Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth Breaks Down Barriers

A protege of legendary Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, Rahim AlHaj was persecuted and jailed during the Saddam Hussein regime for writing a protest song questioning the Iraq/Iran war. Following his release, he was driven into exile, first in Syria and then eventually the United States, where his sponsoring agency, thinking he would prefer a desert climate, set him up in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly what AlHaj was hoping for, but in retrospect it seems fortuitous. One of the world’s foremost oud players and composers in his own right, AlHaj’s latest album Little Earth is a cutting-edge collaboration with some unlikely but supremely well-suited suspects, several of whom he met in his new surroundings. To call what he does “world music” is accurate in the purest sense of the word – on this massive two-cd set, AlHaj mixes Iraqi oud styles with American Indian, Greek, Appalachian, West African, Australian aboriginal and Chinese chamber music, bringing out the best in a spirited crew of like-minded boundary-defying adventurers: a famous jazz guitarist, a world-renowned chanteuse, the scion of a prominent Malian musical family and one of the guys in REM. Yet despite the broad stylistic reach, AlHaj’s signature, steely intensity remains front-and-center: this is one of the most fascinating and gripping albums in any style of music in recent months.

All the compositions here are instrumentals with the exception of an Iraqi lullaby turned into an oud/flute duet with a brief vocal from Pueblo Indian flutist and craftsman Robert Mirabal, and a collaboration with Maria De Barros, a Cape Verde morna teleported to the Middle East. The pieces closest to AlHaj’s home turf wield the most power: the funereal Sama’i Baghdad, its haunting string chart played by the Little Earth Orchestra; the absolutely sizzling Dance of the Palms, and Qaasim, a requiem for his cousin, killed in Bush’s Iraq War, Stephen Kent’s oscillating djeridu lines meant to evoke the tears of the survivors. The others are somewhat more upbeat: to call them inventive would be an understatement. The Searching uses djeridu as a bass, holding down the low registers while accordionist Guy Klucevsek swirls over the incisive attack of the oud. Morning in Hyattsville, a duet with Americana jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell, evokes John Fahey or Leo Kottke at their brightest, with a wickedly unexpected shift into Middle Eastern territory from the guitar. Athens to Baghdad, with Peter Buck on twelve-string acoustic guitar, is gentle Tuatara/Tribecastan esoterica.

AlHaj also includes some richly intertwined pieces for oud and accompanying instruments, twisting and shifting shape until it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. The Other Time mingles oud with the West African kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko; River (the Passage) does the same, with some wildly interesting pipa work by Liu Fang. Other pieces set the oud against an unorthodox backdrop, whether a baroque-tinged piece featuring the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, or the Andalusian-flavored Rocio, with oud over hypnotic sitar by Rosman Jamal Bhartiya. A listen to this ought to expand a listener’s brain at least as much as it did for the musicians involved. Talk about thinking outside the box! And what might be most impressive here is who’s not included on this album: no celebrity dj’s, no bedheaded indie rock dilettantes, no techno remixes. With all the amazing cross-pollination going on here, who needs any of that?

January 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Breadfoot Featuring Anna Phoebe – Tea with Leo

The heir apparent to the legacy of John Fahey teams up with an inspired violinist on this gorgeously rustic, fluid album of pastoral acoustic instrumentals. Like Fahey, Breadfoot blends 19th century folk, old-time country and delta blues influences but resists any impulse to be bound by the traditional constraints of any of those idioms. What results is equal parts great Sunday afternoon album and passout record: it’ll get you going as well as it gets you down for the night.

The opening track, A Hard Day in Manhattan wanders along with an understatement that would do Fahey proud, an exercise in subtlety and dynamics. It’s all melody, no garish flourishes or ostentation. The album’s second track, the wistful, 6/8 lament Hilary Rose is over too soon, barely into its sad, thoughtful testimonial. By contrast, the following cut, Polly Loved Me (I Know) is a rousing Appalachian dance, sparks flying from the frets of Breadfoot’s six-string banjo (!!) and the strings of the fiddle.

Of the other tracks on the album, the next one, International Esther is probably the most overtly Fahey-esque number and wouldn’t be out of place on Blind Joe Death. That’s high praise. Very nice hesitation time at the end of the tune. Kecha is guitar only, a brightly bouncing open-tuned Piedmont blues melody a la Pink Anderson. The album’s best single cut may be the thoughtful, gently pensive Smoking on the Stoop. The cd concludes with the 6/8 ballad On the Day that I Go, which would make a great soundtrack to that Twilight Zone episode – I think it was called Willoughby. You know the one, the guy takes Metro North from Manhattan, think’s he’s on the way home but he winds up back in the 1800s, watching thekids take hayrides through the dusty, unpaved streets of his town. There’s also a rousing bonus track that kicks in after what seems eternity.

Clocking in at under half an hour, this cd’s greatest flaw is its brevity: it leaves you wanting twice as much. And not that the violin isn’t a welcome accompaniment here, but for anyone who’s heard him live, Breadfoot’s idiosyncratic vision and brilliant melodicism come through clearest when he plays solo. See him when you can. When’s the last time you danced to a solo acoustic guitar instrumental, anyway? Cd’s are available online, at shows and better record stores nationwide.

April 22, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment