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Category: middle eastern music

A Rare Scheduled New York Appearance by Haunting Turkish Rock Balladeer Niyazi Koyuncu

Conventional wisdom is that anyone who could have gotten out of this city did a long time ago. The reality is that there are still a lot of entrenched indigenous and immigrant communities who are still here. That includes Turkish New Yorkers, who numbered approximately eighty thousand according to the 2010 census. Since that time, the primary hub for Turkish music here has been Drom in the East Village, which opened in 2007 and since then has probably staged more North American debuts than any other venue in town. That includes a lot of rare American appearances by Turkish rock acts.

Turkish rock has a lot of flavors, and as you can imagine some of them can be American Idol cheesy. But there’s a strong psychedelic streak in Turkish rock that goes back to a golden age of underground protest songs in the late 60s and 70s. There’s also a long tradition of brooding balladry that features haunting classically-tinged melodies, Middle Eastern flourishes and instrumentation, and allusive lyrics with frequent themes of being on the run from adversaries. One of those songwriters, Niyazi Koyuncu is playing Drom on Dec 16 at 11:30 PM; you can get in for $30.

Koyuncu’s music is not as ubiquitous on the web as it deserves to be, although his 2016 Liva album (which is not a concert recording) is streaming at Soundcloud. The first track, Uryan is a slowly swaying, moody minor-key anthem spiced with spare oud and piano over a lush bed of acoustic guitars. Lyrically, it’s paradigmatic, a metaphorically loaded tale of wartime abandonment.

Ağlama Bebeğim (Don’t Cry, Baby), a lullaby as escape anthem, has flute wafting over spare acoustic guitar. Yol (The Road) is a loping, flamenco-tinged lost-love ballad with strings. After that, there’s Kalbime Yağan Kar (Snow Falling in My Heart), a lingering art-rock duet with chanteuse Ceyl’an Ertem.

Koyuncu revisits a shadowy wartime tableau in Duman (Smoke), a surreal mashup of tricky Turkish dance rhythms and heavy rock, like a Near Eastern Jethro Tull. Verane has tasty bagpipes, Middle Eastern-style call-and-response and more tricky dance beats. The sweeping strings return alongside wistful accordion and piano in Gönlünün Kıyısı (The Heart’s Shore).

There’s a gorgeous kamancheh solo along with a spiky bed of guitars, baglama and orchestration in the pensive Sigara (Cigarette). Koyuncu finally picks up the pace with the rapidfire, scurrying rock tune Al Eline Fener (Carry the Torch)

Ayrılık (Far Away), a sweeping anthem with the guitars, orchestra and kamancheh going full force, is the album’s most exhilarating track. There’s also a surreal psychedelic tableau with slide guitars and bagpipes, and an imaginatively arranged Balkan reggae tune.

Obviously, a lot could change between today and the day of the show, in terms of venues being open without restrictions, but if the club is still open, this could be a great night for fans of haunting, lyrical sounds that don’t often make it to this country.

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The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 2: Hits and Misses

This year’s return of the 24-hour-plus Ragas Live festival of Indian music and related sounds was so epic that it requires two parts to reasonably digest. The frequently rapturous first half was reviewed here yesterday. The second part was also often transcendent, with some issues.

Let’s tackle those and then get to the good stuff. You’re never going to see fusion jazz on this page: with rare exceptions, good jazz is basically acoustic music. So if you enjoyed the tropical midnight act and the interminable Moroccan fusion interlude yesterday afternoon, glad you had a good time.

It would have been fun to catch sitarist Abhik Mukherjee‘s set to begin the second half of the marathon. Who knew that a trip for coffee a little earlier in the morning would also have turned into a marathon, a much less enjoyable one.

Back at Pioneer Works, bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi took an absolutely harrowing detour, running variations on a haunting, wary chromatic theme with Ehren Hanson on tabla for what seemed the better part of an hour. Beyond Gandhi’s breathtakingly liquid, perfectly modulated sine-wave attack, the somber mood was impossible to turn away from. These are troubled times: nobody has channeled that with such subtle power in recent months as these two. Which made their clever and allusive permutations on a bouncy nursery-rhyme-like riff afterward such a stark contrast. And yet, the darkness lingered, if at a distance.

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, whose most recent specialty has become oceanic Middle Eastern big band jazz, followed with about an hour of brooding electroacoustic sounds. Starting off on a labyrinthine rack of analog synthesizers, he rose from enveloping ambience to an achingly gorgeous, regal solo trumpet fanfare in a moody Iraqi maqam. Next, he looped an austere, baroquely churchy organ processional, then employed it as a backdrop for a constellation of santoor riffs which echoed Gandhi’s pervasive angst. He wound up the set on vocals with a similarly cautionary clarion call, more or less.

Another santoorist, Vinay Desai kept the angst at redline with a saturnine tribute to the late, great Shivkumar Sharma, who left us this past spring. We don’t know for certain if the lethal Covid injection took him out. With Vivek Pandya on tabla, the two musicians developed an absolutely gorgeous, elegaic, allusively chromatic theme and variations. Remaining mostly in the midrange, Desai rose for the great beyond with a somber glimmer before bringing it down to a dirge and the tabla entered. As the hour went on, Desai’s ripples off the walls of the space echoed into a galactic drift. Eventually, the duo took the theme skipping into the stars, a sober but energetic farewell to a pioneer.

ElSaffar returned for a second turn on santoor, joining percussionist Zafer Tawil and violinist Sami Abu Shumays behind impassioned veteran Iraqi crooner Hamid Al Saadi. After the sober, stately initial march, the maqam singer would begin the rest of the set’s expansive numbers with darkly dynamic, rubato intros, one leading to a surprisingly subtle call-and-response with ElSaffar. A little later, the group made their way into a swaying, ebullient major-key tune with a starkly contrasting santoor-and- violin break. They closed with undulating, biting chromatic theme with even more lusciously intertwined santoor and violin and a machinegunning coda.

Violinist Arun Ramamurthy gets credit for the festival’s most pyrotechnic performance, a role he’s become accustomed to. This time out he had his Indian jazz trio with bassist Damon Banks and Sameer Gupta on drums. This was the symphonic Ramamurthy: in the boomy space, with the natural reverb bouncing off the walls, he was a violin army. Banks would typically shadow him, Gupta inventively doing a nimble churning groove with tabla voicings on his kit, as the bandleader made his way through a rising and falling epic in tribute to his ancestors, to moments of icy ambience as well as frequent excursions through the bluesy raga riffs that he likes to mine in this context. Nobody knows how to draw an audience in with foreshadowing and judiciously spectacular slides and stabs better than Ramamurthy.

After that it was dance time. All-female Moroccan trance-dance ensemble group Bnat el Houariyat, featuring New York’s Esraa Warda took over the stage and then stomped and twirled and spoke power to male hegemony.

In her New York debut, singer/dancer and mystic Parvathy Baul brought ancient archetypes to life in a fervent but utterly unselfconsciously spiritual set of Bengali ritual songs. Showing off a soulfully soaring, meticulously melismatic, carnatically-infused voice which took on a grittier edge as her set went on, she sang innumerable mythical metaphors and cheerily translated them for the English-only crowd. Moving from ecstasy to tenderness and then an acerbic insistence, she cut loose and reminded that crowd that the truth is like a lion. All you have to do is set it free. Or words to that effect. Let’s hope there’s a Ragas Live festival in 2023.

A Vivid, Richly Textured New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Todd Marcus

Along with Amir ElSaffar and Ibrahim Maalouf, Todd Marcus is one of this era’s great paradigm-shifters blending jazz with traditional Middle Eastern sounds. Like ElSaffar, Marcus came to his Middle Eastern roots from the jazz side; he’s also one of very few bass clarinetists to lead a large ensemble. He debuted his latest recorded suite, In the Valley, to a packed house at Smalls in late 2017 and recorded it on his latest album, The Hive, about a year and a half later. Like so many other great records originally slated for a 2020 release, it’s just out now but hasn’t hit the web yet. If luscious low-register textures and edgy chromatics are your thing, you can catch Marcus back at Smalls again, leading a quartet on August 11 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

In general, the album is a portrait of Cairo and its relentless energy. Pianist Xavier Davis provides an icy, spacious solo intro to the first number, Horus. On one hand, the interweave of the horns – Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Brent Birckhead on flute and alto sax – brings what could have been a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab arrangement for strings into the here and now. Bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Eric Kennedy slink and then kick up a storm behind the bandleader’s mentholated articulacy, then a punchy Norris solo. The band take it out with a series of allusively levantine conversations. This city is a pretty wild place.

Staggered but regal counterpoint, stately brass flourishes, and a restless, Mingus-esque urban bustle alternates with moments of calm throughout the album’s title track. Ferber chooses his spots as the rhythm section picks up more weight; Kirk negotiates the passing tones, matched masterfully by Tardy as he reaches for the sky.

Cairo Street Ride is a salute to city cab drivers’ agility behind the wheel, the brass drolly revving toward redline before giving way to precisely orchestrated exchanges, a portrait of controlled chaos. Reed racewalks precisely over an increasingly latin-tinged backdrop: control cedes to chaos and then back as the vehicle weaves from lane to lane.

Final Days descends in a flash from a bright intro to a somber, wintry reflection on farewells to people and places, anchored by Davis’ steely sway. A dirge punctuated by portentous, unresolved rises drops even further to a wistful, spare Marcus solo that becomes an angst-filled, restrained salute.

The final number is In the Valley, a Valley of Kings tableau with a Gil Evans sweep and majesty, from murky lows all the way up to the top of the pyramids, a majestic march loosening with a reflective swing. Tardy’s tantalizingly modal solo over increasing turbulence is one of the album’s high points. Davis glides with a quiet triumph to an expertly articulated, labyrinthine coda from the full ensemble. Marcus’ albums typically end up on this blog’s best-albums-of-the-year list and this one also earns that distinction.

A Rare, Auspicious New York Appearance by an Icon of Middle Eastern Jazz

One of the most potentially transcendent shows of 2022 happens tomorrow night, July 22 at half past eleven at Drom when pyrotechnic clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski’s slinky and reliably combustible NY Gypsy All-Stars team up with special guest trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf. The Lebanese-born Maalouf has been arguably the hottest commodity in French jazz (ok, for what that’s worth) for the last several years, and he deserves to be vastly better known outside of that world, or the Middle East, where he’s iconic. You can get in for thirty bucks in advance.

If you’re thinking of checking out the show, a good place to start is his double album 40 Melodies – streaming at youtube – yet another of those releases from the dead of 2020 which hasn’t received the coverage it deserves. It’s basically a greatest-hits collection of stripped-down jukebox jazz versions of the songs that made him famous. Most of these new arrangements are duos with guitarist Francois Delporte, who makes an sparring partner whether playing spare, spiky rock rhythm, mimicking the voicings of an oud, or cutting loose with the occasional ferocious roar.

The result is more Middle Eastern music played on western instruments than it is jazz. The opening number, All Around the Wall has a neatly stylized yakuza-film video to match as Maalouf shifts from shadowy Middle Eastern chromatics to a catchy, circling western riff while the guitar rises in the mix. Several of the tunes that follow – a Lebanese sonata of sorts – remind very much of another brilliant trumpeter, Ben Holmes, whose fondness for edgy chromatics and use of space reflects a somewhat different adjacency, klezmer music.

This is a long album, 43 tracks that expand from stately, often somber levantine melodies, through classical High Romanticism, a couple of dips into reggae, dabke and occasional latin or flamenco flavors. Maalouf is at the top of his meticulous game with his quicksilver melismas and maqam microtones all the way through Beirut, a gorgeously vamping chromatic melody spiced with delicious microtonalities over a resonant, jangly guitar backdrop. Eventually Maalouf puts in his mute and then Delporte hits his distortion pedal, and the song explodes.

Some of the many other highlights include a gorgeous, syncopated ballad version of S3NS and Les Quais, with guests the Kronos Quartet drifting methodically along with the guitar and Maalouf’s uneasy bounces overhead. There’s also Radio Magellanes, which shifts from somber traditionalism to an airy lull and then a bittersweetly triumphant drive out; and remakes of a couple of absolutely gorgeous early tunes. In Improbable, Maalouf and Delporte revisit but also revise the original’s pervasive gloom, later making mellow Hendrix out of the otherwise uneasily shifting Shadows. The sense that this is a theme and variations, even more brooding than the earlier part of the album, enhances the intensity as the record winds up.

The most potentially loaded title here is Election Night, which dates back to 2018, so there’s at least one ferociously contested moment it doesn’t reflect. Jury’s out about the earlier one. The song itself is a hoot, the most boisterous – and maybe sarcastic – number here.

Gordon Grdina’s Powerful, Haunting Nomad Trio Move Into the East Village Tonight

The best jazz show in New York tonight, June 27 is at Drom at 7:30 PM where guitarist Gordon Grdina plays with his brilliant Nomad Trio, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black. If you don’t already have your $15 advance ticket, it’ll cost you $20 at the door, and it’s worth it.

Over the last few years, Grdina has been on a creative tear rivalled by few artists in any style of music. This trio is one of his most rewarding projects: the conversational rapport and singleminded focus of Grdina and Mitchell is all the more striking considering how thorny and sometimes outright haunting Grdina’s sound world can be. Monk and Charlie Rouse had the same kind of rapport in a similar context.

Grdina’s latest Nomad Trio album, Boiling Point is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a jazz sonata, more or less, a theme and variations. Not all of this is relentless, but when it is, it’s riveting. They open with the title track. Grdina runs an allusively menacing, loopily syncopated riff, Mitchell working his way from eerie chromatics to match his bandmates in a brief, phantasmagorical march. Grdina builds squiggly, defiantly unresolved clusters as Mitchell expands into the shadow world and eventually the two meet at the top of this twisted double helix while Black keeps this mad procession on the rails. Oh yeah, there’s a false ending. Damn, this is good!

Track two is Parksville. Grdina scrambles solo, sans effects, to open it, then Mitchell’s close-harmonied pavane and Black’s loose-limbed swing enter the picture. Each unwinds his tether further from the circle – as is typical for Grdina, the choreography is very specific but draws on the strengths of the supporting cast to bring the picture into focus.

The first of the album’s two big epics – something these guys excel at – is Shibuya. Mournful tolling-bell atmosphere from Mitchell against Grdina’s hypnotic pedalpoint grows more insistent and brightens a little, The shift in the bassline from guitar to piano is a neat touch, as are Mitchell’s pointillistic accents. An icily starry calm descends, Mitchell a lone hurdy-gurdy man on a frozen lake. From there Grdina and Black reprise the album’s grimly marching trajectory.

Grdina switches to oud for the longest piece here, Cali-lacs, which takes shape as a mesmerizing, hazy mashup of mysterious, fluttery Arabic maqams and disquietingly glittery piano ripples. Halfway in. Black gingerly brings back the march, Mitchell bolstering the drive with stern lefthand.

The moment where Mitchell rises out of a red herring of a rather trad, solo Grdina guitar interlude to a fanged, Mompou-esque bell choir in Koen Dori is venomously priceless; Grdina turns up the distortion and brings back the album’s most lushly memorable thematic variation.

The trio close with All Caps, bringing this Mission Impossible full circle. One of the best jazz albums of 2022, by a guy who may have more than one of them in him this year. Stay tuned.

An Individualistic, Intriguing New Album and an Outdoor Afterwork Show From Singer Miriam Elhajli

Songwriter Miriam Elhajli has carved out a distinctive sound that draws equally on jazz, 70s South American nuevo cancion and levantine sounds, reflecting her Venezuelan-Moroccan heritage. She cuts loose with an expressive, constantly mutable voice, likes fingerpicking her acoustic guitar in odd tunings and writes intriguing, thoughtfully imagistic lyrics. Her latest album The Uncertainty of Signs is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing an outdoor show on May 19 at 6 PM at the secluded terrace at Pier 3, toward the southern tip of Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s a good setting for her verdant, rustic yet original songs. When the park was first landscaped, there was a joke going around that it had been designed as a staging area for an invading guerilla army to hide in the shrubbery. Those in search of more peaceful pursuits here can take the A or C to High St., go down to the Fulton Landing and hang a left.

Interestingly, the first three songs on the record are in 6/8 time, more or less. When the Whirlwind Fades Out fades in with a whir from Cedric Easton’s drums, a growling drone from Ike Sturm’s bass and a brightly gorgeous, pointillistic solo from Firas Zreik’s kanun. Elhajli pulls the band into an elegant, anthemic sway with her steady fingerpicking and jazz-tinged vocals. “You should know better than to run toward that which falls,” she cautions.

There’s a subtle, conspiratorial mystery juxtaposed with a soaring angst in the second track, Tres Bocio, Elhajli’s voice rising from hints of the Middle East to a rousing, wordless crescendo, vibraphonist Chris Dingman adding lingering textures.

“I know the kingpin is an illusion, and I know we must not forget to sing in unison,” she asserts in Grayscale, which begins as a stark, Appalachian-tinged ballad and drifts further into an enigmatic contrast between dramatic vocals and a hazy backdrop. She revisits that same dichotomy a little later in Marble Staircase, Zreik’s rippling kanun setting up an otherworldly, tremoloing hulusi flute solo from Jake Rudin

Locusts Circumference is closer to Joanna Newsom-style freak-folk: it’s not clear what “quiet implosion” Elhajli is referring to. The strings of the Kasa Quartet waft and sail over Elhajli’s lattice of acoustic guitar and her full-throated, crescendoing vocals in Gold & God, an allusively jubilant salute to genuine human kindness.

The flute returns and flutters in Spiral Solutions, a brief, energetically circling number where Elhajli seeks to “recognize the unrecognizable.” Bracing, swooping strings permeate Bulk Flow: “Got two scissors and a match…I lost my spirit so I split to another land,” Elhajli relates over a lushly rustic, open-tuned, antique Britfolk-style melody.

She picks out a ringing web on electric guitar in Another Butterfly Ordeal. The next-to-last track, Cosmos is more of a jazz tone poem: “The unseen stays unseen,” Elhajli sings, “Pay attention, the cops encircle us, they don’t know what we’re up to.”

She winds up the record with In Your Arms, Familiar, a mutedly unsettled tableau reflecting a “state of utter hypnosis” where “everything is crushable” – sounds a lot like 2022, doesn’t it?

Edgy Chromatics and Slinky, Otherworldly Sounds at This Year’s Greek Jewish Festival

The most esoterically enticing concert of the year so far is tomorrow afternoon, May 15 outside a Chinatown synagogue. Not all the music at this year’s annual Greek Jewish Festival is either Greek or Jewish, but it sure is good. It’s a lineup worthy of Golden Fest, the festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent sounds which for the better part of forty years has been one of this city’s most deliriously entertaining annual events.

This somewhat smaller but auspicious lineup begins at noon with the bouncy Elias Ladino Ensemble, followed by the Greek American Folklore Society band, the Noga Group featuring oud sorcerer Avram Pengas, bellydancer Layla Isis, psychedelic oud-rocker Scott Wilson & Efendi and the stark, haunting Pontic Firebird (best bandname ever, right?) headlining at 5. The Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum, where all this takes place, is at 280 Broome St. between Allen and Eldridge; the closest train is the B/D to Grand St.

The last time this blog was in the house for one of Wilson’s shows, he was playing with an excellent Middle Eastern pickup band on the back of a flatbed trailer at the 2018 Atlantic Antic street fair. Before that, it was a lot of fun to catch his set with his somewhat harder-rocking, electric group Efendi the previous January in one of the side rooms at Golden Fest.

There’s a little bit of that show up at the recently resuscitated Free Music Archive available as a free download, along with a full set from four years earlier. That one is a tight mix of mostly well-known habibi dance standards from the 1950s and earlier. It’s not clear who’s in the band, but there’s a kanun rippling away, an electric guitar, percussion and what could be Wilson’s custom-made triple-necked axe which is part oud, part baglama and part saz. The recording quality is excellent, without much audience noise. Wilson hits the stage (or the sidewalk) tomorrow afternoon at four.

A Poignant, Rapturous, Gorgeous Armenian Classical Album by the Aznavoorian Duo

The most rapturously poignant album of the year so far is Gems From Armenia, by the Aznavoorian Duo, streaming at Spotify. Sisters Ani and Marta Aznavoorian – cello and piano, respectively – draw on their heritage for a lyrical playlist of material that spans from the 19th century to the present. It underscores the disproportionately rich influence this tiny nation’s music continues to make around the globe.

They open with a steady, spare, pensive theme, Chinar Es by foundational Romantic-era composer and musicologist Komitas. As she often does throughout the album, Ani plays in the high midrange, with a stark vibrato that sometimes evokes a kamancheh spike fiddle. A second Komitas tune, Tsirani Tsar comes across as a more nocturnal variation, lowlit by Marta’s distantly starry piano. The third, Garoun A, is a gorgeous solo piano work, more mysteriously modern and practically furtive in places. The duo continue with a balletesque grace in the fourth, Al Ailux, both hypnotic and pulsingly rhythmic.

The fifth, Krunk is not a drinking song but an achingly beautiful love ballad and a launching pad for some of Ani’s most incisive, soaringly lyrical work here. The best-known in a long line of great Armenian composers, Aram Khachaturian is represented first by the emotive miniature Ivan Sings and then his lively, pointillistic tribute to his hometown of Yerevan.

Marta plays Arno Babajanian’s Elegy with restraint but also close attention to ornamentation that mimics the microtones of Armenian folk music. Ani returns for his Aria and Dance, a fondly reflective ballad and variations.

The duo make their way methodically from a stern, tightly clustering intensity through more sparsely lyrical passages in the first movement of Avet Terterian’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. They let the allusive chromatics and poignancy speak for itself, understatedly, in the second movement and romp with a triumphant, acerbic glitter through the conclusion.

The two bring out High Romantic passion in Serouj Kradjian‘s arrangement of the traditional ballad Sari Siroun Yar and follow with Alexander Arutiunian’s Impromptu, a dynamic mashup of a levantine dance and Rachmaninovian lustre.

Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance, an elegy for Armenian soldiers, is the most subdued and vividly sepulchral work on the program. The sisters conclude with the world-premiere of Peter Boyer’s Mount Ararat, climbing from a portentous cello melody to a syncopated gallop up the slope, with stunning, chromatically bristling breaks to view the scenery. This unselfconsciously beautiful collection deserves a second volume. For that matter, the Aznavoorians could have a franchise here if they felt like it.

Mamak Khadem’s Rapturous New Album Transcends Tragedy and Loss

One of the most capriciously cruel effects of the post-2020 lockdowns was the separation of families from ailing, elderly parents. Because of totalitarian travel restrictions, singer Mamak Khadem was unable to return home to her native Iran to see her father before he died: divide-and-conquer taken to a particularly sadistic extreme. Khadem channeled her grief into an often wrenchingly beautiful, immersive tribute, Remembrance, streaming at youtube.

Although the album is characteristically eclectic and spans many genres, it’s 180 degrees from the exuberance and exhilaration of her previous release The Road, a 2016 brass-and-string fueled mashup of Balkan dances and classical Persian poetry. For whatever reason, this is more of an art-rock record.

The sound is more desolate and enveloping, sculpted largely by multi-instrumentalist Jamshied Sharifi, guitarist Marc Copely and cellist Chris Votek, with many other musicians contributing. Khadem sings in Farsi, opening with the title track. Mickey Raphael’s forlorn, bluesy minor-key harmonica is an unexpected touch in this slowly swaying setting of the Saadi Shirazi poem, Copely’s multitracks and Khadem’s imploring, melismatic vocals flickering over Sharifi’s atmospheric backdrop. It brings to mind peak-era, mid-zeros Botanica.

Khadem rises from a wary tenderness to fullscale angst in Mina, a brooding, drifting setting of a Saied Soltanpour text lowlit by Sharifi’s piano and Benjamin Wittman’s clip-clop percussion. Khadem goes to the Rumi repertoire for the lyrics to Entangled over dissociative, rhythmic layers of vocals, cello and wafting synthesized orchestration.

Khadem takes a backseat, contributing vocalese to Across the Oceans, Coleman Barks narrating the Rumi poem over a loopy, simple backdrop with spare contributions from Roubik Haroutunian on duduk and Ivan Chardakov on gaida bagpipes. Dead and Alive begins more calmly, in a pastoral Pink Floyd vein, then Copely pulls the energy skyward. It’s an apt poem for this point in history: one of its central themes is to be open to serendipity.

Khadem sets an emotive Fatemeh Baraghani poem to a starkly gorgeous traditional Armenian theme in Face to Face, Mehdi Bagheri adding ravishing, spiraling kamancheh fiddle. Copely plays spare resonator guitar behind Khadem’s warm, hopeful delivery in Messenger, Sharifi turning up the enveloping keyboard ambience. The final cut is Don’t Go Without Me: Barks’ English narration is especially poignant considering the circumstances, as is Khadem’s gentle, wounded interpretation of the original. As her harmonies rise in the distance, the effect is viscerally heartbreaking.

Anouar Kaddour Cherif Releases an Inimitably Gorgeous North African Album

Anouar Kaddour Cherif’s axe is the mandola, the gorgeous, woody-toned North African lute, akin to an oud with a larger body and expanded upper register. The Algerian expat’s latest album Djawla – streaming at Bandcamp – is a deliciously edgy mashup of North African Arabic music and Balkan jazz. Cherif’s songs are unpredictable: dirges burst out into scampering, deftly syncopated dances and vice versa when least expected. It’s closer to chaabi or Turkish diasporic styles than it is jazz, and his quartet play briskly but with a striking economy of notes: noodling not allowed here. There’s really nothing quite like this out there.

In the opening track, Sans Pap the group take a slinky chromatic riff, go scampering, then slow it down, the mandola and Clément Meunier’s tersely looming bass clarinet over the lithe, understated pulse of Antoine Brochot’s bass and Hannes Junker’s drums.

Meunier’s aching, desolate, duduk-like upper register flutters over Cherif’s spare riffage as the group slowly make their way into Albatross over an ominous bass drone. Eventually they pick it up – and suddenly the bird breaks free of its shackles! Was this inspired by the Baudelaire poem maybe?

Likewise, Cherif backs away from his scrambling opening taqsim for more plaintive bass clarinet to introduce Savage Butterfly, then the band scramble and team up for bristling chromatic harmonies over a tricky dance beat. Brochot opens Call of the Night with a mysterious, skeletal solo before Cherif’s Lynchian chords enter from the shadows, only to back away, leaving just the rhythm section and low-key vocals.

Neatly orchestrated echo effects shift between instruments in Sirocco, a return to tight, rapidfire syncopation, with a break for spare, misterioso solo mandola. The band hint at the Pink Panther theme, slowly building Automne Occidental into a slow North African noir blues and then a briskly circling, vampy theme.

A True Lie is an ingenious, seemingly halfspeed take on what would otherwise be a lickety-split dance tune that would be just as much at home in Macedonia or Turkey as Algeria. Virgule – French for “comma” or “decimal point,” depending on context – is the loopiest and most rhythmically straightforward track here, with playful exchanges between the instruments. The group wind up the record with Amiret Erriyam, a loping, stately anthem in the biting Arabic hijaz mode with a tasty microtonal bass solo at the center.