New York Music Daily

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Tag: arab music

Playful Cosmopolitan Songs and a Falafel Hill Album Release Show From Eclectic Chanteuse Ourida

Algerian-French-American singer Ourida was making tracks in the small-club scene in New York before the 2020 lockdown crushed the arts here. The good news is that this irrepressible, genre-defying songwriter is back in action, with a new album, Wings, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She’s playing the album release show on June 21 at 7:30 at a new venue, Atlantic Brooklyn at 333 Atlantic Ave. just off Hoyt. Cover is $15; it’s about equidistant from the Atlantic Ave. station and the F at Bergen St.

On the album, she sings in expressive English and French, and plays both keys and ukulele, joined by Jonathan Levy on guitar and bass, Eli Crews (who also produced) on EWI, theremin and optigon, and Joe Hertenstein on drums.

The first song, simply titled Blues, is a more psychedelic, dubwise take on dark Amy Winehouse soul that draws a line straight back to Nina Simone. Ourida and band go for a cheerily minimalist trip-hop vibe in the second track, Don’t Talk. She sticks to a similar 90s groove, switching to French for track three, Deux Guitares, lightly spiced with violin from Ernesto Llorens.

Kane Mathis adds warily spare oud in Berlin, a surreal, shadowy rai-cabaret number with an unexpectedly towering, intense coda. Ourida returns to the piano for the hypnotically vampy Bees and follows that with G Train, a catchy, stomping uke-rock salute to the lure of deep-Brooklyn nightlife.

Siren Song, a coyly swaying nocturne, has two basses on it: that’s Panagiotis Andreou on electric and Or Bareket on acoustic. Levy’s film-noir reverb guitar trades off eerily with Mathis’ oud in Porte de la Chapelle, a shout-out to the Paris neighborhood. She stays in broodingly catchy North African/Parisian mode for the next track, Joker.

Ourida and the band rise from a brisk hip-hop groove to a whirling circus rock atmosphere in L’emeute (“Uprising”). The longest and trippiest number here is a mysteriously cut-and-pasted, dubby take of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. The album’s final cut is Home. a benedictory gospel tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez catalog. This record grows on you: the arrangements are stark and imaginative and Ourida’s joie de vivre is infectious.

The Spy From Cairo Keeps Making Deliciously Serpentine Middle Eastern Dub Sounds

For more than a decade, one-man band Moreno “Zeb” Visini has been making wildly psychedelic dubwise Middle Eastern dance music under the name The Spy From Cairo. Oud and saz lute are his main axes, but he’s also adept at keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. As usual, he plays everything with expertise and a wry sense of humor on his new vinyl record Animamundi, streaming at Bandcamp.

He was able to record the album in his home country of Italy despite the fascist restrictions which are still in place there, since he does all the music himself with a little transcontinental input from talented vocalists on the web. The central message is freedom. If there are bouncy castles at the rallies in Rome, this is the kind of stuff that freedom fighters (and their kids) could re-energize with. There are a ton of flavors on this record, all held together by lusciously chromatic maqams.

He gets off to a strong start with the title track. a brisk Egyptian reggae tune built around a catchy, scampering, biting oud lead track. Daf frame drum booms in the background, “Information of creation is stored in our DNA,” a rasta explains in the voiceover at the end. No doubt!

Asssembled around a catchy chromatic riff, Beautiful Baraka, featuring Adil Smaali is a chaabi-reggae-rap mashup with a couple of keyboards trading off in a wry call-and-response. Black Sea comes across as a trebly dub plate with wah-wah oud. Visini balances another slithery, catchy oud riff against microtonal roller-rink organ in Cosmic Pasha, then takes a deep plunge into Middle Eastern cumbia in Criminal, with Mambe Rodriguez taking a coy turn on vocals.

Divination has a more enigmatic Balkan-flavored tune, but Visini works anthemic string synth riffs into it. He goes back to a brisk cumbia groove, adding layers of cifteli lute and a scrambling oud solo in Extraterrestre, featuring Andalucian vocalist Carmen Estevez. Hamsa Shuffle has lusciously microtonal violin and a blippy, hypnotic cumbia sway, while Mizmirized has otherworldly zurna oboe and a swaying rai beat.

Visini ripples and pings his way through Qanun in Dub, a reggae tune and one of the most unselfconsciously gorgeous tracks on the record. Seeds of Culture is a loopy Indian-flavored song with snakecharmer ney flute over a rai rhythm and an unexpectedly bristling oud outro (is there such a word as “oudtro?”). The final cut, Ya Wuldani features guests Fatou Gozlan & Duo Darbar and is arguably the most psychedelic, dubwise number. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best albums of 2022, but this is one of them.

Delirious, Transcendent, Rare Syrian Music with Wajde Ayub at Roulette

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.

Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding fog behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat. 

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.

Arabic Music Icon Aziz Sahmaoui Brings His University of Gnawa to Joe’s Pub

When he’s not playing festivals around the globe with the Orchestre National de Barbes, Aziz Sahmaoui fronts another band, the University of Gnawa, who put a harder-rocking, original spin on an ancient North African style. The band is collegiate not in an academic sense but, like the best universities, will school you and at the same time put on a party you’ll never forget. They’re bringing their exhilarating live show to Joe’s Pub on Sept 11 at 9 PM; cover is $20 and considering how packed their US debut at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was a couple of summers ago, advance tix are a very good idea.

Sahmaoui’s latest album with this group is Mazal (Arabic for “Endurance”), streaming at Spotify – and if you’d like to avoid having to mute those annoying commercials that interrupt you when least expected, most of it is streaming at the bandleader’s webpage. Most of the tracks are Arabic love songs, although a couple have the kind of excoriating, politically relevant lyricism of Sahmaoui’s other band. The opening track, InchAllah has a groove that’s almost qawwali, but less serpentine, a catchy, mostly one-chord jam of sorts fueled by uneasily burning, multitracked guitar textures. Hada Ma Jari takes a spiky, upbeat detour into West African kora folk music. Une Dune Pour Deux sets a savagely spot-on French-language parable of divide-and-conquer politics to a more traditionally-oriented gnawa melody, driven by the gentle but resolute pulse of Sahmaoui’s bendir lute.

The album’s title track, another elegantly lyrical wartime parable, has an ominously slinky minor-key pulse to match, part defiant French chanson, part bristling Moroccan chaabi anthem. Water-line, a spiritually-infused escape anthem, makes catchy, jangly folk-rock out of a wistfully strolling chaabi theme. Jilala reverts to a scampering shuffle groove spiced with American hard funk and jamband rock.

Guest flamenco guitarist El Niño Josele‘s nimble, spiraling lines take centerstage throughout the album’s suspensefully cinematic, slowly unwinding, most epic track, Yasmine. Lawah-Lawah – a remake of Sahmaoui’s bitingly vamping hit Zawiya – rocks harder and is more straightforward than the original. Firdawss, with its rippling guitar lines, adds an uneasy art-rock edge to Malian duskcore.

Afro Maghrébin blends echoes of the jazz of Joe Zawinul – with whom Sahmaoui enjoyed a long collaboration – into North African folk. In a similar vein, the album’s last two tracks mash up soukous and gnawa: they seem tacked on rather than an integral part of this otherwise magnificently conceived, eclectic collection of songs.

Two of the Most Compelling Frontwomen in Middle Eastern Music at the Global Beat Festival

That Emel Mathlouthi could sing almost entirely in Arabic to a mainly English-speaking audience, hold them spellbound and then earn a roaring, standing ovation from a crowd of maybe a thousand people in the financial district last night testifies to her power to communicate and transcend boundaries. That, and her charisma. There’s nothing like leading a revolution to boost your confidence: the Tunisian-born Mathlouthi’s self-assurance resides in her power to move people and, maybe, effect change. She did that on her home turf, where her hit Kelmti Horra (Freedom of Speech) became an iconic anthem in the early days of the Arab Spring. And she took a mighty stab at it yesterday evening at the Global Beat Festival with music that was relentlessly dark, and heavy, and anguished, aching to break free.

Mathlouthi’s Arabic lyrics are crystallized but allusive and heavy on symbolism. Her tempos are slow, her ambience swirling and stormy. Her most recent album blended levantine sweep, alienated Pink Floyd grandeur and icy gothic production. Her set this time out was similar, heavy with new material from a forthcoming release. Mathlouthi likes her vocal and instrumental loops, nebulous atmospherics and a tapestry of textures. Over that somber backdrop – provided mainly via live syndrums and multiple layers of synthesized orchestration, much of that seemingly from pedals or a mixer – she sang with a white-knuckle intensity, holding back just thismuch from a fullscale wail. With that wounded delivery and a withering, dismissive stare, she projects a fearlessness largely absent these days: think Patti Smith, Penelope Houston or Siouxsie Sioux (or, for that matter, Umm Kulthumm). She underscored the unease and tension of several numbers by turning her back on the crowd as the music wound down, striding impatiently to face the rear walll of the stage, hands on her hips, defiant and resolute and very much alone.

Themes of homelessness, exile and an interminable wait pervaded the material. Even the calm of the title of Houdou’On was cut loose in waves of syndrums pounding at an invisible, all-encircling wall. Her voice became a bitter stained-glass tableau amid the funereal, cathedral-like sonics, witness to the world of turmoil and torment that she’d addressed head-on early in the show.

Niyaz frontwoman Azam Ali is no less charismatic, although her music is considerably more kinetic. The five-piece Persian-Canadian trance band’s forthcoming album The Fourth Light takes its inspiration from eighth century mystic and poet Rabia Al Basri, who is ironically an underrated figure in Sufism, the movement she created, simply because she was a woman. Ali explained that she and her group have always focused on music of minorities and opppressed peoples from Iran and the surrounding areas, so it was no suprise to find that the new album – much of which the band played – is dedicated to “The world’s greatest minority: women.”

Ali also tackled the issue of how much music sung in an unfamiliar language could possible resonate with a crowd that doesn’t speak it, reassuring them that ultimately, it makes little difference, to simply focus on the melodies. And the audience responded vigorously: by the end of the show, a circle of dancers had taken over the roped-off area in front of the stage. Ali varied her approach from song to song, from delicately soaring to forceful and resonant, especially when she dipped to her lowest registers over the wash of otherworldly textures from Loga Ramin Torkian’s stark kaman fiddle or electric oud, or the keys and mixers of Gabriel Ethier. This was the group’s first show with new tabla player Vineet Vyas, who built a groove spinning pointillistic trails of notes that mingled with the rippling, often ecstatic kanun of Didem Basar. When Ali wasn’t swaying and intoning in front of the group, building a dynamic that was equally mesmerizing and pulsing, dancer Tanya Evanson brought to life the figure of a woman straining against her chains and, at least it seemed, gaining her freedom. Is it ironic that women from some of the most misogynistic places on earth also happen to be some of the world’s most potent voices for freedom – or is that simply a consequence of the natural human reaction to tyranny and oppression?

The festival continues tonight, May 9 at 8 with a rare Honduran twinbill: surf rocker Guayo Cedeño & Coco Bar  and then Garifuna guitarist/songwriter Aurelio & the Garifuna Soul Band. The concert is free, but getting there early is a good idea. Logistically, your best and fastest bet is to go straight down Vesey St. and hang a left into the World Trade Center Path station, take the escalator down, follow the corridor around the bend under the West Side Highway and then up again into the “winter garden” across the street with its stage in the center of the building’s west wall.

Amir ElSaffar Unleashes a River of Sound at Lincoln Center

Chicago-born, New York-based composer Amir ElSaffar books a comfortable, classy joint in the financial district, Alwan for the Arts, a hotbed for cutting-edge new music coming out of the Middle East and cross-pollinating with other styles from around the world. This evening at Lincoln Center, the trumpeter-santoorist-singer debuted his new suite, Not Two with a mighty seventeen-piece ensemble centered around the members of his regular quintet Rivers of Sounds: drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Carlo DeRosa, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen. It was a magically epic performance, one which will momentarily be recorded and which is scheduled to be released on vinyl within the year. That’s major news.

As the group slowly rose with a pensively emphatic, mournful signal from the trumpet, were they going to continue in the direction of long-toned massed improvisation, a slightly Arabic-toned take on Karl Berger or Butch Morris? As it turned out, no. The opening segment grew to a sort of take on the distant, august majesty of a theme from another cross-pollinator, Hafez Modirzadeh, with whom ElSaffar has memorably collaborated. As the work went on, multiple themes rose and fell, slowly crescendoing long-toned melodies against an uneasily rippling, relentlessly rhythmic backdrop, Waits augmented by several percussionists including Tim Moore (of the transcendently good Middle Eastern jamband Salaam). ElSaffar’s sister Dena – leader of that group – supplied what was arguably the night’s most plaintive moment, playing achingly raw, sustained lines on her joza fiddle, also adding austere oud and atmosphere on viola and violin. DeRosa did the heaviest lifting of anybody in the ensemble, working up a sweat with endlessly vamping, incisively circular riffs, a couple of times racewalking his scales as he pushed the tunes into a couple of lickety-split hardbop swing interludes.

Abboushi, Tawil and fellow oudist George Ziadeh each got to take long, crescendoing solos against a hushed, anticipatory backdrop, ElSaffar adding more rippling, suspenseful flourishes on his santoor than he did on trumpet. ElSaffar built Gil Evans-like lustre, from the bottom of the sonic register – bass, cello and JD Parran’s bass saxophone – to the very top, with the santoor, violin, vibraphone and pianist Craig Taborn’s insistent, repetitive close harmonies. The rhythms would shift artfully from a stately dirge, to galloping triplets or a circling gait evocative of Ethiopian folk music. The themes embraced Mohammed Abdel Wahab-esque classical  Egyptian anthemicness as well as lingering, otherworldly, minimalist Iraqi melodies and a couple of romps through pretty straight-ahead American postbop tinged with Monk-like modalities. They took it up for an explosive outro and then slowly wound it down at the end. ElSaffar has enjoyed a long association with Lincoln Center, who co-commissioned this work, another impressive notch in the  belt for both.

This show is typical of the kind of coucerts in the atrium series at Lincoln Center: an abundance of styles from across the spectrum and around the world. One particularly enticing upcoming show is the JACK Quartet‘s appearance on April 23 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be playing works by John Zorn, Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw and others.

A Gorgeously Bittersweet Middle Eastern-Flavored Album and a Brooklyn Show from Alsarah & the Nubatones

Underscoring the bittersweet beauty and lithely kinetic songs on Alsarah & the Nubatones‘ debut album, Silt, is the tragic loss of oudist Haig Magnoukian, one of the most soulful players ever to grace a New York stage. But the core of the self-described “East African retro pop” group – frontwoman Alsarah, percussionist Rami El Asser and bassist Mawuena Kodjovi – lives on, with an upcoming free show on Oct 7 at 7 PM at Bric Arts, 647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place at the southern tip of Ft. Greene, right around the corner from BAM.

On the album – streaming online here – the band blends an early 1970s-style Middle Eastern-flavored Nubian sound with elements that reflect its members’ global background (Alsarah, for example, was born in Sudan and came to the US via Yemen). The vernacular lyrics often reference a longing for a home now gone forever, which makes sense since so many Nubians were displaced by the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt right around the time this style of music was at the peak of its popularity.

The album’s opening track, Habibi Taal sounds like a slinkier, bluesier take on vamping Moroccan gnawa music: the band takes it out with a fullscale sprint to the finish line. They amp up the funk factor on Soukura (It’s Late), a Middle Eastern groove with call-and-response guy/girl vocals, Alsarah in especially captivating, hazily seductive mode. Nubia Noutou has a trickier rhythm, Alsarah’s signature blend of warmth and wariness, and incisive variations on a dancing oud theme.

The album’s most poignant moment is the bristling, broodingly expansive Magnoukian oud solo that follows and then leads into Bilad Aldahb, a dusky lament lowlit by El Asser’s stately frame drum work. Then the band picks up the pace with the hypnotically bouncy Fugu (Shams Alhuria) and its droll wah-wah synth accents.

Rennat begins as a dirge and then morphs into a scampering psych-folk groove with blippy organ. The catchy, anthemic, soaringly swaying Wad Alnuba features Alsarah’s previous band, accordionist Ismail Butera‘s similarly slinky, frequently haunting Sounds of Taraab. Yanas Baradou has a camelwalking desert rock groove underneath unexpectedly airy vocal harmonies. El Asser’s playfully suspenseful, crescendoing drum solo introduces the final cut, Jibal Alnuba, a lively vocal-and-percussion piece. It’s good to see this group back in action, with a sound that’s as rustic as it is in the moment and individualistic. How cool is is that bands like this still exist in this city?