Haunting, Starkly Resonant Middle Eastern-Flavored Sounds From Singer Christiane Karam
Singer/percussionist Christiane Karam has built a unique and darkly captivating body of work that blends Middle Eastern and Balkan music, jazz and European art-song. Like Sarah Serpa, Karam gravitates toward subtly expressive, wordless vocals. She covers a deceptively impressive among of ground, from aching highs to somber lows. She’s good at surprise, pulling crescendos out of thin air. Her new album Nar – Arabic for “fire” – is streaming at Bandcamp.
A dramatic flurry of cymbals. whirring bendir, and haunting cello in the hijaz mode kick off the title track, Karam adding gently rhythmic vocalese, pianist Vadim Neselovskyi parsing spare chords over a lithe but slinky groove from bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Keita Ogawa. Karam rises to a defiant triumph, then dips to a a more muted, visceral sense of longing
The album’s second number is Halla Fayat, a catchy, pensive waltz punctuated by a brooding ,melismatic cello solo, a tersely elegant bass solo, somber reflecting-pool piano and the occasional big cymbal splash
In Last Snow, she runs spare variations on a three-note riff, then cuts loose with an unexpected crecendo, Neselovskyi building icy ambience over a steady, sparse sway. The group diverge and then regroup, only to fall away to an eerily dissociative ending.
Karam’s experience leading a Balkan choir informs her minutely nuanced ornamentation in Petlite Payat over a skeletal cello/bass intro and then a shivery, soberly resonant backdrop.
The album features two spoken-word interludes.. “Where I come from, everything is deadly, everything hurts…we revolt, we rebel, we try, we want to live,” the Beirut-born Karam asserts over a percussive, atmospheric tableau. In the second, she exchanges guardedly hopeful, simple riffs with the piano as it grows more rippling and intricate.
Scrapy, droning low strings contrast with Karam’s plaintive, soaring vocals as the album’s most epic track, Beirut gets underway, Karam smacking a tapan standup drum for extra bite on the beats. Starkly echoing atmosphere falls apart violently, Karam tries to pull it up with simple, concise melody, but darkness pervades and descends, percussive metal flickering amid an increasingly torrential whirlpool. From there Neselovskyi amd Slavov rise to a staggered, insistent pulse as Alatrash swoops and wails. The shivery, macabre wartime tableau right before the end is absolutely chilling.
Karam sings the woundedly crescendoing ballad Peine in French, spare piano and bass triangulating subtly with the drums. The album’s most insistently haunting song is Paneen, a bitterly poetic escape anthem: it could be a late 60s Procol Harum cut with Arabic lyrics and a woman out front.
Karam goes back to vocalese in Voyage, gracefully lilting waltz with a punchy bass solo, starrily psychedelic piano and warily descending, snarling cello curlicues. Then she flips the script completely with the album’s airiest, most playful track, Btihi Ala Bali.
Karaam and Ogawa join forces for a percussive, flamenco-infused attack to open Faramdole, which quickly calms to a pensive minor-key ballad, then a darkly circling, turbulent interlude and an increasingly tongue-in-cheek drum break, The band wind up the album with a reprise of the opening theme. This gorgeous record is on the shortlist of the best and most original albums of 2022 so far.