Delicious Middle Eastern Guitar from Michel Sajrawy
Palestinian guitarist Michel Sajrawy ‘s latest album Arabop transcends category. What it most closely resembles is the current wave of electric gypsy music: fans of bands like the NY Gypsy All-Stars will love this stuff. Here he’s joined by a crew of Israeli musicians from his Nazareth hometown, teaming up for a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps as well as a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays with an envelope effect popular with guitarists east of the Danube that fills out his precise, staccato lines to the point where sometimes it sounds like he’s playing an electric piano or synth. What’s most impressive is that often he sounds like he’s playing a fretless guitar even though he’s simply bending strings on a standard-issue Strat. The result is a new hybrid musical language incorporating both traditional Egyptian modes and western tonalities, much in the same vein as David Fiuczynski here in the US and Salim Ghazi Saeedi in Iran.
The opening track kicks off with a slinky guitar vamp followed by a haunted, pleading soprano sax solo by Maali Klar, who shares a fondness for microtones and whose contributions to this album are some of its most riveting moments. Alto saxophonist Amiram Granot plays casually contrasting chromatics over the pulse of Stas Zilberman’s drums and Wisam Arram’s percussion. As he does on several tracks here, Sajrawy also plays electric bass on this one; Valeri Lipets holds down the low end on the others.
1 Count Before 40 begins with a pensive oud taqsim by Samir Makhoul, builds to a stately sway, Sajrawy navigating the space judiciously with a bit of a Greek folk feel: they work the dynamics up and down to a pinpoint guitar solo out. The title track, structured as sort of a musical palindrome, blends biting Black Sea riffage, a long and rather chilling microtonal bop guitar solo and more of that delicious, ney-like microtonal soprano sax from Klar.
The cospiratorial, whispery Syncretic Beliefs is basically a microtonal tone poem, Sarajway playing casually but purposefully over a djeridoo-like drone. Batumi works a trickily rhythmic groove, Sajrawy expertly shifting it further from the Middle East into otherworldly microtones and then spiraling bop, Klar taking it deep into the shadows in the wake of Sajrawy’s long solo. The album’s best track is the brooding, dirgelike, practically ten-minute epic Hal Asmar Ellon, swaying with a haunting understatement, Granot’s alto summoning the spirits from the nether regions this time: it sounds like an electric version of a Trio Joubran piece.
Sajrawy mimics an oud line on the watery intro to Ya Lel, which eventually picks up with a funky edge before returning to the brooding initial theme. Likewise, Invention is a launching pad for Sajrawy’s nimble cross-genre exploration, moving once again from the desert to bop-land. At the end of the album, Sajrawy takes the popular Egyptian tune Longa Farah Faza and turns it into a sizzling organ shuffle – it’s the only place on the album where he shows off his supersonic speed and he makes the absolute most of it. Like the rest of this album, it’s a feast of blissfully edgy chromatic guitar.