In mathematics, zero is undefined. We get the English word “cipher” from the Arabic “siphr,” meaning zero. On her debut studio album Siphr – streaming at Bandcamp – first-generation Lebanese-American songwriter Naima Shalhoub draws inspiration from that mystical concept, a number neither positive nor negative, conceivably both a beginning and an ending.
.It’s a stark collaboration between Shalhoub and Tarik Kazaleh a.k.a. Excentrik on electric guitar, embellishing his alternately stark and frenetic lines with all sorts of Middle Eastern ornamentation. He also plays oud on several tracks, often in the same song. The result is a strikingly original blend of the blues and the Middle East.
The opening number, One (Remembrance) is a minor-key one-chord jam with both bluesy guitar and spiky oud over a boomy, undulating dumbek groove. Two (Rivers in the Desert) is a spare, Malian-tinged duskcore tableau: in Arabic, Shalhoub sings of a metaphorical irrigation coming our way.
Excentrik’s elegant, spiky, 70s-style soul-jazz guitar sets the stage for Three (Loved), Shalhoub’s take on a Stylistics-style ballad: “From your tears, revolutions come.” The low-key Four (Roumieh Prison Blues) features Arabic lyrics written by prisoners at the infamous Lebanonese prison, where Shalhoub has performed.
With its message of empowerment, Five (The Calling) is a diptych: a simple but direct solo Shalhoub piano ballad that brings to mind Alice Lee, then a long, edgy, psychedelic outro with Marcus Shelby’s bowed bass up in the mix. There’s a similar hypnotic quality to Six (Distraction Suite), a triptych: first a cello-and-vocal jazz piece which brings to mind Jen Shyu‘s work with Mark Dresser, followed by a brooding, noirish blues interlude and a triumphant outro that’s a mashup of Afrobeat and a levantine dance.
The most unselfconsciously gorgeous number here is Seven (Lamma Badda Yantathamma), a bouncy oud-and-vocal tune with one of Shalhoub’s most expressive vocals.
Excentrik takes a turn on the mic in Eight (Arab-Amerikkki), a cynical anti-racist hip-hop broadside. The duo close with Nine (The Return), a psychedelic soul variation on the opening theme with some sizzling guitar and oud tremolo-picking. It’s rare to hear such dissimilar styles mashed up so originally, unexpectedly and seamlessly.