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.