Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Natacha Atlas’ New Album Mounqaliba Hauntingly Captures the State of the World, 2010

The title of Natacha Atlas’ new album Mounqaliba translates literally from the classical Arabic as “in a state of reversal.” In a societal context, it means decline. It’s her reaction to cultural  decay, spirituality displaced by shallow materialism. In many ways this is a scathing and intense album. It’s also a lushly, otherworldly beautiful one, the high point of Atlas’ career. Musically, it follows in the same vein as her previous cd Ana Hina (ranked in the top ten on our best-of-2008 list), a homage to Fairouz blending traditional Middle Eastern songwriting with a sweeping, orchestral grandeur inspired by western classical music. Atlas has always been a good singer, but on Ana Hina she became a great one; here, her gentle, airily nuanced, minutely ornamented, Fairouz-inspired vocals vividly span the range of human emotions from longing to hope to despair. The originals on this album are sung in classical Arabic, co-written by Atlas and her longtime violinist/collaborator Samy Bishai, along with a couple of surprising covers, backed by jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, a 20-piece Turkish ensemble and chamber orchestra.

The album begins with a stark piano instrumental with martial echoes, segueing into the stately sweep of Makaan, Atlas’ vocals both ethereal and eerie over the swell of the orchestra. They follow with the chilly starlit solo piano piece Bada Alfajr and then a carefully enunciated, wary take of the familiar habibi standard Muwashah Ozkourini. In its own towering, expansive way, Atlas’ cover of Nick Drake’s The Riverman maintains the tense, hypnotic, doomed atmosphere of the original but updates it for the 21st century with strings over a repetitive percussion loop. The swaying, atmospheric levantine anthem Batkallim, a scathing denunciation of media and political hypocrisy, opens with a sample of President Obama reminding us that “we live in a time of great tension:” understatement of the century. It’s the high point of the album, pointillistic accordion over funereal strings and a practically trip-hop beat. The understated anguish of Rahman’s piano is viscerally chilling.

The brooding intensity continues with the title track, a Rachmaninovian opening piano taqsim giving way to funeral drums, ney and then a bitter dirge, Atlas’ wounded vocalese contrasting with the somewhat grand guignol atmospherics. Le Cor le Vent is an unselfconsciously anguished blend of vintage French chanson and sweeping 1950s Lebanese art-pop; they follow that with Lazahat Nashwa, an upbeat, percussive levantine dance and then an imaginative, dreamy, orchestrated trip-hop cover of Francoise Hardy’s La Nuit Est Sur la Ville. The album closes with the brief, somberly atmospheric chamber piece Ghoroug, an ominously stampeding dance and then the wistfully orchestrated lullaby Nafourat el Anwar, which ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note. Count this among the top two or three world music albums of 2010 alongside the forthcoming Roots of Chicha Vol. 2 anthology, and Iraqi expat oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj’s upcoming Little Earth. Natacha Atlas will be on tour a bit later this fall, with a New York appearance at le Poisson Rouge on Nov. 8.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Gaida at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 5/7/10

Syrian/American chanteuse Gaida’s new album Levantine Indulgence made a big splash in Middle Eastern music circles when it came out in March. Last night’s show made believers out of a largely local crowd that didn’t know what to make of her for the first few songs, but by about halfway through she had them dancing, clapping along and responding with an uninhibited joy. She’s a star on the way up. Fairouz is her big influence, but like Fairouz she doesn’t limit herself to one style – she’s taking emotion-drenched Middle Eastern art-song and pushing the envelope with it. Backed by a shapeshifting sextet including jazzy pianist George Dulin, upright bassist Jennifer Vincent (also of Pam Fleming’s all-female quartet) and acoustic guitarist Arturo Martinez along with sensationally good oud, percussion and buzuq players, Gaida delivered the songs in a crystalline high soprano that ranged from disarmingly coy to wrenchingly intense.

They started out with a jazz feel, sort of a habibi blues with distant echoes of Fairouz, a pensive story of unrequited love backed by just piano, guitar and bass. Gaida brought in the whole band for a swaying version of the levantine bossa nova of Illak Shi, taking the first of several vocalese improvisations with a melismatic attack that was as nuanced as it was poignant and on this song, downright heartwrenching.

A slow buzuq taqsim led into the slinky levantine anthem Dream, another cut from the new album, followed by the sly, metaphorically laden Almaya, the tale of a guy following a girl carrying her full bucket home from the village well. A couple of the songs had distinct latin tinges: an old Lebanese number from 1950 featuring some eerie, distantly glimmering piano from Dulin that wound up with understated menace as the outro wound down to just piano and guitar, and a scurrying, tangoish shuffle featuring another intense vocalese interlude. They also debuted a hypnotic, pensive new song written in rehearsal a couple of days before, frenetic buzuq trading off artfully versus casually strummed guitar and then vice versa. They wound up the set on a high note with a brisk, bouncy Yemeni song, the serpentine, anthemic Ammar (another standout track on the new cd) and encored with a standard that made yet another showcase for Gaida’s matter-of-factly plaintive, resonant vocal presence.The crowd wanted more but didn’t get it – and then joined the line for the cd table.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Rare Elements – Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Either you’re going to like this album or you’re going to hate it. If you’ve been a fan of Middle Eastern pop from the last 25 years, you may not notice or care that the drum machine is such a prominent feature here. If, however, you are a purist when it comes to rhythm, you are advised to seek out the great Turkish-American composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek‘s back catalog, a vast and frequently fertile repertoire of hypnotic, otherworldly, virtuosic sufi-influenced songs and instrumentals. The title of this new cd is somewhat confusing: it’s the second in the Rare Elements series of disco remixes of world music artists (the first was sarangi player/singer Ustad Sultan Khan). On one level, setting Tekbilek’s compositions to a monotonous computerized thump makes about as much sense as a disco remix of Muddy Waters or Mingus. Yet you could also consider this a sneak attack on the dancefloor (and maybe Tekbilek’s attempt to connect with a broader audience on his home turf). So if this album succeeds at scoring a few hits in the Levant or turning a few club kids here toward the East, it will have been worth the effort. What’s lost, of course, is the hip-tugging swing and groove of the real drums and percussion you’ll find on Tekbilek’s more upbeat songs from previous albums. To his infinite credit, the compositions and his soulful, passionate playing on a grand total of twelve instruments here including ney flute, baglama lute, oud and zurna oboe are so strong that they transcend most every attempt to commercialize them (sadly, as expected, the remixers here get top billing over the composer).

The album’s second cut sets a nicely hypnotic, slinky snakecharmer riff to a mechanically swaying trip-hop beat. The third track has a late 80s Lebanese habibi pop feel, layers of synth taking the place of the acoustic unstruments.  The next cut injects a pounding trip-hop beat beneath starkly beautiful, spiky baglama and expressive flute; after that, more trip-hop, this time in the vein of a tv spy show theme, ominous baglama reprocessed eerily with swooshy synth. Tekbilek doesn’t even come in til five minutes into the seventh track, but it’s worth the wait. Finally, on the next cut, the music gets centerstage over the computer and it is absolutely luscious, a classic Levantine dance motif with swirling flute and darkly clanking baglama – and then it morphs into trip-hop.

There are a couple of numbers that are so heavily computerized that it’s impossible to tell if there’s any Tekbilek on them. And there’s one LOL-funny spot where the remixer cut and pasted some fast sixteenth notes in the same way that hip-hop dj’s mimic the sound of a skipping record – they could have plugged Tekbilek in and he could have simply played the riff in probably half the time it took to do it on the computer, and with soul. But can we do that? No. We have to be effete about it. We have to make it sound fake and cheesy instead. But even with that, Tekbilek still rises clear and ecstatic above the din. This also makes a good late-night wind-down cd: the beauty in the samples of Tekbilek’s music will soothe you as the drum machine puts you to sleep.

July 27, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment