Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Rough Guide to Bellydance: No Bruises, Just Fun

The new second edition of the Rough Guide to Bellydance is just out. In case you might be wondering, it’s not a S&M album, nor is it just an update on the 2002 original: this is a brand-new collection, and like the first one, it’s a gorgeous mix of mostly oldschool, richly orchestrated levantine dance sounds. A lot of these are vamps that hang on a single, hauntingly microtonal mode, or alternate between a couple of them; as with most bellydance tunes, the rhythm is slinky and more straight-up than is often the case in improvisational or operatic Middle Eastern styles. For what it’s worth, the album is being marketed as a workout record: the ancient art of raqs sharqi as aerobics, with a bonus cd (not viewed here) with instruction and several additional musical selections for practicing all the moves. But as much as this is ultimately dance music – mostly of the classical kind – it’s first and foremost for listening. And it’s a mix that’s particularly close to our hearts, as several of New York’s hometown Middle Eastern music stars are represented here.

Violinist Hamouda Ali gets to open it with the catchy, slinky instrumental El Samer, lush strings alternating with ney flute over hypnotic, boomy percussion. Maurice Chedid’s much more modern Ya Samara and Alouli switch back and forth between his trademark oud synthesizer patches, fast and scuttling – he’s pretty much a one-man orchestra. Setrak Sarkissian contributes a ridiculously catchy, subtly accelerating piece for quartertone accordion and orchestra; the Al Ahram Orchestra have two majestic, sweeping tracks here as well, as does Jalilah featuring qanun player Hossam Shaker, the second an unpredictably shapeshifting suite. The epic grandeur reaches a high point with the Cairo Arabic Music Ensemble’s Nesma’t El Nile. There’s also Gizira Band’s accordion-and-strings piece Basbousa (Arabic for “honeycake”); eclectic New York group Sammarkand’s hypnotic, electroacoustic update on a levantine theme; and oud virtuoso Richard Hagopian collaborating with edgy Bulgarian alto saxophonist Yuri Yunakov, the Mehanata house band leader. If you like this, you also ought to check out last year’s Rough Guide to Greek Cafe, which mines the same kind of haunting microtonalities of this one.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, 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