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Palestinian Oud Virtuosos Le Trio Joubran Play a Historic Lincoln Center Concert This July

One of the most important and potentially transcendent concerts of the year is scheduled for this July 29 at 8 PM, where harrowing Middle Eastern oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran play the US premiere of their elegaic suite of settings of poems by their late collaborator Mahmoud Darwish at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College,524 W 59th St. The concert is part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 seats are still available as of today.

 For the last several years of the great Palestinian poet’s life, the three brothers accompanied him onstage while he read his incendiary, poignant explorations of exile and resistance. To get an idea of what the concert could be like, here’s a look at their 2010 live DVD In the Shadow of Words, adapted from the original review at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. [To be consistent with the DVD  booklet, the French spelling,“Darwich,” is used throughout the review rather than the English transliteration, “Darwish.” This blog takes responsibility for any errors in translation].

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” whose audio is streaming at Bandcamp) was filmed at that concert.

It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice for his people. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level: through that, his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them.

Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity; iot ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert begins with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance, a characteristically understated requiem. A stately, portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signal the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses sardonically. “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside.

It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra.

An Exhilarating and Elegaic Album by Oud Virtuoso/Singer Dhafer Youssef

Tunisian oudist/singer/composer Dhafer Youssef conceived his latest album Birds Requiem as a soundtrack for an imaginary film, a narrative about the transmigration of souls. And it could be – his long, pensively shapeshifting themes have a brooding, cinematic quality. They’re sort of a return to his roots: trained as a muezzin while still a child, he asserts himself vocally with a sometimes ecstatic, sometimes angst-ridden intensity over intricate arrangements that blend Middle Eastern and Western classical and jazz sounds, much in the same vein as the brilliant Lebanese-born composer Marcel Khalife.

The album – streaming at Spotify – begins with the somber, steady opening segment of a central suite with moody clarinet from Turkish great Husnu Senlendirici and resonant trumpet from Nils Petter Molvaer. The theme returns later as an ominous grey-sky tableau in the same vein as the Trio Joubran‘s more low-key work, slowly brightening with Kristjan Randalu’s rippling piano and Aytaç Dogan’s kanun. The next time it comes around, it’s a dance fueled by intertwining oud and piano harmonies. The dynamically-charged conclusion winds up the album on angst-ridden note with shivery clarinet and an imploring piano interlude.

Youssef’s achingly melismatic vocals establish that dynamic on the album’s second track, Sweet Blasphemy, over spacious oud and piano. Blending Souls & Shades rises from echoey atmospherics to a spine-tingling, full-gale vocal interlude and then a dancing horn passage before receding back to moodiness. Ascetic Mood is aptly austere and contemplative, a sad conversation between Phil Donkin’s bass, the clarinet and the oud.

Youssef’s elegy for his mother has a similar spaciousness and then grows more vigorous, Senlendirici’s haunting, resonant clarinet anchoring the piano’s rippling lines. 39th Gulay (In Istanbul) picks up the pace, a metal-flavored Middle Eastern art-rock song capped off by a rapidfire piano solo over the blast of the rest of the band as it winds out. Sevdah brings back the cinematics, rising out of a flamenco-inflected melody to a long, uneasily sustained crescendo and then back down again. Ascetic Journey follows a similar tangent, through a delicious series of variations from minimalist and elegaic to kinetically bouncing, the kanun rippling in tandem with Eivind Aarset’s guitar. There’s so much else going on here that it would take a small book to chronicle every highlight in this collection of magnificently haunting songs.

Slinky, Haunting, Jazz-Tinged Middle Eastern Sounds from Brian Prunka’s Nashaz

Oudist Brian Prunka’s Nashaz takes slinky, brooding Middle Eastern themes and adds a two-horn jazz frontline and bass for a sound that’s more jazz-inflected levantine music than levantine jazz. Their new album – streaming all the way through at Bandcamp – reminds of Dimitris Mahlis’ oud-and-drums project Wahid with horns, and in its more intricate moments, Amir ElSaffar‘s jazzier Two Rivers Ensemble. Prunka’s expansive instrumentals go on for eight or nine minutes apiece with plenty of room for soloing. Prunka typically starts out slowly, feels around for his footing and then takes his time before he leaves the runway, with all kinds of masterful ornamentation and dynamics. The album gets better as it goes along; the mood is enhanced by the natural reverb in the room where it was recorded, giving extra resonance to Kenny Warren’s trumpet and Nathan Herrera’s sax and bass clarinet.

The coyly titled opening track, Hijaz Nashaz sets the stage for the rest of the album, but counterintuitively: it’s the smoky sax that opens the song with a lengthy introduction over flurries of oud. There’s plenty of conversational interplay over Apostolis Sideris’ growly, incisive bass, the horns sticking to the western chromatic scale while Prunka gets to revel in luscious Middle Eastern modal microtones. Khartoum is more rhythmic, Prunka diving to the cello-like low registers of the oud, the horns fluttering and diverging as it winds down.

Andalus juxtaposes moody bass clarinet and snakecharmer ney flute over a mournful, elegaically slow groove, Prunka finally taking his haunting, desolate solo spiraling to a big crescendo. Qassabij’s Nightmare is less of a nightmare than an anthem, unless you count the anxiously sputtering horn break midway through.

City of Sand emerges from a moody oud waltz intro to an Iraqi-tinged theme, with a neat rondo riff and more varied, droll percussion (by Vin Scialla and George Mel) than the other numbers. Jurjina sets all kinds of edgy riffage from all the instruments over a tricky Madeconian-tinged tempo that shifts back and forth unexpectedly. Then they take it over to North Africa for the swaying, levantine style Al-Ghayb, the oud and then the bass clarinet sticking close to the ground with pensive, grey-sky solos. The album winds up animatedly with Ajam, which is actually two jams, the first brightly dancing, the second suddenly more ominous and insistently hypnotic. This album will probably resonate more with fans of music from the Fertile Crescen than with jazz fans – although anyone with a love of haunting, emotionally gripping sounds ought to check it out.

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.

Cosmopolitan Surrealism from Rabih Abou-Khalil

Lebanese-French oudist and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’s latest album Hungry People is jaunty, funny, unpredictably trippy and quintessentially cosmopolitan. It’s nebulously Middle Eastern, but it owes as much to American jazz and rock (especially Frank Zappa) as it does any traditional levantine style. The lead instrument here, for the most part, is not the oud but Sardinian singer Gavino Murgia’s terse, resonant soprano sax. Accordionist Luciano Biondini adds lickety-split Mediterranean flair alongside tuba virtuoso Michel Godard, who somehow gets his big horn to emulate an entire brass section’s worth of sounds. It’s ironic yet not particularly surprising that the most potentially comedic instrument on such a humor-driven album would be given a more serioso role than the rest of the band. Eclectic drummer Jarrod Cagwin propels this beast with beats that run the gamut from mighty to delicate.

For the most part, these songs don’t frequently employ the haunting, modal Middle Eastern grooves that a lot of fans of this music  gravitate toward. To set the stage, the blithe opening track, Shrilling Chicken adds some bouncy Moroccan flavor to a familiar American blues progression. While an oud, an accordion and growly electric bass all vamping the blues over a North African beat might not be what you might expect, that’s pretty much the point here. The second cut, When the Dog Bites has Zappa-esque surrealism, a latin-tinged groove, a funky tuba bassline and droll throat-singing from Murgia.

Unsurprisingly, the best songs here – and the ones that will appeal the most to fans of more traditional, uneasily slinky levantine sounds – are the serious ones. A Better Tomorrow is one of the rare places where the oud gets centerstage – and finally a long, suspenseful solo – lit up by Cagwin’s lush cymbal work. And Dreams of a Dying City has the feel of a cautionary tale, terse, elegaic and insistently, ominously crescendoing.

The rest of the album shifts from satirically bustling cinematics (Bankers’ Banquet and the offhandedly chilling Hats and Cravats) to shuffling Irish reel allusions (Fish & Chips & Mushy Peas), to madcap 50s Egyptian film music (When Frankie Shot Lara), to unexpectedly pensive and lyrical (If You Should Leave Me), to the busy Shaving Is Boring, Waxing Is Painful, the closest thing to straight-up jazz here with its tricky metrics. Those who like this album also ought to check out Abou-Khalil’s orchestral works, which his inimitable brand of surrealism to new levels with some lavish arrangements. This one’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.

Haunting, Hypnotic Middle Eastern Sounds from Niyaz

In the era of the Arab Spring, it’s become clear that the people of the Middle East have not suffered gladly. As the revolution that spread from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Syria and Greece and soon these shores gains momentum, we owe a debt to its freedom fighters for jumpstarting the movement as it spreads around the world. Canadian ensemble Niyaz celebrate those heroes’ resilience – “Sumud” in Arabic – which is the title of the band’s hypnotically intense, melodically rich new album. The band’s multicultural viewpoint reflects its members’ diversity. Frontwoman/santoor player Azam Ali came to the United States as a refugee from India in 1985; multi-instrumentalist/composer Loga Ramin Torkian originally hails from Iran; keyboardist/drummer/effects wizard Carmen Rizzo is US-based. The rest of the group here includes Habib Meftah Boushehri on percussion and flute, Ulas Ozdemir on saz, Naser Musa on oud and Omer Avci on percussion. Rizzo’s signature sonic manipulation layers the organic textures of Torkian’s jangling, clanking, plunking lutes – rebab, saz, kamaan, djumbush, lafta and also guitar and viol – within a dense, chilly, endlessly echoing wash of drones, percussion loops wafting through the mix with a distant, muffled pulse. The effect is hypnotic, to say the least. The rhythms often give the songs a trip-hop or downtempo electronic lounge feel, albeit with dynamics which leave no doubt that this was created by musicians rather than by a computer.

Whether singing in Persian, Arabic or Turkish, Ali’s nuanced vocals span from longing, to rapturous beauty, to raw anguish: for those who don’t speak those languages, the cd booklet provides English translations. Most of the songs are new arrangements of traditional melodies, often with additional music by the band, which makes sense: in the countries where these tunes come from, improvisation rules. Ironically, the catchiest, most pop-oriented one here, Musa’s Rayat al Sumud (Palestine) is also the most lyrically intense: “No matter how many borders you create, no matter how many soldiers you line up, we will always fly the flag of resistance,” Ali sings in Arabic with a steely resolve. They follow that with another brisk anthem contrasting spiky lute textures with echoey, twinkling keyboards.

Many of the cuts here employ the haunting chromatics of the Arabic hijaz scale: a majestic Afghani folk song sung in Dari (a Persian dialect spoken there), whose message of peace has particular resonance these days; an almost imperceptibly crescendoing Persian love song; a steady, tiptoeing Kurdish tune and a duet by Ali and Torkian over a slinky Ethiopian-flavored triplet groove. A strolling, pulsing song by Ozdemir has echoes of gypsy rock; other songs here sound like an Iranian version of Portishead. The album ends with a gorgeous, longing Turkish epic that slowly comes together after a long, apprehensively crescendoing introduction. Sometimes solemn, sometimes soaring within Rizzo’s signature swirl, it’s the kind of album that sounds best late at night with the lights out.