Transcendent, Exhilarating, Haunting Iraqi Sounds at Roulette

by delarue

For the past couple of years, impresarios Robert and Helene Browning have been booking a transcendentally good series of shows at Roulette, featuring artists from across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Those performances ought to be good: Robert Browning Associates have been doing this for over forty years, so they’ve built a vast talent base to draw from. While this season’s series of concerts is as wildly diverse as usual, the central theme this year is music from across the Arabic-speaking world. Saturday night’s show by impassioned Iraqi crooner Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir – this continent’s only classical Iraqi maqam ensemble – was as epic, and entrancing, and hauntingly relevant as any concert in New York this year.

They’d played at Lincoln Center this past March, and then a couple of times afterward, but this was a welcome opportunity to cut really cut loose. The Lincoln Center show featured songs that were somewhat shorter – ok, less than twenty or thirty minutes long – and seemed heavier on the more humorous material. But music from the Arabic-speaking diaspora is deep. In one haunting, dynamically rising and falling interlude at this show, Al-Saadi addressed the fleeting hope for relationship bliss, then the healing power of maqam riffage, then later the ever-present need to defeat occupying forces. You would expect no less from a socially aware narrative from Iraq from a century ago.

Al-Saadi’s voice is raw, often bristling with overtones: he holds back nothing. It was also in much better shape than at the Lincoln Center gig. Throughout this show, he’d either open a song with a big, resonant, potently melismatic crescendo, or he’d tease the audience (and his bandmates) to where he’d cut loose in the middle of a song.

Pretty much everybody else in the band sang along, or in a call-and-response. Bandleader Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena – the world’s most talented brother-sister team – gave Al-Saadi an alternately slinky and pouncing groove. Tim Moore’s dynamic, slyly shapeshifting dumbek beat fueled the concert’s peaks, when George Ziadeh’s oud, Amir’s pointillistic santoor or Dena’s otherworldly, rain-drenched joza fiddle were going full steam. Solos tended to be tantalizingly short.

The concert followed a roller-coaster trajectory, punctuated by several breathtaking vocal peaks. The ensemble began rather enigmatically, then broodingly and expressively worked their way up from enigmatic modes that roughly corresponded to the western whole-tone scale, to a fiery couple of concluding numbers seething with chromatics, microtones and a desire to rid the world of invaders, whether Ottoman or British. The pair of women on backup vocals added layers of depth to an already lavish and searing blend of sounds.

The Brownings’ concert series at Roulette continues this Dec 7 at 8 PM with legendary Javanese bandleader I. M. Harjito directing Gamelan Kusuma Laras in a program of rippling, hypnotic traditional bell orchestra sounds; general admission is $30.