Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

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April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Natacha Atlas’ New Album Mounqaliba Hauntingly Captures the State of the World, 2010

The title of Natacha Atlas’ new album Mounqaliba translates literally from the classical Arabic as “in a state of reversal.” In a societal context, it means decline. It’s her reaction to cultural  decay, spirituality displaced by shallow materialism. In many ways this is a scathing and intense album. It’s also a lushly, otherworldly beautiful one, the high point of Atlas’ career. Musically, it follows in the same vein as her previous cd Ana Hina (ranked in the top ten on our best-of-2008 list), a homage to Fairouz blending traditional Middle Eastern songwriting with a sweeping, orchestral grandeur inspired by western classical music. Atlas has always been a good singer, but on Ana Hina she became a great one; here, her gentle, airily nuanced, minutely ornamented, Fairouz-inspired vocals vividly span the range of human emotions from longing to hope to despair. The originals on this album are sung in classical Arabic, co-written by Atlas and her longtime violinist/collaborator Samy Bishai, along with a couple of surprising covers, backed by jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, a 20-piece Turkish ensemble and chamber orchestra.

The album begins with a stark piano instrumental with martial echoes, segueing into the stately sweep of Makaan, Atlas’ vocals both ethereal and eerie over the swell of the orchestra. They follow with the chilly starlit solo piano piece Bada Alfajr and then a carefully enunciated, wary take of the familiar habibi standard Muwashah Ozkourini. In its own towering, expansive way, Atlas’ cover of Nick Drake’s The Riverman maintains the tense, hypnotic, doomed atmosphere of the original but updates it for the 21st century with strings over a repetitive percussion loop. The swaying, atmospheric levantine anthem Batkallim, a scathing denunciation of media and political hypocrisy, opens with a sample of President Obama reminding us that “we live in a time of great tension:” understatement of the century. It’s the high point of the album, pointillistic accordion over funereal strings and a practically trip-hop beat. The understated anguish of Rahman’s piano is viscerally chilling.

The brooding intensity continues with the title track, a Rachmaninovian opening piano taqsim giving way to funeral drums, ney and then a bitter dirge, Atlas’ wounded vocalese contrasting with the somewhat grand guignol atmospherics. Le Cor le Vent is an unselfconsciously anguished blend of vintage French chanson and sweeping 1950s Lebanese art-pop; they follow that with Lazahat Nashwa, an upbeat, percussive levantine dance and then an imaginative, dreamy, orchestrated trip-hop cover of Francoise Hardy’s La Nuit Est Sur la Ville. The album closes with the brief, somberly atmospheric chamber piece Ghoroug, an ominously stampeding dance and then the wistfully orchestrated lullaby Nafourat el Anwar, which ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note. Count this among the top two or three world music albums of 2010 alongside the forthcoming Roots of Chicha Vol. 2 anthology, and Iraqi expat oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj’s upcoming Little Earth. Natacha Atlas will be on tour a bit later this fall, with a New York appearance at le Poisson Rouge on Nov. 8.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gaida – Levantine Indulgence

Syrian-born chanteuse Gaida’s debut cd has been highly anticipated in world music circles: for once, it’s a release which lives up to its hype. Her high, versatile voice with just the hint of a jazzy, smoky edge draws comparisons to Natacha Atlas, and like Atlas, she proves equally captivating not only at the levantine ballads intimated by the title, but also bossa nova and rock. What’s most notable is how she and the group behind her shift between styles, often mingling jazz and Brazilian motifs within a traditional levantine framework. As much as there may be tears close to her eyes, as she puts it, on many of these songs, there’s also joy and exuberance. When she became part of the scene at New York’s music mecca Alwan for the Arts, a who’s who of expatriate Middle Eastern musicians assembled around her. The band on the album is extraordinary – credits include Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and santoor, Bridget Robbins on ney flute, Johnny Farraj on riq, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and Zafer Tawil on oud, qanun and percussion. In fact, the album’s title track may be its most disarmingly beautiful, a taqsim (improvisation) with Gaida’s fetching vocalese surrounded by wary qanun, percussion and even a terse upright bass solo.

The cd begins with a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab style Egyptian ballad featuring ney flute and characteristically vivid trumpet accents from ElSaffar. Ammar picks up the pace with insistent buzuq and oud chords and a triumphantly ululating choir of women’s voices – and even a little piano for extra spice. Gaida’s most wrenchingly intense vocal here is on the imploring habibi jazz ballad Khaifa Uhibuka, which segues into a slinky levantine number featuring qanun and oud. There’s also a haunting piano-based European-style art-rock song (with Arabic lyrics), a swaying, upbeat one-chord groove number, a straight-up bossa song, and the majestic anthem Bint Elbalad, wrapping up the album with intense, darkly soulful solos from buzuk and trumpet once again. You’re going to see this on a whole lot of “best-of” lists at the end of the year, including ours. Gaida plays the cd release show on 3/21 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, advance tickets are an absolute must because the show will sell out.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Natacha Atlas at B.B. King’s, NYC 11/11/08

Early in the show, Natacha Atlas’ piano player Harvey Brough congratulated the crowd on the past week’s “historic event.” In the past few days, during a round of media interviews, “It was more exciting to talk about the election than it was to talk about the cd that just came out,” Atlas noted, more enthusiastically than sardonically. Perhaps feeding off the still-palpable excitement in the audience, she and her six-piece band delivered an often spellbinding mix of classic Lebanese film music, cabaret and what by any other word would qualify as psychedelia. In concert, Atlas comes across as witty, insatiably curious and quintessentially urbane, qualities all inherent in the former Transglobal Underground singer’s most recent work, particularly her excellent latest cd Ana Hina (I’m Here), reviewed here recently.

 

In addition to a marvelous three-piece pickup string section, a percussionist and Brough ably doubling on keys and acoustic rhythm guitar, the bassist had brought along a giant 8X12 cabinet, something you usually see only at big stadium shows. The reason soon became clear: since he was playing only by tapping on the frets, he needed all the amplification he could get. The band hadn’t brought along an accordionist, so he had a melodica perched precariously on the body of his bass, blowing into it through a long black plastic tube, often playing both instruments at once. Impressive, needless to say, especially considering that the tube was flopping all over the place when he wasn’t using it.

 

They began with several lush, haunting, sweepingly beautiful romantic songs much in the style of Fairuz, who’s clearly the main influence on Ana Hina. Onstage, Atlas displays considerably more lower register, and more bite, than she does in the studio, several times going into long melismatic passages that were very warmly received. They also ran through a bouncy noir cabaret number as well as a long, well over ten-minute, absolutely entrancing cover of Black Is the Color. Atlas and Brough explained that at their previous show on the West Coast, there had been some confusion over the origins of the song, and since Atlas had learned it from the Nina Simone version, she dedicated it to Obama, to a big round of applause. They delivered it slowly and hypnotically as a suite, the bassist providing a long, psychedelic chromatic harp solo in the middle before they brought it down to practically silence and then back up again where the violinist set it ablaze.

 

The highlight of the show was a soaring, plaintive version of Beny Ou Benak Eih, an iconic Hafez song that also appears on the new cd. They closed with a remake of an ancient, stately melody from the 1500’s whose original use was as a vocal exercise and a rousing Levantine dance number that finally provided Atlas, petite and inscrutable on her chair all night, with the opportunity to get up and bellydance and that predictably got the crowd going. They encored with an impressively dark rearrangement of the old Broadway standard What Lola Wants, What Lola Gets, the theme to the recent Nabil Ayouch film. The crowd, clearly more familiar with Atlas’ dance music catalog than the traditional material in the set tonight, was completely won over.

November 12, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment