The Spy From Cairo Stars in a Memorable Sequel
One-man bands are common throughout the Arab diaspora: it’s not uncommon for a master Middle Eastern musician to play several instruments expertly. One such master is Brooklyn-based Moreno Visini, AKA Zeb, AKA the Spy from Cairo: he does everything himself. He’ll lay down a drum loop, then add layers of oud, then saz lute, then washes of strings through a pedal effect run from either the oud or the saz. What makes him different is that he’ll also add a fat reggae bassline, or just a catchy bass riff, which he’ll loop so it runs over and over again beneath all the Middle Eastern instruments. His new album Arabadub – his second on Wonder Wheel Recordings - is more Egyptian than reggae, although when it’s Egyptian reggae it’s sprinkled with light dub touches as well. There’s nobody who sounds quite like him.
He’s a fantastic player, too. He’ll typically open a piece with either a bass riff or an improvisational taqsim on one of the stringed instruments, then add an anthemic string arrangement, then take a long, serpentine solo on the oud, or the saz, or both. Sometimes he intertwines the two lutes; several of the other tracks also feature ney, one of them building very hauntingly from the flute’s lowest, most breathy registers to a biting, agitated dervish dance. Every time, he goes for slinky, suspenseful ambience rather than showing off his fast fingers, so in the few instances when he goes for the jugular with frenzies of tremolo-picking on the oud, the effect is breathtaking.
With the jangle and plink of the saz, the unmistakeably boomy bite of the oud and the hypnotic pulse of the drums and bass, the tunes are downright gorgeous and often haunting. The most potent, and most dubwise one is the next-to-final cut, Latif, which blends Middle Eastern tonalities with a poignant Western neoromantic motif in the style of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers. The aptly titled Marseilles Noir hints at a plaintive French musette theme. The most anthemic one, Road to Ryhad, winds its way from a fat bass riff to a pensively incisive oud solo where all the other instruments eventually drop out of the mix to make way for a slow, ruminative taqsim, then another long oud solo that builds almost imperceptibly to an understatedly powerful crescendo followed playfully by the one time on the entire album where the drums actually do a reggae one-drop. Visini doesn’t confine himself to reggae beats, either: a handful of cuts have a clip-clop, trip-hop-like rhythm, and there’s a brisk number that’s basically levantine ska. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that in several instances, Visini will begin with a bass loop but by the middle of the song, he’s playing a bass countermelody to complement the other instruments. There’s a lot more here that reveals itself cleverly with repeated listening: after all, dub is music to get lost in, and you can get absolutely, completely lost in this album. Beyond the Arab world, who is the audience for this? Reggae fans, stoners, devotees of the more hypnotic side of esoterica and anyone with a taste for the beautiful, often haunting maqam scales of Arabic music.