New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: lety elnaggar

Out of Nations Add Global Spice to Their Kinetic Original Middle Eastern Sounds

Berlin-based group Out of Nations are yet another one of those fascinating bands who transcend their origins and defy categorization. The shapeshifting instrumentals of frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Lety ElNaggar and composer Khalil Chahine – who also arranged and produced the album – move effortlessly from Middle Eastern grooves, to more tropical sounds, with a fat bottom end and influences from many other parts of the globe. Their debut album Quest is streaming at Spotify: it’s one of the most entertainingly eclectic releases of recent months.

Bassist Ahmed Nazmi’s atmospheric solo taqsim opens the album’s first song, Khafif, a funky, dancing new version of a late 1800s Egyptian classic by Said Darwish. Guest oudist Hazem Shaheen – of the Nile Project – adds rustic vocals as well as a spare, spiky solo over Nazmi’s bounce, ElNaggar providing atmosphere and ecstatically dancing riffs with her ney flute and soprano sax.

Shifting from smoky, to airy, to lively, she pulls the band up from a pensive intro to a jumping soukous-style dance and then eventually a jazz waltz in Tribute to a Time, awash in Jonas Cambien’s synth orchestration.

Juan Ospina of psychedelic tropical rock monsters MAKU Soundsystem sings the lushly orchestrated, coyly pulsing Fiebre, ElNaggar building to a big crescendo with her fiery soprano lines. The album’s fifth track, titled Out of Nations, is a lushly dubby waltz anchored by guitarist Charis Karantzas’ circling, jangly lines, up to a triumphant interweave reflecting the band’s multinational background. A spoken-word interlude juxtaposing of grim news headlines with even grimmer quotes from white supremacists puts the song in context.

ElNaggar switches to flute for the album’s title track, which kicks off as a lively take on 70s boudoir funk until Shaheen’s oud punches in, followed by a bubbly Nazmi solo and then a triumphant one from ElNaggar as the string section reaches for levantine ecstasy.

Her soaring alto sax and Karantzas’ grittty, sunbaked lines contrast in Kurdmajor, alternating between driivng hard funk and a gorgeous, trickily rhythmic Egyptian-tinged theme. Feluka is a more organic, instrumental take on irresistibly swaying Omar Souleyman-style microtonal dabke wedding anthem music, pulsing along on the wings of guest Islam Chipsy’s quavering synth.

The album’s reaches a peak with Sellem, a slinky vintage 50s Egyptian anthem bolstered by a funk rhythm section, complete with guy/girl chorus, an incisive oud solo and an affecting vocal by Dina El Wedidi. The simply titled Coda capsulizes this band’s appeal, a pensive but kinetic number fueled by ElNaggar’s darkly elegant clarinet, Cambien’s somber chromatic piano and Shaheen’s oud. It’s hard to find a playlist that works this well as party music as it does as headphone record.

NASA’s Spectacular Bella Gaia Multimedia Extravaganza Makes Its Brooklyn Debut on August 30

Did you know that in the state of Florida, you can get fired from the State Department of Environmental Protection for mentioning global warming? The official rightwing-approved term for it, as the coastline recedes and the waters rise, is “nuisance flooding.” Which leads to the question of what’s next – requiring a weatherman to use the more palatable “wet air” instead of “rain?”

That’s just one example of how the extreme right is hell-bent on directing the conversation away from rising temperatures around the world (you’d think that considering how much waterfront property they own, they’d be hell-bent on protecting it, but that’s typical Republican cognitive dissonance). On the realistic side of the equation, the scientists at NASA are very concerned about global warming and its potentially apocalyptic consequences, and in an intriguing and very captivating stroke of theatricality, they’ve come up with the lavish multimedia project Bella Gaia. An experience suitable for the whole family, it utilizes video imagery of our changing Earth taken from outer space alongside dance and a wildly eclectic, cinematic live musical score in order to get people to pay attention to the simple message that if we don’t stop the rise in global temperatures, we can pretty much kiss the world goodbye. The complete Balla Gaia experience comes to Broooklyn Bowl on August 30 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10, which gets you not just the film and projections but also the dancers and band.

The soundtrack album – streaming at Spotify – a lavish, majestic mashup of global sounds, is often nothing short of breathtaking: if the visuals come anywhere close to matching it, the experience could be an awful lot of fun. It opens with Living Universe, a brightly waltzing, sparkling main theme lit up with composer/bandleader Kenji Williams’ effects-laden violin multitracks alongside Kristin Hoffmann’s soaring, passionate, enveloping vocalese and balletesque piano over percussionist Deep Singh’s hypnotic groove. Like the other themes here, it’s a big, sweeping piece of music that sounds like a whole symphony orchestra rather than just the work of three musicians. Yumi Kurosawa’s koto adds otherworldly, spiky textures before it fades down elegantly to just Hoffmann’s piano.

Singh layers sitar, harmonium and mystically rustling percussion on the second number, Orbital, a dramatic, dynamically-charged blend of Indian classical and modern-day film music; Hoffmann’s careful, precise piano reminds of the work of a similarly pioneering, south Asian-influenced pianist, Anton Batagov. Ocean’s Blood, a circular, indie classical-inspired theme, sends a hypnotic series of call-and-response motives spinning through the mix, Hoffmann’s voice mingling with the strings, growing more raw and apprehensive over Singh’s trancey clickety-clack rhythm.

Kurosawa’s stately, suspenseful, almost imperceptibly crescendoin koto takes centerstage in Takeda Lullaby – Inner Space. From there the group segues into a kinetically atmospheric, similarly Asian-tinged interlude pulsing with echoes and slowly shifting sheets of sound. The circular theme returns, this time with variations on a west African folk-inspired motif. From there the music shifts to the Nile with Lety ElNaggar’s ney flute and Shanir Blumenkranz’s oud, building to an achingly beautiful Middle Eatern melody that twists and turns through innumerable variations as it picks up steam. It makes for a stunning centerpiece. The album winds up with deep-space atmospherics, trip-hop and motorik rhythms, and a big Alan Parsons Project-style conclusion. The only dud is a failed attempt to mix jazz with top 40 urban pop: too bad that’s how our city is depicted, musically speaking anyway. In addition to the soundtrack, there is also a dvd available.

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.