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No New Abnormal

Tag: iraqi music

Transcendent, Exhilarating, Haunting Iraqi Sounds at Roulette

For the past couple of years, impresarios Robert and Helene Browning have been booking a transcendentally good series of shows at Roulette, featuring artists from across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Those performances ought to be good: Robert Browning Associates have been doing this for over forty years, so they’ve built a vast talent base to draw from. While this season’s series of concerts is as wildly diverse as usual, the central theme this year is music from across the Arabic-speaking world. Saturday night’s show by impassioned Iraqi crooner Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir – this continent’s only classical Iraqi maqam ensemble – was as epic, and entrancing, and hauntingly relevant as any concert in New York this year.

They’d played at Lincoln Center this past March, and then a couple of times afterward, but this was a welcome opportunity to cut really cut loose. The Lincoln Center show featured songs that were somewhat shorter – ok, less than twenty or thirty minutes long – and seemed heavier on the more humorous material. But music from the Arabic-speaking diaspora is deep. In one haunting, dynamically rising and falling interlude at this show, Al-Saadi addressed the fleeting hope for relationship bliss, then the healing power of maqam riffage, then later the ever-present need to defeat occupying forces. You would expect no less from a socially aware narrative from Iraq from a century ago.

Al-Saadi’s voice is raw, often bristling with overtones: he holds back nothing. It was also in much better shape than at the Lincoln Center gig. Throughout this show, he’d either open a song with a big, resonant, potently melismatic crescendo, or he’d tease the audience (and his bandmates) to where he’d cut loose in the middle of a song.

Pretty much everybody else in the band sang along, or in a call-and-response. Bandleader Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena – the world’s most talented brother-sister team – gave Al-Saadi an alternately slinky and pouncing groove. Tim Moore’s dynamic, slyly shapeshifting dumbek beat fueled the concert’s peaks, when George Ziadeh’s oud, Amir’s pointillistic santoor or Dena’s otherworldly, rain-drenched joza fiddle were going full steam. Solos tended to be tantalizingly short.

The concert followed a roller-coaster trajectory, punctuated by several breathtaking vocal peaks. The ensemble began rather enigmatically, then broodingly and expressively worked their way up from enigmatic modes that roughly corresponded to the western whole-tone scale, to a fiery couple of concluding numbers seething with chromatics, microtones and a desire to rid the world of invaders, whether Ottoman or British. The pair of women on backup vocals added layers of depth to an already lavish and searing blend of sounds.

The Brownings’ concert series at Roulette continues this Dec 7 at 8 PM with legendary Javanese bandleader I. M. Harjito directing Gamelan Kusuma Laras in a program of rippling, hypnotic traditional bell orchestra sounds; general admission is $30.

A Vicarious Western Appreciation of an Epic Iraqi Musical Tradition

Amir ElSaffar may be best known for his epically haunting, slowly crescendoing, highly improvisational big band music, but the roots of that paradigm-shifting sound can be found in his smaller group, Safaafir. The Chicago-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist went to Iraq to connect with his heritage, where he met singer Hamid Al-Saadi, who would mentor him in the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition. Last night at Lincoln Center, Safaafir backed Al-Saadi in a towering, majestic, sold-out performance whose unease and ecstasy transcended linguistic limitations.

“It wasn’t so quiet in the dressing room,” the bandleader joked as the group tuned up. “Thank you for being so respectful.” He began the show playing the rippling santoor, his sister Dena on viola, George Ziadeh on oud, Tim Moore on percussion and a trio of backup singers.

Throughout the night, the melodies fell somewhere in between the traditional western scale and the bracing microtones of Arabic music, sometimes evoking an eerie major-on-minor ambience. There’s also a frequent trancelike quality to this music, evident from the pensive, insistent, straightforward pulse of the night’s opening instrumental intro. Then they launched into a syncopated antiphon, Al-Saadi leading the band in a stark, dramatic call and response. Moments like this are all the more tantalizing when you don’t speak the language: what was it about this music that sent it underground during the Saddam Hussein regime?

Dena ElSaffar delivered jauntily dancing lines, goosebump-inducing microtonal trills and alternately spare and lush washes of sound in contrast with her brother’s slowly rising, rippling crescendos. Ziadeh’s solos and exchanges with the other musicians tended to be more brooding. Al-Saadi would add aching, tremoloing ornamentation, especially as the songs would slowly coalesce out of an improvisation. Often the songs would begin rather somberly and then lighten as the rhythm came in.

There also wasn’t any traditional western verse/chorus dichotomy, the group reliant on each others’ cues as well as Al-Saadi’s carefully modulated dynamic shifts. Sharp-fanged chromatics gave way to sunnier grooves as the songs went along: a drinking tune, an ode to a beautiful woman, Sufi devotional melodies and a song about two speculators bickering over who was to blame for their mutual losses. Plus ca change. It was also extraordinarily catchy: from Egypt to points further east, music that relies on melody rather than harmony tends to be that way.  The night’s most rapturously haunting, gorgeous number was a slowly swaying anthem in a mode close to the Arabic hijaz. The most easygoing were what could have been an acoustic version of an electronic habibi pop hit, and a triumphant anthem over a rat-a-tat groove on which Dena ElSaffar played jowza fiddle.

In an era where artists from predominantly Muslim countries are demonized, it’s encouraging to see the nation’s flagship cultural institution going against the grain. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who emceed, spoke of how her organization is home to “Programming really designed to represent New York City, an international city of diversity and immigrants – we celebrate all of that on our stage.” Meera Dugal – during her Lincoln Center tenure – programmed the show in conjunction with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, who to date have provided free legal representation along with help with resettlement and work permits to over 200 international artists at risk.

The next free concert at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is April 4 at 7:30 PM with popular, rustic Americana songwriter Leyla McCalla – who shifts between oldtimey string band music, blues and Haitian sounds. Early arrival is always a good idea here.

And Al-Saadi and Safaafir are at Pioneer Works on April 8 at 7 PM for $10 in advance.

Israeli Guitarist Dudu Tassa Brings Rare Iraqi-Influenced Rock Sounds to NYC

Israeli guitarist Dudu Tassa and his band the Kuwaitis play intense original rock songs influenced by ancient Iraqi Jewish melodies, drawing on his own Iraqi ancestry (his grandfather and uncle, the Daoud Brothers, were a popular act in pre-WWII Iraq, but were driven from the country in 1951). Tassa is a considerably more interesting guitarist than your typical rock lead player, eschewing long bluesy solos for elegant broken chords, darkly resonant chromatic vamps and even the occasional unexpected departure into indie opaqueness. The band’s lineup is a standard rock power trio bolstered by an Iraqi classical ensemble with lutes, percussion and strings. The result is often absolutely haunting – in a lot of ways, they’re doing the same thing with Iraqi music that Rita is with her Iranian roots. As striking and original as this band’s sound is, it’s a throwback to many centuries ago when Jewish and Arabic folk music was pretty much one and the same. Tassa and band make a rare US appearance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown at 36 Battery Place (just north and west of Battery Park) on March 12 at 7 PM; tix are $35/$30/stud/srs.

Tassa’s latest album with this band is his eighth, testament to the eternal popularity of Arabic-influenced music in Israel (as with country and blues music in this hemisphere, it’s considered rootsy and therefore cool). The opening track is a Middle Eastern dancefloor groove, but with screaming guitar, heavy drums, ney flute and baglama lute plinking quietly up to a suspenseful interlude where the flute takes a long solo up to another majestic peak. The second cut opens with a trilling joza fiddle solo, then the band comes in and makes a snarling, richly tuneful, memorably uneasy 6/8 rock anthem out of it, buoyed by the lushness of the string section as it winds out.

Track three (songs titles and vocals are in either Hebrew or Arabic) starts out with a biting late 80s indie feel and hits a more Middle Eastern groove as it goes along, with a stark joza solo midway through. The fourth cut begins with a scampering oud solo and works a hypnotic one-chord groove with microtonal flute and surrealistically flitting accents from the rest of the ensemble. After that, the group puts a rustically galloping spin on a more contemporary Arabic dancefloor pop tune, then Tassa sings a warmly low-key folk-pop ballad for just electric guitars and voice.

The seventh track blends bossa nova, flamenco and the Middle East, tersely incisive trumpet lines floating over the string section. After that, the band blasts through another haunting one-chord chromatic orchestral romp with a long guitar-joza duel out. They keep the bracing Levantine ambience going, the orchestra going full steam and then winding down to a pizzicato string loop and another judiciously crescendoing trumpet solo. Track ten takes an unexpected detour into rather peevish downstroke indie guitar rock, then adds strings for an unexpected majesty: indie ELO? The album ends with a catchy, upbeat, rustic folk number for oud, strings, voice and percussion. The operative question is where, other than onstage north of Battery Park, this album can be heard. Not on Spotify, although many of the tracks are streaming at Tassa’s site, and there are a couple at the band’s publicists’ site as well.

Salaam Plays One of 2013’s Best Concerts Downtown Saturday Night

Throughout her band Salaam‘s set this evening at Alwan for the Arts downtown, multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar had an expression of pure, unselfconscious delight on her face. Which makes sense, considering how much fun to play her songs must be. A cynic would say that this group is a bunch of Americans playing Middle Eastern music, which is true, although there is a family connection. As she explained it, the bandleader and her jazz trumpeter brother Amir grew up as second-generation Iraqi-Americans in Chicago in the 80s, although their musical lives then revolved around Lutheran hymns and classical music in school and then sneaking into blues clubs at night. “Amir stopped going when he turned 21,” she joked. Since then, they’ve come full circle with their heritage and in the process have built one of the most entertaning Middle Eastern bands on the planet. She began the night on viola, her original instrument, with the ridiculously catchy, irresistibly slinky Mesopotania. The song was nspired, she explained, by her first awestruck sight of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, which hardly resembled the boring-as-dust account she remembered from middle school. Joining in soaring harmony with soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen, her brother played trumpet on that one. Then he switched to santoor (the rippling, ringing Iraqi dulcimer) for a bouncy traditional song whose Arabic lyrics went something along the lines of “she went from her father’s house to the neighbor’s house and didn’t stop at mine, I wonder if she’s mad at me.”

A gregarious, nonchalantly charismatic performer, Dena El Saffar seemed to have as much fun telling stories as she did playing music. She explained that she never envisioned herself as someone who’d make a career out of introducing kids to Middle Eastern music. but because she had so much fun the first time she did it, she kept doing it – and now she’s led workshops with thousands of students. But while like her brother, she’s immersed herself in traditional Iraqi music, her influences range far beyond there. Her husband Tim Moore, who played dumbek (goblet drum) with a groove that was as understatedly joyous as it was hypnotic, led the group through a tribute to Lima Sahar (the first woman to compete on the Afghani verison of American Idol, whose rapid rise to fame was derailed by misogynists in her own family) with a hook-driven Bollywood flair. Queen of  Sheba, inspired by some very cool folks at a Louisville Ethiopian restaurant, built to a swirling, dancing Ethiopiques vamp. The title track from the band’s latest album Train to Basra served as a long launching pad for sizzling hard bop as well as plaintive Orientalisms from both trumpet and sax. And Iraqi-American Blues artfully juxtaposed  iconic Muddy Waters riffage with eerie Iraqi chromatics, an illustration of both the emotional similarities between the blues and Middle Eastern music as well as the sometimes hellish experience of being an American of Middle Eastern descent in the years following 9/11.

As the night went on, Dena El Saffar switched to oud, then violin, then joza (the stark Iraqi fiddle, with its coconut-shell body) for a harrowing version of the rustically mournful Joza Tears. Although Salaam’s music doesn’t typically feature as much of the sometimes long-winded soloing common throughout the Middle East, everybody got a chance to cut loose, even the bassist, whose agile microtones, jazzy variations on the melody and stark, brooding bowing were some of the set’s high points. They wound up the show with an exuberantly anthemic singalong of the classic Iraqi folk song Over the Palm Tree, the elder El Saffar in unselfishingly soulful crooner mode, his sister taking what might have been the most exhilarating solo of the night on viola, building to a fiery series of stun-gun staccato riffs, finally blasting through the last chorus at doublespeed. It’s been a great year for concerts in New York this year, but this was one of the very best.

Salaam’s Train to Basra on the Express Track to Fun

Is there a musical family anywhere in the world as talented as the El Saffars? Big brother Amir, one of the great trumpeters in jazz, shifts the paradigm with his blend of Miles Davis elegance and haunting Middle Eastern themes (his other axe is the santoor, the rippling Middle Eastern dulcimer). Younger sister and brilliant violinist Dena El Saffar leads Salaam, the Indiana-based Middle Eastern instrumental ensemble. She’s bringing them to her brother’s place, Alwan for the Arts downtown, which is to the music of the Arabic diaspora what CBGB was to rock, on Sept 26 at 8 PM. $20 advance tix are still available as of today (you can try the day of the show, but this will probably sell out).

Salaam has yet another new album out, Train to Basra, their eighth and arguably their best. At least it’s their most eclectic. The opening track, Queen of  Sheba sends a shout-out to the Louisville Ethiopian restaurant (yup) where Dena El Saffar forgot her phone (and whose cool staff mailed it back to her!) with a slowly unwinding Ethiopique groove that mingles her own oud with Sam Finley’s incisive guitar and an ecstatic horn section of her brother plus tenor saxophonist Lety ElNaggar. Kashaniya works a slinky, dancing chromatic groove with a suspenseful noir edge, Finley having a great time supplying searing Middle Eastern licks. The title track memorializes her dad’s train ride as a seven-year-old going by himself to meet his family on vacation (in the days before post-9/11 paranoia, LOTS OF KIDS DID THAT ALL THE TIME AND NO ONE EVER GOT KILLED) with a joyously pulsing romp driven by ElNaggar’s ney flute

Iraqi-American Blues wryly works the Muddy Waters Mannish Boy hook into a Middle Eastern vamp fueled by more of Dena’s oud work, a more simpatico stylistic mashup than you might think. As she alludes in the liner notes, if you happen to be an American-born citizen of Iraqi ancestry, you definitely know what it means to have the blues. The most hauntingly cinematic of all the songs here, Lima Sahar commemorates the rapid rise and sudden fall of the Afghani woman who was the first to win her nation’s version of American Idol, only to be driven underground by extremist Muslim misogynists, never to be seen again.

Dena El Saffar switches to the hauntingly austere Iraqi joza fiddle on Joza Tears, a murky, echoing theme with a dubwise feel driven by John Orie Stith’s hypnotic bass. She finds the missing link that connects the Middle East and Mexico with the lushly soaring The Mariachi Stole My Heart, taking one of the album’s most intense solos midway through on violin. After that, there’s a long, celebratory vamp with a misterioso santoor solo, then a multi-percussion solo from her husband Tim Moore (whose diverse beats propel this album), followed by Awakening, an auspicous tribute to the heroes of the Arab Spring that may be the most suspensefully gripping track here, Amir’s conspiratorial trumpet ushering in a triumphantly slinky, classic Egyptian groove. The album winds up with the wryly titled, gorgeously levantine Rast Saffari, Dena multitracking herself as a stately string orchestra, and then Mesopotamia, which manages to blend a hypnotic Jamaican sleng teng riddim with a long, pensive, Iraqi violin solo that hits with an anthemic wallop. It’s still a long way til December, but this just might be the best, funnest album of the year.

Haunting, Transcendent Iraqi Sounds at Naseer Shamma’s Sold-Out Show at the Met

[repost from sister blog Lucid Culture, in case you’re wondering where this came from]

There was a point during oudist Naseer Shamma’s sold-out show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night where in the middle of an expansive, bucolic theme, he suddenly transformed it into a menacing raga, wailing and then sirening downward on the high strings against an ominously reverberating low note. It was one of many such moments for the Iraq-born, Cairo-based virtuoso, performing with a seven-piece version of his extraordinary Al-Oyoun Ensemble and earning a standing ovation from a crowd that throughout the show spontanteously broke out into clapping and singing along with Shamma’s instrumentals.

His music is as cutting-edge as anything in the Arabic-speaking world, yet remains rooted in ancient traditions and often in familiar themes. Shamma began the concert judiciously with a solo improvisation that rose and fell dramatically, using his fret hand to tap out rapidfire clusters with a precision that was both spectacular and uncanny. The show ended with the ensemble hamming up a bright pastoral theme, nay flute player Hany ElBadry firing off a wildly trilling, buffoonishly masterful display of chops that drew the most explosive applause of the night. In between, the group – which also included Saber AbdelSattar on qanun, Hussein ElGhandour and Said Zaki on violins, Salah Ragab on bass and Amro Mostafa on riq frame drum – made their way through an eclectic program rich with emotion and intensity. Shamma and AbdelSattar engaged in several wryly adrenalized duels and exchanges, while a long, droll call-and-response between the oud and drum grew more amusing as it went on. But as much fun as the band and audience were having, the majority of the themes were sober, even severe, marked by a shared terseness and restraint that often spilled over into unselfconscious plaintiveness as the group mined the microtones of the maqams (Arabic scales) with a sophistication that was stunning both for its technical skill and emotional attunement. This pensive, raw quality may well have had something to do with the fact that this was Shamma’s first American concert in over a decade since he’d boycotted this country throughout the Iraq war.

Opening act the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble (better known as the Alwan All-Stars) were just as cutting-edge and intense. Bandleader/santoor player Amir ElSaffar, who brought this bill together, also programs the music at Alwan for the Arts, the downtown hotspot which has become a home for paradigm-shifting Middle Eastern sounds much as CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s: if you’re somebody in that world, you want to play there. In a set that could have gone on for thee times as long as it did without losing any interest, the group – also including ElSaffar’s virtuoso sister Dena on violin and jowza fiddle, Lety AlNaggar on nay, George Ziadeh on oud, Shusmo bandleader Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Apostolis Sideris on bass, Zafer Tawil on qanun and percussion, and Johnny Farraj on riq – played variations on an Iraqi repertoire that has all but disappeared since its heyday sixty or seventy years ago. Stately, steady themes were interspersed with solo passages that in the band’s epic second number had been devised to represent the individual styles of the various regions in Iraq. Amir ElSaffar also took care to mention that the mini-suite also memorialized the ten-year anniversary of the Bush regime’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which may have accounted for the understatedly brooding, lingering effect of a purposeful but mesmerizing santoor solo, ElSaffar’s sister raising the ante with an edgy intensity before Ziadeh took it back down with a shadowy unease. Let’s hope that it isn’t another ten years before another such a riveting, exhilarating doublebill as this one happens on American turf.