Maqamfest 2014: Maybe This Year’s Best NYC Concert…Again

by delarue

The theme for this year’s Maqamfest Friday night at the Financial District music mecca Alwan for the Arts was the influence of Arabic music beyond the Fertile Crescent. This year, festival creator, Alwan music impresario and trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar teamed up with the Center for Traditional Dance and Music to book an exhilarating evening that underscored the dynamic connection between music from the Middle East and eastern Europe.

As the night began, it was almost comical to see how the oldsters took over the venue’s lower-level auditorium while the all kids went two flights up to catch rubabist Quraishi’s hypnotically pointillistic Afghan folk and fusion-tinged originals. Downstairs, Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While Yamani didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.

Next on the bill downstairs was luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, with her austere, meticulously nuanced, often heartwrenching original arrangements of Balkan and Romany folk songs and hits from the 60s. Upstairs, the kids were treated to a slinky, irresistibly fun set by Mitra Sumara, who played lush and frequently slashing Iranian pop and disco hits by Googoosh, Laila Farouhar and others, mostly from the early to mid 70s. Frontwoman Yvette Perez sang with a clear, resonant, sometimes seductive, sometimes angst-ridden tone: as she put it, all these songs were about impossible love. Keyboardist Jim Duffy fueled the most intense number of the set with his funereal organ lines, turning it into an undulating Persian take on Procol Harum. Bassist Sam Kulik held down a fat, often hypnotically minimalist low-end pulse beneath Bill Ruyle’s ringing, otherworldly santoor lines and guitarist Julian Maile’s insistent riffage, propelled by a swaying twin-percussion dancefloor groove. They ended the set with a biting, funky Zia Atabi number from southern Iran. At this point, the sounds of the band had filtered down to the lower level and much of the older crowd had filtered up to see what they were missing.

Sazet Band followed in the upstairs space. The Bronx-based crew are a huge attraction in the expat Romany community and took the energy a notch  higher. As their set began, with the band’s alto sax/clarinet frontline firing off machinegun riffage over an explosive twin-drum dance beat and a keyboardist playing generic fusion reharmonizations of Balkan chords through a cheesy synthesizer patch, was this going to turn out to be Macedonian Van Halen? As it turned out, no. Alto saxophonist Romeo Kurtali is a protege of Bulgarian legend Yuri Yunakov, and played with a similarly fluid, maybe even more breathtakingly fast attack than his mentor while clarinetist Sal Mamudoski made an even more aggressive foil with his raw, aching, fire-and-brimstone crescendos. Meanwhile, a technical malfunction had taken the synth completely out of the mix: it wasn’t missed. This reduced the band to just the horns and the drums, taking the sound back in time thirty years or more as they raced through whirlwinds of chromatically bristling doublestops, trills and microtones. Then they brought up a couple of guys to sing. By now, dancelines had formed along the side and in the back, and those who weren’t on their feet were bopping in their seats.

Downstairs, the evening wound up on a historically rich note with a set by the Alwan Ensemble, an all-star lineup of some of the foremost musicians in the New York Arabic diaspora. Their purpose – other than hanging out and drinking tea and other stuff, as ElSaffar grinningly alluded – is to trace the connections between classic Arabic sounds from Syria, Egypt and Iraq. ElSaffar began on santoor, later switched to trumpet and often played both in the same song, along with Zikrayat violinist Samy Abu Shumays, Zafer Tawil on qanun, Georges Ziadeh on oud and a couple of percussionists. Everybody got to to solo or start a number with an expansive, pensive taqsim, and everybody sang, including the audience. The group started matter-of-factly with a rustic Syrian pastorale, followed by a haunting, stately Iraqi suite of sorts told from the point of view of a guy whose girlfriend/dalliance leaves town with her caravan, the stricken narrator pondering whether or not to implore the leader to turn the entourage around and come back to town. Tawil sang a moody Zakariya Ahmad song originally done by legendary 1950s Egyptian chanteuse Laila Mourad; they closed with another Ahmad song from the catalog of Egyptian legend Um Kulthumm, a singalong in every sense of the word from the title to how the group and the crowd brought it to life, ending the show on a high note.

Maqamfest only comes around once a year, but the artists play around town frequently. The Alwan Ensemble make the venue their home base and have a long-awaited debut album due out later this spring; watch this space for news of an album release show.

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