Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

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: Khaled – Liberte

This auspiciously mostly-acoustic cd is not a radical change from the slick electronicized dance material the famous Algerian rai-rocker has ground out for most of his career. There’s still drum machine on many of the cuts (especially the trip-hop and downtempo numbers), along with synthesizers faking brass and string parts (and also adding a completely unintentional, comedic 80s feel in places). But there’s also a full acoustic band here, a welcome continuation of the turn back to real North African rai that the former Cheb Khaled has taken over the last ten years – let’s not forget that the Algerians invented trip-hop in the first place. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that musically at least, this is one of Khaled‘s best albums, right up there with his earliest stuff from 1982-83. This cd is back-loaded, almost the equivalent of two albums: the poppier stuff first, followed by the more traditional songs, rich with oud, flute, violin, rattling percussion and fullscale orchestration in places. Over the past almost thirty years, Khaled’s voice has also taken on a darker tone, lending a welcome gravitas to many of the songs.

Of the initial cuts, the title track kicks off with a long accordion and vocal jam and grows to a bouncy midtempo dance number that takes on a somewhat western feel with jangly guitar and synth. The most intense song on the cd is the dark, spare, Rachid Taha-inflected requiem Papa, Khaled’s anguished, melismatic French-language vocals laden with pain and loss. After the hip-hop flavored Raikoum, it’s all oldschool and and it’s very compelling, from the somewhat mysterious, shuffling Sbabi Ntya to the sparsely but beautifully orchestrated Soghri. The cd wraps up with a funky song that gradually adds layers, right up to a gorgeous, dramatic, lushly Levantine outro, and then a midtempo ballad with a nice bass-and-piano groove and a haunting violin solo. For non-Arabic speakers, this works equally well as chillout or dance music – it’s a great way to get to know one of the most important figures in the world of Middle Eastern music over the past few decades.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Layali El Andalus Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/1/08

Tonight the standing-room crowd in the little back room at Barbes were treated to the single best concert we’ve seen so far this year. It was a passionate, fascinating show. Performances by musicians who play traditional Arab music as expertly and emotionally as this group did tonight usually cost upwards of $50 at places like Symphony Space. Led by Moroccan singer/oud player Rachid Halihal, the all-acoustic sextet played a mix of mostly traditional dance numbers spanning the Arab world, including songs from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and, obviously, Andalusia. With its extremely sophisticated counterpoint and microtonal scales, this stuff isn’t easy to play, but Layali El Andalus made it seem effortless. Interpolating a few sunnily upbeat, happily nostalgic numbers within a set of what was otherwise long, frequently hypnotic songs based on the haunting chromatic scale, it was a rare treat to witness a performance like this in such an intimate setting.

The setup of the band – oud, quarter-tone accordion, flute, violin and two percussionists – echoes the small combos used by pioneering composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Said Darwish. Many of the songs they played tonight are popular standards, often lavishly orchestrated: one doesn’t often get to hear this material stripped down to its basics. Often, the band would pick up the tempo at the end of the song, flute player Daphna Mor letting out an eerily triumphant trill as the crescendo would rise to a peak. The individual musicians, including Bruno Bruzzese on violin, Uri Sharlin on accordion, and two percussionists, all got to take extended solos, unanimously proving to be terse, incisive, thoughtful players: this group doesn’t waste notes. Halihal is something of a ham: while re-tuning his oud after each song, he’d improvise on the next song’s melody until everything was on key. His attempts to get some audience participation going met with mixed results. Though he tried strenuously to get the men and women in the crowd to sing a call-and-response with each other on one number, this fell flat – perhaps they didn’t understand, or they were simply unfamiliar with what’s actually a common device in traditional Arab music. But by the end of the show anyone with enough room on the floor to dance (or at least sway a little bit) was doing that while clapping along ecstatically. The best-received song of the night was a richly melodic version of the original Ya Rayyeh (Let’s Party), best known to today’s listeners as French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha’s signature song. They closed with a rather sentimental song that was somewhat jarring, considering the ecstatic intensity of their other material. But no matter. Layali El Andalus’ next show is Sunday, March 9 at 8:30 PM at Drom NYC, 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Avenues, and world music fans would be crazy to miss it.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment