Lucid Culture


CD Review: Bassam Saba – Wonderful Land

Truth in advertising: this is a wonderful album, one of the year’s very best. Multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba leads the New York Arabic Orchestra, arguably America’s most vital large-scale Middle Eastern music ensemble. This is a richly diverse, emotionally resonant collection of original compositions, a tribute to Saba’s native Lebanon. Here the composer plays ney flute, western flutes, saz (Turkish lute), oud, buzuq, bansuri flute and violin, joined by an inspired, virtuosic cast of Megan Gould on violin and viola, William Martina on cello, Peter Slavov on upright bass, and April Centrone and Jamey Haddad on a drum store’s worth of percussion instruments.

The album begins on a lush, vividly pastoral note with the ten-minute suite Nirvana, morphing from a stately dance theme into a sprightly, swinging scherzo and then a distantly haunting ney solo over terse oud and percussion. The ensemble end it with a beautifully majestic crescendo, bringing up the strings and oud. A similarly understated majesty rises later on the evocative Breeze from the South, Saba’s conversational arrangement for oud and buzuq building to a joyous, anthemic theme. Saba’s bansuri flute taqsim opens the goodnaturedly hypnotic Orange Dusk, its loping beat mimicking the sway of a camel making its way methodically across the desert. The title cut takes an apprehensive oud taqsim intro up into a joyous levantine dance with a terse simplicity worthy of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, followed by a long, expressionistic buzuq solo. U Vrot Vastoka (At the Door of the Orient) works tension between the distantly threatening rhythm section versus Saba’s peaceful ney (which cleverly nicks a western spy show melody).

Waltz to My Father, based on a Russian folk melody, could be Henry Purcell, strings cleverly echoing the flute theme – and then suddenly it’s back to the desert, to the here and now with the shifting, trance-inducing pulse of the bass. The group introduce a rattling, increasingly apprehensive oud-fueled East African taraab feel on Afrocola, a homage to Patrice Lumumba. The album concludes with Story of the Dried River, a dreamy, minimalist flute-and-percussion mood piece. It’s to think of another album as warmly and captivatingly atmospheric as this that’s come out in 2010.


July 7, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Egypt Noir

This isn’t a guy in a black trenchcoat stalking his way down a grey Cairo back alley in 4 AM drizzle – but it is definitely an urban album. When Cairo was flooded by Nubians from the countryside in the 1960s and 70s, it was something akin to the northward journey of American blacks to cities like New York and Chicago – they brought their music with them. The resulting collision between their rural music, the levantine sounds popular in the big city, and late 60s American R&B produced just as auspicious a hybrid as American blues. The brand-new Egypt Noir compilation arrives just in time for summer – it’s party music, perfect for dancing your way across the rooftop, or the lawn if you’re somewhere where there are lawns. Most of these songs rattle along with a hypnotically swaying, clickety-clack beat, part snake dance, part Bo Diddley.

Ali Hassan Kuban, popularly known as the godfather of urban Nubian music, is represented by a duet with Salwa Abou Greisha (who also graces the album with a viscerally wrenching vocal improvisation on another track), and by a long, slightly Fela-esque jam whose blaring string synthesizer threatens to push the rest of the band off the rails. Kuban’s Alnubia Band mine this same vein with a wah guitar-and-horns-driven Afrobeat jam. With its oompah-style horns, Hager by Fathi Abou Greisha (father of Salwa) takes on an almost gypsy feel; Yanas Baridouh, by Salma sounds like Booker T & the MGs teleported back in time to a Zanzibar taraab bar circa 1930. The single best song on the compilation is by Sayed Khalifa, whose Samra Oya stretches out a hazy world reggae groove remarkably evocative of Corner Soul by the Clash, bubbly Hammond organ and American soul vocal inflections. And Hassan Abdel Aziz’ Elleya Misafir could be a Bill Withers or Isaac Hayes jam with that clattering beat and vocals in Arabic. Definitely music to free your bootay – your mind will be close behind. It’s just out on Piranha Musik.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Next Stop, Zanzibar: Hold Onto Your Seat!

Sounds of Taraab played Barbes last night. What an amazing band. It shouldn’t be long before this dynamic ensemble starts selling out big concert halls. In the meantime, the packed house in the back room here got to witness an incandescent, frequently transcendent performance. Sounds of Taraab plays East African coastal music, a blend of Levantine dance music and Indian film themes set to African rhythms, sung in Kiswahili. Tonight’s performance highlighted songs with a haunting, slinky, snakecharmer feel along with a few more distinctly African numbers, including a warm, passionate concluding number whose melody echoed what could have been the central hook in a mid-60s American soul music hit. Sudanese vocalist Alsarah held the audience captive with her effortlessly soulful vocals, inducing chills on the few occasions when she went full tilt, sailing into a riveting upper register. Accordionist Ismail Butera is the lead player in this unit, stealing the show with his wildly intense accordion work, a mix of sizzling runs all over the keyboard and big, expansive chords that he would use to build to a screaming crescendo. Oud player Haig Magnookian began several of the songs solo, showing off his dazzling speed and expert command of Arab modalities. Violinist Michael Hess added to the intoxicating mix of textures when he wasn’t being called on for an ethereal, atmospheric solo, and the two percussionists – one, a woman, who played a ceramic jug on one song, and later delivered a sizzling, sultry vocal on a Tanzanian love ballad – kept the audience swaying and clapping along. What a great discovery, and what a treat to witness live. Don’t miss the chance to see them.

And while you may be used to being dismissed or dissed outright at other clubs, consider what happened to the Lucid Culture crew last night at Barbes. Though the place was packed and the waitress had dozens of drink orders to fill, when she noticed that our table was wobbly, she stopped right in the middle of what she was doing and found something to stabilize it. She didn’t have to do that. But she did. Which was really cool. If a waitress at the Living Room noticed you had a wobbly table, she’d probably deliberately set your drinks on it so that they’d spill, and then she’d berate you for anything that landed on the floor.

April 5, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment