New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: middle eastern music

Looking Back at Olcay Bayir’s Plaintive Reinventions of Silk Road Songs

Turkish singer Olcay Bayir put out her poignantly energetic album Neva/Harmony – streaming at Spotify  in 2014. It’s songs of the silk road, essentially. Much of the music is from Anatolia, the country’s easternmost region, alongside traditional material from across the surrounding area. Improvisation is such a big part of music from this part of the world that every interpretation is bound to be different; Bayir’s own style is informed by her training as a western classical singer. Her band is just as multicultural as the music; it’s less rustic than you might expect.

The opening number, Jarnana is an Albanian love song with an upbeat sway and a catchy, vamping minor-key tune, Aurel Qirjo’s incisive violin over a pretty straight-up rock groove from bassist George Tsiaousidis and percussionist Elizabeth Nott. Bayir’s plaintive vocals soar over tricky Greek rhythms with biting harmonies from the violin and Nicki Maher’s clarinet in the second track, Mia Smyrnia Sto Parathiri.

Bayir’s vocals on Mer Dan, a slowly waltzing Aremenian dirge, are much the same, clarinet and violin wafting broodingly through the mix, Erdal Yapıcı supplying an elegantly rippling solo on his ten-string kopuz lute. Maher’s low, melismatic, Arabic-tinged clarinet in the bouncy, Romany-flavored Benim Yarim is breathtaking, Likewise, Min Bêriya Te Kiriye has a brisk, almost reggae groove lit up with Meg Hamilton’s stark violin and a spiky web of textures from Yapıcı and classical guitarist Charlie Cawood.

Durme, a moody Sephardic lullaby, has rippling classical guitar, Yapıcı’s eerie fretless guitar and an aptly tender vocal by Bayir: in this part of the world, moms sing to their kids in minor keys and it’s not considered scary. The album’s big, hypnotic, nocturnal epic is Melamet Hırkas. Clarinet and violin loom over a starry, loopy backdrop from the kopuz, guitar and Erdogan Bayir’s baglama, minging with the frontwoman’s gentle, resonant delivery.

Qirjo’s somber taqsim to open Penceresi Yola Karşı doesn’t hint at the scampering energy this Balkan dance tune will hit just a few seconds later, lit up with Maher’s joyous klezmer inflections, They close the record with Lay Lay, a somber Kurdish waltz with more of those gorgeously tremoloing clarinet-violin lines that permeate this gorgeous record.

A Gorgeously Dark Album of Adventurous, Psychedelic Afghani Rubab Music From Quais Essar

Today’s album is on the shortlist of the best this blog has received over the past couple of years that were patiently waiting their turn on the hard drive here. Qais Essar, whose axe is the Afghani rubab lute, may not be a household word, but he’s attracted the attention of a whole slew of western musicians. His latest album The Ghost You Love Most is streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s pretty exotic compared to the bands whose artists play on it. On the other, it’s not that far removed from the Turkish psychedelia or, for that matter, some of the rock-ish sounds that came out of Iran in the 1960s and early 70s.

He opens it with The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life, a spare, slow, haunting anthem that’s practically a Nashville gothic ballad. Christopher Votek’s cello and Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio–Miller’s organ add elegaic lustre behind the stately rhythm section of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Thierry Amar on bass and Ray Belli on drums. The ending is even more surreal: they take it doublespeed, making quasi-bluegrass out of a lick seemingly ripped straight from lite-jazz guy Grover Washington Jr.

Essar’s rubab ripples, weaves and flurries frantically throughout the album’s swaying title track, spiced by delicate textures from Kamaljeet Alhuwalia on santoor and Cenk Erodgan on fretless guitar.

Journey to Qaf begins as a chilling, Lynchian dirge, Sheela Bringi’s harp contrasting with the resonance of the cello and Essar’s spare, broodingly emphatic phrasing. They eventually pick up the pace, but never so much that they manage to leave the shadows behind.  Rhitom Sarkar contributes a lingering alap (improvisation) on Indian slide guitar to open Sohini Surf, then Essar takes over and they motor along with a muted surf beat.

The group slow down again for The Simurgh, Essar’s steady, banjo-like lines, echoed by Erodgan’s shivery melismatics over Justin Gray’s stately, rising bass veena. They end the album with a gorgeously bittersweet, pastorally-tinged wordless ballad. It’s music to get completely lost in.

Dive into a Middle Eastern Treasure From Duo Sabîl

Palestinian oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisch – better known as Duo Sabîl, meaning “on the way” in Arabic – are a major force in the Middle Eastern music scene in Europe. Their 2017 album Zabad, Twilight Tide – streaming at Spotify – is much more hauntingly lush than their previous work since they double the size of the band, adding buzuq player Elie Khoury and bassist Hubert Dupont. Pretty much every song here is a launching pad for sizzling solos from both Al Kathib and Khoury: they’re great sparring partners.

The opening number, Samal is a diptych. As the fretted instruments intertwine, the uneasy swells. flurrying chords and brooding modes of the first section bring to mind fellow expatriate and oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife’s small-ensemble work. They sprint through the clenched-teeth intensity of the second part, with long, biting solos from buzuq and oud over a lithely syncopated 9/4 beat. When Dupont’s bass finally leaves the pocket and rises, the effect is visceral.

Khoury spirals with a brooding intensity over a dancing groove in the album’s title track, Al Kathib’s machete chords and spare riffs adding a bittersweet poignancy. The two exchange biting, dynamically shifting solos throughout a prelude in the enigmatic maqam rast; then the rhythm section join them for Awalem, which has a southern Balkan feel, alternating between coy jauntiness and stinging acerbity.

Khoury chooses his spots opening a second prelude in maqam nahawand – which is closer to a minor key in the western scale – Kathib raising the suspense. It offers no hint of what’s to come with Nothern Breeze, which begins with a slow, warmly nostalgic sway; then the band leap into warpspeed.

The group build the album’s big epic Marakeb (Ships) around a simple, insistent major third riff and then exchange pensive solos: the waters are choppy but not yet perilous. They wind up the album with the simply titled Afternoon Jam, beginning with an ominously chromatic oud taqsim and picking up with edgy solos all around. If this is what they sound like during the day, just wait til the sun goes down. Never again will this blog hide an album of this kind of music away on the hard drive for so long!

Neotolia Take Haunting Turkish Sounds to New Places

Neotolia’s album Neotolian Song – streaming at Spotify – made the best albums of 2017 page here – and is long overdue for a more comprehensive look. No time like the present to catch up on great albums you might have missed over the years, right? It’s a distinctive mix of broodingly diverse Turkish themes for jazz orchestration; piano, oud, guitar, vocals and rhythm section, spiced with flute and haunting Chinese erhu fiddle.

Frontwoman Nazan Nihal intones an imploring Turkish lyric over menacing, Lynchian minor/major changes from pianist Utar Artun in the album’s opening track, Bir Barmis Bir Yokmu, up to a big crescendo interrupted by a bracingly spiraling Jussi Reijonen oud solo. They end it on a raptly mysterious note. What a way to kick off the record.

The Thrill of the Chase is completely different, beginning a funhouse-mirror take on a Yoruban chant, Reijonen’s circling, hypnotic oud contrasting with Artun’s stern jazz chords, a thumping, tumbling drum solo and a raspy improvisational interlude where everything disintegrates.

Reijonen switches to guitar for the elegantly swaying, syncopated anti-terrorism ballad Degismek Cesaret Ister, the flute reaching upward as Nihal leads the fiery, insistent vocal harmonies up to the chorus. The title track begins as a rather opaque jazz ballad, then Artun brings back the crepuscular Lynchian changes, a springboard for an uneasy intertwine of Tao He’s stark erhu and Yazhi Guo’s trilling flute.

The group follow the increasingly angst-fueled piano-and-vocal ballad Manastir Terkes with a suspiciously deadpan tropical jazz take on Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca – it’s nothing like the wry Brubeck version. Artun’s piano glitters broodingly and then reaches for Rachmaninovian majesty in contrast with a plaintive erhu solo in Gel Kuruttum, then they back away for Nihal’s tender, achingly chromatic vocal.

Pendulum is a moodily existentialist violin-driven jazz waltz, the lone tune here in English. Nihal returns to Turkish for the lilting ballad Lydianic, with a deliciously dusky Bruno Råberg bass solo that Reijonen follows with a surreal ebow guitar interlude. They close the album with Depmen Benim Gamli Yasli Gonlume, an energetically pulsing, syncopated, Egyptian-tinged anthem, Reijonen swooping and diving microtonally on fretless guitar over Artun’s eerie close harmonies.

Wildly Diverse, Exhilarating Iranian and Balkan Sounds From Mamaki Khadem

Mamaki Khadem and her band play a frequently psychedelic-tinged take on most of what you can hear at Golden Fest, New York’s funnest annual concert weekend, a celebration of music from across Iran, the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East. What a blessing that Golden Fest 2020 took place before the lockdown! For those who missed it, Mamaki Khadem’s absolutely gorgeous, haunting 2016 album The Road is streaming at Spotify.

The first track, A Thousand Strings, is a well-known Bulgarian choral piece, with the usual otherworldly close harmonies from the women in the band, but also chilly synthesized orchestration…and sizzling flamenco guitars exchanging solos. The second cut, Romance, is completely different, a one-chord jam with warmer harmonies over a trip-hop groove, shards of overtones flying from bagpipes and violin.

Do, Don’t is a briskly strutting, slyly jubilant, chromatic Balkan brass number with a potently raw, melismatic lead vocal. Flaming Sun, a brooding soundscape, has imploring vocals. microtonal clarinet and spare bandura lute over a low, looming drone. The group segue into High Sea, a determined, bouncy, Turkish-tinged tune, its calm vocals contrasting with the edgy chromatics of the accordion, fiddle and setar lute.

One of the album’s most strangely psychedelic numbers Little Gem has gamelanesque chimes, tender vocals and a stark breakdown for the string section midway through. Stardust, the album’s most distinctly Middle Eastern flavored track, has spiky oud, echoey piano and viscerally imploring vocals over steady syncopation.

Navaii, a moody soundscape for vocals, bagpipe and synthy backdrop, segues into Pledge, a low-key one-chord jam which for one reason or another evokes ancient English folk music more than it does Iran or the Balkans.

The band elegantly assemble a ghostly choir, chimes, tremoloing lead vocals, flute and strings in Huntsman, an only slightly restrained, gorgeous Balkan anthem. They close the album with the fiery, trumpet-fueled, rat-a-tat brass tune Those Eyes. It’s hard to think of another band who’ve been able to negotiate so many incredibly diverse styles with as much expertise and unrestrained fun as this crew.

Haunting, Wildly Psychedelic East African Sounds Rescued From an Obscure Archive in Djibouti

Many emerging African nations in the 60s and 70s had a national band. Those were typically established by newly independent regimes, to help concretize a national identity in areas which had been balkanized by Western imperialists. While those groups may have been founded and then exploited for propaganda purposes, their music was often very good, and fascinatingly cross-pollinated. One of the most intriguing was from Djibouti.

That country’s group, 4 Mars’ bandname commemorates the founding date of the ruling People’s Rally for Progress party there. What makes this music so unique is not only the haunting chromatics common throughout what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also the global influences that passed through Djibouti’s ports. For centuries, the region has been a major Indian Ocean commercial hub: no wonder the Chinese Communists are building a naval base there.

In a much more fortuitous and peaceful development, the American firm Ostinato Records recently gained access to the massive archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti and is mining the collection for all sorts of treasures never before heard outside the country. The new 4 Mars compilation Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tjadoura – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first release, comprising both studio and concert recordings made by the regional supergroup between 1977 and 1994.

A couple of the cuts here are questionable: how appropriate is it to include a tribute to a repressive political figure? Sure, the praise-song tradition in Africa goes back centuries. But comparatively speaking, does the inclusion of Dixie in an anthology of American folk songs enhance the album’s historical value…or compromise it ethically and esthetically?

The album’s opening track, simply titled Natesha (Compassion) sets the stage: a Bollywood-influenced, melismatic chanteuse out front of what sounds like a lo-fi, vintage synth-driven roots reggae band playing a dark minor-key groove. That beat is actually dhaanto, an ancient East African rhythm that eventually made its way to Jamaica.

The quasi-reggae pulse gets more organic, with swirly organ, spare bass, trebly tremolo guitar and one-drop drums in the epic, almost ten-minute Hobolayee Nabadu (Hello Peace). The group’s saxophonist, Mohamed Abdi Alto – who now leads the excellent Groupe RTD – plays spare, biting minor-key riffs and remains an often haunting presence on many of these tracks.

Dhulika Hooyo (Motherland) is cheerier, with more surreal harmonies and a massed choir which could be half kids: at their peak, the group comprised more than forty members including dancers. How powerful is Tamarta (Power)? Not so much: this is one of the more synthy tracks, guy/girl vocals matched by tradeoffs between flute and keys, shifting to an unexpected latin soul-inflected groove.

Daroor (rough translation: Drought) has a loping, vaudevillian beat behind the Bollywood-style vocals. The number after that is faster: imagine Fela playing rocksteady. The song for an iron-fisted Djiboutien ruler has more of a strut and is a lot shorter. Likewise, the pulse of Lana Rabeen Karo (It Cannot Be Desired), a long one-chord jam which seems less forced: one thing that definitely can’t be desired is having to sing for a dictator.

Tellingly, the female singers are missing until a couple of minutes into the even more disturbingly titled Tilman Baa Lagu Socdaa (Follow the Rules). Like several of the reggae-ish tracks here, Inkaar Walid (The Elders’ Curse) could be a Burning Spear anthem with surreal Chinese flute and Balkan pop influences.

The broodingly catchy Abaal (Gratitude) seems to be of the same early 80s-tinged vintage as the album’s opening number, with flaring metal guitar, warpy synth and hasty, overcompressed lo-fi production. An acerbically modal traditional wedding song gets a bouncy, electric update with keening flute and synth along with more Ethiopian-flavored vocals: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. The concluding epic is a real departure, a melancholy, pentatonic Chinese ballad. Goes to show what a range of flavors the trade winds will blow in. Let’s hope for winds of trade rather than winds of war in that part of the world in the coming years.

A Ubiquitous Habibi Pop Star Celebrates with a Career Retrospective

Twenty years ago in New York, you couldn’t buy a falafel without hearing Ishtar Alabina‘s slinky songs blasting from somebody’s speakers or boombox. The Moroccan-Jewish queen of Romany and Andalucian-tinged habibi pop is still out there: she played here in 2019, touring behind a greatest-hits album simply titled Alabina and streaming at Spotify.

The string synth swooshes mightily as the opening track, also titled Alabina – her signature song, more or less – kicks in with a little Spanish guitar flourish and clip-clop percussion. The guys in the band sing the first verse in Spanish before their frontwoman swoops in, singing in Arabic and bending her way to a stark crescendo. If you’ve been listening to Middle Eastern music over the past couple of decades, you know this song.

She and the band played a lot of Spanish and Latin music over the years. This album has a lot of those songs. There’s the spiky, Gipsy Kings-influenced Baile Maria, as well as La Cubanita, a salsa song with a steady dancefloor thud and a fleeting flamenco guitar solo. The group’s male contingent sing most of Ya Mama, a pretty straight-up salsa tune, as well as the bouncy Tierra Santa, the closest thing to the Gipsy Kings here. The only cover here, Lolole is a habibi pop version of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Sawash was an early attempt to blend some reggaeton into the sound. There are also a trio of tunes, Lolai, Salaama and Salaam la Paz – which mash up flamenco pop and what would morph into dabke music.

The group’s biggest hits on their home turf were the most distinctly Middle Eastern ones, where they were more likely to use an oud and a kanun rather than guitars to spice all that lush synthesized orchestration. They’re all in minor keys and catchy as hell. Venga, a bitingly irresistible duet, is one of the best of the bunch, while Lamouni has microtonal violin and a rippling kanun solo on the intro.

Purists may hear this and laugh, but Alabina was a gateway drug to a better world for thousands of non-Arabic speakers. One summer day in the late 90s, a future daily New York music blog owner walked out of Rashid Sales on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn with a Umm Kulthuum concert cassette and an Alabina album much like this. In the months afterward, they would get plenty of time on an old walkman. Those cassettes still exist; the walkman sadly does not.

Revisiting Karavan Serai’s Gorgeously Slinky, Psychedelic Middle Eastern Themes

Karavan Serai‘s haunting, hypnotic album Woven Landscapes came out in 2015. Considering how lush this blend of original Iranian and Middle Eastern-inspired music is, it’s almost a shock to find out that there’s just two guys in the band. Narayan Sijan plays the stringed instruments and the percussion, and sings in a strong, resonant baritone. Carmen Rizzo plays keys and supplies electronic textures that are often very enveloping. The record is streaming at Bandcamp.

These two like slinky one-chord jams, and always find a way to make them interesting. A slow, swaying, warmly dusky theme, The Journey, opens the album. How trippy is this? With incisive oud and tar lute awash in Rizzo’s echoey sonics, it’s plenty psychedelic, but just as joyous as it reaches the end. The second track, Schirin is completely different, a broodingly dramatic if equally serpentine Arabic-flavored tune where the oud is a lot more prominent.

River Bend starts out with even more epic grandeur and grows more surreal and atmospheric, with Sijan’s multitracked tar lute, oud and buzuq echoing each other. His allusive, steady cascades in The Road to Hijaz tease the listener, as he only uses the iconic Arabic scale on the turnaround. Tingly buzuq contrasts with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics in the first part of Caspian Sea, then Rizzo adds an unexpected trip-hop rhythm while Sijan’s Arabic phrasing gets more animated, but more hypnotic as well.

He digs into majestic raga-like chords as Rizzo adds graceful piano and synth accents over drony atmospherics in Upon My Own Hand. Desert Water, a diptych, begins with a hazy ambience and morphs into the album’s most lighthearted track: appropriately enough, since it’s about a mirage. The duo close the album with the alternately echoey, gritty, aptly majestic High Mountain, the closest thing here to Rizzo’s other Iranian band, Niyaz.

Cypriot Psychedelic Mastermind Perseveres With a New Solo Album

Of all the parts of the world where the lockdowner takeover has been the most sadistic, Cyprus has suffered as greatly as any nation outside of Communist China or Australia. As you would expect, multi-instrumentalist Antonis Antoniou‘s two psychedelic bands – Trio Tekke and Monsieur Doumani – have been put on ice until his home turf is liberated. In the meantime, he hasn’t stopped making music. His new solo album Kkismettin – streaming at Spotify – has the same edgy, chromatically-fueled drive and trippy textures as his full-band work, drawing on influences as diverse as classic Greek psychedelic rock, music from across the Balkans, and old rembetiko hash-smoking and revolutionary anthems. Here, he’s a one-man psychedelic band on lute, bass, keys and percussion.

In the opening track, Livarin, an electric lute melody rings out amid woozy synth multitracks and a mix of electronic and organic beats, some of which which Antoniou plays on the metal trashcans used as barriers on his native island (oldschool pre-lockdown divide-and-conquer mechanism).

The second tune, Ttappa Kato, has a deliciously loopy, shiveringly slinky chromatic bounce. The album’s title track has a whispery, conspiratorial ambience, built around a thicket of percussion, tremoloing bass and wah-wah textures.

Angali, an instrumental, has a loopy cheer and a sonic artichoke of dubwise layers. Antoniou picks up the pace with the ridiculously anthemic Ksimeroman, which brings to mind King Gizzard at their trippiest and most Turkish-influenced.

Gritty, jagged riffs pierce the echoey, ominously loopy atmosphere in the next track, Baris as Antoniou makes a big anthem out of it. Doulia has a groove that undulates somewhere between rai and cumbia, along with allusively chromatic hammer-on lute riffage. The swirl and boom hit a psychedelic peak in Varella, followed by Djinorkes Meres, the starkest and most distinctly rembetiko-ish number here.

Antoniou winds up the record with Achtina, his darkly twangy, incisive electric lute awash in dense atmospherics. This isn’t just for fans of Aegean music: if psychedelic rock, Balkan or Middle Eastern music is your jam, crank this strange and surreal mix. May we all be able to find inspiration and hope for the future in the darkest of times just as Antoniou has here.

Ensemble Fanaa Bring Their Magical, Mysterious Middle Eastern Grooves to Prospect Park

It was a pleasantly cool Wednesday night in the late summer of 2016. The evening had gotten off to a disappointing start with an album release event in the dingy basement room at the Rockwood, where a talented tunesmith’s pickup band pretty much phoned in what could have been an electrifying set. As it turned out, the electricity that night would happen a little later in another basement room, at Rye Bar on the south side of Williamsburg, where Ensemble Fanaa played two rapt, mysterious, genuinely transcendent sets of Middle Eastern-flavored jazz.

This blog had given a big thumbs-up to their debut performance at Barbes earlier that year. This show was arguably even better. Tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi spun a web of otherworldly microtones, slithery chromatic melody, hypnotic resonance and the occasional ferocious burst as drummer Dan Kurfirst switched between his kit and a boomy dumbek for intricate polyrhythms as well as slinky snakecharmer grooves. Bassist John Murchison held the center, often playing subtle, sometimes haunting variations on a pedal line. If memory serves right – this was a long time ago – he switched to the magical, incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute for a handful of trance-inducing, gnawa-inspired numbers.

Game plan at the time was to write up this show to plug whatever the trio’s next gig was. But they were all busy in other bands at the time, and if they actually played somewhere else within the next couple of months, it was so far under the radar that this blog missed it. The good news is that Ensemble Fanaa are doing an outdoor gig on April 20 at 5:30 PM in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance off 7th Ave. Considering that this band’s music is on the serious side: haunting, and rapturous, and mystical, nobody in the group seems like a weedhead. But if that’s your thing, there is no other 4/20 show that can match this one for psychedelic ambience. And it that’s not your thing, this still promises to be the best concert of the month.