Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 7/27/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #552:

Wadi Al-Safi: Ajmal Aghani – The Very Best of Wadi Al-Safi

The career of crooner/oudist Wadi Al-Safi, “the Voice of Lebanon,” has spanned eight decades. Essentially, he’s a soul singer, with a warm baritone characterized more by nuance than bite. Like so many levantine artists dating back to the 1940s, he was also a star of screwball comedies; much of his repertoire has iconic status that extends beyond his home turf. This is hardly comprehensive, but it’s a decent overview. Lots of hits here: the lushly orchestrated La La Aini La; the sweeping Tallou Hbabna; the plaintive, hypnotic, accordion-driven Remche Ouyounek; the suspenseful, slow Ma Atwalak Ya Layl; the slinky snakecharmer dance Albi Yehwak; Betrehlak Mechwar, with its cool qanun/bass intro; and Ya Rabe’ena, which works equally well as military march or wedding dance. The whole album is streaming at Spotify; here’s a random torrent via Folk Music SMB.

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July 27, 2011 Posted by | lists, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Concert Review: Gaida at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 5/7/10

Syrian/American chanteuse Gaida’s new album Levantine Indulgence made a big splash in Middle Eastern music circles when it came out in March. Last night’s show made believers out of a largely local crowd that didn’t know what to make of her for the first few songs, but by about halfway through she had them dancing, clapping along and responding with an uninhibited joy. She’s a star on the way up. Fairouz is her big influence, but like Fairouz she doesn’t limit herself to one style – she’s taking emotion-drenched Middle Eastern art-song and pushing the envelope with it. Backed by a shapeshifting sextet including jazzy pianist George Dulin, upright bassist Jennifer Vincent (also of Pam Fleming’s all-female quartet) and acoustic guitarist Arturo Martinez along with sensationally good oud, percussion and buzuq players, Gaida delivered the songs in a crystalline high soprano that ranged from disarmingly coy to wrenchingly intense.

They started out with a jazz feel, sort of a habibi blues with distant echoes of Fairouz, a pensive story of unrequited love backed by just piano, guitar and bass. Gaida brought in the whole band for a swaying version of the levantine bossa nova of Illak Shi, taking the first of several vocalese improvisations with a melismatic attack that was as nuanced as it was poignant and on this song, downright heartwrenching.

A slow buzuq taqsim led into the slinky levantine anthem Dream, another cut from the new album, followed by the sly, metaphorically laden Almaya, the tale of a guy following a girl carrying her full bucket home from the village well. A couple of the songs had distinct latin tinges: an old Lebanese number from 1950 featuring some eerie, distantly glimmering piano from Dulin that wound up with understated menace as the outro wound down to just piano and guitar, and a scurrying, tangoish shuffle featuring another intense vocalese interlude. They also debuted a hypnotic, pensive new song written in rehearsal a couple of days before, frenetic buzuq trading off artfully versus casually strummed guitar and then vice versa. They wound up the set on a high note with a brisk, bouncy Yemeni song, the serpentine, anthemic Ammar (another standout track on the new cd) and encored with a standard that made yet another showcase for Gaida’s matter-of-factly plaintive, resonant vocal presence.The crowd wanted more but didn’t get it – and then joined the line for the cd table.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Qadim Ensemble at Zebulon, Brooklyn NY 4/1/10

Bay Area orientalists the Qadim Ensemble are a bunch of American musicians with a passion with seemingly every style from the Middle East and northern Africa. As their show at Zebulon last night reaffirmed, that passion translates vividly in concert. This time out the group was a quartet, Gari Hegedus taking the most intense solos of the night on saz (a beautifully jangly Turkish lute) and oud, Rachel Valfer Sills doubling on oud and vocals, ney flute player Eliyahu Sills and master percussionist Faisal Zedan on riq (frame drum) and other instruments. They go more for a a slinky, often haunting, trance-inducing sound than they do flat-out ecstasy, with thoughtfully constructed improvisation between instruments along with warmly methodical, crescendoing solo passages. Together they created a magic carpet of shifting timbres and textures, the melody often beginning on the flute, then moving to the saz and then the oud. The ney player and oud player harmonized on a couple of numbers; Hegedus played with a graceful intensity over the oud’s soulful pulse and the otherworldly allusions of the flute while Zedan provided a hypnotic beat. One of the highlights of the night was a Turkish number about a guy trying to entice a girl over so he can play saz for her – she stands him up. The ney was first to state the melody, followed by the oud, and when the time came, Hegedus made sure that girl or no girl, the saz was going to turn in a good solo. Rachel Valfer Sills’ poignantly full-bodied vocals imbued the quieter numbers with considerable gravitas; later, the ney player opened a “Moroccan country music” tune, as they called it, with an expansive, blue-sky taqsim that built slowly into a bouncy rai beat. And then the band segued into a much trickier number that finally faded away mysteriously. In case you wish you hadn’t missed this one, they’re at Nublu on April 4 at 8.

April 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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