Two of the Most Compelling Frontwomen in Middle Eastern Music at the Global Beat Festival

by delarue

That Emel Mathlouthi could sing almost entirely in Arabic to a mainly English-speaking audience, hold them spellbound and then earn a roaring, standing ovation from a crowd of maybe a thousand people in the financial district last night testifies to her power to communicate and transcend boundaries. That, and her charisma. There’s nothing like leading a revolution to boost your confidence: the Tunisian-born Mathlouthi’s self-assurance resides in her power to move people and, maybe, effect change. She did that on her home turf, where her hit Kelmti Horra (Freedom of Speech) became an iconic anthem in the early days of the Arab Spring. And she took a mighty stab at it yesterday evening at the Global Beat Festival with music that was relentlessly dark, and heavy, and anguished, aching to break free.

Mathlouthi’s Arabic lyrics are crystallized but allusive and heavy on symbolism. Her tempos are slow, her ambience swirling and stormy. Her most recent album blended levantine sweep, alienated Pink Floyd grandeur and icy gothic production. Her set this time out was similar, heavy with new material from a forthcoming release. Mathlouthi likes her vocal and instrumental loops, nebulous atmospherics and a tapestry of textures. Over that somber backdrop – provided mainly via live syndrums and multiple layers of synthesized orchestration, much of that seemingly from pedals or a mixer – she sang with a white-knuckle intensity, holding back just thismuch from a fullscale wail. With that wounded delivery and a withering, dismissive stare, she projects a fearlessness largely absent these days: think Patti Smith, Penelope Houston or Siouxsie Sioux (or, for that matter, Umm Kulthumm). She underscored the unease and tension of several numbers by turning her back on the crowd as the music wound down, striding impatiently to face the rear walll of the stage, hands on her hips, defiant and resolute and very much alone.

Themes of homelessness, exile and an interminable wait pervaded the material. Even the calm of the title of Houdou’On was cut loose in waves of syndrums pounding at an invisible, all-encircling wall. Her voice became a bitter stained-glass tableau amid the funereal, cathedral-like sonics, witness to the world of turmoil and torment that she’d addressed head-on early in the show.

Niyaz frontwoman Azam Ali is no less charismatic, although her music is considerably more kinetic. The five-piece Persian-Canadian trance band’s forthcoming album The Fourth Light takes its inspiration from eighth century mystic and poet Rabia Al Basri, who is ironically an underrated figure in Sufism, the movement she created, simply because she was a woman. Ali explained that she and her group have always focused on music of minorities and opppressed peoples from Iran and the surrounding areas, so it was no suprise to find that the new album – much of which the band played – is dedicated to “The world’s greatest minority: women.”

Ali also tackled the issue of how much music sung in an unfamiliar language could possible resonate with a crowd that doesn’t speak it, reassuring them that ultimately, it makes little difference, to simply focus on the melodies. And the audience responded vigorously: by the end of the show, a circle of dancers had taken over the roped-off area in front of the stage. Ali varied her approach from song to song, from delicately soaring to forceful and resonant, especially when she dipped to her lowest registers over the wash of otherworldly textures from Loga Ramin Torkian’s stark kaman fiddle or electric oud, or the keys and mixers of Gabriel Ethier. This was the group’s first show with new tabla player Vineet Vyas, who built a groove spinning pointillistic trails of notes that mingled with the rippling, often ecstatic kanun of Didem Basar. When Ali wasn’t swaying and intoning in front of the group, building a dynamic that was equally mesmerizing and pulsing, dancer Tanya Evanson brought to life the figure of a woman straining against her chains and, at least it seemed, gaining her freedom. Is it ironic that women from some of the most misogynistic places on earth also happen to be some of the world’s most potent voices for freedom – or is that simply a consequence of the natural human reaction to tyranny and oppression?

The festival continues tonight, May 9 at 8 with a rare Honduran twinbill: surf rocker Guayo Cedeño & Coco Bar  and then Garifuna guitarist/songwriter Aurelio & the Garifuna Soul Band. The concert is free, but getting there early is a good idea. Logistically, your best and fastest bet is to go straight down Vesey St. and hang a left into the World Trade Center Path station, take the escalator down, follow the corridor around the bend under the West Side Highway and then up again into the “winter garden” across the street with its stage in the center of the building’s west wall.