Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Egypt Noir

This isn’t a guy in a black trenchcoat stalking his way down a grey Cairo back alley in 4 AM drizzle – but it is definitely an urban album. When Cairo was flooded by Nubians from the countryside in the 1960s and 70s, it was something akin to the northward journey of American blacks to cities like New York and Chicago – they brought their music with them. The resulting collision between their rural music, the levantine sounds popular in the big city, and late 60s American R&B produced just as auspicious a hybrid as American blues. The brand-new Egypt Noir compilation arrives just in time for summer – it’s party music, perfect for dancing your way across the rooftop, or the lawn if you’re somewhere where there are lawns. Most of these songs rattle along with a hypnotically swaying, clickety-clack beat, part snake dance, part Bo Diddley.

Ali Hassan Kuban, popularly known as the godfather of urban Nubian music, is represented by a duet with Salwa Abou Greisha (who also graces the album with a viscerally wrenching vocal improvisation on another track), and by a long, slightly Fela-esque jam whose blaring string synthesizer threatens to push the rest of the band off the rails. Kuban’s Alnubia Band mine this same vein with a wah guitar-and-horns-driven Afrobeat jam. With its oompah-style horns, Hager by Fathi Abou Greisha (father of Salwa) takes on an almost gypsy feel; Yanas Baridouh, by Salma sounds like Booker T & the MGs teleported back in time to a Zanzibar taraab bar circa 1930. The single best song on the compilation is by Sayed Khalifa, whose Samra Oya stretches out a hazy world reggae groove remarkably evocative of Corner Soul by the Clash, bubbly Hammond organ and American soul vocal inflections. And Hassan Abdel Aziz’ Elleya Misafir could be a Bill Withers or Isaac Hayes jam with that clattering beat and vocals in Arabic. Definitely music to free your bootay – your mind will be close behind. It’s just out on Piranha Musik.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gaida – Levantine Indulgence

Syrian-born chanteuse Gaida’s debut cd has been highly anticipated in world music circles: for once, it’s a release which lives up to its hype. Her high, versatile voice with just the hint of a jazzy, smoky edge draws comparisons to Natacha Atlas, and like Atlas, she proves equally captivating not only at the levantine ballads intimated by the title, but also bossa nova and rock. What’s most notable is how she and the group behind her shift between styles, often mingling jazz and Brazilian motifs within a traditional levantine framework. As much as there may be tears close to her eyes, as she puts it, on many of these songs, there’s also joy and exuberance. When she became part of the scene at New York’s music mecca Alwan for the Arts, a who’s who of expatriate Middle Eastern musicians assembled around her. The band on the album is extraordinary – credits include Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and santoor, Bridget Robbins on ney flute, Johnny Farraj on riq, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and Zafer Tawil on oud, qanun and percussion. In fact, the album’s title track may be its most disarmingly beautiful, a taqsim (improvisation) with Gaida’s fetching vocalese surrounded by wary qanun, percussion and even a terse upright bass solo.

The cd begins with a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab style Egyptian ballad featuring ney flute and characteristically vivid trumpet accents from ElSaffar. Ammar picks up the pace with insistent buzuq and oud chords and a triumphantly ululating choir of women’s voices – and even a little piano for extra spice. Gaida’s most wrenchingly intense vocal here is on the imploring habibi jazz ballad Khaifa Uhibuka, which segues into a slinky levantine number featuring qanun and oud. There’s also a haunting piano-based European-style art-rock song (with Arabic lyrics), a swaying, upbeat one-chord groove number, a straight-up bossa song, and the majestic anthem Bint Elbalad, wrapping up the album with intense, darkly soulful solos from buzuk and trumpet once again. You’re going to see this on a whole lot of “best-of” lists at the end of the year, including ours. Gaida plays the cd release show on 3/21 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, advance tickets are an absolute must because the show will sell out.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn’s Best-Kept Secret

Back in the days before myspace, this was often how you learned about shows: some guy would stand outside a venue after the band had finished and the crowd was exiting, feverishingly handing out cards for another similar show elsewhere. Word of last Saturday’s show reached Lucid Culture HQ via the program notes given out at the scintillating solo oud performance by Zafer Tawil and then George Ziadeh at Barbes last Friday. As it turned out, the Brooklyn Arts Council had been promoting a monthlong Arab music festival at venues throughout New York, which Friday’s show had been a part of, and as much as fun as it undoubtedly would have been to have seen more of these events, it was still great fun to catch the tail end of the festival.

Arab music is Brooklyn’s best-kept secret. Arab culture as it exists today is vastly more musical and literate than corporate-driven American culture, and the Arab diaspora throughout New York swarms to events like these. Saturday night at Alwan for the Arts downtown, it was mostly the diaspora that showed up and packed the hall, although there were other communities represented. Essentially, the program was Arab country music. “These days, you get mostly Levantine dance music and Egyptian pop,” the woman from the BAC told the crowd. “Not that that’s a bad thing!” She was right: this was a brilliantly assembled bill featuring seldom-heard music from across the Arab world, from outside the cities. The night started with singer Naji Youssef and his band, playing a passionate set of Lebanese standards including songs by the “voice of Lebanon,” Wadie el Safi. There’s a darkness and melancholy in a lot of this, and Youssef, with his soaring baritone and his supporting cast, brought out all of it. Maurice Chedid played oud, reminding of how much fun it was back in the day when he was essentially the house band at the Hosri family’s somewhat legendary Cedars of Lebanon throughout the decade of the 90s.

The next act was Yemeni expatriate Ahmed Alrodini, playing oud and backed by two percussionists, doing a fascinating set of music from across Yemen. Most Yemenis in New York hail from around the capitol, Sana’a, but Alrodini comes from the seacoast, thus, his repertoire is somewhat more diverse. He opened with a “habibi” song, imbued with considerable sadness and longing before changing tempos in an instant toward the end of the song and turning it into a dance number. After that, the group did a Hindi love song (the area has a sizeable South Asian population) with more of a hypnotic feel, followed by a brief but rousing drum interlude where they boisterously showcased the area’s various rhythms. They closed with a complex, intriguing pastoral number, Alrodini’s split-second timing and seemingly effortless tremolo-picking as energizing as it was throughout the rest of the show: he’s a spectacular player to watch.

The evening’s final act was essentially a bass-and-drums unit. Southpaw Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Abdel Rahim Boutat played the loutar, a four-string acoustic bass and sang, accompanied by two percussionists. Strangely, the drummers were playing what looked to be modern drum heads that weren’t locked down, producing a shivery rattling throughout the show that may not have been intentional. In the corner of the room, a drunken reveler was clapping and singing along: “Go to the middle!” Youssef encouraged him. Genius: the crowd where the guy had been holding a party for one could hear the music again, and now the band had a dancer up front with them. In his all-too-brief set, Boutat frequently sang the same lines he played on his instrument, running through a set of Moroccan mountain music. It’s more melodic and Arab-inflected than the hypnotic, afropop-inflected music usually found elsewhere in Morroco. With the dancer bouncing around up front, the crowd was energized and so was the band. They opened with a haunting, hypnotic number, then another in a similar vein featuring the percussion toward the end, then brought the night to a rousing crescendo with their third song. Bass and drums never sounded more melodic or more interesting, as the crowd seized on the counter-rhythm and clapped along. The hypnotic yet ecstatic party ambience continued through the end of the show.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Arabic, concerts like these are a great introduction to what could become a lifelong addiction: the calendar at Alwan for the Arts is a good place to start.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Layali El Andalus Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/1/08

Tonight the standing-room crowd in the little back room at Barbes were treated to the single best concert we’ve seen so far this year. It was a passionate, fascinating show. Performances by musicians who play traditional Arab music as expertly and emotionally as this group did tonight usually cost upwards of $50 at places like Symphony Space. Led by Moroccan singer/oud player Rachid Halihal, the all-acoustic sextet played a mix of mostly traditional dance numbers spanning the Arab world, including songs from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and, obviously, Andalusia. With its extremely sophisticated counterpoint and microtonal scales, this stuff isn’t easy to play, but Layali El Andalus made it seem effortless. Interpolating a few sunnily upbeat, happily nostalgic numbers within a set of what was otherwise long, frequently hypnotic songs based on the haunting chromatic scale, it was a rare treat to witness a performance like this in such an intimate setting.

The setup of the band – oud, quarter-tone accordion, flute, violin and two percussionists – echoes the small combos used by pioneering composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Said Darwish. Many of the songs they played tonight are popular standards, often lavishly orchestrated: one doesn’t often get to hear this material stripped down to its basics. Often, the band would pick up the tempo at the end of the song, flute player Daphna Mor letting out an eerily triumphant trill as the crescendo would rise to a peak. The individual musicians, including Bruno Bruzzese on violin, Uri Sharlin on accordion, and two percussionists, all got to take extended solos, unanimously proving to be terse, incisive, thoughtful players: this group doesn’t waste notes. Halihal is something of a ham: while re-tuning his oud after each song, he’d improvise on the next song’s melody until everything was on key. His attempts to get some audience participation going met with mixed results. Though he tried strenuously to get the men and women in the crowd to sing a call-and-response with each other on one number, this fell flat – perhaps they didn’t understand, or they were simply unfamiliar with what’s actually a common device in traditional Arab music. But by the end of the show anyone with enough room on the floor to dance (or at least sway a little bit) was doing that while clapping along ecstatically. The best-received song of the night was a richly melodic version of the original Ya Rayyeh (Let’s Party), best known to today’s listeners as French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha’s signature song. They closed with a rather sentimental song that was somewhat jarring, considering the ecstatic intensity of their other material. But no matter. Layali El Andalus’ next show is Sunday, March 9 at 8:30 PM at Drom NYC, 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Avenues, and world music fans would be crazy to miss it.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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