New York Music Daily

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Tag: arabic music

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.

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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?

From the Black Sea to Spanish Harlem in a Single Day at Lincoln Center

This year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors has been as reliably fun and eclectic as ever. And it’s more watchable than ever since many of the events are being simulcast (and promise to be archived for streaming later). As far as music from around the world is concerned, that’s been arguably better than ever. The previous weekend’s standout concert modeled itself on Globalfest, the dance-friendly annual spinoff of the January booking agents’ convention held at Webster Hall. Sunday’s show on the plaza mirrored the arguably even more deliriously fun, Middle Eastern-inspired Alwan-a-Thon conceived by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, held over the same weekend at downtown cultural mecca Alwan for the Arts.

The concert began with self-taught Afghani rubab lute player Quraishi leading a trio with twin dhol drums. His brief set of three traditional folk numbers and a bouncy original was considerably more lighthearted than his rather somber new album Mountain Melodies. Lilting pastoral themes that brought to mind more longscale Hindustani music rose and fell with a hypnotic pulse flavored with spiky, briskly fingerpicked improvisation. The lutenist explained that while some of his music reminds of styles from further east, many Indian ragas are based on Afghani melodies, and that the rubab is the ancestor of the Indian sarod. In a droll Q&A with the audience, Quraishi revealed the secret to keeping his instrument in tune with all the strings intact, no small achievement: he uses steel for the ringing, sympathetic strings and gut for the rest, with the exception of the bass string, which he’d liberated from a tennis racket. He didn’t specify whether that one was gut or nylon, but either way it didn’t break like others had.

Next on the bill were the haunting, exhilarating Ensemble Shashmaqam. As organizer Pete Rushefsky explained, the group originally came together in 1982 in Queens to play Bukharan Jewish repertoire but since has expanded to include Muslim folk material from Uzbekhistan and Tajikistan. In an otherworldly, passionately expressive bass-baritone, their powerful lead singer “Samarkandi,” a.k.a. Rustam Kojimamedov intoned and implored over an alternately haunting and bouncy backdrop fueled by the biting lines of David Davidov’s homemade tar lute. A trio of women dressed in colorful silk costumes took turns twirling and dancing gracefully across the stage throughout the show. A couple of elegaic waltzes, an anthem punctuated by anguished crescendos from Samarkandi that drew gasps of astonishment or solidarity from the crowd, as well as a jaunty, surprisingly lighthearted Jewish wedding dance mini-suite, vocals and tar set against a rather somber wash of minor-key accordion and backing vocals, made this the day’s most impactful set.

Turkish singer/composer Ahmet Erdogdular and his quartet – Peter Daverington on expressive, sailing ney flute, Elylen Basaldi on similarly lithe violin and meticulously precise, soulful oudist Mavrothi Kontanis (who has an alter ego as a darkly psychedelic rock bandleader) – maintained the serious mood. Maybe to differentiate his performance from the others, Erdogdular counterintuitively chose several songs in rather obscure maqam modes, rather than relying on the edgy chromatics and eerie microtones that make Turkish music both so haunting and so instantly identifiable. Erdogdular sang in a powerful, emotive baritone while accompanying himself on frame drum, and on one number, on tambur lute, contributing a long, plaintive solo that mirrored his pensive, brooding approach to the vocals.

The NY Crimean Tatar Ensemble continued the day’s theme of how the music of Turkik peoples has made such an impact from the Balkans through central Asia. Frontman Nariman Asimov spun adrenalizing, rapidfire violin lines balanced by the careful approach of virtuoso kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi (of the NY Gypsy All-Stars) while a succession of men and women dancers, in gold-embroidered silk costumers similar to those worn by Ensemble Shashmaqam’s dancers, moved with a jaunty precision in front of the quartet. This group’s set was the most eclectic and stylistically diverse, ranging from moody klezmer-infused romps, a stately waltz or two and joyously pogoing dances, all of them lit up with searing violin and pointillistic kanun work. Pinarbasi shadowed the melody, indicating that he might not have had much if any rehearsal for the set but nonetheless managed to infuse everything with his signature dynamics and intensity.

About an hour and a half after this show had ended, bandleader Cita Rodriguez and her Orchestra took the stage in Damrosch Park just to the south, leading an ecstatic, towering tribute to her late father, the great salsa singer Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. Her brother, Pete, who happens to be one of the most potent, pyrotechnic trumpeters in all of jazz, got to take more of a turn on vocals this time, a role he grew into while still in his teens, singing choruses with his famous dad. The concert began with a hypnotic, otherworldly booming African drum interlude, then the orchestra kicked in with a mighty swell and kept the energy at redline well after the sun had finally gone down as a parade of El Conde’s colleagues, including but not limited to Johnny Pacheco, Willie Montalvo and others, took their turns on the mic. Through catchy, endless two-chord vamps punctuated by explosive brass swells, a couple of epically symphonic anthems and a suite of 70s hits, the party was in full effect and never relented. El Conde was a musician’s musician, a craftsman who was always looking for ways to take his art to the next level, through the last weeks of his life: as a celebration of Puerto Rican pride dating from the days when there was plenty of opposition to it in this city, he would have taken a lot of satisfaction from this.

A Wild, Otherworldly Night with Armenian Oud Virtuoso Richard Hagopian

It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the thrilling, chromatically charged sounds of Armenian music than Richard Hagopian. During his sold-out show Sunday night at Symphony Space, the virtuoso oudist took a moment to proudly reflect on how just about every household in the global Armenian diaspora had at least one of his longtime band Kef Time‘s albums. Otherwise, Hagopian’s sense of humor was more self-effacing. As he explained, he joined his first band at age nine: “We weren’t very good, but the older people thought we were,” he grinned. His next gig came at eleven, playing with a group whose members were about seven decades older, an early immersion in the kind of obscure treasures that he’d bring to a global audience over the decades to come.

A record-setting two-year run with Buddy Sarkissian’s showband on the Vegas strip led to the birth of Kef Time and endless touring: meanwhile, Hagopian ran a music venue in his native Fresno. This concert also featured his son Harold, an equally brilliant musician, doubling on kanun and violin and served as emcee, giving his dad a chance to reflect on his career and explain the songs both for the Armenian and English speakers in the audience. Ara Dinkjian played guitar, sometimes doubling the melody line, other times supplying what were essentially basslines when he wasn’t anchoring the music with brisk chordal rhythm. Percussionist Rami negotiated the songs’ tricky 9/8 and 10/8 time signatures with a hypnotically kinetic aplomb, playing both goblet and frame drums.

Considering how much Turkish-language material there was on the bill, Harold Hagopian reminded that there’s no more cognitive dissonance in an Armenian listening to Turkish music – or vice versa – than there is for a Jew to listen to German music. The quartet opened with a couple of lush, windswept classical pieces, the first by blind oudist Udi Hrant Kenkulian, the group often playing the same lickety-split, spiky, microtonally-spiced phrase in unison. Being on the Silk Road and culturally diverse, the music of Armenia is something of a cross between Arabic and western sounds – while in Arabic music it’s usually the microtones that make it so haunting and otherworldly, in Armenian music it’s often the passing tones, neither major nor minor in a western scale, which enhance its enigmatic magic.

Hagopian opened a couple of later numbers with pensive improvisations – otherwise, he fired off wild flurries of tremolo-picking, flying joyously through the songs’ bracing modes. His son has a similar, wickedly fast, precise attack on the kanun, switching to violin for the later part of the show and getting to show off his command of tersely resonant, atmospheric lines. Several of the vocal numbers had an ironic humor: Hele Hele, a folk song – about “a guy who likes a girl but who can’t get to first base with her,” as the senior Hagopian put it – along with an insistent “dragon dance” inspired by Indian music, and Her Hair Was Blonde, the sadly swaying lament of a New Jersey immigrant whose first choice of fiancee has just been promised to another guy with more money.

Nane Suyu, an elegant tribute to one of the first jazz oudists, Chick Ganimian, was more subdued. After that, the band picked up the pace with Nihavent Longa, a tribute to to another legendary oudist, George Mgrditchian. They ended with Drumsalero, a vaudevillian fanfare of sorts in tribute to Sarkissian – an innovator known for employing a full kit’s worth of goblet drums onstage – which gave Rami a chance to cut loose in between jaunty riffs from the rest of the band.

The World Music Institute, who put this bill together, has a similarly enticing program coming up at Symphony Space on May 7 at 7 PM. Titled Strings of the Black Sea, it features Crimean Tatar violinist Nariman Asanov, Brooklyn accordionist Patrick Farrell, Cherven Traktor’s Bulgarian gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev and Christos Tiktapanidis on the pontic lyre. Tickets are $30 and available both at the box office and through the WMI. Here’s what most of this cast of characters sounded like playing this same program four years ago.

Transcendence, Thrills and Fun with Simon Shaheen and Rima Khcheich

Saturday night, Palestininan-born oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen played a rare duo performance with Lebanese chanteuse Rima Khcheich to a sold-out crowd at Roulette. It was the Middle Eastern equivalent of Richard Thompson backing Rosanne Cash, or Duke Ellingon doing a duo show with Ella Fitzgerald. In a survey of iconic Arabic songs dating as far back as possibly the 12th century and as recently as the 70s, the two delivered two sets that were as rivetingly intense as they were friendly and intimate – no surprise, considering that most of the songs were about unrequited love.

Through endless dynamic shifts led by both the singer and instrumentalist, there were many moments of clenched-teeth angst but also lots of deviously funny repartee, much of it wordless. Humor is big in the Shaheen family. It wasn’t long before Simon started relating some funny stories, including one about how he eventually succeeded in getting a Beirut opera house crowd to loosen up, while his brother Najib – also a distinguished oudist – bantered with him from the audience. “Should we take a break?” Simon grinningly inquired at the concert’s midway point, “Not for us – but for you!”

“No. Violin, thirty minutes!” Najib heckled back. And to satisfy his brother, as well as the others who’d requested some violin, Simon opened the second half with a measured, thoughtfully paced solo improvisation that rose from somber to bitingly animated and then savage, winding up with a series of whirlwind downward runs. Before the concert, he’d given a characteristically enlightening talk, self-deprecatingly relating that he thought that this show would be “Not challenging, but beautiful and fulfilling,” his oud serving simply to provide counterpoint and rhythmic drive for Khcheich’s vocals. But it was so much more than that. The two have done duo performances before, and their chemistry was electric, sometimes haunting but also high-spirited, especially when the other would take an extra verse or extra chorus or add extra melismatic tingle to a phrase. At one point, Shaheen opened a song with a bristling flurry of notes and Khcheich shook him off. For most musicians, that would be a faux pas to the extreme: you don’t shake off Simon Shaheen any more than you tell Chopin or B.B. King to start over again. But Khcheich wanted a slow backdrop and Shaheen gladly gave her one, a stately, swaying pulse that the singer slowly built to a mutedly majestic sense of longing.

Shaheen explained beforehand that Khcheich’s repertoire begins in pre-Renaissance Andalucia and stops in Lebanon in the 70s: “Now in the Middle East, if you listen to one song, you listen to thousands…a replica of the west,” he groused. But he’s largely right about that, and he pretty much nailed what Khcheich is about. In the same vein as the legendary Fairouz, she’s not a big belter, using her minutely nuanced alto to channel the subtlest emotional and dynamic shifts with a fine-tuned sense of irony and a surprising grit that she occasionally employs to ramp up the unease. Shaheen delivered his usual blend of profundity and thrills: much as his searing volleys of chromatics and wild if surgically precise tremolo-picking drew appreciative applause throughout the show, most of what he played was far slower and more contemplative – which made the fireworks all the more thrilling.

“The program wasn’t finalized, and it’s still not,” Shaheen joked as the two made their way raptly into an early Andalucian anthem awash in emotionally charged, wavering melismas, following with a number of songs by 20th century masters Said Darwish and Mohammed Abdel Wahab full of suspenseful push-pull, swells and ebbs and elegant tradeoffs between oud and voice. From there they parsed the Fairouz catalog for a handful of plaintive, rising and falling anthems by Felimone Wihbi and paradigm-shifting Lebanese art-rock/art-song composer duo the Rahbani Brothers. After a long, unexpectedly nebulous anthem to close the show, Khcheich encored with a bravely resolute a-cappella number. “You close your eyes, there’s something beyond the technicality, the knowledge: a spiritual experience, I would say,” Shaheen related before the concert, then made good on that promise.

Promoters Robert Browning Associates have more concerts that promise to be just as exciting coming up at Roulette. On April 26 at 8 PM Amir Nojan & the Nava Ensemble play haunting classical Persian music here, then on May 3 there’s a show with visionary Turkish composer/multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek with his percussionist son Murat.

Cigdem Aslan Revisits the 1920s Aegean Underground with a Riveting Intensity

Istanbul-born singer Cigdem Aslan’s album Mortissa is a shout-out to the strong women and freedom fighters in Turkey and Greece in the 1920s and 30s, when the music of the underground, rembetiko, was banned on both sides for being too Arabic. If that doesn’t grab you, nothing will. It’s haunting, plaintive, rivetingly emotional stuff, with echoes of both klezmer and Egyptian melodies along with its obvious Greek and Turkish roots. This so-called “Anatolian blues,” with its bitter ironies and double meanings, was the stoner soundtrack to the revolutionary underworld that rose up in Smyrna, and Istanbul, and port cities on the Aegean almost a century ago. Aslan is an aptly cosmopolitan choice to revisit these songs, a woman of Kurdish descent who’s made a name for herself in the UK singing klezmer music from across the Jewish diaspora. To paraphrase Edward Said: orientalism, the ultimate source of all good musical things.

Aslan sings in both Greek and Turkish, although you don’t have to speak either to enjoy this music, and Aslan’s delivery often transcends any linguistic limitations: it’s not hard to figure out where the songs are coming from. Is the haunting, dirgelike Ferece (Veil) about a funeral, or a wedding? Actually, neither. It’s sung from the point of view of a Muslim woman who wants to tear off her oppressive burqa, Nikos Angousis-Doitsidis‘ searing clarinet lines mirroring the vocals‘ simmering rage. Likewise, Bir Allah (One God), Aslan’s imploring melismatics mingling with Pavlos Carvalho’s biting bouzouki. Aslan shifts in a split second from jaunty to pensive, especially on the shapeshifting To Dervisaki (Little Dervish), with its fiery succession of solos from the bouzouki to Makis Baklatzis’s violin to the clarinet. Aslan does the same on the album’s towering, angst-ridden final cut, S’agapo (I Love You), Nikolaos Baimpas’ kanun rippling over the gusty swells of the orchestra.

Aslan sings with a nonchalantly crystalline tone over a bouncy minor-key pulse on Aman Katerina Mou (Oh My Katerina), then she veers between coy and inquisitive on the rhythmically tricky, chromatically edgy Vale Me Stin Agalia Sou (Take Me In Your Arms). Pane Gia To Praso (Going Out For Leeks – 1920s Greek slang for hashish) spirals downward on the wings of some of the album’s most gorgeous bouzouki riffage beneath Aslan’s eerily glimmering microtones. The catchy Trava Vre Manga Kai Alani (Go Away, Manga) has echoes of klezmer,while the stark bouzouki and vocal lines added a surreal, crepuscular creepinesss to Nenni (Lullaby). There’s also a slinky levantine ensemble piece, a lush pastorale, a bitterly anthemic barroom scenario where Aslan tells her suitors to take a hike, and the enigmatic Girl from Usak, sort of a Turkish circus rock shuffle with a kanun solo that might be the album’s most exhilarating moment.  Where can you hear this masterpiece online? It’s not at Grooveshark or Bandcamp but it is on Spotify, and there are a couple of tracks up at Asphalt Tango Records’ Soundcloud page.