Concert Review: Parissa and Kamilya Jubran at the Asia Society, NYC 6/11/09
A frequently riveting juxtaposition of ancient and modern vocal music from the Muslim world, arguably the highlight of this year’s Muslim Voices festival. Persian classical singer Parissa is something of a feel-good story, having resurrected a promising career interrupted for almost two decades by the 1978-79 Iran counterrevolution. Accompanied by virtuoso tar (four-string lute) player Iman Vaziri and hand drummer Dara Afraz, she delivered musical settings of Rumi poems, essentially soul music with a distinctly antique flavor. In a vibratoless alto more bronze than brassy, seated somewhat inscrutably centerstage, she worked a style that typically allows room for emotional release at the end of a phrase, with melismas and ululations which she delivered with considerable passion yet restraint. From the point of view of a non-Farsi speaker, it was impossible to tell where one poem began and another ended, the segments being linked by the tar, occasionally tar and drum picking up the pace. They mixed the time signature up: among the songs (or segments) were what was essentially a stately waltz, several straight-up, seemingly four-on-the-floor numbers and several that that were much more tricky, timewise. Visibly absent was any dance beat, and for that matter any chord changes, resulting in a very hypnotic feel. The most musically compelling of them approximated a minor scale, Vaziri introducing a particularly anguished theme and then playing off the vocals gently. A couple others were distinctly anthemic, although in this music, the hooks are strictly musical: there are no choruses in the lyrics. The trio maintained a careful, deliberate pace throughout, determined by the meter of the verse – Persian poetry, like Latin poetry, is highly inflected.
While Parissa keeps the flame alive, Palestinian oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran – former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen – breaks new ground. To call her performance cutting-edge would be an understatement. An extraordinarily innovative musician, she displayed a dazzling melodic sensibility on the oud, employing at times equal parts American soul, funk and avante-garde music as well as classical Levantine motifs, with hypnotic tinges possibly evocative of Moroccan gnawa. Playing original settings of contemporary Palestinian poems, she sang with a high, youthful delivery, clear and direct, minutely jeweled with the subtlest shades of angst, regret and longing. For the considerable benefit of English speakers, translations of the poems were included in the program notes, and without exception they were intensely moving. Here’s just the first stanza of the most intense of all of them – if this isn’t well worth the $25 ticket price (tickets still available for tonight’s show), you decide what is:
Birds have their homes in the shadows
Echo has longings for hills that she knows
Dew has the dying color of sunset
Nights have their secret to cover the sorrows
Drinkers have wine, and I have the rest
She began that one with a touch of the blues, added a little quiet scatting in the middle and then it got haunting and serious. The deeply metaphorical Words (“I wish I were a language on a lip/That is creased with cares/It would neither conceal nor reveal) began with a dexterous series of high harmonics on the oud and a funky feel, further enhanced as the sound engineer brought up the reverb on the vocals. Quietly and determinedly haunting, Hands stayed just this side of macabre as Jubran added pointed passing tones to drive home the frustration and anguish of captivity. The saddest of the poems, Scenes – a bitter concession to wartime defeat – was driven by darkly ringing chords, terse yet heavy with grief and loss. She ended the set with a love song, Hammock, its long outro skipping somewhat skeletally yet soulfully warm, like a vintage Richie Havens song. Considering the quality of all this, one could forgive her for doing karaoke on a couple of numbers, backed by a tape with layers of oud and backing vocals – as complex as the songs were, there are without a doubt plenty of other oudists and singers here who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with such a compelling musician as Jubran.
Both Parissa and Kamilya Jubran are playing tonight at the Asia Society, 725 Park Ave. at 70th St. Parissa goes on at 7:30, Jubran at 9:30 and tickets are still available as of this writing (morning of 6/12/09).