Lucid Culture


CD Review: Zikrayat – Live at Lotus

Zikrayat is Arabic for “memories.” Led by virtuoso violinist Sami Abu Shumays, this New York-based Middle Eastern combo have admirably dedicated themselves to reviving classic and obscure songs from the golden age of Egyptian cinema, from the late 40s to the 60s. This live cd, recorded completely acoustic so as to recreate the feel of the originals, does justice to the material while adding a brilliant, even psychedelic improvisational edge. Since most of the fourteen tracks here are songs from movies, the version of the group that recorded this (they’ve gone through numerous lineup shifts) included a trio of dancers whose occasional percussion and vocal contributions only enhance the songs’ authentic feel.


Most of what’s here is beautiful, haunting Levantine dance music driven by hand drum and percussion, violin and ney flute sailing over the hypnotic, sometimes rumbling beat, low frequencies anchored by the oud. On one song, Shumays switches to rababa, the rustic-tinged traditional Egyptian fiddle. The group handle the melodic interplay with a playful aplomb, violin and flute frequently doubling each others’ lines, working both sides of a call-and-response with each other or with the vocals. Ghaida, the vocalist is nothing short of sensational: when she takes off and vocalises an improvisation, the crowd responds immediately to her eerie yet warmly intimate trills and glissandos.


The cd opens with the beautifully slinky nocturne Yamma I Amar Aal Baab from the romantic film Tamr Hinma, the piece that Shumays credited with inspiring this project. A thoughtful, exploratory, subtly crescendoing oud taqsim (improvisation) by Brian Prunka follows, then after that another hypnotic film song, Imta Hataaraf, featuring several gripping vocal breaks by Ghaida.  Sardonically, the cd liner notes characterize the famous Mohamed Abdel Wahab number Aziza as “the most overplayed belly-dance piece in the repertory,” yet Zikrayat’s interpretation manages to breathe new life into its dark intro and outro while not taking any chances with the predictable, somewhat cheesy midsection. There’s also a somewhat Western pop tune, a delectable and all-too-brief ney solo from Bridget Robbins and a stunning closing cut featuring Shumays’ rababa, ominously booming drums and a trick ending before it fades out. World music fans will devour this. If there’s any one criticism of the cd, it’s that when the pace picks up and the drums really kick in, the oud is sometimes inaudible. It would be easy to say that the problem could have been fixed by close-miking the oud, but it’s also possible that would have been a moot point considering the sonic quality – or lack thereof – in the room.


While Zikrayat’s present lineup is considerably stripped-down, the music never ceases to entrance and captivate, as a recent Barbes gig proved. Shumays is also an intriguing and innovative composer whose passion for this kind of music is matched by an equally improvisational, exploratory feel. Watch this space for upcoming NYC area shows.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment