Friday night at Roulette, oudist Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade treated the crowd to a dynamic, exhilarating look at the future of Egyptian classical music. Abozekry has immersed himself in the centuries-old muwashashat tradition and played some of his most exhilarating moments during the most traditional pieces on the program. Yet it quickly became clear that he’s delved into blues and jazz, and some artsy rock, and he knows hip-hop too. But what was most impressive, and ultimately most thrilling about the show was how distinctive and majestic his music is. Karkade aren’t just a bunch of hippies who’ve learned a couple of Arabic modes and think that something like salsa might sound especially exotic if played on Middle Eastern instruments. They’re Middle Eastern virtuosos with boundless curiosity – and access to youtube.
The night’s opening number was a red herring. Effortlessly and spaciously, Abozekry threw some minor-key blues licks into a relatively spare, bouncy number and then deviated towards postbop jazz. The rest of the evening was grounded in the epic sweep and stark intensity of the Levantine classical tradition with judicious enhancement from pretty much every corner of the planet.
The band were brilliant. Ney flutist Mohamed Farag played with a strikingly resonant, gusty tone: there were times when his alternately plaintive and sepulchral microtones sounded almost like a duduk. Violinist Lotfi Abaza delivered similarly nuanced filigrees and flickers, most of the time doubling either Farag or Abozekry’s lines – it would have been rewarding to have heard more of him by himself. Mohammed Arafa on dohola (a double-ended hand drum a tad bigger than a dumbek) and Karim Nagi on riq swung hard through rhythms that swayed and galloped and turned on a dime, and made all that look easy. Arafa’s tongue-in-cheek, peek-a-boo solo about midway through was the concert’s most unselfconsciously amusing moment – clearly, these guys are having a great time on this tour.
Their excursions through a quartet of serpentine levantine themes rose and fell, mysterious and ultimately triumphant: Abozekry has breathtaking speed and precision on the fretboard, but his tantalizingly brief solo work in those pieces were the only points during the night where he really put the pedal to the metal. There was also a hypnotic rondo with the oud, violin and ney each playing subtle variations on three separate, interwoven riffs. In the evening’s most otherworldly, atmospheric epic, Abozekry’s broodingly emphatic anthemic chords bookended a vast, nocturnal soundscape.
Building from an unexpectedly funky drive, he led the band into a pouncing, wickedly catchy theme and variations: Bootsy Collins taking a Land Cruiser out into the desert dunes. They closed with a similarly incisive, balletesque theme referencing the obviously busy and animated Cairo cafe whose name they’ve appropriated for the band (it also means hibiscus).
The show was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who continue to bring some of the most magical and relevant global programming to this city. On Sept 29 at 8 PM at Roulette they’re staging a fascinatingly unorthodox lineup of sitar, shehnai (Indian oboe) and tabla played by the trio of Mita Nag, Hassan Haider and Subhen Chatterjee; advance tix are $30. And Abozekry’s ’s next performance is tonight, Sept 23 at the Flynn Center, 153 Main St. in Burlington, Vermont; tix are $25.