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Category: middle eastern music

Fire Up the Menorah, It’s Party Time With Sarah Aroeste

When it comes to year-end holiday music, there are no Chosen People. Everybody suffers. A cynic could say that at this time of year, we’re all Jews.

There isn’t quite the glut of cheesy Hanukah music that there is for Christmas, but beyond the joke songs and the reggae records, it’s usually pretty awful. That’s why it’s cool that singer Sarah Aroeste, one of the world’s great advocates for Ladino music, has released what she calls the first-ever all-Ladino Hanukah record, streaming at Bandcamp.

This is refreshingly edgy music, with flamenco, and Andalucian, and Middle Eastern influences, as you would expect from the Sephardic tradition. Aroeste has really gone deep into the repertoire and unearthed a playlist of material from past decades as well as past centuries. Aroeste’s vocals are also remarkably easy to sing along to: if you know Spanish, Ladino is a lot less challenging than, say, Yiddish or Hebrew.

And the band are killer. Who would have expected a biting, brass-fueled shamstep Hanukah song? Or for a Hanukah album to open with a sizzling oud taqsim? That’s Yaniv Taichman spiraling around before Aroeste raises her voice in celebration, with a melody that seems to owe more to the Holy Land than to anywhere in Europe.

Israeli crooner Shuky Shveiky sings and plays fierce flamenco guitar on a Gipsy Kings-style take of Ocho Kandelikas, one of the best-known Ladino Hanukah songs. The first of two Aroeste originals is the acoustic guitar-driven minor-key singalong Fiesta de Hanuka. The second, Vayehi Mikets is a bouncy number based on an ancient parody: in this version, Joseph is contemplating pastries rather than the raw materials that Pharaoh put him in charge of.

Aroeste duets with songwriter Gloria Joyce Ascher on a sly reggae version of her joyous Ya Viene Hanuká! The family-friendly take of Flory Jagoda’s Hanuka, Hanuka is closer to dhaanto than reggae – but, hey, Ethiopia and Eritrea are the original Jewish stomping ground.

There’s also a cheery classical guitar-and-vocal tune by contemporary Israeli Ladino poet Medi Koen-Malki; a soaring Ladino version of Ma’oz Tzur set to a stately melody by eighteenth century Venetian composer Benedetto Giacomo Marcello; and a version of Dak il Tas with some spiky santoor from Eitan Refua. You get some history and culture with this album too.

Naima Shalhoub Launches a Fascinating Middle Eastern/Blues Collaboration

In mathematics, zero is undefined. We get the English word “cipher” from the Arabic “siphr,” meaning zero. On her debut studio album Siphr – streaming at Bandcamp – first-generation Lebanese-American songwriter Naima Shalhoub draws inspiration from that mystical concept, a number neither positive nor negative, conceivably both a beginning and an ending.

.It’s a stark collaboration between Shalhoub and Tarik Kazaleh a.k.a. Excentrik on electric guitar, embellishing his alternately stark and frenetic lines with all sorts of Middle Eastern ornamentation. He also plays oud on several tracks, often in the same song. The result is a strikingly original blend of the blues and the Middle East.

The opening number, One (Remembrance) is a minor-key one-chord jam with both bluesy guitar and spiky oud over a boomy, undulating dumbek groove. Two (Rivers in the Desert) is a spare, Malian-tinged duskcore tableau: in Arabic, Shalhoub sings of a metaphorical irrigation coming our way.

Excentrik’s elegant, spiky, 70s-style soul-jazz guitar sets the stage for Three (Loved), Shalhoub’s take on a Stylistics-style ballad: “From your tears, revolutions come.” The low-key Four (Roumieh Prison Blues) features Arabic lyrics written by prisoners at the infamous Lebanonese prison, where Shalhoub has performed.

With its message of empowerment, Five (The Calling) is a diptych: a simple but direct solo Shalhoub piano ballad that brings to mind Alice Lee, then a long, edgy, psychedelic outro with Marcus Shelby’s bowed bass up in the mix. There’s a similar hypnotic quality to Six (Distraction Suite), a triptych: first a cello-and-vocal jazz piece which brings to mind Jen Shyu‘s work with Mark Dresser, followed by a brooding, noirish blues interlude and a triumphant outro that’s a mashup of Afrobeat and a levantine dance.

The most unselfconsciously gorgeous number here is Seven (Lamma Badda Yantathamma), a bouncy oud-and-vocal tune with one of Shalhoub’s most expressive vocals.

Excentrik takes a turn on the mic in Eight (Arab-Amerikkki), a cynical anti-racist hip-hop broadside. The duo close with Nine (The Return), a psychedelic soul variation on the opening theme with some sizzling guitar and oud tremolo-picking. It’s rare to hear such dissimilar styles mashed up so originally, unexpectedly and seamlessly.

The A.G.A. Trio Play Acerbic, Gorgeous, Austere Music For Accordion and Reeds

The A.G.A Trio‘s album Meeting – streaming at youtube – is an otherworldly, often haunting mix of windswept Near Eastern tableaux and lively, acerbic traditional dances. The group are a summit meeting of some of the region’s most individualistic musicians. Flutist Deniz Kartal represents for Anatolia; accordionist Mikail Yakut hails from the republic of Georgia, and duduk virtuoso Arsen Petrosyan is Armenian,

The first song is Erzumi Shoror, a slowly unwinding, plaintive melody. Kartal takes the first solo on kaval, joined for muted low harmonies by Petrosyan’s duduk, Yakut’s steady pulses pushing the song along. Then the two reedmen switch roles. The trio follow a similar, unhurried architecture throughout a handful of the record’s slower, more expressive numbers, most strikingly on the third track, which comes across as a more lively variation on this initial theme.

A sailing flute taqsim over a quiet accordion drone introduces Adayani Voghpe/Adana Agidi, then the trio join forces and follow a somber, stately trajectory. A brief, determined, trickily rhythmic circle dance serves as a bridge to a slightly longer Anatolian dance, Tamzara, with Kartal’s biting, trilling modal flute front and center.

Yakut has fun with the rapidfire triplets in a solo accordion version of another dance, Dzveku Kartuli Satsekvao. Petrosyan takes over the lead with his poignant, soulful ornamentation in the solemn Noubar-Noubar and Yare Vardu, by Leon Katerjian, followed by the mystical, enveloping traditional lament Siretsi Yars Taran.

Next there’s a trio of dances for kaval and accordion, and then duduk and accordion, spiced with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Kartal trills and thrills, solo, through the bounding, spiraling dance Kara Koyun.

The group shift elegantly from a joyously edgy, Romany-tinged dance to gentle suspense in Victor Dolidze’s Kartuli Keto da Kote. They close the record with the moody chromatics of the traditional Patara Gogo, descending to a spacious, desolate duduk interlude. It’s hard to think of another recent album with as much understated, breathtaking beauty as this one.

Wild, Electrifying Flamenco and Balkan-Flavored Dances From Besarabia

One of the most feral, entertaining albums of the year is Spanish group Besarabia‘s Animal Republic, streaming at youtube. If adrenaline is your thing, this is your jam. Multitracking themselves for a kinetically ornate, Middle Eastern-infused flamenco sound, they make a lot of noise for a trio. Eva Domingo sings, plays davul, darbuka and other percussion. Jaume Pallardo’s primary axe is the Cretan lute, but he also plays oud and baglama, often in the same song. Violist and violinist Heidi Erbrich is not only the lead instrumentalist, more or less, but is also the group’s flamenco dancer.

The first track is The Real Royal Turkey – seemingly referring to the nation, but it’s actually about the bird. Pallardo’s tantalizingly brief lute and oud breaks punch in over Erbrich’s melismatic, modal viola and emphatically syncopated stomp. The group introduce Oroneta with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, then launch into a lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic theme. The hushed interlude toward the end, with Pallardo’s mysterious, muted plucking, comes as a real surprise.

The group follow with the raw, rustic flamenco instrumental El Conte de Talp Que Volia Ser Acell. Giraffe by the Sea is next, an irresistibly picturesque, magic-realist narrative set to punchy syncopation, with incisive lute and more bracing, antique modalities from the viola.

Cants de Balena (Whale Song) is more austere and closer to jazz, with Erbrich’s airy string harmonies and a nimbly scrambling lute solo. The album’s most hypnotically circling number, La Dans de la Serp has allusively Egyptian-inflected modes, a scary false ending, a spacious, all-too-brief oud solo and some neat oud/viola tradeoffs.

Elefanta is a diptych. Part one, La Cacharreria is an absolutely gorgeous, bittersweet lute theme and variations, with another ridiculous, funny spoken-word break from Domingo. The second half, Altibajos begins with an enigmatic viola melody and takes on more Arabic tinges as the group pounce along.

Perdut has a sparse, wistful lullaby quality. El Gato Rubato – a song that needed to be written, right? – turns out to be an amusing, high-voltage flamenco number. This cat does what he damn well pleases. The band wind up the album with the austere, elegaic counterpoint of Spider Tears. This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Becca Stevens and the Secret Trio Team Up For Balkan and Middle Eastern-Tinged Magic

Since the zeros, songwriter Becca Stevens has built a distinctive and often brilliant body of work, playing shapeshifting art-rock and chamber pop with a rotating cast who typically draw on a jazz background. She’s also an aptly quirky and brilliant reinterpreter of Bjork.

The Secret Trio are one of the world’s foremost Near Eastern ensembles. Stevens’ decision to collaborate with them has paid off with the best album she has ever made, streaming at Spotify. It’s unlike anything else that’s ever been recorded.

The album opens with Flow in My Tears, a catchy, loopily rhythmic, vaguely Indian-tinged tone poem of sorts. Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet looms broodingly within the lattice of Ara Dinkjian’s oud and Tamer Pınarbaşı’s kanun. Is the line “flow in my tears,” or “flow in my beer?” Both? Either one works.

Pınarbaşı’s elegant ripples prove to make a perfect background, Dinkjian adding magical textures in Bring It Back, a simple, lilting trip-hop tune. The tantalizingly brief, achingly melismatic clarinet solo toward the end is the icing on the cake.

Stevens builds enigmagic, misty multitracks over more Indian-flavored trip-hop in We Were Wrong. Sometimes Dinkjian plays a simple bassline, sometimes breaking the surface, Lumanovski adding mysterious accents. Stevens’ guitar mingles with the ripples from the kanun from the oud in California, an uneasy, enigmatic nocturne with what seem to be references to the refugee crisis.

Lumanovski’s otherworldly dipping, floating lines introduce Stevens’ mighty, wordless one-woman choir in Eleven Roses, a gorgeously Armenian-flavored tableau. Her ripe, moody vocals echo Jenifer Jackson in Lucian, a trickily rhythmic, equally gorgeous tune, Dinkjian anchoring the soaring, flurrying lines of the clarinet and kanun: Pınarbaşı’s solo will give you goosebumps.

Stevens contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising” in Pathways, a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. Lush layers of vocals float over spare, loopy phrases throughout the next track, Maria

Lullaby For the Sun is a cheerfully lilting pre-dusk theme that gives way to a brief, poignant oud solo before Stevens picks up the pace again. The group imaginatively recast a very Beatlesque riff as incisive Balkan music in The Eye, a metaphorically loaded view of individual powers of perception. The four musicians close this magically cross-pollinated collaboration with a swaying, optimistic, soaring anthem, For You the Night Is Still.

This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

Haunting Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals Inspired by an Istanbul Gone Forever

Guitarists Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks’ new duo album Istanbul 1900 – streaming at Bandcamp – draws on the work of photographer Ara Güler, whose mid-20th century portraits capture the end of an era. More profoundly, the two musicians dedicate their magically ghostly, reflective record to the 150,000 traditional merchants, artists and workers there whose livelihoods were stolen from them during the global totalitarian takeover of 2020.

The two set the stage with Galata Liman, a spare, wistful but steady minor-key number with hints of flamenco along with an iconic Erik Satie piece. Ara, the second track, is a vivid grey-sky waltz, sparse leads over a brooding, gently strummed descending theme.

Sokak Arasi is more upbeat, a brisk, sparkling, circling, strolling number. Spare twin leads and delicate harmonies echo through Kadikoey Liman, which the two players pick up subtly at the end. They begin Moda as a swinging, catchy, Romany-flavored folk tune and after a fleeting lull really rock it out.

Maksim has a slow, almost imperceptible sway, rising out of a mutedly mournful, lingering, Satie-esqaue intensity and then back: with its sepulchral echo effects, it’s the album’s most desolately gorgeous track.

Awash in keening harmonics, Vefa is the starkest and arguably most plaintive number here. The two guitarists shift between a mutedly haunting Middle Eastern-tinged theme and a pouncing intensity in the next number, Pera.

They close the album with Mertan, a moody cosmopolitan ballad. This elegaic masterpiece is one of the half-dozen best albums released this year.

Breathtakingly Gorgeous Interpretations of Rumi Love Poems From Katayoun Goudarzi

Singer Katayoun Goudarzi‘s voice is Albert Camus’ concept of lucidité brought to life. She sings with a disarming, viscerally breathtaking, completely unselfconscious clarity and, ultimately, hope. Her latest album, This Pale – streaming in various places at youtube – is a series of incandescent settings of Rumi love poems, played by her longtime collaborator, sitarist Shujaat Khan with ney flutist Shaho Andalibi and tabla player Shariq Mustafa. Goudarzi took her initial inspiration for the project from the irony that Rumi’s work would be reaching a peak of popularity in America in the months after the 2016 Presidential election, when hatred and bigotry were seeping out from under every rock.

Wild, the album’s first track, has a matter-of-fact tenderness – and when Goudarzi becomes more assertive, the effect is breathtaking. Likewise, Khan develops a backdrop that begins starry, then he adds triumphant ornamention. Meanwhile, the percussion grows more energetic, Andalibi’s dreamy solo at the center.

The second track, One is more of an amiably lilting ghazal. Mustafa doesn’t waste his time bringing his flurrying beats front and center; Khan’s glistening solo sets up Goudarzi’s soaring crescendo. He takes a bright, tantalizingly curlicuing alap to introduce Tender: Goudarzi varies her vibrato from a resolute gentleness to a shivery expectancy.

Andalibi’s mystical, mysterious ney trades off with Khan’s bracing Middle Eastern-flavored modal work as Sweetest gets underway. Paradoxically, it’s the most hypnotic yet most energetic and arguably most straightforwardly beautiful track here.

Khan builds a barely restrained vigorousness to begin Still Here, then Goudarzi engages in wistful exchanges with Andalibi. Sitar and tabla join in a pensive, purposeful stroll, Goudarzi reaching for the night sky before the group calmly recede. She decided to record the final poem, All I’ve Got after hearing from a woman fan in Afghanistan who would sing quietly, in secret, around the house and hoped that someday Goudarzi would sing it for her. From Khan’s spellbinding chromatic intro, to Goudarzi’s resolute, impassioned vocals and Andalibi’s desolate ney, it’s a stunning way to close the album.

In the most troubled time in world history, we are fortunate to have artists like Goudarzi to remind us that the forces of love and compassion are infinitely more powerful than anything any wannabe tyrant could throw at us.

A Rich, Multi-Layered, Epic New Middle Eastern-Flavored Album From Amir Elsaffar

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra play oceanic, tidally shifting soundscapes that blend otherworldly, microtonal Middle Eastern modes, lushly immersive big band jazz improvisation and what could be called symphonic ambient music. Elsaffar has made a name for himself as an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist and composer who has done as much to create a new style of music based on the magical maqams from across the Middle East as anyone alive. His latest epically ambitious, absolutely gorgeous new album The Other Shore is streaming at Bandcamp. Thematically, this is more majestically improvisational than his other large-ensemble work, although he weaves several themes and variations into it. Subtle, occasionally cynical humor typically takes the place of the politically-fueled anger that would often surface on albums like his 2015 Crisis record.

The album’s opening number, Dhuha is a diptych. The seventeen-piece ensemble begin with dense, nebulous, rising and falling tones, with pianist John Escreet, drummer Nasheet Waits, percussionist Tim Moore and mridamgam player Rajna Swaminathan adding stately accents behind Elsaffar’s broodingly chromatic, resonant trumpet. Cellist Naseem Alatrash takes a stark microtonal solo, handing off to Elsaffar’s sister Dena’s bracingly textured joza fiddle as the group rise from a brisk stroll to a churning groove. Echo effects and dramatic vocalese from Elsaffar give way to a thicket of pointillisms from vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, oudists George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi. Then the eagle rises again. That’s just the first thirteen minutes of the record, and it sets the stage for what’s in store.

Elsaffar’s soaring, wordless vocals fuel the upward drive in Transformations from a circling, steady stroll. Mohamed Saleh’s oboe shadows a restrained but ebullient trumpet solo, then comes to the forefront as a seemingly tongue-in-cheek Kashmiri groove develops. Saxophonists Ole Mathisen and Fabrizio Cassol work a triumphant triangulation before an elegant descent to the ouds and Miles Okazaki’s spare guitar.

The album’s most orchestral track, Reaching Upward begins with a stately, moody string theme that Elsaffar brightens with a deviously martial trumpet theme which suddenly goes 180 degrees from there. Knowing how Elsaffar works, is he going to take the hypnotic, spiky, circling theme that Okazaki and the percussionists develop and send it spinning into the maelstrom? Not quite. We get a web of concentric circles and an elusive, bracing maqam theme, Elsaffar accompanying himself with rippling santoor. A blazing sax solo backs off for a good facsimile of the Grateful Dead, which morphs into a shivery trumpet theme and eventually falls away for a calm series of waves and a gamelanesque outro. Who else is creating music this wildly and fearlessly diverse?

Ashaa is only slightly less of an epic, and the point where it becomes clear that Escreet is playing a piano in a Middle Eastern tuning. Bassist Carlo DeRosa holds the suspense until the bandleader enters into a regal trumpet passage….and then the band hit a steady, anthemic, tantalizingly chromatic clave theme that goes in a dusky Ethiopian direction. It’s arguably the album’s most wickedly catchy interlude. Syncopated quasi Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul and variations recede for a percolating DeRosa solo, then it’s back to the long road to Addis Ababa.

A bright stairstepping theme introduces the bandleader’s edgy, machinegunning santoor in the next number, Concentric. After that, Lightning Flash has a bit of a cloudburst, a calm, then a spare, biting Abboushi buzuq solo finally replaced by a steady, mechanically pulsing theme that could be Darcy James Argue.

March is all about victory, an Andalucian-tinged update on a famous Ravel tune, with a tantalizingly sizzling violin solo, a sober oud duel mingling with the vibes, the horns ushering in a rapidfire, stabbing Saleh oboe break. Elsaffar wafts uneasily through his most poignantly resonant solo of the night in the final number, Medmi. As usual with Elsaffar, this is a lock for one of the best albums of the year.

Magical Middle Eastern Dichotomies on Opium Moon’s Lavish New Double Album

Opium Moon picked a good bandname. They play rapturous, often haunting original Middle Eastern themes with influences that span from Egypt, to Iran, Israel, Turkey and sometimes India. Their music is psychedelic, otherworldly and infused with the occasional dubwise touch. Their new double album, Night and Day, is streaming at Bandcamp. They love long songs: pretty much everything here isn’t finished until after the seven-minute mark. The first disc is nocturnes, the second a party record which in many ways is a reverse image of the first.

They open the record with the title track, a spare, slinky nocturne which rises almost imperceptibly out of a one-chord jam, Lili Haydn’s violin soaring over a backdrop of MB Gordy’s boomy dumbek, Hamid Saeidi’s spaciously rippling santoor and Itai Disraeli’s warpy, hypnotic fretless bassline.

Wisdom is slower and even more mysterious, Haydn’s gentle, graceful chromatics wafting overhead, throughout more than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping rapture. They pick up the pace with Dhikr (Night), violin and santoor elegantly exchanging phrases over a suspenseful flamenco-tinged drumbeat.

Likewise, the group make a dusky flamenco-tinged theme out of an ancient Jewish prayer in Ahava Ve Shalom, a tantalizingly brief santoor solo at the center. They slowly coalesce out of an Indian-flavored theme in When Their Wings, swooping bass contrasting with the violin’s terse resonance. With Messengers, the group take a stab at making Indian carnatic music out of a famous British folk theme and follow with I’ll Wait For You, a quasi trip-hop number and the album’s most hypnotic interlude.

The second record begins with a lively clip-clop depiction of birds in flight: “They’re smoking the opium of pure freedom,” Disraeli asserts. Dkihr (Day) is a brisk, psychedelic Balkan dancefloor variation on its parallel theme from the first disc, with some wryly amusing flourishes from the bass.

Likewise, they take the first album’s carnatic melody and make Feast of Sevens out of it. With its blend of Indian and classical influences, Dream is much the same. La La Lai, a pulsingly joyous chromatic romp, features Turkish-Kurdish ensemble MiRaz as well as two of the album’s most adrenalizing santoor solos. The final cut is 100 Ways to Kiss the Ground, which seems to be more about kissing the sky. Despite global conditions that have made it almost impossible, so many groups have put out transcendent albums this year, and this is one of the best of them all.