Isn’t it bizarre how some chromatics and modes which have come to be associated with the macabre in western music actually connote transcendence and joy at points further east? In his concert Saturday night at Roulette, Syrian singer Wajde Ayub and his lavish orchestra ranged far beyond the famous hijaz mode that so many western musicians have appropriated for everything from Hollywood faux-exoticism to heavy metal menace. Yet it was in that maqam, with its flat-three and flat-five intervals, that he delivered the most thrills of the night. And there were a lot of them.
In his introductory remarks, impresario Robert Browning – whose Associates had booked this show – spoke of how Ayub, a protege of legendary Syrian crooner Sabah Fakhri, was a throwback to the great tarab singers of the 1930s. He wasn’t kidding – it’s impossible to think of a more electrifying way to kick off this year’s series of global music events at Roulette.
Ayub sings on two levels: intense and more intense. The raw power in his meticulously modulated, melismatic baritone was undiminished throughout practically two hours onstage. People line-danced up front by the stage, clapped along and were invited to join in, boisterously, in many call-and-response choruses throughout the night.
The Aleppo-born Ayub is a rare master of Syrian wasla themes and variations, utilizing both settings of classical Arabic poetry and simpler, singalong folk tunes. Much of the repertoire serves as the roots of this era’s dabke music and habibi pop. With the brief flick of a hand, he led the dapperly dressed orchestra – women in black, men in matching black suits with orange ties – through a vast series of dynamic shifts. The music was sometimes majestic and elegant, sometimes stomping and careening, at other times plaintive and delicate.
What was most striking was how much of a singing quality the instrumentalists brought to the performance. There weren’t a lot of instrumental taqsims (improvisations), but the group made them count. Violinist Michael Abdullah got the most of them; oudist Zafer Tawil also kicked in some frenetic flurries along with kanun player Jamal Sinno’s incisive, lingering ripples and pings. Bassist John Murchson and cellist Khalid Khalifa provided a rich, low undercurrent, often doubling each others’ lines over the mighty percussion section of Johnny Farraj on riq (tambourine), Mahmoud Kamil on tabla and Mohammad Almassri on boomy katim frame drum. Violinist Insia Malik and ney flutist Naeif Rafeh added contrasting airy melody overhead.
Classical Arabic and modern spoken Arabic are quite different, so the subtitles projected during the first three songs were useful for everyone, not just those for whom English was a first language. The lyrics spoke to the age-old, shattering power of female beauty, which Ayub saluted both with imploring and gloriously impassioned resonance. There was also a point where the two women singing in the chorus – Zahra Alzubaidi and Nesma Mohamed – exchanged fond “aw, wasn’t that sweet” looks during one of Ayub’s more forceful variations on a hijaz phrase. Clearly, he’d hit a mark with his colleagues.
Robert Browning Associates’ next concert of Middle Eastern music at Roulette is on Oct 19 at 8 PM with legendary percussionist Pejman Hadadi leading a spellbinding Iranian trio with Saeed Kamjoo on kamancheh fiddle and Kourosh Taghavi on setar lute; cover is $30.