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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Le Trio Joubran Salute Their Late Collaborator Mahmoud Darwish With an Unforgettable, Intense Performance at the Lincoln Center Festival

There were innumerable long passages in Palestinian oud-playing brothers Le Trio Joubran’s multimedia performance last night at the Lincoln Center Festival that were absolutely shattering. Time stood still. When did Wish You Were Here, the stark, haunted dirge that the trio began with, end? After five minutes of hushed, bereaved minimalism, or closer to thirty? Realistically, it was on the shorter side, but it left a vast impact.

Yet moments like those were balanced by others that were ridiculously funny. Which ultimately came as no surprise, considering that the show was a homage to the group’’s late collaborator and countryman, poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish saw himself as an exile. His childhood village was one of the hundreds bulldozed to make room for Israeli settlers in the wake of the 1948 war. In a country the size of South Carolina, that makes an awful lot of refugees. He returned as an adult, eventually joining the Palestinian government’s inner circle but then withdrawing, disillusioned: he had no tolerance for the hypocrisy of politics. Widely considered to be the voice of the Palestinian people, his richly ironic, fiercely proud, relentlessly defiant work speaks to anyone estranged from their home, physically or otherwise.

Darwish died in 2008: for the last twelve years of his life, Le Trio Joubran were his backing band and musical sparring partners. To play along with his recorded voice must have been a considerable emotional challenge for them, but this time they didn’t let on. Darwish was ailing when he made those recordings, but his voice was virile, supremely confident and as nuanced as his words, simultaneously projected in Arabic and English translation above the stage.

One of the group’s signature tropes is to play in unison with a flurrying, precise, tremoloing strum, a sepulchrally fluttering low-string section with an ancient resonance deeper than any western orchestra could achieve. They did that a lot, especially in the most somber passages. But the three oudists also lept, and bounded, and exchanged jaunty riffs, sometimes with an Andalucian flair, most notably in response to an innuendo-packed erotic poem ripe with surrealistic, irresistibly hilarious Freudian imagery.

The rest of the music was a dynamically shifting mirror for the poetry: Darwish zings you with a one-liner, then delivers a gutpunch. Fate and luck are fickle, at best, indelibly illustrated via excerpts from his epic The Dice Player. One of his characters misses his flight because he’s not a morning person, a good thing because it would have crashed with him onboard. In Darwish’s world, two things that make life worth living are invaders’ fear of memories, and tyrants’ fear of songs.

Samir Joubran played a slightly larger model than the instruments in the hands of his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan, taking the lowest descents of the night. Drummer Youssef Hbeisch began with a somber, boomy beat on daf frame drum and then moved behind a full kit, which he played with hands, maintaining a muted, subtly colored pulse – at least until a solo where the three brothers encircled him and added their own playful beats. They’d revisit that on the encores – after a warmly rousing singalong, Samir and Wissam played basslines on Adnan’s oud in perfect unison with their brother’s briskly chromatic, dancing lines. It’s impossible to imagine a concert by a single band in New York in 2017 any more riveting or thrilling than this.

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a wrap, but Lincoln Center Out of Doors – this city’s most consistently surprising and eclectic free concert series – is in full swing. Angelique Kidjo makes an appearance (but not singing her own material) on August 2; on August 3 at7:30 there’s a Bollywood music-and-dance extravaganza out back in Damrosch Park that looks enticing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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July 30, 2017 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Magnum Opus from Marcel Khalife

Often considered a Lebanese counterpart to Bob Dylan, oud virtuoso and bandleader Marcel Khalife has been a freedom fighter for decades, even before founding the Al Mayadine Ensemble in 1976. Jailed and exiled for championing peace and human rights in the Middle East, his stance has never wavered. Today, his work continues to inspire fellow activists as the Arab Spring spreads around the world. For decades, he maintained a close friendship with the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, turning many Darwish poems into songs that would become anthems throughout the levantine world and beyond. It would not be an overstatement to compare Khalife to another artist, legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, who also blended sounds from around the globe with classical Arabic song. Even by Khalife’s eclectic standards, his latest album Fall of the Moon, with the Al Mayadine Ensemble and Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Sirinko, is a titanic achievement. A lavish double-disc set streaming in its entirety at Khalife’s Bandcamp site, it juxtaposes ornate western classical orchestration with stark Middle Eastern melodies, both songs and instrumentals. Khalife and guest chanteuse Oumaima Khalil sing in Arabic; the cd booklet supplies English translations. Lyrical themes are alluded to via imagery far more often than they’re stated outright: it’s typical of Darwish’s poetry that what isn’t said that often resonates most powerfully. This is one of the most gripping and powerful albums in recent memory.

The title cut, a lavish, balletesque orchestral piece, could be Morricone, or a Rachmaninoff symphonic dance with Middle Eastern tonalities. The most vividly affecting of all the songs is Mohammad, a plaintive portrait of a child in a battle zone, sung a-cappella by Khalil. Themes of exile and longing for home run deep here, unsurprising considering that Darwish was Palestinian. The concluding song, The Damascene Collar of the Dove, pictures a fugitive back in Damascus, knowing that absolutely nothing will ever be the same again. Like many of the songs here, it’s a diptych, a vintage-style levantine melody that begins with an unnamed qanun player taking the lead and follows an increasingly haunting series of variations on a brooding theme that rests uneasily between traditional motifs and an angst-driven western sensibility: in that sense, the music perfectly matches the lyric. That occurs again and again not only throughout the album, but throughout the collaboration between Khalife and Darwish, brothers in arms in so many respects.

The rest of the album is more elusive, and allusive. The opening track, The Pigeons Fly begins with elegantly pensive piano by Rami Khalife, son of Marcel. Even when he solos, Marcel Khalife’s oud playing here, and throughout the album, is precise and biting but also understated, as are his vocals: his music has always been about intention rather than ostentation. What’s essentially a deftly orchestrated, acoustic levantine pop song speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring edge, following Darwish’s surreal imagery: “We are ours when a shadow enters its shadow in marble, and when I hang myself it is myself I resemble on a neck that embraces only clouds.” A refugee’s tale, And We Love Life sets a dark vamp to funky syncopation that grows more insistent as the melody weaves between the oud, the bass (played either by longtime Khalife collaborator Peter Herbert or Mark Helias – the liner notes don’t say who) and Khalife’s percussionist son Bachar. It’s a chilling piece of music: “We find a place to settle, plant some fast-growing crops and harvest the dead.”

The Stranger’s Bed, a sonata of sorts, features intricately wary interplay between Bachar Khalife’s piano and Fabio Presgrave’s cello. Oh My Proud Wound, a habibi ballad for a lost land, has Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet reaching the highs usually carried by a ney flute in this kind of music, with a characteristically soaring, terse solo as it reaches a distantly anguished swell. Houriyeh’s Instructions – a rather nostalgic litany of advice from mom – evokes the classic Ya Rayyeh, from an otherworldly intro to its lush guy/girl harmonies. Of all the diptychs here, Now, In Exile is the most eclectic, with a suspenseful but punchy opening bass solo with Led Zep echoes, then a dancing theme that first goes carefree but soon brings in the clouds. From Darwish’s final work, In the Presence of Absence, it’s an elegy for an old lion of the revolution who can see the end coming.

A Song on My Mind, with Anthony Millet’s accordion playing sleek lines in the midst of all the strings, has the cinematic sweep of a classic Abdel Wahab number, juxtaposing bloody wartime imagery with the memory of when the locals were the only ones who fenced off the olive groves. Two other tracks, Remember and The Poem of the Land (an “over my dead body” theme) set trickly rhythmic Middle Eastern themes to swirling art-rock arrangments not unlike the Moody Blues at their peak. The most memorable of all the melodies here might be Palestinian Mawwal, whose warily circling string intro grows into a gingerly crescendoing Middle Eastern orchestrated dance interrupted by gunshot percussion.

There’s also an Andalusian-flavored dual-guitar instrumental played with precision and fire by Mahmoud Tourkmani; a couple of magnificently orchestrated, acoustic habibi pop tunes; and a lavishly orchestrated waltz with echoes of Beethoven, Celtic music and also a theme from Marcel Khalife’s austerely intense Taqasim album from 2008. For sheer majestic sweep and vision, there’s no other album released this year that can touch this.

April 30, 2012 Posted by | classical music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Listen to the Banned Represents Freedom Fighters Around the World

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.

March 18, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Trio Joubran – A L’ombre des mots

[Editor’s note: to be consistent with the DVD and its booklet, we use the French “Darwich” here rather than the English “Darwish” as a transliteration of Mahmoud Darwich’s Arabic name. Any errors in translation here are ours.]

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” accompanied by a cd of just the audio track) was filmed at that concert. It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice of the Palestinians. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level and through that his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them. Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity and ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert opens with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance from crowd, a characteristically understated requiem beginning stately, a portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signaling the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses (intense as this all is, it’s not without a sense of humor). “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without it, without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside. It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra. It’s out on World Village Music.

Much of the text here is available on the web, including an English translation of The Dice Player and the original Arabic text.

May 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment