Three Charismatic Women Push the Envelope with Arabic Music at the Met

by delarue

Last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the World Music Institute staged a triplebill of three individualistic, charismatic women bandleaders who’re pushing the envelope with how far music across the Arabic-speaking diaspora can go. The concert raised many questions, one of them being that as New Yorkers, is it our birthright to be able to immerse ourselves in great art from cultures around that world that we may not necessarily be immersed in? Or are we being priced out? Tickets for this one were $35, and while there was a big crowd, the Met’s Rogers Auditorium wasn’t sold out. Likewise, the museum is charging everyone but us full-price admission now – and probably making a killing from all the tourists.

Alsarah & the Nubatones opened the show with a very brief set of bouncy, catchy, vamping dance numbers, rising from a gathering hailstorm of notes from Brandon Terzic’s oud. The bandleader calls their music “retro Nubian pop,” a 21st century update on the slinky sounds produced in the wake of forced migrations to northern Egyptian cities in the 1960s. Blending the edgy chromatics and modes of Arabic music with catchy grooves from deeper in Africa, the band pulsed and pounced, Terzic trading riffs with bassist Mawuena Kodjovi over percussionist Ramy El Asser’s supple drive. Alsarah remarked that she’d come to reinvent the notion of a museum being “where art goes to die,” and then left that thread hanging: art never dies as long as people have access to it.

Tunisian-born Emel Mathlouthi received an overwhelming standing ovation for barely half an hour onstage, leading an icily atmospheric trio with multi-keys and syndrums. Resolute in a black dress, twirling slowly and elegantly and singing in both Arabic and English, she channeled simmering anger and defiance. Her slowly swaying opening number was an invitation to gather and join forces against oppression. After that, another minimalistic, slowly crescendoing minor-key dirge – whose Arabic title translates roughly as “Hopeless Humans” – sent a shout out to the working classes whose exhaustive efforts benefit nobody besides the bosses.

She closed on a more optimistic note with a tone poem of sorts, an Arabic counterpart to an epic from Nico’s Marble Index album – except with infinitely stronger vocals. Mathlouthi’s stage presence, her vocals and lyrics are vividly and often wrenchingly emotional; the mechanical thump of the syndrums made a jarring contrast with all the subtlety she brings to the stage. The music was plenty cold and foreboding without them.

Singer/acoustic guitarist Farah Siraj headlined. “She reminds me of Lauryn Hill,” an attractive, petite Jewish woman in the audience remarked. That observation was on the money, considering how Siraj blends elements of 90s American radio pop, flamenco, Romany ballads, bossa nova and Andalucian sounds with classical Arabic music. Her lead guitarist provided spiky intros and exchanged hard-hitting riffs with oudist Kane Mathis and bassist Moto Fukushima over the drummer’s shapeshifting grooves, moving effortlessly from the tropics to the Middle East. From there they took a detour toward India with an undulating ballad that Faraj wrote with Bollywood composer legend A.R. Rahman – which became a chart-topping hit for her. 

A hauntingly crescendoing Jordanian ballad gave Siraj a launching pad for her most chillingly melismatic vocal of the night – and a chance to salute the bravery and resilience of refugees from Syria, Palestine and around the world. After that, she blended habibi pop, Brazilian balminess and Spanish sizzle, sometimes within a few bars of each other. 

Fans of global sounds ought to check out the free show the WMI is putting on at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. on May 3 at 7:30 PM with hypnotic Saharan rock band Imharhan.

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