Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Le Trio Joubran Salute Their Late Collaborator Mahmoud Darwish With an Unforgettable, Intense Performance at the Lincoln Center Festival

There were innumerable long passages in Palestinian oud-playing brothers Le Trio Joubran’s multimedia performance last night at the Lincoln Center Festival that were absolutely shattering. Time stood still. When did Wish You Were Here, the stark, haunted dirge that the trio began with, end? After five minutes of hushed, bereaved minimalism, or closer to thirty? Realistically, it was on the shorter side, but it left a vast impact.

Yet moments like those were balanced by others that were ridiculously funny. Which ultimately came as no surprise, considering that the show was a homage to the group’’s late collaborator and countryman, poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish saw himself as an exile. His childhood village was one of the hundreds bulldozed to make room for Israeli settlers in the wake of the 1948 war. In a country the size of South Carolina, that makes an awful lot of refugees. He returned as an adult, eventually joining the Palestinian government’s inner circle but then withdrawing, disillusioned: he had no tolerance for the hypocrisy of politics. Widely considered to be the voice of the Palestinian people, his richly ironic, fiercely proud, relentlessly defiant work speaks to anyone estranged from their home, physically or otherwise.

Darwish died in 2008: for the last twelve years of his life, Le Trio Joubran were his backing band and musical sparring partners. To play along with his recorded voice must have been a considerable emotional challenge for them, but this time they didn’t let on. Darwish was ailing when he made those recordings, but his voice was virile, supremely confident and as nuanced as his words, simultaneously projected in Arabic and English translation above the stage.

One of the group’s signature tropes is to play in unison with a flurrying, precise, tremoloing strum, a sepulchrally fluttering low-string section with an ancient resonance deeper than any western orchestra could achieve. They did that a lot, especially in the most somber passages. But the three oudists also lept, and bounded, and exchanged jaunty riffs, sometimes with an Andalucian flair, most notably in response to an innuendo-packed erotic poem ripe with surrealistic, irresistibly hilarious Freudian imagery.

The rest of the music was a dynamically shifting mirror for the poetry: Darwish zings you with a one-liner, then delivers a gutpunch. Fate and luck are fickle, at best, indelibly illustrated via excerpts from his epic The Dice Player. One of his characters misses his flight because he’s not a morning person, a good thing because it would have crashed with him onboard. In Darwish’s world, two things that make life worth living are invaders’ fear of memories, and tyrants’ fear of songs.

Samir Joubran played a slightly larger model than the instruments in the hands of his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan, taking the lowest descents of the night. Drummer Youssef Hbeisch began with a somber, boomy beat on daf frame drum and then moved behind a full kit, which he played with hands, maintaining a muted, subtly colored pulse – at least until a solo where the three brothers encircled him and added their own playful beats. They’d revisit that on the encores – after a warmly rousing singalong, Samir and Wissam played basslines on Adnan’s oud in perfect unison with their brother’s briskly chromatic, dancing lines. It’s impossible to imagine a concert by a single band in New York in 2017 any more riveting or thrilling than this.

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a wrap, but Lincoln Center Out of Doors – this city’s most consistently surprising and eclectic free concert series – is in full swing. Angelique Kidjo makes an appearance (but not singing her own material) on August 2; on August 3 at7:30 there’s a Bollywood music-and-dance extravaganza out back in Damrosch Park that looks enticing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

July 30, 2017 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Delicious Middle Eastern Guitar from Michel Sajrawy

Palestinian guitarist Michel Sajrawy ‘s latest album Arabop transcends category. What it most closely resembles is the current wave of electric gypsy music: fans of bands like the NY Gypsy All-Stars will love this stuff. Here he’s joined by a crew of Israeli musicians from his Nazareth hometown, teaming up for a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps as well as a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays with an envelope effect popular with guitarists east of the Danube that fills out his precise, staccato lines to the point where sometimes it sounds like he’s playing an electric piano or synth. What’s most impressive is that often he sounds like he’s playing a fretless guitar even though he’s simply bending strings on a standard-issue Strat. The result is a new hybrid musical language incorporating both traditional Egyptian modes and western tonalities, much in the same vein as David Fiuczynski here in the US and Salim Ghazi Saeedi in Iran.

The opening track kicks off with a slinky guitar vamp followed by a haunted, pleading soprano sax solo by Maali Klar, who shares a fondness for microtones and whose contributions to this album are some of its most riveting moments. Alto saxophonist Amiram Granot plays casually contrasting chromatics over the pulse of Stas Zilberman’s drums and Wisam Arram’s percussion. As he does on several tracks here, Sajrawy also plays electric bass on this one; Valeri Lipets holds down the low end on the others.

1 Count Before 40 begins with a pensive oud taqsim by Samir Makhoul, builds to a stately sway, Sajrawy navigating the space judiciously with a bit of a Greek folk feel: they work the dynamics up and down to a pinpoint guitar solo out. The title track, structured as sort of a musical palindrome,  blends biting Black Sea riffage, a long and rather chilling microtonal bop guitar solo and more of that delicious, ney-like microtonal soprano sax from Klar.

The cospiratorial, whispery Syncretic Beliefs is basically a microtonal tone poem, Sarajway playing casually but purposefully over a djeridoo-like drone. Batumi works a trickily rhythmic groove, Sajrawy expertly shifting it further from the Middle East into otherworldly microtones and then spiraling bop, Klar taking it deep into the shadows in the wake of Sajrawy’s long solo. The album’s best track is the brooding, dirgelike, practically ten-minute epic Hal Asmar Ellon, swaying with a haunting understatement, Granot’s alto summoning the spirits from the nether regions this time: it sounds like an electric version of a Trio Joubran piece.

Sajrawy mimics an oud line on the watery intro to Ya Lel, which eventually picks up with a funky edge before returning to the brooding initial theme. Likewise, Invention is a launching pad for Sajrawy’s nimble cross-genre exploration, moving once again from the desert to bop-land. At the end of the album, Sajrawy takes the popular Egyptian tune Longa Farah Faza and turns it into a sizzling organ shuffle – it’s the only place on the album where he shows off his supersonic speed and he makes the absolute most of it. Like the rest of this album, it’s a feast of blissfully edgy chromatic guitar.

January 5, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maqamfest – 2012’s Best Concert So Far

The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.

The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.

In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.

The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.

The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.

The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.

Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.

With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.

The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.

January 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Azam Ali Brings Her Haunting Middle Eastern Lullabies to NYC on 11/22

Originally from Iran, singer Azam Ali is one of those extraordinarily eclectic musicians who’s equally at home with music from her native country as well as from Kurdistan, or Egypt, or Turkey, or probably anywhere else on the globe. Her most recent album From Night to the Edge of Day came out earlier this year; she’s at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 365 5th Ave. on 11/22 at 7 PM and if Middle Eastern music is your thing, it’s a concert you shouldn’t miss. On the album, Ali plays santour and percussion; Loga Ramin Torkian, who put out the extraordinary Mehraab album with singer Khosro Ansari earlier this year, plays his usual collection of stringed instruments including kamman, lafta, guitar, viola da gamba and saz, and contributes his signature, swirling, lushly echoing production. The duo’s comfortable familiarity working together here makes sense, considering that that they’ve been the nexus of pioneering pan-levantine band Niyaz since the 90s. Multi-percussionist Omer Avci and frame drummer Ziya Tabassian propel the band with a stately, understatedly booming intensity, with Naser Musa on oud, Kiya Tabassian on setar, Ulas Ozdemir contributing electric saz on a couple of tunes along with a full string section and light, ambient electronic touches by Carmen Rizzo.

Ali has a full, round, wounded voice and uses it judiciously and effortlessly for maximum impact: she doesn’t overemote. The songs themselves are Iranian, Turkish, Lebanese, and Kurdish lullabies (along with a stunning original by Musa that could pass for a Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic). But these aren’t sleepy, happy songs: they seem to be meant to provide a heads-up about the difficulties that will arise in a future just over the horizon. The first track is like a symphony composed of layers of vocals, dark and European-flavored, with echoes of the central theme from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The band follows that with an elegant, echoey, darkly hypnotic Iranian melody; Georges Iamman’s tersely wary Arabic violin opens the next song with an improvised intro before the drums come rolling in, bringing the rest of the orchestra along on a dreamy, otherworldly levantine vamp, Ali’s vocals gentle but resolute overhead.

One of the most gripping tracks here, Neni Desem, sets the stringed instruments rustling and clanking against a sepulchral drone as Ali also improvises her way in. It’s a tone poem with layers of vocals rising and falling, howling and pleading – and creepy. The centerpiece is Faith, a duet with Musa that sounds like classic Abdel Wahab with south Indian flourishes, oud and violin playing artfully off Ali’s vocals as she finally goes up the scale with some subtle Bollywood-style melismas. The fifth track, Shrin, also blends Indian and levantine influences, in this case from Azerbaijan. There’s also the slow Persian gothic Mehman (The Guest), strings quietly aching against the brooding, inscrutable vocals; a low, gentle, suspenseful vocal taqsim in over lush oscillating drone, which is actually the closest thing to a traditional western lullaby here; a Kurdish waltz with ethereal harmonies that evoke Bulgarian folk music; and a lushly ambient reprise of Faith at the end. Alongside Torkian’s album with Ansari, this is one of the year’s most original and captivating releases.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wild Intense Middle Eastern Grooves from Shusmo

Shusmo’s new cd Mumtastic is pure adrenaline – it’s one of the most exhilarating albums of recent years. Frontman Tareq Abboushi plays long, relentlessly intense, serpentine solos on his buzuq (the Palestinian bouzouki); it’s interesting to hear tenor saxophonist and zurna flutist Lefteris Bournias – a Coltrane/Papasov-class powerhouse- as a sideman rather than centerstage, firing off endless volleys of chromatics like he usually does. There are other bands who sound a little like Shusmo (Arabic for “whatchamacallit”) – the NY Gypsy All-Stars, and psychedelic Greek rockers Annabouboula come to mind – but this group’s sound is different. Abboushi’s concept is to bring a purist, classical sense of melody to Middle Eastern dance music, while bringing danceable rhythms to classical melodies. Some of this is  sort of punk Middle Eastern classical music, some of it is closer to acoustic surf music. Either way, it’s pretty amazing.

The opening cut is the biggest stunner here, a Turkish tune which if you’re sitting down will get you dancing in your seat. It kicks off with a wickedly ominous, catchy hook on Abboushi’s buzuq, with the same kind of ringing resonance as a twelve-string guitar. Bournias’ zurna flutters against the beat, or shadows Abboushi, whose first solo becomes a scorching flurry of doublestops and tremolo-picking. The second track, The Time It Takes sounds like a stately baroque arrangement of an old English folk tune until the chromatics come in, and then the drums, and then they’re off, with a nonchalantly hard-hitting sax solo. Georgina +2 pulses along on a tricky Kurdish rhythm, Dave Phillips’ bass and Zafer Tawil’s percussion trading off and playing against the buzuq, which eventually takes a deliciously long crescendo up. True to its title, Traveling is a cinematic epic, Abboushi’s expansive narrative balanced by Bournias’ bracing, sometimes anguished, nebulously insistent passages.

Samba for Maha, another cinematic one, doesn’t stay samba for very long – it’s something of a neighborhood piece, with dogs barking, surfy drum breaks and moody sax. A trickily rhythmic showcase for Tawil along with drummer Hector Morales, Rasty George segues into the first of a handful of vignettes that slowly fades out. The funky Batayak has a swaying rai-rock vibe and a thicket of lighting tremolo-picking from Abboushi, followed by a brief joujouka interlude with the zurna wailing mournfully. The centerpiece of the album is The Wall, a long, pensively surreal journey that’s the closest thing to jazz here, with an aptly sensitive guest spot by quartertone trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. It’s meant to illustrate the effect of the wall erected in Israeli by anti-Palestinian extremists, to further perpetuate the apartheid that exists there – and yet, some are undeterred by it, others actually managing to enjoy what it leaves in its wake (including the wreckage of Palestinian homes, as much of a playground as you’ll find nearby). With a quiet ache, it reaches for resolution but never finds it.

The album winds up with Pickles, moving once again from European baroque stateliness to a biting Middle Eastern dance and then back again, and the clapalong wedding dance Dal’Ona – the only vocal number here – Bournias finally cutting loose with his most acidically intense solo of the entire session. Shusmo play Joe’s Pub on June 23 at 9:30 PM – if this is your kind of thing, and you’re in town, you’d be crazy to miss them. They’re also at Cornelia St. Cafe at 8:30 on July 7.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trio Joubran’s AsFar – Best Album of 2011?

Towering, intense and haunting, Trio Joubran’s new album AsFar is a suite of interconnected instrumentals that draw on the ensemble’s Palestinian heritage while also incorporating tinges of gypsy and flamenco music. Gorgeously produced, with just the perfect amount of reverb on the ouds played by the three Joubran brothers – Samir, Wissam and Adnan – they sound like an oud orchestra, bolstered even further by Youssef Hbeisch’s distantly boomy, terse, almost minimalist percussion. Rich with eerie, austerely chromatic melodies and almost relentless angst, it’s arguably the most gripping album of the year.

The first two tracks shift apprehensively from energetic to brooding: the opening cut with flamenco tinges, the second featuring Dhafer Youseff’s long, drawn-out, wordless flamenco-flavored wails punctuating a hypnotic melody that moves from scurrying and furtive to low and pensive, and back again. A stately, apprehensive waltz, Dawwar El Shams follows the suspenseful percussion, building to a staggering sprint that finally explodes with a watery crash of cymbals. The fourth track, a dirge, sets low, somewhat imploring vocalese against chilly, austere percussion and a bitter, minimalist oud melody that wouldn’t be out of place in Shostakovich. Sama Cordoba, the following cut, develops that melody, methodically building to a series of viscerally intense crescendos with some lickety-split tremolo-picking over hypnotic, syncopated clip-clop flamenco rhythm. A nimble, wary oud taqsim (improvisation) takes it out on a disturbingly ambiguous note, setting the stage for the majestic, epic, pitch-black fifteen-minute title track, its crushingly portentous melody announcing the gathering storm with a bitter, depleted anguish. The ouds flutter distantly, taking on almost a cello tone, Hbeisch adding even more gravitas with his judicious, muffled accents, a long, slow journey through a darkness that will not let up. The storm moves in and the ouds build to a mesh of cold, windswept metal fences as the percussion picks up with a trip-hop beat, then slowly subsiding with wounded resignation. It’s by far the most powerful song in any style of music that’s come over the transom here this year. The album closes darkly with Masana, opens with a long, energetic solo taqsim that hints at a brighter future before reverting to the earlier dirge theme. Back in March, we picked a rock album, Randi Russo’s Fragile Animal as best of the year. Considering this one, that pick might have been premature: you’ll see this somewhere at the top of our best albums list at the end of the year. It’s out now on World Village Music.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Parissa and Kamilya Jubran at the Asia Society, NYC 6/11/09

A frequently riveting juxtaposition of ancient and modern vocal music from the Muslim world, arguably the highlight of this year’s Muslim Voices festival. Persian classical singer Parissa is something of a feel-good story, having resurrected a promising career interrupted for almost two decades by the 1978-79 Iran counterrevolution. Accompanied by virtuoso tar (four-string lute) player Iman Vaziri and hand drummer Dara Afraz, she delivered musical settings of Rumi poems, essentially soul music with a distinctly antique flavor. In a vibratoless alto more bronze than brassy, seated somewhat inscrutably centerstage, she worked a style that typically allows room for emotional release at the end of a phrase, with melismas and ululations which she delivered with considerable passion yet restraint. From the point of view of a non-Farsi speaker, it was impossible to tell where one poem began and another ended, the segments being linked by the tar, occasionally tar and drum picking up the pace. They mixed the time signature up: among the songs (or segments) were what was essentially a stately waltz, several straight-up, seemingly four-on-the-floor numbers and several that that were much more tricky, timewise. Visibly absent was any dance beat, and for that matter any chord changes, resulting in a very hypnotic feel. The most musically compelling of them approximated a minor scale, Vaziri introducing a particularly anguished theme and then playing off the vocals gently. A couple others were distinctly anthemic, although in this music, the hooks are strictly musical: there are no choruses in the lyrics. The trio maintained a careful, deliberate pace throughout, determined by the meter of the verse – Persian poetry, like Latin poetry, is highly inflected.

 

While Parissa keeps the flame alive, Palestinian oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran – former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen – breaks new ground. To call her performance cutting-edge would be an understatement. An extraordinarily innovative musician, she displayed a dazzling melodic sensibility on the oud, employing at times equal parts American soul, funk and avante-garde music as well as classical Levantine motifs, with hypnotic tinges possibly evocative of Moroccan gnawa. Playing original settings of contemporary Palestinian poems, she sang with a high, youthful delivery, clear and direct, minutely jeweled with the subtlest shades of angst, regret and longing. For the considerable benefit of English speakers, translations of the poems were included in the program notes, and without exception they were intensely moving. Here’s just the first stanza of the most intense of all of them – if this isn’t well worth the $25 ticket price (tickets still available for tonight’s show), you decide what is:

 

Birds have their homes in the shadows

Echo has longings for hills that she knows

Dew has the dying color of sunset

Nights have their secret to cover the sorrows

Drinkers have wine, and I have the rest

 

She began that one with a touch of the blues, added a little quiet scatting in the middle and then it got haunting and serious. The deeply metaphorical Words (“I wish I were a language on a lip/That is creased with cares/It would neither conceal nor reveal) began with a dexterous series of high harmonics on the oud and a funky feel, further enhanced as the sound engineer brought up the reverb on the vocals. Quietly and determinedly haunting, Hands stayed just this side of macabre as Jubran added pointed passing tones to drive home the frustration and anguish of captivity. The saddest of the poems, Scenes – a bitter concession to wartime defeat – was driven by darkly ringing chords, terse yet heavy with grief and loss. She ended the set with a love song, Hammock, its long outro skipping somewhat skeletally yet soulfully warm, like a vintage Richie Havens song. Considering the quality of all this, one could forgive her for doing karaoke on a couple of numbers, backed by a tape with layers of oud and backing vocals – as complex as the songs were, there are without a doubt plenty of other oudists and singers here who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with such a compelling musician as Jubran.

 

Both Parissa and Kamilya Jubran are playing tonight at the Asia Society, 725 Park Ave. at 70th St. Parissa goes on at 7:30, Jubran at 9:30 and tickets are still available as of this writing (morning of 6/12/09).

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Oud-Off II 2008!!!

Don’t let an oud scare you. Ouds don’t bite. Actually, they do – they sink their fangs into anything they play, with gusto. An oud is a Middle Eastern bass lute, one of the most beautiful and haunting instruments ever invented, as ubiquitous in Arab music as the guitar is in rock. They’re typically tuned in any number of maqams, the eerie, microtonal modal scales used in Arab music. Last night at Barbes an absolutely packed house was treated to rare solo performances by two superb Palestinian-American oud players.

Solo oud is as rare as solo guitar. It’s usually the lead instrument in the same type of configuration as a rock band, with frequently more than one percussionist, violin, maybe accordion and vocals. But the best oud players are worth seeing all by themselves, as Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh proved tonight. Tawil opened with a quietly crescendoing, ruminative, pastoral Moroccan piece evocative of Hamza El Din’s cult classic The Water Wheel. He followed with another pretty tune, this one from Turkey, utilizing a hammer-on technique frequently used in country guitar playing. The next number, a gorgeously dark, slinky, dance tune built over a catchy descending progression screamed out for a band to follow along with Tawil’s perfect timing and dynamics as the dance rose to a crescendo and then suddenly shifted before building ecstatically once again. The final works he played were less intense but no less captivating.

Unfortunately, prior commitments necessitated a departure early in Georges Ziadeh’s solo performance: his absolutely brilliant take on a long, hauntingly complex seven-minute Turkish overture made it very difficult to leave. The two performers were scheduled to play together at the end of the show, but, sadly, there were places to go and things to do. This performance was put together by the Brooklyn Arts Council, who, unbeknownst to us have been presenting numerous free shows as part of their annual Brooklyn Maqam Arab Music Festival throughout this past month. This year’s festival winds up with a two-hour free performance of music from throughout the Arab world at Alwan for the Arts, 16 Beaver St., 4th Floor in the Financial District at 9 tomorrow night, March 29 and concludes with a 1:30 PM interfaith show at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Sunday the 30th, featuring choral and instrumental works from Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts.

March 28, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment