Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

CD Review: Abaji – Origine Orients

This is like an anthology of the world’s most interesting Middle Eastern bands, except that it’s one guy all by himself. Origine Orients, his fifth cd, is one of the most stunningly imaginative albums of recent years. Abaji’s syncretic style reflects both his mixed Greek/Turkish heritage and his other career as an inventor of instruments – notably the oud-guitar prominently featured here, a fretless creation with a double set of nylon strings. Drawing on such diverse elements as levantine dance music, Lebanese ballads, American blues, indie rock and singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, Abaji is literally a one-man band – or make that an orchestra. A collector as well as inventor, he plays bouzouki, saz (Turkish lute), Colombian sax, flute, blues harp, fiddle and all sorts of percussion instruments, singing in five different languages in an impassioned baritone, equal parts Mediterranean balladeer and western rocker. Because he draws on so many diverse styles, he can sound like a whole lot of people, but the obvious comparison is devious New York Middle Eastern multistylists Tribecastan.

The album’s opening Middle Eastern riff quickly morphs into a circular indie rock theme. The second cut, Desert to Desert is an insistent slide guitar blues played on a bouzouki with Abaji using an eerie wooden flute for a slide! The single best song on the album is the ominously gorgeous bouzouki rock ballad Menz Baba, which sounds like it could be an acoustic version of a Botanica song, but with vocals in Armenian. Abaji winds it up with a towering, anguished vocal crescendo. Then he brings it down with a pensive solo Colombian sax taqsim.

Building from simple blues harp and spare percussion to a big frenetic buildup with saz and cymbal crashing, Saz Dance vividly evokes New York panstylists Hazmat Modine, right down to the crazed Wade Schuman-esque vocalese. Likewise, Anatolia, an acoustic art-rock instrumental in 6/8, evokes legendary Turkish rockers MFO with Abaji whistling over his apprehensive, intensely strummed saz. The other songs here include a long, evocatively rustic fiddle taqsim; a hauntingly catchy acoustic rai-rock song; a spare ballad that builds to a lickety-split, almost bluegrass tune; and a trio of songs that smashingly blend Django swing and flamenco with intensely soulful Middle Eastern flourishes.

The closing title track is a vividly torchy blues played on the low-register Colombian sax, which wouldn’t be out of place on a recent JD Allen album. That’s keeping good company, to say the least. If there’s any album that’s been released recently for people with diverse taste in music, this is definitely it!

January 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment