Khalife to another artist, legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, who also blended sounds from around the globe with classical Arabic song. Even by Khalife’s eclectic standards, his latest album Fall of the Moon, with the Al Mayadine Ensemble and Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Sirinko, is a titanic achievement. A lavish double-disc set streaming in its entirety at Khalife’s Bandcamp site, it juxtaposes ornate western classical orchestration with stark Middle Eastern melodies, both songs and instrumentals. Khalife and guest chanteuse Oumaima Khalil sing in Arabic; the cd booklet supplies English translations. Lyrical themes are alluded to via imagery far more often than they’re stated outright: it’s typical of Darwish’s poetry that what isn’t said that often resonates most powerfully. This is one of the most gripping and powerful albums in recent memory.
The title cut, a lavish, balletesque orchestral piece, could be Morricone, or a Rachmaninoff symphonic dance with Middle Eastern tonalities. The most vividly affecting of all the songs is Mohammad, a plaintive portrait of a child in a battle zone, sung a-cappella by Khalil. Themes of exile and longing for home run deep here, unsurprising considering that Darwish was Palestinian. The concluding song, The Damascene Collar of the Dove, pictures a fugitive back in Damascus, knowing that absolutely nothing will ever be the same again. Like many of the songs here, it’s a diptych, a vintage-style levantine melody that begins with an unnamed qanun player taking the lead and follows an increasingly haunting series of variations on a brooding theme that rests uneasily between traditional motifs and an angst-driven western sensibility: in that sense, the music perfectly matches the lyric. That occurs again and again not only throughout the album, but throughout the collaboration between Khalife and Darwish, brothers in arms in so many respects.
The rest of the album is more elusive, and allusive. The opening track, The Pigeons Fly begins with elegantly pensive piano by Rami Khalife, son of Marcel. Even when he solos, Marcel Khalife’s oud playing here, and throughout the album, is precise and biting but also understated, as are his vocals: his music has always been about intention rather than ostentation. What’s essentially a deftly orchestrated, acoustic levantine pop song speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring edge, following Darwish’s surreal imagery: “We are ours when a shadow enters its shadow in marble, and when I hang myself it is myself I resemble on a neck that embraces only clouds.” A refugee’s tale, And We Love Life sets a dark vamp to funky syncopation that grows more insistent as the melody weaves between the oud, the bass (played either by longtime Khalife collaborator Peter Herbert or Mark Helias - the liner notes don’t say who) and Khalife’s percussionist son Bachar. It’s a chilling piece of music: “We find a place to settle, plant some fast-growing crops and harvest the dead.”
The Stranger’s Bed, a sonata of sorts, features intricately wary interplay between Bachar Khalife’s piano and Fabio Presgrave’s cello. Oh My Proud Wound, a habibi ballad for a lost land, has Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet reaching the highs usually carried by a ney flute in this kind of music, with a characteristically soaring, terse solo as it reaches a distantly anguished swell. Houriyeh’s Instructions – a rather nostalgic litany of advice from mom – evokes the classic Ya Rayyeh, from an otherworldly intro to its lush guy/girl harmonies. Of all the diptychs here, Now, In Exile is the most eclectic, with a suspenseful but punchy opening bass solo with Led Zep echoes, then a dancing theme that first goes carefree but soon brings in the clouds. From Darwish’s final work, In the Presence of Absence, it’s an elegy for an old lion of the revolution who can see the end coming.
A Song on My Mind, with Anthony Millet’s accordion playing sleek lines in the midst of all the strings, has the cinematic sweep of a classic Abdel Wahab number, juxtaposing bloody wartime imagery with the memory of when the locals were the only ones who fenced off the olive groves. Two other tracks, Remember and The Poem of the Land (an “over my dead body” theme) set trickly rhythmic Middle Eastern themes to swirling art-rock arrangments not unlike the Moody Blues at their peak. The most memorable of all the melodies here might be Palestinian Mawwal, whose warily circling string intro grows into a gingerly crescendoing Middle Eastern orchestrated dance interrupted by gunshot percussion.
There’s also an Andalusian-flavored dual-guitar instrumental played with precision and fire by Mahmoud Tourkmani; a couple of magnificently orchestrated, acoustic habibi pop tunes; and a lavishly orchestrated waltz with echoes of Beethoven, Celtic music and also a theme from Marcel Khalife’s austerely intense Taqasim album from 2008. For sheer majestic sweep and vision, there’s no other album released this year that can touch this.
The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.
The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.
In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.
The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.
The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.
The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.
Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.
With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.
The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.
Boston-based Turkish music group Dunya Ensemble has two new double albums out. The first of these is the lavish A Story of the City…Constantinople, Istanbul, a dreamlike, surreal and sometimes ghostly creation. These are the ghosts of centuries past, a homage to a melting pot that’s been a hotbed of musical cross-pollination for over a millennium. Conceived by multi-instrumentalist bandleader and Turkish music maven Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, it’s a sometimes drastically original take on about a thousand years worth of music. Sanlikol rightly sees Istanbul as a hub where genres from across the silk road, and beyond, mingled and created brand-new sounds, to which he adds his own eclecticism as an indie classical composer with a jazz background. Confusing? A little. This is an album to be enjoyed as a buffet: an atonal avant garde overture leads into a series of dark choral pieces – whose melodies date from the middle ages – to a graceful baroque waltz, lots of clanky lute-and-voice pieces where the Middle Eastern scales are just starting to emerge, and eventually rock. Depending on your personal taste, you may want to completely resequence these tracks; on the other hand, fans of choral music have a feast of mini-suites on their hands here, as do fans of 20th century Middle Eastern music. The big choral works are delivered by the powerful voices of Boston renaissance choir Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas; the Janissary music is by Janissary band New England Mehterhane. Many of this album’s 40 tracks clock in at around two minutes, although there are also some epics. It’s a mammoth undertaking and ultimately a mammoth triumph for everyone including the listener. Sanlikol has said that this music is not meant to reflect any sense of contentment: instead, in a city composed of foreigners, unease is the usual state of mind, and that’s usually the case here.
The first disc begins with that atonal overture, followed by what sounds like a series of Hasidic cantorial ngunim with hints of Middle Eastern microtones – this mini-suite grows gradually more complex in its counterpoint and arrangements. There’s a brief, stately Byzantine Palace diptych with clanking lutes and a rustic waltz; quaint European Crusaders’ ballads; dark ominous plainchant melodies capped with fiery zurna (Turkish oboe) cadenzas; an absolutely lovely choral miniature that could be Andrea Gabrieli; and a lumbering, explosive vamp with thunderous bass drums to close it out.
The second is where the readily identifiable Middle Eastern modes coalesce and eventually catch fire. Bits of raga and casually crescendoing improvisations for various lutes personify Istanbul, then other waves of outsiders arrive, adding their own tonalities to this rich stew. The Turks’ vivid contribution to Greek music is acknowledged by a slowly swaying, nostalgic Smyrniki ballad, while Greek melodies and Egyptian rhythm slink their way in as well, the klezmer element represented by a bracingly brassy dance tune. The ngunim of the first cd get lush, rich orchestration a second time around and dance out joyously. Perhaps with intentional irony, what sounds most overtly Turkish only appears toward the end: a gorgeously brief dance, a muezzin’s call and finally an irresistible 1970s style Mediterranean disco/funk epic. Eclecticism has never been more lavishly successful than it is here.
Iraq-born trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been making extraordinary music for several years, most notably with his sister Dena in eclectic pan-levantine band Salaam,and more recently with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh . ElSaffar’s latest adventure in east/west cross-pollination, his Two Rivers Ensemble has a new album, Inana, recently out on the adventurous Pi label, that’s a lock for pretty much everybody’s best-of-2011 lists as far as both jazz and Middle Eastern music are concerned. This is ElSaffar’s deepest venture into jazz to date, reminding how well his microtonal quartertone style – which basically doesn’t exist in western music – is suited to American postbop as it is everywhere east of the Nile and many points in between. The album is a thematic suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and warfare. The melodies shift seamlessly between Arabic and western jazz modes, and as usual ElSaffar has a sensational band to play them: Shusmo’s Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion; Ole Mathisen on alto sax; Carlo DeRosa on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. One comparison that springs to mind is Ansambl Mastika, reedman Greg Squared’s deliriously intense pan-Balkan band, which also works many of the same tonalities as this group, although they’re crazier and more improvisational.
The opening track, Dumuzi’s Dream is stunning and intense, ElSaffar’s bright but allusive trumpet contrasting with the suspenseful, rustic, dark levantine groove underneath. Rolling triplets give way to insistence, an otherworldly, spiraling qanun solo, and a biting, pensive oud solo over judicious bass that ElSaffar breaks out of with the Arabic equivalent of major on minor. It’s creepy, and it gives absolutely no idea of how wildly he’s about to take it outside. Meanwhile, Waits proves as comfortably at home moving from one odd (to western ears, anyway) tempo to another, often playing polyrythms against the bass or the rest of the percussion, injecting one counterintuitive, incisive riff after another when he can sneak one in.
That’s sort of a prelude. The suite really gets going with Venus the Evening Star, where the main themes get introduced: this one, a tricky dance with a distinctly Greek shuffle bounce, flutters along amiably until Zawil’s oud solo takes it in a much more ominous direction, DaRosa’s pulse signaling a long, captivating return to the party as ElSaffar casually works his way up to a triumphant note. A suite within a suite, Inna’s Dance coalesces slowly, then sets a catchy, simple trumpet/sax riff over a hypnotic bass vamp, Abboushi adding a thoughtfully energetic sitar-like solo. As it progresses, it takes on a funky edge (that’s Abboushi bringing a little James Brown to the party), Waits and DaRosa’s polyrhythms hypnotic under ElSaffar’s river of microtones.
The warm, stately Lady of Heaven kicks off the most straight-up jazz-oriented section here, simple, sustained trumpet/sax harmonies over clanking buzuq and Waits’ gentle flurries. Infinite Variety picks up the pace, Abboushi reminding that jazz chords are also suited to the buzuq, ElSaffar’s clever arrangement setting up a series of echo permutations against the central bass riff. The big fifteen-minute epic Journey to the Underworld should be Journey Through the Underworld instead: moving from lengthy improvisations for oud and vocals, it reaches unexpectedly upbeat terrain, driven by DeRosa’s insistent bass, then goes murky and rubato until ElSaffar finally signals that the end of the tunnel is in sight, yet almost having to pull the rest of the ensemble out by himself. Those are merely the highlights: it’s an absolutely fascinating, intricately orchestrated performance.
The suite’s concluding segment, Venus the Morning Star, answers the question of what side the goddess will end on: with a return of the simple, supple opening theme, it’s an optimistic, brightly evocative early morning tableau. The final track, Al-Badia, isn’t part of the suite, but it ends the album on the same richly intense note where began, an imaginative blend of oldschool funk and Mohammed Abdel Wahab cinematic hitworthiness, the instruments taking turns nailing the place where the choir would respond as the verse hits a turnaround. The fun the band is having is visceral: count this among the best albums to come over the transom here this year.
Originally from Iran, singer Azam Ali is one of those extraordinarily eclectic musicians who’s equally at home with music from her native country as well as from Kurdistan, or Egypt, or Turkey, or probably anywhere else on the globe. Her most recent album From Night to the Edge of Day came out earlier this year; she’s at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 365 5th Ave. on 11/22 at 7 PM and if Middle Eastern music is your thing, it’s a concert you shouldn’t miss. On the album, Ali plays santour and percussion; Loga Ramin Torkian, who put out the extraordinary Mehraab album with singer Khosro Ansari earlier this year, plays his usual collection of stringed instruments including kamman, lafta, guitar, viola da gamba and saz, and contributes his signature, swirling, lushly echoing production. The duo’s comfortable familiarity working together here makes sense, considering that that they’ve been the nexus of pioneering pan-levantine band Niyaz since the 90s. Multi-percussionist Omer Avci and frame drummer Ziya Tabassian propel the band with a stately, understatedly booming intensity, with Naser Musa on oud, Kiya Tabassian on setar, Ulas Ozdemir contributing electric saz on a couple of tunes along with a full string section and light, ambient electronic touches by Carmen Rizzo.
Ali has a full, round, wounded voice and uses it judiciously and effortlessly for maximum impact: she doesn’t overemote. The songs themselves are Iranian, Turkish, Lebanese, and Kurdish lullabies (along with a stunning original by Musa that could pass for a Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic). But these aren’t sleepy, happy songs: they seem to be meant to provide a heads-up about the difficulties that will arise in a future just over the horizon. The first track is like a symphony composed of layers of vocals, dark and European-flavored, with echoes of the central theme from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The band follows that with an elegant, echoey, darkly hypnotic Iranian melody; Georges Iamman’s tersely wary Arabic violin opens the next song with an improvised intro before the drums come rolling in, bringing the rest of the orchestra along on a dreamy, otherworldly levantine vamp, Ali’s vocals gentle but resolute overhead.
One of the most gripping tracks here, Neni Desem, sets the stringed instruments rustling and clanking against a sepulchral drone as Ali also improvises her way in. It’s a tone poem with layers of vocals rising and falling, howling and pleading – and creepy. The centerpiece is Faith, a duet with Musa that sounds like classic Abdel Wahab with south Indian flourishes, oud and violin playing artfully off Ali’s vocals as she finally goes up the scale with some subtle Bollywood-style melismas. The fifth track, Shrin, also blends Indian and levantine influences, in this case from Azerbaijan. There’s also the slow Persian gothic Mehman (The Guest), strings quietly aching against the brooding, inscrutable vocals; a low, gentle, suspenseful vocal taqsim in over lush oscillating drone, which is actually the closest thing to a traditional western lullaby here; a Kurdish waltz with ethereal harmonies that evoke Bulgarian folk music; and a lushly ambient reprise of Faith at the end. Alongside Torkian’s album with Ansari, this is one of the year’s most original and captivating releases.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #468:
Leila Mourad – Sanatain: Arabian Masters
A star of stage and screen in Egypt in the 1930s and 40s, her career ground to a standstill after the Nasser revolution: Mourad being Jewish probably didn’t help. With an expansive, powerful, soulful voice that these remastered 78s doesn’t adequately capture – like the rest of her contemporaries, she could jam vocalese for hours sometimes – she’s still fondly remembered in the Arab world. This sometimes lushly, sometimes starkly orchestrated compilation is hardly an adequate representation of her career, but her recordings are hard to find outside of the Middle East. This one has the hypnotic, chillingly insistent title track and seven other cuts, most of them clocking in at around three minutes. Because many of these are taken from musicals, there are occasional breaks that only make sense if you speak Arabic and know the source. If you run across anything by her, it’s probably worth owning. Here’s a random torrent.
At their sold-out performance Friday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the New York Arabic Orchestra reaffirmed their place as one of this era’s most vital New York ensembles. Leader Bassam Saba had played several of the pieces on the program with a small five-piece group a week earlier in Brooklyn. Fleshed out with full string section, ouds, flutes, bass and percussion, the songs took on a lush, epic sweep that was nothing short of transcendent. Saba toured with his countryman Marcel Khalife for two decades: the two composers share a broad, pan-levantine eclecticism and an ability to deliver an emotionally charged wallop. This show did that, but it also played up all kinds of subtleties and unexpected, entertaining flourishes. With the orchestra behind him, multi-instrumentalist Saba could play an entire song on a single one instead of shifting from oud, to flute, to saz and back again like he did at Prospect Park the previous week, giving him the chance to take his time and expand on his often plaintive, poignant themes.
Characteristically, the bill included several Saba compositions as well as vintage Middle Eastern material. Wonderful Land, the title track from his excellent new album, opened with Saba playing a hypnotic solo taqsim (improvisation) on the rustic, clanky Turkish saz lute. Then the orchestra took it aloft on a magic carpet of strings, with a stately call-and-response between the saz and the ensemble, and a graceful solo for the percussion section. Diverse, debonair Lebanese-American singer Naji Youssef joined the group along with a choir for a vocal tune, the baritone crooner’s elegant microtonal inflections contrasting with joyously romping flutes. Then it was back to the instrumentals with two increasingly tricky, polyrhythmic variations on Lebanese folk themes, Saba’s flute front and center. Midway through, a spontaneous clapalong emerged in the crowd.
There were three more vocal numbers (a couple by paradigm-shifting Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers), one lushly swaying, a couple of them more lighthearted. While in most Middle Eastern dance-pop, the orchestras have been replaced by synthesizers and drum machines, it was heartwarming to hear the roots of those melodies as they were originally written to be played. Saba’s Nirvana, a lavishly memorable suite, featured an arrangement that cleverly shifted voicings among orchestra members, with a biting oud solo against pillowy strings. They closed with a classic Egyptian piece, packed with trick endings, a bracing solo from the first violinist and an even more intense one from Saba, once again on flute. As before, the crowd became an auxiliary percussion section as the piece wound out, and they didn’t miss a beat, all the way through to its playful, cold ending.
The New York Arabic Orchestra are the New York Alliance Française’s artists-in-residence for 2011, with a gala fundraiser coming up in November with Marcel Khalife. The ensemble’s next performance is on September 11 at 7 PM at Merkin Concert Hall, as part of Musicians for Harmony’s 10th Anniversary Concert for Peace.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #552:
Wadi Al-Safi: Ajmal Aghani – The Very Best of Wadi Al-Safi
The career of crooner/oudist Wadi Al-Safi, “the Voice of Lebanon,” has spanned eight decades. Essentially, he’s a soul singer, with a warm baritone characterized more by nuance than bite. Like so many levantine artists dating back to the 1940s, he was also a star of screwball comedies; much of his repertoire has iconic status that extends beyond his home turf. This is hardly comprehensive, but it’s a decent overview. Lots of hits here: the lushly orchestrated La La Aini La; the sweeping Tallou Hbabna; the plaintive, hypnotic, accordion-driven Remche Ouyounek; the suspenseful, slow Ma Atwalak Ya Layl; the slinky snakecharmer dance Albi Yehwak; Betrehlak Mechwar, with its cool qanun/bass intro; and Ya Rabe’ena, which works equally well as military march or wedding dance. The whole album is streaming at Spotify; here’s a random torrent via Folk Music SMB.
Shusmo’s new cd Mumtastic is pure adrenaline – it’s one of the most exhilarating albums of recent years. Frontman Tareq Abboushi plays long, relentlessly intense, serpentine solos on his buzuq (the Palestinian bouzouki); it’s interesting to hear tenor saxophonist and zurna flutist Lefteris Bournias - a Coltrane/Papasov-class powerhouse- as a sideman rather than centerstage, firing off endless volleys of chromatics like he usually does. There are other bands who sound a little like Shusmo (Arabic for “whatchamacallit”) – the NY Gypsy All-Stars, and psychedelic Greek rockers Annabouboula come to mind – but this group’s sound is different. Abboushi’s concept is to bring a purist, classical sense of melody to Middle Eastern dance music, while bringing danceable rhythms to classical melodies. Some of this is sort of punk Middle Eastern classical music, some of it is closer to acoustic surf music. Either way, it’s pretty amazing.
The opening cut is the biggest stunner here, a Turkish tune which if you’re sitting down will get you dancing in your seat. It kicks off with a wickedly ominous, catchy hook on Abboushi’s buzuq, with the same kind of ringing resonance as a twelve-string guitar. Bournias’ zurna flutters against the beat, or shadows Abboushi, whose first solo becomes a scorching flurry of doublestops and tremolo-picking. The second track, The Time It Takes sounds like a stately baroque arrangement of an old English folk tune until the chromatics come in, and then the drums, and then they’re off, with a nonchalantly hard-hitting sax solo. Georgina +2 pulses along on a tricky Kurdish rhythm, Dave Phillips’ bass and Zafer Tawil’s percussion trading off and playing against the buzuq, which eventually takes a deliciously long crescendo up. True to its title, Traveling is a cinematic epic, Abboushi’s expansive narrative balanced by Bournias’ bracing, sometimes anguished, nebulously insistent passages.
Samba for Maha, another cinematic one, doesn’t stay samba for very long – it’s something of a neighborhood piece, with dogs barking, surfy drum breaks and moody sax. A trickily rhythmic showcase for Tawil along with drummer Hector Morales, Rasty George segues into the first of a handful of vignettes that slowly fades out. The funky Batayak has a swaying rai-rock vibe and a thicket of lighting tremolo-picking from Abboushi, followed by a brief joujouka interlude with the zurna wailing mournfully. The centerpiece of the album is The Wall, a long, pensively surreal journey that’s the closest thing to jazz here, with an aptly sensitive guest spot by quartertone trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. It’s meant to illustrate the effect of the wall erected in Israeli by anti-Palestinian extremists, to further perpetuate the apartheid that exists there – and yet, some are undeterred by it, others actually managing to enjoy what it leaves in its wake (including the wreckage of Palestinian homes, as much of a playground as you’ll find nearby). With a quiet ache, it reaches for resolution but never finds it.
The album winds up with Pickles, moving once again from European baroque stateliness to a biting Middle Eastern dance and then back again, and the clapalong wedding dance Dal’Ona – the only vocal number here – Bournias finally cutting loose with his most acidically intense solo of the entire session. Shusmo play Joe’s Pub on June 23 at 9:30 PM – if this is your kind of thing, and you’re in town, you’d be crazy to miss them. They’re also at Cornelia St. Cafe at 8:30 on July 7.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #604:
Farid Al-Atrache – 25 Ans Deja
What B.B. King or Richard Thompson are to the guitar, Farid Al-Atrache was to the oud, the ancient Middle Eastern four-string bass lute. B.B. is probably the better comparison: Al-Atrache had supersonic speed on the frets when he felt like cutting loose, but he was more about soul than flash. And he was a lot more than just a musician, with a long career as a star of screwball Egyptian musical comedies. The title of this late-90s compilation alludes to the years since his death. Most of this is lushly orchestrated levantine dance music, many of the tracks, like Adnaytani Bel Hagr and Ich Inta having become a part of the standard bellydance repertoire. There’s also the catchy, upbeat Hebbina Hebbina; the sweepingly majestic Baa Ayez Tensani; and the hits Zaman Ya Hob, Ana Wenta We Bass, Manheremch el Omr and Odta Ya Yom Mawlidi among the eighteen tracks here. Here’s a random torrent via ubdocleahq.