Dive into a Middle Eastern Treasure From Duo Sabîl
Palestinian oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisch – better known as Duo Sabîl, meaning “on the way” in Arabic – are a major force in the Middle Eastern music scene in Europe. Their 2017 album Zabad, Twilight Tide – streaming at Spotify – is much more hauntingly lush than their previous work since they double the size of the band, adding buzuq player Elie Khoury and bassist Hubert Dupont. Pretty much every song here is a launching pad for sizzling solos from both Al Kathib and Khoury: they’re great sparring partners.
The opening number, Samal is a diptych. As the fretted instruments intertwine, the uneasy swells. flurrying chords and brooding modes of the first section bring to mind fellow expatriate and oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife’s small-ensemble work. They sprint through the clenched-teeth intensity of the second part, with long, biting solos from buzuq and oud over a lithely syncopated 9/4 beat. When Dupont’s bass finally leaves the pocket and rises, the effect is visceral.
Khoury spirals with a brooding intensity over a dancing groove in the album’s title track, Al Kathib’s machete chords and spare riffs adding a bittersweet poignancy. The two exchange biting, dynamically shifting solos throughout a prelude in the enigmatic maqam rast; then the rhythm section join them for Awalem, which has a southern Balkan feel, alternating between coy jauntiness and stinging acerbity.
Khoury chooses his spots opening a second prelude in maqam nahawand – which is closer to a minor key in the western scale – Kathib raising the suspense. It offers no hint of what’s to come with Nothern Breeze, which begins with a slow, warmly nostalgic sway; then the band leap into warpspeed.
The group build the album’s big epic Marakeb (Ships) around a simple, insistent major third riff and then exchange pensive solos: the waters are choppy but not yet perilous. They wind up the album with the simply titled Afternoon Jam, beginning with an ominously chromatic oud taqsim and picking up with edgy solos all around. If this is what they sound like during the day, just wait til the sun goes down. Never again will this blog hide an album of this kind of music away on the hard drive for so long!