Lucid Culture


CD Review: Bassam Saba – Wonderful Land

Truth in advertising: this is a wonderful album, one of the year’s very best. Multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba leads the New York Arabic Orchestra, arguably America’s most vital large-scale Middle Eastern music ensemble. This is a richly diverse, emotionally resonant collection of original compositions, a tribute to Saba’s native Lebanon. Here the composer plays ney flute, western flutes, saz (Turkish lute), oud, buzuq, bansuri flute and violin, joined by an inspired, virtuosic cast of Megan Gould on violin and viola, William Martina on cello, Peter Slavov on upright bass, and April Centrone and Jamey Haddad on a drum store’s worth of percussion instruments.

The album begins on a lush, vividly pastoral note with the ten-minute suite Nirvana, morphing from a stately dance theme into a sprightly, swinging scherzo and then a distantly haunting ney solo over terse oud and percussion. The ensemble end it with a beautifully majestic crescendo, bringing up the strings and oud. A similarly understated majesty rises later on the evocative Breeze from the South, Saba’s conversational arrangement for oud and buzuq building to a joyous, anthemic theme. Saba’s bansuri flute taqsim opens the goodnaturedly hypnotic Orange Dusk, its loping beat mimicking the sway of a camel making its way methodically across the desert. The title cut takes an apprehensive oud taqsim intro up into a joyous levantine dance with a terse simplicity worthy of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, followed by a long, expressionistic buzuq solo. U Vrot Vastoka (At the Door of the Orient) works tension between the distantly threatening rhythm section versus Saba’s peaceful ney (which cleverly nicks a western spy show melody).

Waltz to My Father, based on a Russian folk melody, could be Henry Purcell, strings cleverly echoing the flute theme – and then suddenly it’s back to the desert, to the here and now with the shifting, trance-inducing pulse of the bass. The group introduce a rattling, increasingly apprehensive oud-fueled East African taraab feel on Afrocola, a homage to Patrice Lumumba. The album concludes with Story of the Dried River, a dreamy, minimalist flute-and-percussion mood piece. It’s to think of another album as warmly and captivatingly atmospheric as this that’s come out in 2010.


July 7, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Spy from Cairo – Secretly Famous

The audio equivalent of good hashish. Ridiculously catchy, danceable and psychedelic, The Spy from Cairo has put together an upbeat album that spans practically every style of pop music to come out of the Arab world over the last fifty years. The production is typical of what you get these days in Middle Eastern pop, somewhat slick and artificial with synthesizer and percussion loops in addition to the layers of real drums and percussion here. The “secretly famous” artist here also plays soulfully and intensely on the oud, saz (the gorgeously plinky Turkish lute), ney flute and a small army of percussion instruments, all of which happily get long, extended solos over the throb of the beat. What’s new and innovative is the dubwise feel he brings to much of this – for example, he turns the Farid Al Atrache oud classic Ala Shan into Egyptian reggae as someone like Mad Professor or Niney the Observer might do, instruments fading up into the mix and then out just as quickly when you least expect them.

The originals are just as good. The opening track, cleverly titled Nayphony works a catchy ney flute hook over a slinky trip-hop beat and a gorgeous, classically-inflected Arab melody, cifteli (an Albanian version of the saz) clinking beautifully as the string synthesizer climbs and then fades above it all. The second track is a Jordanian wedding tune given a snakecharmer feel with drum-n-bass production. With vocals and lyrics by guest chaneuse Ghalia Benali, Ana Arabi defiantly evokes Arab pride – and pride in denouncing terrorism – over a hypnotic, atmospheric dance-pop tune.

The single most gorgeous song here is Leila, a tribute to the great Mohamed Abdel Wahab with a long, exhilarating, pointillistic kanun solo. There’s also Kembe, which is trip-hop with oud playing variations on a hypnotic two-chord vamp; Jennaty, a particularly psychedelic, slightly funky number with oud played through a wah pedal; and Saidi the Man, a classic bellydance tune redone first as dancefloor pop, morphing back in time to a mesmerizing jam out with saz and percussion. Plus a resoundingly successful, woozily Rachid Taha-esque venture into rai-reggae. This is first and foremost a headphone album (those ipod earbuds don’t do justice to the fatness of the bass here); it also ought to make a great party-starter (or finisher: crank this at 4 AM if you’re in a space where either your neighbors can’t hear it, or if they’re cool and they might come over and wind down the night with you).

January 29, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Zikrayat – Live at Lotus

Zikrayat is Arabic for “memories.” Led by virtuoso violinist Sami Abu Shumays, this New York-based Middle Eastern combo have admirably dedicated themselves to reviving classic and obscure songs from the golden age of Egyptian cinema, from the late 40s to the 60s. This live cd, recorded completely acoustic so as to recreate the feel of the originals, does justice to the material while adding a brilliant, even psychedelic improvisational edge. Since most of the fourteen tracks here are songs from movies, the version of the group that recorded this (they’ve gone through numerous lineup shifts) included a trio of dancers whose occasional percussion and vocal contributions only enhance the songs’ authentic feel.


Most of what’s here is beautiful, haunting Levantine dance music driven by hand drum and percussion, violin and ney flute sailing over the hypnotic, sometimes rumbling beat, low frequencies anchored by the oud. On one song, Shumays switches to rababa, the rustic-tinged traditional Egyptian fiddle. The group handle the melodic interplay with a playful aplomb, violin and flute frequently doubling each others’ lines, working both sides of a call-and-response with each other or with the vocals. Ghaida, the vocalist is nothing short of sensational: when she takes off and vocalises an improvisation, the crowd responds immediately to her eerie yet warmly intimate trills and glissandos.


The cd opens with the beautifully slinky nocturne Yamma I Amar Aal Baab from the romantic film Tamr Hinma, the piece that Shumays credited with inspiring this project. A thoughtful, exploratory, subtly crescendoing oud taqsim (improvisation) by Brian Prunka follows, then after that another hypnotic film song, Imta Hataaraf, featuring several gripping vocal breaks by Ghaida.  Sardonically, the cd liner notes characterize the famous Mohamed Abdel Wahab number Aziza as “the most overplayed belly-dance piece in the repertory,” yet Zikrayat’s interpretation manages to breathe new life into its dark intro and outro while not taking any chances with the predictable, somewhat cheesy midsection. There’s also a somewhat Western pop tune, a delectable and all-too-brief ney solo from Bridget Robbins and a stunning closing cut featuring Shumays’ rababa, ominously booming drums and a trick ending before it fades out. World music fans will devour this. If there’s any one criticism of the cd, it’s that when the pace picks up and the drums really kick in, the oud is sometimes inaudible. It would be easy to say that the problem could have been fixed by close-miking the oud, but it’s also possible that would have been a moot point considering the sonic quality – or lack thereof – in the room.


While Zikrayat’s present lineup is considerably stripped-down, the music never ceases to entrance and captivate, as a recent Barbes gig proved. Shumays is also an intriguing and innovative composer whose passion for this kind of music is matched by an equally improvisational, exploratory feel. Watch this space for upcoming NYC area shows.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment