Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

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