New York Music Daily

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Category: middle eastern music

Innov Gnawa and Amadou & Mariam at the Peak of Their Psychedelic Powers at Prospect Park

“It’s hot all over,” guitarist/singer Amadou Bagayoko remarked to the Prospect Park Bandshell crowd last night in his heavy-lidded, Malian French drawl. On the hottest night of the year so far, one of the other things he noticed that was all over the place was weed. See, Amadou is blind. His other senses are working overtime.

But it hardly took a sensitive nose to pick up on what was wafting from the slope out back: this was a show for the smokers. And the place was packed: from personal experience and a survey of random concertgoers who’ve seen multiple show here recemtly, the only act who’s drawn as much of a crowd as Amadou & Mariam was Jamaican dancehall star Chronixx. Psychedelic music has never been so popular as it is in 2017.

Which is no surprise. Amadou & Mariam are arguably the world’s most individualistic psychedelic rock band. Over the years, they’ve inched further and further from their original mashup of sprawling two-chord Malian desert rock jams and bouncy central African pop, to a much more western sound rooted in the 1960s. And they’ve never sounded so interesting, or eclectic as they are now.

Mariam Doumbia – Amadou’s wife and childhood sweetheart – sang in her enigmatic, uneasily bronzed, sometimes gritty delivery in both French and Bambara, often harmonizing with Amadou’s balmy croon, going through a couple of costume changes in the process. Behind them, their drummer alternated between stomp, slink and funk while their bassist played tasteful, serpentine riffs and countermelodies, their keyboardist adding lushness and lustre on organ and several synth patches.

They opened with Bofou Safou, their driving, biting new single, sending a message that this show was going to rock pretty hard. From there they made their way methodically through a couple of leaping dance-funk numbers that brought to mind mid-80s Talking Heads, a starry nightscape with majestic Pink Floyd echoes, several similarly mighty blues-based anthems and a deliciously creepy detour into late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia.

It was on that allusively menacing number that Amadou took his longest, wildest, solo of the night. While his playing sometimes brings to mind the feral icepicking of Albert Collins, the twangy sparkle of Mark Knopfler and the machinegunning hammer-ons of Vieux Farka Toure, he doesn’t seem to be influenced by any of them, and with the exception of his countryman and younger colleague Toure, may not have even heard those guys. Winding up and down and around, he brought his long trails of sixteenth notes home to a final comet tail and wild applause. The band have a new album due out next month: if this concert is any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Brooklyn’s own Innov Gnawa, whose career has taken a meteoric rise recently, opened and got a full hour onstage, a rarity at this venue. The sea of fans they’d brought to the show might explain why. Fresh off a Coachella appearance and a marathon series of New York club gigs, it’s hard to imagine a hotter band in town right now.

The only gnawa band in the world west of Morocco, they play the original drum-and-bass music. With roots in sub-Saharan, pre-Muslim central Africa, transplanted to the north, many of their hypnotic, pulsing, crackling themes date from over a thousand years ago. It’s party music, for sure, but it has even more cultural resonance for healing and spiritual purposes. With limited time (for them – this band can jam for hours) and a big stage to work with, they clanked and boomed and snapped their way through a dynamic mix of straight-ahead dance jams and trickier, turn-on-a-dime rhythms, winding up with frontman/sintir lute player Hassan Ben Jaafer running his basslines faster and faster as his chanting choir of bandmates whirled their cast-iron castnets, encircling him and bringing the show to a peak that would have been daunting to most headliners other than Amadou & Mariam.

Amadou & Mariam continue on US tour; their next show is on July 24 at 6:30 PM at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago; admission is free. Innov Gnawa are uptown at Ginny’s Supper Club on July 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30  PM; your best deal is standing room at the bar for $15.

The next show at Prospect Park Bandshell is tomorrow night, July 22 at 7:30 PM and opens auspiciously with Innov Gnawa percussionist Amino Belyamani’s similarly innovative, mesmerizingly rhythmic dancefloor minimalist trio, Dawn of Midi. Jury’s out on the headliner: are Mashrou ‘Leila the Lebanese Cure, or just another lame corporate dance-rock act?

High-Voltage African and American Sounds From Central Park to the River

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.’s first song this past evening at Central Park Summerstage was Expensive Shit. As a literal, graphic condemnation of wretched capitalist excess and status-grubbing, it has few equals. Fela Kuti’s son and principal heir to the family Afrobeat legacy probably spat the word “shit” more times during the roughly ten minutes it took for the band to bubble and rise and finally bring the relentless underlying vamp to a close, than any other act has done at this venue in many years.

Kuti has been fortunate to sidestep the kind of brutal repression his father faced, but he’s no less fearlessly political. His second song, a defiantly triumphant pro-ganja anthem with a fervent refrain of “Lemme see your lighters,” was a red herring. The younger Kuti shares his dad’s withering sarcasm. He welcomed the audience into the era of fake news – “News that’s for profit,” he explained – by reminding that Nigerians knew all about it before it became part and parcel of White House correspondence. A little later on, introducing African Dreams – a broadside against western cultural imperialism – he snidely commented that “Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist.”

Leading an endlessly undulating fourteen-piece band, he took a quick turn on piano and then showed off a bracing, bitingly metallic tone and a no-nonsense, modally tinged sensibility on alto sax. The percussion section emerged stealthily from a quiet thicket and grew toward a stampede as the brass blazed, the electric piano rippled and the two guitars – one a tenor model for extra upper-register tingle – ran jaggedly circling melodies along with a similarly purposeful bass player, throughout what would become an unexpectedly abbreviated set.

Many people in the crowd – especially those who showed up to see the advertised headliner and consequently missed the guy they came for – were surprised not to see Roy Ayers headlining. He’s certainly earned that respect. He also didn’t get much more than three quarters of an hour onstage, leading his four-piece band through expansive takes of Red, Gold and Green, Everybody Loves the Sunshine and finally, Searchin’.

While he saved his most high-voltage playing for a long solo with Kuti’s band, the iconic vibraphonist who more or less invented noir psychedelic soul put on a clinic in purist, seat-of-the-pants tunesmithing, whether with endless volleys of bluesy triplets, rapidfire chromatics or playing against the beat. His band stayed pretty much on low-key, glimmering point, although they lost the crowd when they went off into warpy keytar spacerock and a snapping, popping, faux Bootsy bass solo. They won them back again with a tight drum solo where the guy behind the kit played the whole thing one-handed, then with both sticks behind his back, finally flipping them forward over his shoulders, and kept going without missing a beat.

Hometown opening act Underground System justified the ambition of sharing a bill with two more-or-less iconic acts through the afternoon’s longest set, a mix of original Afrobeat with a more straight-up funk tune or two and also a whirling Italian womens’ rights anthem. Frontwoman/flutist Domenica Fossati really worked up a sweat with her dance moves; if she was a sheik, her last name would be Yerbouti. Guitarist Peter Matson and keyboardist Colin Brown pinged and rippled and threw off a few clouds of toxic noise, drummer Yahoteh Kokayi and percussionist Lollise Mbi held the beast to the rails while the horn section – including baritone saxophonist Maria Christina Eisen and trumpeter Jackie Coleman – smoldered and sputtered and bassist David Cutler ran simple, emphatically circling riffs that would have made Fela proud. Their high point was the brassy Rent Party, something Fossati said the band knew a little something about. From there they segued into their most ominous, dynamically shadowy number of the afternoon.

Afterward, many faces n the crowd went west to the Hudson, where Innov Gnawa – the only Moroccan drum-and-bass trance band in this hemisphere – played what amounted to the afterparty. In more than ten years of concerts at Pier One at 70th Street and the river, it’s impossible to think of another show that had so many people dancing, from toddlers to oldtimers.

And they did that to ancient animist and Muslim themes originally dating from thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, sung in Arabic to the hypnotic pulse of sintir bass lute and cast-iron qraqab castanets. This was a slightly smaller subgroup of the band, Moroccan master Hassan Ben Jaafer taking turns with his similarly agile protege Samir LanGus riffing on the low strings. Some of the songs worked a tension between octave notes, others bounced and swayed along with crescendoing call-and-response choruses. As the night went on, Ben Jaafer subtly introduced all sorts of tricky polyrhythms and suspensefully allusive chromatics hinting but never quite crossing into Egypt.

Qraqab player Amino Belyamani sauntered into the dancing melee midway through the show and taught everybody some snazzy moves, complete with a split-second squat in the middle – and by the end of the show, a lot of people had all that pretty cold. Innov Gnawa’s next gig is at Prospect Park Bandshell this Friday night, July 21 at 7:30 PM where they’re opening for wildly popular, microtonal psychedelic Malian band Amadou & Mariam. The next show at Summerstage is tomorrow night, July 17 where 90s noiserock icons and occasional cinematic soundscapers Yo La Tengo hit at around 8. Be aware that there’s an opening act; doors at 6 for those not willing to take chances.

An Intense, Mesmerizing New Album From the Mehmet Polat Trio

The Mehmet Polat Trio are one of the world’s most distinctive and cutting-edge groups in Middle Eastern and Turkish music. Their songs are epic and picturesque, incorporating elements of West African, Andalucian, Romany and Balkan sounds as well. Bandleader and oud virtuoso Polat can play with blazing speed if he wants, but he typically prefers a dynamically charged approach. His compositions have a cinematic sensibility that gets very dark on occasion. In this group he’s joined by kora player Dymphi Peeters and ney flutist Sinan Arat. Their show last summer at Lincoln Center was one of the most compelling concerts of the year; their latest album Ask Your Heart is streaming at Spotify.

This is deep, rich, impeccably crafted music that demands repeated listening. The opening epic, Untouched Stories, builds out of an enigmatic intro with echoes of Indian baul minstrelsy to a catchy, verdantly anthemic sway, It wouldn’t be out of place on an early 80s Pat Metheny album, but with organic production values. Arat’s balmy flute solo eventually gives way to Polat’s low, suspenseful oud solo over a syncopated strum, a high-spirited highway theme of sorts that calms as the rhythm drops out and segues into the second track, Dance It Out. Hazy ney over a hypnotically leaping, circular hook rises to a gently triumphant chorus, then a waterfalling kora solo and an unexpectedly insistent, enigmatic coda that Polat steers back toward the Levant. All this brings to mind the most energetic original work of fellow Turkish composer/oudist Omar Faruk Tekbilek.

The trio open Sandcastles as a pouncing, bristling, modal suspense theme with flamenco and Romany echoes, then the bandleader takes it into more pensive terrain with an insistent, minimalist solo, rising and falling. Neset quickly becomes even more insistent and imbued with longing, the kora at times supplying ripples akin to a kanun or santoor in Egyptian or Iraqi music while Polat essentially plays a bassline, ney wafting mournfully overhead.

Likewise, a muted, wounded sensibility pervades the beginning and end of Whispering to Waves, a brooding interweave of oud and kora falling away for a shimmering. crescemdoing kora solo and then desolate solo ney.

With its implied melody and pensively dancing syncopation, the album’s title track lives up to its name. Polat plays melismatic, sitar-like low-register lines, then guardedly picks up steam. Arat’s gentle rhythmic puffs add a hypnotic element.

Evening Prayer, with allusively heartbroken lyrics by Leyla Hamin and melody by Turkish oudist Kazanci Bedih, is more gently sprightly than you might expect. although the catchy tune grows more pensive as the band builds variations on it. A brooding solo by Arat bridges into the more anthemic and also much darker Everything iIs n You as it rises from the lows (Polat plays a custom-built oud with extra low register). His aching, angst-ridden solo midway through could be the high point of the album.

Serenity opens with stately, starry kora, but the band picks up the pace, taking it down into murkier depths via a syncopated take on a familiar Middle Eastern progression. The band double their dancing lines and then dig in hard in Simorgh, an altered waltz, hypnotic kora anchoring Polat’s pulsing solo. The album ends with Mardin, a lilting flute tune by Turkish oudist Ahmet Uzungol. Meticulous interplay, striking tunes and a fascinatingly unorthodox lineup of instruments make this one of the best albums of the year.

Timeless Middle Eastern Jazz Icon Souren Baronian at the Top of His Game in Montreal

One of the most rapturously gorgeous, unselfconsciously soulful albums released over the past year is Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, by ageless multi-reed sage Souren Baronian’s Taksim. It’s a high-quality archival release that goes back a few years. Now in his eighties but absolutely undiminished  – his performance at Golden Fest this past winter was mind-blowing – he’s the reigning patriarch of Middle Eastern jazz. Here he plays soprano sax, clarinet, kaval flute and also percussion.

Baronian opens the set with a brooding but kinetic soprano sax melody, adds a few swirls as his son Lee Baronian’s dumbek flickers, then the late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud goes sprinting over Paul Brown’s terse bass and Mal Stein’s similarly emphatic drums. The song is Gooney Bird – Baronian’s titles tend to be on the colorful side.

The bandleader’s rapidfire chromatic runs alternate with incisive blues riffage and flashes of bop as Magnoukian digs in with a bassline of his own; then the senior Baronian goes in a jauntier direction echoed by the band as the oud drives them to a lickety-split crescendo out.

These songs are long; there’s a lot going on here. The second track is Ocean Algae – look out, this stuff is ALIIIIVE, and possibly psychotropic! Strolling, then marching, then scampering, the sax’s airy precision sometimes brings to mind an Armenian Paul Desmond until Baronian brings his achingly intense microtones into the picture as Magnoukian and the rhythm section scramble for shore.

Magnoukian opens the next number, Floating Goat, with a solo taksim, switching out the fast and furious tremolo-picking for an expansive, spacious but no less edgy attack. Then the band launches into a phantasmagorical, Monkish strut until Baronian’s sax pulls them into slightly sunnier, more straightforward territtory over a pouncing 7/8 groove. Magnoukian’s spiky, pointillistic waves fuel an upward drive until the drums and percussion provide a hilariously rude interruption.

Baronian’s pensive clarinet gives a moody, subtle latin tinge to the slinky, midtempo Rayhana, a feast of low-midrange melismatics. His poignant, windswept solo is arguably the album’s high point, echoed with similar expansiveness and gravitas by Magnoukian.

Switching from clarinet to kaval, Baronian and Magnoukian take 8th Sky further south toward Egyptian snakecharming terrain as the rhythm section percolates, peaking out with a fervent Rahsaan Roland Kirk-ish solo. The album winds up with the bustlingly chromatic Time and Time Again, Magnoukian’s bristling solo handing off to Baronian’s sax, which dips and dances to a joyous conclusion. Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, we should start a petition – while the NEA still exists.

If you’re looking for the album online, good luck – however, it is available at s shows, and when he’s not on the road, Baronian typically makes Barbes his home base. And there’s a more recent, similarly magical Manhattan show from last year up at youtube as well.

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival – Pure Sonic Bliss

Wednesday night, the four corners of Bryant Park were awash in the blissful, plaintive, bittersweet and sometimes boisterously pulsing tones of many of New York’s most captivating accordionists. Booked by Ariana Hellerman, publisher of the irreplaceable free events and concert guide Ariana’s List – a primary source for a lot of what you find on the monthly NYC concert calendar here – opening night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival featured music from France, Russia, Colombia, Ireland, Brazil, many other countries and all over the US as well. Hellerman’s setup – a single accordionist or small group situated in every corner of the park, as well as over by the fountain on the west side, works out perfectly since each act is far enough away from the others to ensure that there’s no sonic competition.

Performances are staggered, Golden Fest style, with brief fifteen minute sets and virtually no time lost between acts. Some of the accordionists rotate, so that you can catch more of them if fifteen minutes isn’t enough for you  – seriously, is fifteen minutes of accordion music ever enough?

A tour of the festival’s first hour was as rapturously good as expected. It was tempting to pull up a seat in the shade to be serenaded by the Wisterians’ poignant French musettes, or the great Ismail Butera’s edgy, supersonic take on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sounds, or Phil Passantino‘s wildly spiraling Cajun songs. But just like Golden Fest, it’s like being a kid in a candy store here, a great way to discover dozens of new artists. For starters, Mindra Sahadeo played calmly lustrousIndian carnatic music, singing in a sonorous baritone and accompanied by his mom on mridangam, another woman to his right adding vocals. He was a ringer, considering that he was playing harmonium (there were also a couple of others on the bill playing the concertina).

Next, in the northeast corner, the charismatic Alan Morrow entertained the crowd. Is there anything this guy can’t play? Segueing breathlessly between styles, he fired off bits and pieces of songs across pretty much every conceivable genre. About a minute after Dave Brubeck, we got James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m a New Yorker and I’m proud,” Morrow grinned, and the audience agreed. By then he’d already made his way through classical, ragtime, jazz, hints of klezmer and finally the longest number of his set, the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, which turned out perfect for the accordion – and for a second seemed that he was going to do the whole album version, complete with hazy string-and-poetry interlude.

The highlight of the hour – at least from this perspective – turned out to be Guillermo Vaisman, who played a tantalizingly brief set of chamame tunes. It’s a popular folk style that’s common on the Uruguay-Brazil border, like tango but less classically-tinged, or a more lively counterpart to candombe. And it’s hard to find in New York. Vaisman’s elegance and dynamics throughout a mix of waltzes and more upbeat material put him on the map as someone who would be even more enjoyable to see stretching out with a longer set.

The festival continues for the next two Wednesdays, starting at 6 PM. The July 5 show features, among others, the haunting and amazingly eclectic Melissa Elledge, playful avant garde jazz and Romany accordionist Shoko Nagai, and Jordan Shapiro, better known as the organist in Choban Elektrik, the Balkan Doors. Closing night is Friday, July 21 at 8, hosted by the mesmerizing Rachelle Garniez, featuring Middle Eastern, Brazilian and Colombian music, to name just three styles. And it’s free.      

Palestinian Oud Virtuosos Le Trio Joubran Play a Historic Lincoln Center Concert This July

One of the most important and potentially transcendent concerts of the year is scheduled for this July 29 at 8 PM, where harrowing Middle Eastern oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran play the US premiere of their elegaic suite of settings of poems by their late collaborator Mahmoud Darwish at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College,524 W 59th St. The concert is part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 seats are still available as of today.

 For the last several years of the great Palestinian poet’s life, the three brothers accompanied him onstage while he read his incendiary, poignant explorations of exile and resistance. To get an idea of what the concert could be like, here’s a look at their 2010 live DVD In the Shadow of Words, adapted from the original review at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. [To be consistent with the DVD  booklet, the French spelling,“Darwich,” is used throughout the review rather than the English transliteration, “Darwish.” This blog takes responsibility for any errors in translation].

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” whose audio is streaming at Bandcamp) was filmed at that concert.

It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice for his people. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level: through that, his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them.

Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity; iot ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert begins with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance, a characteristically understated requiem. A stately, portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signal the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses sardonically. “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside.

It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra.

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

Oud Virtuoso Rahim AlHaj Plays the Year’s Single Best Concert at Lincoln Center

From the moment he took the Lincoln Center stage this past evening, playing material off his new album Letters from Iraq, oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj – one of the world’s most eclectic and riveting musicians – made no secret of the fact that he’d really been looking forward to this gig. He has a wit to match the magic, and gravitas, and vast, global sweep and majesty of his compositions. “Here, I can talk about Trump and not worry that they’re going to take me away,” he joked. More seriously, took care to mention that he was genuinely concerned about his trio getting broken up at the airport by Homeland Security. AlHaj sarcastically calls the group the “Axis of Evil,” since santoor player Sourena Sefati is Iranian and percussionist Issa Malluf is Palestinian. While the trio promote global unity – which is the opposite of terrorism – the concern is that Trump and his minions don’t see it that way. “This administration wants to divide us,” AlHaj warned, but added defiantly that if we all pull together, that will never amount to more than a pipe dream for the extreme right.

The trio followed with a performance that ran the gamut of human emotions: sometimes harrowing, often haunting, but also kinetic and dancing, with a delirious, exhilarating stampede out at the end. They opened on a distantly somber note with an adaptation of a string quartet AlHaj had written for a friend at the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. Soberingly, AlHaj reminded that sanctions against the nation have taken their toll in child mortality, illustrated by the fact that his violinist pal no longer plays: he had to burn his violin one night to provide heat for his critically ill infant. A big, insistent cadenza punctuated the song’s serpentine interweave of notes, Sefati taking a judiciously incisive solo midway through.

By contrast, AlHaj explained that the wryly bouncy Chant was inspired by how his mom would sing to keep the bratty kids around her from getting out of hand. The oudist infused this lilting, practically Celtic minor-key dance with frequent wry bent-note riffage. The trio followed the pensively swaying, chromatically edgy One Voice with a clapalong in 10/8 time, the crowd’s irrepressible energy matching the group onstage, throughout a toweringly moody theme sparkling with intricate harmonies from the santoor and oud.

Sefati opened what was arguably the  high point of the night with a suspenseful, Mediterranean-tinged solo taqsim; then the group took it in a far more uneasy, anthemic direction over Malluf’s briskly strolling beats, AlHaj anchoring Sefati’s icepick insistence.

The picturesque Fly Away soared with elegant harmonies from earth to sky from oud and santoor, respectively, a wickedly catchy, interlocking riff at the center. Again, Sefati took centerstage, choosing his spots as AlHaj and Malluf held the melody to the ground.  On the number after that, the santoorist had fun with the rapidfire trills that AlHaj had originally written for accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek.

AlHaj explained that he’d written the night’s lone vocal tune when he was 13. That he’d based it on an Iranian maqam as an Iraqi kid during the Iran/Iraq War speaks to his fearlessness. The three musicians closed with a race to the finish line, speeding up again and again over a catchy Kurdish dance vamp. Yet all the energy, and passion, and frequent humorous japes were matched by a somber undercurrent, party music for a city and a world increasingly under siege.

There is another oud performance coming up at Lincoln Center that all New York fans of Middle Eastern music should be aware of. On July 29 at 8 PM, Palestinian brother ensemble Trio Joubran play a tribute to their longtime mentor and collaborator, legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish at the theatre at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St; $30 seats are available and worth it.

Omar Souleyman’s Soulful Rasp and Dancefloor Thud Brings New York Together in the West Village

It was Arabic music that drew what might have been this year’s most diverse crowd at any New York concert. Maybe it’s a stretch to credit Syrian crooner Omar Souleyman for uniting these people, but he definitely brought them together at his sold-out show last night booked by the World Music Institute at the Poisson Rouge.

The wannabe Republican operative leaning against the back wall of the club was bitching to his fiancee about how Donald Trump’s latest misadventures in reality tv-style management might bolster Democratic hopes in the 2018 midterm elections. Neither his fiancee nor her petite friend had much to say in response. Soon after, a mustachioed dark-skinned man arrived and whisked the fiancee’s friend off to the dance floor.

A few feet away, a lesbian couple twirled and whispered sweet nothings to each other in Arabic. Around the corner by the bar, a couple of preciously scruffy Bushwick boys in matching belly shirts did much the same, next to a posse of German tourists chugging shots and beers. Appearances can be deceiving, but the Arabic-speaking contingent seemed to be outnumbered at least three to one.

Souleyman took the stage to thunderous applause, rocking his signature kaffiyeh and desert shades and proceeded to glide back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience in one clapalong after another, for at least half of his roughly fifty-minute set. By the midpoint, he’d loosened up some. His voice haggard from constant touring, he took frequent breathers and left it to his supersonically fast keyboardist – who was the star of this show – to fill in the gaps. Although the duo had help – a pretty much relentless EDM thump-thump along with lots of synthy atmospherics emanating from a vintage analog mixing desk – most of the music seemed live. Resolute and focused behind his Hasan microtonal keyboard, the guy played Flight of the Bumblebee, or its Arabic counterpart, in hijaz mode for pretty much the duration of the set. This feat was made doubly difficult because of the split-second precision required to stay in sync with the relentless click track. 

For all the good vibes and the endless sea of dancers clapping along and making videos, Souleyman’s music is very much attuned to the here and now. After a suspenseful snakecharmer of an introductory taqsim, he launched into Chobi (Longing for Home), a standout track from his forthcoming album To Syria With Love, his distantly imploring baritone rasp set to machinegunning volleys of synthesized violin and flute patches. Souleyman worked more suspense later in the show with a long jam on the cheating anthem Kayan, another track from the forthcoming album, with all sorts of call-and-response between vocals and keys. He didn’t talk to the audience much, although his shout-outs to his home turf in Al-Jazira, Syria – which he hasn’t visited in six years – drew ferociously assertive applause. Is it any wonder that the Trump Administration wants to keep this kind of inclusive musical cross-pollination out of the country?

By the end of the show, the Bushwick boys had disappeared into the crowd of dancers. A tall Asian man stumbled from the melee and clung to a nonplussed music writer to avoid collapsing on the floor. The tall dude’s companion, a pretty woman in her 20s, made it clear that she was sick of him overdoing it. The Republican operative was all by himself in the back of the club: the bath salts had kicked in by now, and he was still swaying, eyes rolled back in his head, even though the music had stopped.

On the way out, there was no Souleyman vinyl for sale, but there was a big crowd milling around the World Music Institute table, everybody signing up for their email list. The WMI’s next show is tonight at 7:30 at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway, with the great Indian sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary Vilayat Khan. Tix are as low as $15, a real bargain, and are still available as of this hour.

Legendary Syrian Crooner Omar Souleyman Plays a Rare West Village Show

It’s been six long years since Omar Souleyman, one of the world’s best-loved Arabic singers, last saw his native Syria. The high-voltage dabke dance numbers and sad ballads on his electrifying forthcoming album To Syria With Love are drenched in longing that transcends any linguistic limitations. Even if you don’t speak Arabic, you can relate to the pain and depth of feeling in his gritty baritone. He’s playing the Poisson Rouge on May 11 at 9ish, a World Music Institute show; advance tix are $30 and still available as of today.

On the new album, Hasan Alo provides a dynamic electroacoustic backdrop behind Souleyman’s vocals, with lyrics co-written with longtime collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad. Most of the songs clock in at a hefty six minutes or more. The opening track, Ya Boul Habari (rough translation: Girl with the Pretty Hijab) is a catchy dancefloor stomp awash in fiercely warping, darkly chromatic synth lines. On the surface it’s a love song; the subtext is a shout-out to Souleyman’s hometown of Al-Jazira. Ya Bnayya (Hey Girl) is an even more rapidfire pastiche of samples and tremoloing synth doing a snakecharmer ney flute impersonation. It’s a hypnotically pulsing love anthem to a girl who can make all of Istanbul sway when she swings her hips, as Souleyman’s sweaty vocals confirm.

Es Samra (Brown-Haired Girl) follows the same trajectory, further down the scale. If the previous track is a violin, this one’s a cello, and Souleyman’s rugged delivery matches that. Aenta Lhabbeytak (rough translation: My Only Love) is a slower, more backbeat-driven number, Alo throwing one creepily techy texture after another into the mix to match the brooding lyrics.

Khayen (Cheater) has rapidfire synth that sounds like shreddy metal guitar, an insistent back-and-forth between vocals and keys, synth, then some cynically funny faux-autotune from the keys. Mawal is the album’s most organic-sounding song, a hypnoticallly circling lament fueled by stark violin (or a good electronic approximation) and Souleyman’s aching vocals:

I walk and my heart
Feels dead among the dead
They told me patience is the remedy
They said you have to be patient
I said what’s the good of patience…
When the pain is so deep?

The final track, Chobi (Longing for Home) brings the dance beat back, but with a slinky, clip-clop groove and more warpy synth. Souleyman sings as a refugee:

We have too many wounds
All of them scream,
“I miss Al-Jazira!”

As poignant as it is energetic, this is an important album from an age of displacement and despair that only looks to get worse.

Word to the wise: dudes, get this album. If there’s a woman alive who can resist Souleyman’s rasp, this blog hasn’t discovered her.