This is an album about defiance, and hope. The Listen to the Banned compilation has been out for over a year in Europe and now it’s America’s turn to catch on, and we hope it will. The unifying concept here is that all these songs were written and performed by musicians who courageously stood up to fascists and racists and paid the price – sometimes with their livelihoods, some were tortured and others forced into exile. So far none of these artists has paid with his or her life. They may fight racism, religious extremism and African dictators, but their common enemy is stupidity. The common ground between them speaks for itself: it’s hard to imagine a more multicultural, or more universal album than this one. And this isn’t just a collection of polemics: from the viewpoint of a western listener who probably won’t be fluent in Pashtun, Arabic, Turkish or Persian, it’s a fascinatingly eclectic mix of good songs, whose defiance translates powerfully in the voices of the singers.
Born in the US to renowned Zimbabwean musicians, Chiwoniso Maraire – formerly of popular 90s Zimbabwean band Andy Brown & the Storm offers the only English-language cut here, Rebel Woman, a tribute to freedom fighters that blends traditional thumb-piano sounds with Tracy Chapman-style folk-pop. Singing in French, iconic Ivoirien roots reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly delivers his excoriating signature song Quitte le Pouvoir (Resign from Power), complete with rapidfire Bone Thugs style rap interlude. Renowned oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran – former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen - is represented by an insistent, hypnotic electroacoustic number. The most musically powerful number here is by another extraordinary oudist, Marcel Khalife, driven into exile in Paris after being forced to stand trial for blasphemy in his native Lebanon. It’s a plaintively lyrical suite which illustrates legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Oh My Father, I Am Yusif, a metaphorically loaded parable of a village outcast.
Another great song here is Cameroonian singer Lapiro De Mbanga’s snidely funny, articulate Constitution Constipee, calling for Cameroonian tyrant Paul Biya and his gerontocracy to step down. Currently serving out a three-year sentence there for recording this, all he wants is a free election. The rest of the album attests to how engaging and entertaining music with a purpose can be. The late Uighur songwriter Kurush Sultan’s lush, orchestrated ballad Atlan Dok, a blend of Middle Eastern and Asian tonalities, builds to a richly orchestrated peak out of a foreboding intro. Palestinian chanteuse Amal Murkus offers a stunningly gentle, captivating version of a lullaby, performed mostly a-cappella. Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, who refuses to submit to the tradition of performing only for other women, contributes the aptly titled Mystery, a gorgeous tone poem with vocalese, oud and ney flute.
Sudanese songwriter Abazar Hamid’s Salam Darfur – whose attempts to reform pro-Janjaweed women who sing racist anthems have sadly met with little success – offers an aptly titled, jypnotically peaceful anthem. Aziza Brahim, who hails from Western Sahara, sings a gripping, pounding, percussive number with biting minor-key acoustic guitar and sax in tribute to her people, many of them murdered and displaced by the Moroccan invasion of their land. Another Iviorien, Fadal Dey contributes Non au Racisme, a simple, catchy and musically witty roots reggae song. Turkish songwriter Ferhat Tunc’s contribution is a slinky, jangly, trip hop-tinged song; there’s also rhythmically tricky, crescendoing Middle Eastern pop from Afghan singer Farhard Darya and Pakistani Haroon Bacha. Many of the artists here have been featured at Freemuse, the valuable and important site devoted to musicians from around the world whose work has been censored or banned.
A frequently riveting juxtaposition of ancient and modern vocal music from the Muslim world, arguably the highlight of this year’s Muslim Voices festival. Persian classical singer Parissa is something of a feel-good story, having resurrected a promising career interrupted for almost two decades by the 1978-79 Iran counterrevolution. Accompanied by virtuoso tar (four-string lute) player Iman Vaziri and hand drummer Dara Afraz, she delivered musical settings of Rumi poems, essentially soul music with a distinctly antique flavor. In a vibratoless alto more bronze than brassy, seated somewhat inscrutably centerstage, she worked a style that typically allows room for emotional release at the end of a phrase, with melismas and ululations which she delivered with considerable passion yet restraint. From the point of view of a non-Farsi speaker, it was impossible to tell where one poem began and another ended, the segments being linked by the tar, occasionally tar and drum picking up the pace. They mixed the time signature up: among the songs (or segments) were what was essentially a stately waltz, several straight-up, seemingly four-on-the-floor numbers and several that that were much more tricky, timewise. Visibly absent was any dance beat, and for that matter any chord changes, resulting in a very hypnotic feel. The most musically compelling of them approximated a minor scale, Vaziri introducing a particularly anguished theme and then playing off the vocals gently. A couple others were distinctly anthemic, although in this music, the hooks are strictly musical: there are no choruses in the lyrics. The trio maintained a careful, deliberate pace throughout, determined by the meter of the verse – Persian poetry, like Latin poetry, is highly inflected.
While Parissa keeps the flame alive, Palestinian oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran - former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen – breaks new ground. To call her performance cutting-edge would be an understatement. An extraordinarily innovative musician, she displayed a dazzling melodic sensibility on the oud, employing at times equal parts American soul, funk and avante-garde music as well as classical Levantine motifs, with hypnotic tinges possibly evocative of Moroccan gnawa. Playing original settings of contemporary Palestinian poems, she sang with a high, youthful delivery, clear and direct, minutely jeweled with the subtlest shades of angst, regret and longing. For the considerable benefit of English speakers, translations of the poems were included in the program notes, and without exception they were intensely moving. Here’s just the first stanza of the most intense of all of them – if this isn’t well worth the $25 ticket price (tickets still available for tonight’s show), you decide what is:
Birds have their homes in the shadows
Echo has longings for hills that she knows
Dew has the dying color of sunset
Nights have their secret to cover the sorrows
Drinkers have wine, and I have the rest
She began that one with a touch of the blues, added a little quiet scatting in the middle and then it got haunting and serious. The deeply metaphorical Words (“I wish I were a language on a lip/That is creased with cares/It would neither conceal nor reveal) began with a dexterous series of high harmonics on the oud and a funky feel, further enhanced as the sound engineer brought up the reverb on the vocals. Quietly and determinedly haunting, Hands stayed just this side of macabre as Jubran added pointed passing tones to drive home the frustration and anguish of captivity. The saddest of the poems, Scenes – a bitter concession to wartime defeat – was driven by darkly ringing chords, terse yet heavy with grief and loss. She ended the set with a love song, Hammock, its long outro skipping somewhat skeletally yet soulfully warm, like a vintage Richie Havens song. Considering the quality of all this, one could forgive her for doing karaoke on a couple of numbers, backed by a tape with layers of oud and backing vocals – as complex as the songs were, there are without a doubt plenty of other oudists and singers here who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with such a compelling musician as Jubran.
Both Parissa and Kamilya Jubran are playing tonight at the Asia Society, 725 Park Ave. at 70th St. Parissa goes on at 7:30, Jubran at 9:30 and tickets are still available as of this writing (morning of 6/12/09).