Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

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September 3, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Naseer Shamma’s First US Concert in Ten Years: Transcendent and Cutting-Edge

There was a point during oudist Naseer Shamma’s sold-out show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night where in the middle of an expansive, bucolic theme, he suddenly transformed it into a menacing raga, wailing and then sirening downward on the high strings against an ominously reverberating low note. It was one of many such moments for the Iraq-born, Cairo-based virtuoso, performing with a seven-piece version of his extraordinary Al-Oyoun Ensemble and earning a standing ovation from a crowd that throughout the show spontanteously broke out into clapping and singing along with Shamma’s instrumentals.

His music is as cutting-edge as anything in the Arabic-speaking world, yet remains rooted in ancient traditions and often in familiar themes. Shamma began the concert judiciously with a solo improvisation that rose and fell dramatically, using his fret hand to tap out rapidfire clusters with a precision that was both spectacular and uncanny. The show ended with the ensemble hamming up a bright pastoral theme, nay flute player Hany ElBadry firing off a wildly trilling, buffoonishly masterful display of chops that drew the most explosive applause of the night. In between, the group – which also included Saber AbdelSattar on qanun, Hussein ElGhandour and Said Zaki on violins, Salah Ragab on bass and Amro Mostafa on riq frame drum – made their way through an eclectic program rich with emotion and intensity. Shamma and AbdelSattar engaged in several wryly adrenalized duels and exchanges, while a long, droll call-and-response between the oud and drum grew more amusing as it went on. But as much fun as the band and audience were having, the majority of the themes were sober, even severe, marked by a shared terseness and restraint that often spilled over into unselfconscious plaintiveness as the group mined the microtones of the maqams (Arabic scales) with a sophistication that was stunning both for its technical skill and emotional attunement. This pensive, raw quality may well have had something to do with the fact that this was Shamma’s first American concert in over a decade since he’d boycotted this country throughout the Iraq war.

Opening act the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble (better known as the Alwan All-Stars) were just as cutting-edge and intense. Bandleader/santoor player Amir ElSaffar, who brought this bill together, also programs the music at Alwan for the Arts, the downtown hotspot which has become a home for paradigm-shifting Middle Eastern sounds much as CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s: if you’re somebody in that world, you want to play there. In a set that could have gone on for thee times as long as it did without losing any interest, the group – also including ElSaffar’s virtuoso sister Dena on violin and jowza fiddle, Lety AlNaggar on nay, George Ziadeh on oud, Shusmo bandleader Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Apostolis Sideris on bass, Zafer Tawil on qanun and percussion, and Johnny Farraj on riq – played variations on an Iraqi repertoire that has all but disappeared since its heyday sixty or seventy years ago. Stately, steady themes were interspersed with solo passages that in the band’s epic second number had been devised to represent the individual styles of the various regions in Iraq. Amir ElSaffar also took care to mention that the mini-suite also memorialized the ten-year anniversary of the Bush regime’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which may have accounted for the understatedly brooding, lingering effect of a purposeful but mesmerizing santoor solo, ElSaffar’s sister raising the ante with an edgy intensity before Ziadeh took it back down with a shadowy unease. Let’s hope that it isn’t another ten years before another such a riveting, exhilarating doublebill as this one happens on American turf.

March 9, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maqamfest – 2012’s Best Concert So Far

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.

January 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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

Oud-Off II 2008!!!

Don’t let an oud scare you. Ouds don’t bite. Actually, they do – they sink their fangs into anything they play, with gusto. An oud is a Middle Eastern bass lute, one of the most beautiful and haunting instruments ever invented, as ubiquitous in Arab music as the guitar is in rock. They’re typically tuned in any number of maqams, the eerie, microtonal modal scales used in Arab music. Last night at Barbes an absolutely packed house was treated to rare solo performances by two superb Palestinian-American oud players.

Solo oud is as rare as solo guitar. It’s usually the lead instrument in the same type of configuration as a rock band, with frequently more than one percussionist, violin, maybe accordion and vocals. But the best oud players are worth seeing all by themselves, as Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh proved tonight. Tawil opened with a quietly crescendoing, ruminative, pastoral Moroccan piece evocative of Hamza El Din’s cult classic The Water Wheel. He followed with another pretty tune, this one from Turkey, utilizing a hammer-on technique frequently used in country guitar playing. The next number, a gorgeously dark, slinky, dance tune built over a catchy descending progression screamed out for a band to follow along with Tawil’s perfect timing and dynamics as the dance rose to a crescendo and then suddenly shifted before building ecstatically once again. The final works he played were less intense but no less captivating.

Unfortunately, prior commitments necessitated a departure early in Georges Ziadeh’s solo performance: his absolutely brilliant take on a long, hauntingly complex seven-minute Turkish overture made it very difficult to leave. The two performers were scheduled to play together at the end of the show, but, sadly, there were places to go and things to do. This performance was put together by the Brooklyn Arts Council, who, unbeknownst to us have been presenting numerous free shows as part of their annual Brooklyn Maqam Arab Music Festival throughout this past month. This year’s festival winds up with a two-hour free performance of music from throughout the Arab world at Alwan for the Arts, 16 Beaver St., 4th Floor in the Financial District at 9 tomorrow night, March 29 and concludes with a 1:30 PM interfaith show at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Sunday the 30th, featuring choral and instrumental works from Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts.

March 28, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment