The Buzuq Is Mightier Than the Sword

Ramzi Aburedwan was eight years old when he became iconic in his native Palestine. Photographed at the second when he was about to hurl a rock at an Israeli tank, his image would circulate on t-shirts and posters throughout the late 80s and early 90s. The photo inspired numerous literary works, notably poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous 1988 Trilogy of the Children of the Stones. But Aburedwan soon discovered that music was mightier than the sword, a point he drives home again and again on his album Reflections of Palestine. Trained in France as a violist, he returned home to become the leader of the Palestine National Ensemble of Arabic Music. He would also become a virtuoso of the buzuq (brother to the Greek bouzouki), which he plays on his latest album Reflections of Palestine alongside Mohammed Al Qutati on accordion, Ziad Benyoussef on oud, Mohamed Najem on clarinet, and Tareq Rantissi and Bachir Rouimi on percussion.

Aburedwan’s edgy chromatic melodies more frequently employ western minor scales than they do the microtones of the Arabic maqamat. The music on this album is not violent; it’s often haunting, sometimes bitter, wounded, reflective. It’s also very lively in places, most notably on Bordeaux, a long one-chord jam that the oud takes into shadowier terrain. Bahar, which opens with casually strummed chords in the style of a British folk ballad, eventually morphs into an upbeat Greek-flavored dance. And Sodfa (Arabic for “coincidence”) explores both rhythms and tonalities from the Balkans.

But the slower material is the most powerful. Rahil (“exile”) potently evokes both longing for home as well as the furtive nature of life under an occupation, Aburedwan gently tremolo-picking his buzuq almost in the style of a Russian balalaika, eventually building to a tense, apprehensive dance. Sans Addresse is essentially a cavatina, rising from a brooding, hesitant oud taqsim to a funeral march, Aburedwan’s mournful phrases capturing the grief, agitation and fear of living as an exile. The epic Tahrir (“liberation”) begins bubbly but tensely and becomes even more tense as it rises, with almost a tango beat, before a long, judicious accordion solo over a hypnotic percussion riff.

The two most traditionally Middle Eastern pieces are Samai Faah Faza, a rhythmically tricky number that spins clever variations on a series of Egyptian-tinged riffs, and Andalus, an anthem that sets accordion and gently tremolo-picked buzuq mingling with terse oud and echoey, ominous percussion. The most unselfconsciously beautiful song is Raja, beginning with somber solo clarinet, working its way up to a pensive, plaintive dirge that crescendos with a series of intense chromatic riffs. The album ends with Gitans En Orient, a bustling, shapeshifting romp, sometimes majestic, sometimes scampering, underscoring gypsy music’s roots in the Middle East. With the gypsy music explosion of recent years, the potential audience for this richly melodic, intense album extends far beyond the usual demimonde of Middle Eastern and Arabic music fans. It’s out now from World Music Network.