Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives – Alabina at Manhattan Center, NYC 7/31/99

[editor’s note: one of the things we inherited from our predecessor e-zine was a massive book of over a thousand, mostly previously unpublished concert reviews dating back over a decade. This was one of them. We’d post them occasionally to keep the front page fresh – this was back in the day when we weren’t getting 500 emails a day from bands and publicists. We plan to resurrect the feature soon. Til then, here’s Alabina…]

Tickets were expensive: almost forty bucks to see the Madonna of the Middle East, as the media has pegged her. Unsurprisingly, 99% of the audience were well-dressed Arab kids in their late teens and early twenties, most of them together in small groups. This may have been a sit-down show, but there was no lack of dancing, especially at the front of the stage. Everybody had come out for the party, and Ishtar and Alabina, her band of gypsies didn’t let anybody down. At their worst, they sound like the Gypsy Kings in an inspired moment; at best, they’re the creme de la creme of Arab dance-pop, with a decidedly traditional, acoustic edge. They played for about an hour and fifteen minutes, encore included: while Ishtar had a very good female backup singer to help her out (the Moroccan-Jewish frontwoman is in her late forties now, though it hardly shows), she still did all the lead vocals and wailed, though not as spectacularly as at her recent appearance at Central Park Summerstage.

They opened with a terse version of their self-titled hit Alabina, then played mostly new stuff including a cover of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood which fortunately didn’t venture into Santa Esmeralda territory (a bit of trivia: they were the gypsy disco band from the late 70s who scored a minor hit with an interminable, seemingly 20-minute version of the song). They also played another hit, El-Salaama, without any spectacular vocal solos, though Ishtar did one furiously fast vocalese triplet on another number that left the crowd spellbound. The keyboardist played most of the songs’ chromatic motifs on string synth, although on a couple of slow ballads he used cheesy, lite FM-style, mid-80s DX7 settings. Fortunately, the strength of the melodies and Ishtar’s singing covered for the lameness of the textures. For the encore, they played the long version of Alabina, then Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and El-Salaama again, Ishtar belting fetchingly and masterfully, shimmying all over the stage. She’s in amazing shape. While it would have been nice to have seen this in a setting better suited to a contagious party vibe, it was still an excellent show.

July 31, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments