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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Rough Guide to Sufi Music Is Out Today

Muslim mystical music being as diverse as Islam itself, it’s only appropriate that the new Volume 2 of the Rough Guide to Sufi Music would highlight the eclecticism of Sufi devotional music from around the globe. Some of the songs here are straight-up pop, others take ancient themes to trippy, psychedelic extremes, while traditionalists look back centuries and even millennia for inspiration. There’s a lot of cross-pollination: the sacred becomes profane and vice versa.

The compilation’s opening track, Zikr, by Kudsi Erguner vamps on a hypnotic Arabic flute theme. On one of the real standout tracks here, Syrian group Ensemble Al Kindi join forces with acclaimed sufi singer Sheikh Habboush for an epic that begins with a rippling qanun improvisation and builds to a swaying dance. Likewise, a number by Pakistani qawwali singer and 2006 BBC World Music award winner Sain Zahoor is more celebration than invocation or lament – and is that a Farfisa in the mix?

Two Senegalese artists are represented: Modue Gaye, whose artful, improvisational blend of West African and levantine sounds creates the single most memorable track here, and Cheikh Lo, who weighs in with a simple, mantralike acoustic guitar song. Afghani ensemble the Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawwali Group offer the most traditional song here, with its animated call-and-response, while Pakistani songstress Sanam Marvi contributes a neat update on some old ideas, spicing her guitar-based trip-hop with an imploring solo vocal intro and then rustically soaring fiddle.

There’s also reggae from Pakistani duo Arif Lohar & Meesha Shafi, trip-hop from Transglobal Underground and the Indian trio M. Abdul Gani, M. Haja Maideen & S.Sabur Maideen, and a surprising lo-fi dub reggae remix of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan number that actually beats the original. As with all the recent Rough Guide compilations, this is made even more enticing by the inclusion of a bonus cd, the Rough Guide to the Sufi Fakirs of Bengal, which has never before been available outside India. Literally a trip back in time, it’s a mixture of the blissful and the wary, with lute, flute, percussion and layers of vocals from a rotating cast of singers.

July 25, 2011 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Masters of Persian Music in NYC 2/18/10

A characteristically transcendent performance by one of the world’s greatest ensembles in any style of music. Classical music from Iran is almost inextricably linked to lyrics and poetry and for that reason its instrumentals are songs without words. Likewise, the voice serves as an instrument in the ensemble, joining the interplay as much as it leads it. Like any other established style of music, Persian music has its devices and tropes passed down through the ages: over there they call them gushehs. Over here we call them riffs.

Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Masters of Persian Music played two riveting, practically hourlong suites full of them, the first an improvisation, the second composed pretty much all the way through. The jam, said kamancheh (spike fiddle) player and composer Kayhan Kalhor, was dedicated to a friend who’d just lost a family member. For this set he played a darkly resonant five-string kamancheh alongside his fellow luminary and longtime bandmate Hossein Alizadeh on jangly, clanging shourangiz lute. The two began slowly, mournfully, climbing to what became a funeral march, working the tension between two adjacent notes into an apprehensively memorable, interlocking four-note theme (a westerner might say that the whole thing, both sections of it, was a one-chord jam, and in a sense they’d be right). Kalhor alternated cello-like low-register ambience with rapidfire upper-register work, frequently tapping out percussion or notes high on the fingerboard and making the most of his signature echo effect, bowing with less and less pressure until the notes seemed to be coming back under their own power. Meanwhile, Alizadeh’s right hand was a whirlwind of ferocious fingerpicking. They finally built to a raga-inflected dance, Alizadeh firing off a series of descending progressions that would have been right at home in the Ravi Shankar songbook. And then it was over. The second part of the jam grew more hopeful, rising to a majestic, heroic anthem pulsing along on Kalhor’s insistent low notes. It had a happy ending.

The second part of the show segued between compositions by both Kalhor and Alizadeh (both of whom had switched to smaller, more rustic instruments, in the latter’s case a traditional tar lute) and brief solo passages for kamancheh, tar and the sonorous nay flute of Siamak Jahangiry. Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, a star pupil of Persian vocal legend Mohammad Reza Shajarian, lent his alternately sepulchral and frenetically ornamented baritone to lyrics by several noteworthy poets: Nima Youshij, Shafi’i Kadkani, Abou Said Abou Kheyr, Akhavan-e Sales, Molavi and Salman Savoji. Here the interplay and the riffage took centerstage when the vocals didn’t, Alizadeh introducing many of them and then returning sometimes several minutes later with their variations. There was plenty of call-and-response, as well as everyone including Nourbakhsh echoing or working their own version of another’s phrasing. With the additional low end provided by Fariborz Azizi’s bass tar and Pezhham Akhavass’s tombak frame drum, it was as if Alizadeh had been freed from carrying the rhythm and could now, as one would say in rock vernacular, “play leads.” Seamlessly and spiritedly, they made their way through a stately tribute to hope against all odds – out of self-preservation, no doubt, the group steered clear of anything that could be construed as overtly political – to a cynical anthem about hypocrisy, a swaying drinking song and a couple of hypnotic, circular anthems, the second closing the show with the whole group singing and playing its series of hooks in perfect unanimity. The sold-out crowd wouldn’t settle for giving them just one standing ovation – after getting another relatively brief mesmerizingly catchy, swaying number as an encore, they wanted more. Kalhor, clearly game, raised his eyebrows and looked around at his bandmates. Then the house lights went up.

Masters of Persian Music’s Spring 2010 US tour continues on Feb 19 at the Sanders Theatre in Boston; 2/20 at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland; 2/23 at Symphony Center in Chicago; 2/26 at the Ferst Center for the Arts in Atlanta and concluding on 2/28 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Adventurous listeners in these cities would be crazy to miss them.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Rare Elements – Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Either you’re going to like this album or you’re going to hate it. If you’ve been a fan of Middle Eastern pop from the last 25 years, you may not notice or care that the drum machine is such a prominent feature here. If, however, you are a purist when it comes to rhythm, you are advised to seek out the great Turkish-American composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek‘s back catalog, a vast and frequently fertile repertoire of hypnotic, otherworldly, virtuosic sufi-influenced songs and instrumentals. The title of this new cd is somewhat confusing: it’s the second in the Rare Elements series of disco remixes of world music artists (the first was sarangi player/singer Ustad Sultan Khan). On one level, setting Tekbilek’s compositions to a monotonous computerized thump makes about as much sense as a disco remix of Muddy Waters or Mingus. Yet you could also consider this a sneak attack on the dancefloor (and maybe Tekbilek’s attempt to connect with a broader audience on his home turf). So if this album succeeds at scoring a few hits in the Levant or turning a few club kids here toward the East, it will have been worth the effort. What’s lost, of course, is the hip-tugging swing and groove of the real drums and percussion you’ll find on Tekbilek’s more upbeat songs from previous albums. To his infinite credit, the compositions and his soulful, passionate playing on a grand total of twelve instruments here including ney flute, baglama lute, oud and zurna oboe are so strong that they transcend most every attempt to commercialize them (sadly, as expected, the remixers here get top billing over the composer).

The album’s second cut sets a nicely hypnotic, slinky snakecharmer riff to a mechanically swaying trip-hop beat. The third track has a late 80s Lebanese habibi pop feel, layers of synth taking the place of the acoustic unstruments.  The next cut injects a pounding trip-hop beat beneath starkly beautiful, spiky baglama and expressive flute; after that, more trip-hop, this time in the vein of a tv spy show theme, ominous baglama reprocessed eerily with swooshy synth. Tekbilek doesn’t even come in til five minutes into the seventh track, but it’s worth the wait. Finally, on the next cut, the music gets centerstage over the computer and it is absolutely luscious, a classic Levantine dance motif with swirling flute and darkly clanking baglama – and then it morphs into trip-hop.

There are a couple of numbers that are so heavily computerized that it’s impossible to tell if there’s any Tekbilek on them. And there’s one LOL-funny spot where the remixer cut and pasted some fast sixteenth notes in the same way that hip-hop dj’s mimic the sound of a skipping record – they could have plugged Tekbilek in and he could have simply played the riff in probably half the time it took to do it on the computer, and with soul. But can we do that? No. We have to be effete about it. We have to make it sound fake and cheesy instead. But even with that, Tekbilek still rises clear and ecstatic above the din. This also makes a good late-night wind-down cd: the beauty in the samples of Tekbilek’s music will soothe you as the drum machine puts you to sleep.

July 27, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment