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Le Trio Joubran Salute Their Late Collaborator Mahmoud Darwish With an Unforgettable, Intense Performance at the Lincoln Center Festival

There were innumerable long passages in Palestinian oud-playing brothers Le Trio Joubran’s multimedia performance last night at the Lincoln Center Festival that were absolutely shattering. Time stood still. When did Wish You Were Here, the stark, haunted dirge that the trio began with, end? After five minutes of hushed, bereaved minimalism, or closer to thirty? Realistically, it was on the shorter side, but it left a vast impact.

Yet moments like those were balanced by others that were ridiculously funny. Which ultimately came as no surprise, considering that the show was a homage to the group’’s late collaborator and countryman, poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish saw himself as an exile. His childhood village was one of the hundreds bulldozed to make room for Israeli settlers in the wake of the 1948 war. In a country the size of South Carolina, that makes an awful lot of refugees. He returned as an adult, eventually joining the Palestinian government’s inner circle but then withdrawing, disillusioned: he had no tolerance for the hypocrisy of politics. Widely considered to be the voice of the Palestinian people, his richly ironic, fiercely proud, relentlessly defiant work speaks to anyone estranged from their home, physically or otherwise.

Darwish died in 2008: for the last twelve years of his life, Le Trio Joubran were his backing band and musical sparring partners. To play along with his recorded voice must have been a considerable emotional challenge for them, but this time they didn’t let on. Darwish was ailing when he made those recordings, but his voice was virile, supremely confident and as nuanced as his words, simultaneously projected in Arabic and English translation above the stage.

One of the group’s signature tropes is to play in unison with a flurrying, precise, tremoloing strum, a sepulchrally fluttering low-string section with an ancient resonance deeper than any western orchestra could achieve. They did that a lot, especially in the most somber passages. But the three oudists also lept, and bounded, and exchanged jaunty riffs, sometimes with an Andalucian flair, most notably in response to an innuendo-packed erotic poem ripe with surrealistic, irresistibly hilarious Freudian imagery.

The rest of the music was a dynamically shifting mirror for the poetry: Darwish zings you with a one-liner, then delivers a gutpunch. Fate and luck are fickle, at best, indelibly illustrated via excerpts from his epic The Dice Player. One of his characters misses his flight because he’s not a morning person, a good thing because it would have crashed with him onboard. In Darwish’s world, two things that make life worth living are invaders’ fear of memories, and tyrants’ fear of songs.

Samir Joubran played a slightly larger model than the instruments in the hands of his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan, taking the lowest descents of the night. Drummer Youssef Hbeisch began with a somber, boomy beat on daf frame drum and then moved behind a full kit, which he played with hands, maintaining a muted, subtly colored pulse – at least until a solo where the three brothers encircled him and added their own playful beats. They’d revisit that on the encores – after a warmly rousing singalong, Samir and Wissam played basslines on Adnan’s oud in perfect unison with their brother’s briskly chromatic, dancing lines. It’s impossible to imagine a concert by a single band in New York in 2017 any more riveting or thrilling than this.

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a wrap, but Lincoln Center Out of Doors – this city’s most consistently surprising and eclectic free concert series – is in full swing. Angelique Kidjo makes an appearance (but not singing her own material) on August 2; on August 3 at7:30 there’s a Bollywood music-and-dance extravaganza out back in Damrosch Park that looks enticing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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.

A Corrosively Hilarious New Spoken-Word Album from Anthony Haden-Guest

Back in the early 80s, legendary journalist and gadfly Anthony Haden-Guest ran into Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell at a party in Cannes. Haden-Guest asserted that the hip-hop fad, as he called it, had run its course. That opinion might have been colored by having missed the opportunity to run up to the South Bronx with his buddy Malcolm McLaren to witness the birth of what McLaren called “scratch.”

Whatever the case, Blackwell’s response was, “Anthony, you are absolutely mad.” Thirty-five years later, Haden-Guest has released his debut hip-hop song,.“I always assumed you had to be in a studio up to your neck in hi-tech to do this,” he explains, over a wry faux Wu-Tang synth backdrop assembled by film composer Keith Patchel. “If this won’t kill hip-hop, nothing will.”

That number appears on Haden-Guest’s hilarious new spoken-word album The Further Chronicles of Now, streaming at Bandcamp. When he’s at the top of his game, his relentless, spot-on skewering of the ruling classes ranks with Michael M. Thomas’ Midas Watch, in its glory days in the pre-Jared Kushner era New York Observer. With a total of 24 tracks, a handful of them set to spare, surreal, quietly carnivalesque 80s synthesized organ or piano, Haden-Guest’s commentary is as grim as it is funny.

The apocalypse is a recurrent theme, as is art-world skullduggery. Haden-Guest doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has a bullshit detector set to stun. “So I’m siting in a Starbucks, listening to the blues, sound peculiar enough for you?” he poses early on, in his proper blueblood London accent.

A handful of tracks here were released earlier on Rudely Interrupted, Haden-Guest’s 2012 collaboration with darkly eclectic songwriter Lorraine Leckie. The Everywhere Man revisits the “strangely nihilistic bunch” who made it their job to get past the “clipboard Nazis from outer space” to crash Manhattan parties in the 1970s. Happy City, as Haden-Guest puts it, is his requisite drug song, a step out of character for a guy who “got a bit tipsy at age seven as a kilted pageboy at a wedding, which…unfortunately prefigured much of what was to come.” And Bliss,. the most plainspoken but possibly most harrowing piece here, is as poignant as Leckie’s glimmering remake.

The art world is where Haden-Guest really gets on a roll. The Secret History of Modern Art begins with Gustave Courbet,  “A slap in the face with a fat girl’s bush.” Haden-Guest saves his most venomous critique for Picasso:

Pablo switched styles like a man possessed
As if in some eerie way he’d guessed
The needs and the greed
The hunger he’d feed
Of collectors to come, a predator breed
From Picasso we got the shopping cart
And create a supermarket of art

A Song for Andy, a Seven Days of Christmas rewrite, is just as funny. Even the critics get what’s coming to them here, although “Viveros-Faune cannot be counted on and Roberta Smith should not be tangled with.” The rest are available at the right price – and Haden-Guest names names. And The New Avant-Garde are “the shock troops for developers now.”

The best of the apocalypse scenarios, Yesterday’s Snow is an update on Francois Villon’s famous, elegiac poem:

This may take a little while!
J. Edgar Hoover’s curdled bile
Lee Harvey Oswald’s bulging file
Jayne Mansfield in a speeding motor
Vic Morrow underneath a rotor
Mark Chapman outside the Dakota
Robert Maxwell got a floater…
The way that Enron made that pile
Bernie Madoff’s tiny smile

Frenemies, ex-girlfriends and old colleagues each get what’s coming to them here as well. The Tame Frontier draws its inspiration from a drive back to Manhattan from “an extremely aggressive Hamptons weekend”  where “nobody walks, they cross the street by car, where the city’s a bridge too faraway.” There’s also An Ordinary Day, whose implication is how endless terrorism alerts cry wolf to the point where they’re useless, and A Hymn to Intellectual Property Rights, with its wry allusions to a jazz standard. Now eighty, Haden-Guest shows no sign of slowing down. If there’s anybody who deserves to stay in the game long enough to chronicle the end of the world as it happens, it’s this guy.

Haden-Guest and Leckie celebrate the release of the album tonight, June 8 at around 7 at Anderson Contemporary Art at 180 Maiden Lane in the financial district.

Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed Challenge Your Place in the Universe

Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed‘s kinetically hypnotic, thought-provoking performance last night at Dixon Place was a booster shot to the synapses. Becoming immersed in their performance was like re-reading Steppenwolf, or La Nausée, a gut check to make sure all systems are still working. Reed played not his famous invention, the pencilina, but a thicket of multicolored wires and effects, like something from under the hood of Martin Rev’s earliest synthesizer. Reed activated it by beating out a steady, syncopated groove on a snare and an ominous-looking, upside-down, jet-black steel chemical drum, then running those beats through the maze of wires and boxes for textures that varied from bleeps and bloops to gentle pulses and washes. The chemistry between the two performers was intuitive, varying the dynamics as the emotional arc of LeCroy’s vocals and poetry rose and fell. Meanwhile, time-lapse footage of boats on the Hudson and cloud formations overhead flitted and shifted shape, projected on a screen above the stage.

LeCroy alternated between a tersely considered spoken-word delivery imbued with a puckish existentialist humor, and hazy, dreamy vocals informed by vintage boudoir soul music. On the night’s most dramatic and intense piece, her voice took on a stern, stark, defiant quality that drew heavily on centuries-old African-American spirituals. Steadily and methodically, she drew the audience in and never let them go. Trying to figure out what was improvised and what was not was a lot of fun. As the music and grooves unwound, it was hard not to get lost in them, but LeCroy’s sometimes gentle, sometimes biting challenges to the audience peppered the reverie and, intentionally or not, jarred the crowd out of their dream state.

The grim progression of time, and by implication, the ravages of age, were recurrent themes. LeCroy offered matter-of-fact cajolement to anyone willing to listen, to exercise their freedom and seize the moment. But her tightly crystallized litany of images and mantras owed far more to Sartre or Kierkegaard than to any new age source. Her funniest stream of consciousness rap involved teeth and what happens to them when they’re neglected. Her final piece was an improvisation based on themes suggested by the audience, which turned out to be kindness and smoke. How she wove those images together into a bigger picture, bringing her calmly determined, angst-fueled contemplation full circle, was as subtly amusing as it was nonchalantly and unselfconsciously profound: LeCroy loves double entendres and subtext and can’t resist employing as much as she can come up with, on the fly, plotting her next move. The experience was as therapeutic as it was challenging.

In Memoriam – Sean Dolan

Sad, sad news on the NYC front – songwriter/lyricist Sean Dolan left us a couple of days ago. The prolific underground writer is best known for his lyrics to Erica Smith’s All the King’s Horses and Jesus’ Clown; he also leaves behind a vast body of brilliant work, both musical and literary. More in a moving and insightful appreciation from Erica Smith at her blog.