New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: simon shaheen

Inspiring, Hauntingly Relevant Music and Reportage from Palestine

Ramzi Aburedwan was the poster child for the first Palestinian intifada – literally. The photo of an eight-year-old Aburedwan hurling a rock at an Israeli tank remains an iconic regional and cultural image. But Aburedwan found music far mightier than the sword. Trained in France as a violist, he’s equally adept at the buzuq (the Levantine version of the Greek bouzouki). It wouldn’t be extreme to call him a younger counterpart to Simon Shaheen. Aburedwan’s 2012 album Reflections of Palestine ranked high on the best releases of the year list here. He’s also currently on a fascinating, characteristically relevant, cross-pollinating US tour, with his group the Dal’Ouna Ensemble. They’re making a stop at the Poisson Rouge tomorrow night, Sept 15 at 7 PM; cover is $25 for standing room, your best bet. Author Sandy Tolan joins the group on this tour, reading from his new book Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land, a heartwarming look at Aburedwan’s adventures establishing music schools for children in his home country.

Arabic music can be hard to track down in English, and the Dal’Ouna Ensemble are no exception. Happily, Aburedwan has a youtube channel, and the group’s album Oyoun Al Kalam is streaming at Flipswitch. The music is dynamically shapeshifting, mysterious, often rather dark and consistently sublime.In the studio, Aburedwan draws on a rotating global cast of brilliant talent, including but not limited to oudists Ziad Ben Youssef and Dimitri Mikelis, the amazing Balkan accordionist Edwin Buger, percussionists Tareq Rantisi, Naif Serhan, Ibrahim Frokh and Yanal Staiti, bassists Nawras Alhajibrahim and Dimitri Mikelis and singers Oday Al Khatib and Nidal Ibourk. Another haunting Palestinian woman, Abeer Nehme takes over vocals for the group on the current tour.

The album is on the somber side: slow, slinky tempos, intricate interplay between the stringed instruments. Percussion and plaintive alto sax underpin pensive and dynamically nuanced vocals. It opens with a spare, stately dirge that the band then finally takes doublespeed at the end. There are tersely propulsive numbers like the second track, a bracing habibi theme.

Track three, Asfour (Bird) works a slow, brooding, majestically stately path in the same vein as the Trio Joubran. The group follows the wistful, atmospheric balladry of the fourth track with a more delicately shadowy variation on the theme, then a big, serpentine, edgily modal anthem. After the angst-fueled, wrenching Dzikrayat (Memories), the band swirls through a dance.with echoes of Turkish dervish music. The album winds up with a blithe take of a popular folk tune, a sepulchrally swaying, dusky terrain and then a sweeping, string-driven pastorale anthem. Improvisation is second nature to virtuoso Middle Eastern musicians, so you can expect them to raise the energy and jam out several of these numbers, with Tolan putting the music in the context of current history.

A World of Great Music at Globalfest, and the Crowd Is Clueless

“Shhhh,” Simon Shaheen gently told the boisterous, largely daydrunk crowd crammed into an impossibly small ground-floor space at Webster Hall last night. Then he motioned for his nine-piece pan-Andalucian ensemble, Zafir, to stop. “I think this is disrespect,” he explained somberly, “To the people who are listening.”

That shut up the roar emanating from the back of the room for a minute or two, but then they were back at it. Which perfectly capsulizes both the lure and limitations of Globalfest.

This was the thirteenth anniversary of the annual multiple-stage festival of sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the annual January booking agents’ convention. On one hand, those guys – an older bunch whose general overindulgence at this year’s concert suggested that they haven’t been getting out much lately, at least to tie one on – can be interesting to talk to. It was lovely to be able to get Wayne Shorter biographer and NPR correspondenent Michelle Mercer’s inspiringly un-jaded take on changes in how music is being staged around the world (in Korea, promoters turn a daylong jazz festival into a picnic and in the process create thousands of new fans for the genre). It was less so to have to deal with the noise, and the overcrowding, and the most hostile security staff of any venue in the five boroughs. You usually have to go to New Jersey or Long Island for this kind of hell. How much this city has changed since the festival promoters figured out that they could make a few extra bucks if they opened the doors to the public.

Let’s be clear that the artists who play the festival don’t book themselves into it: they’re all invited. Many of them can be seen – and have been covered here in the past – in the summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Wild expat Ukrainian chanteuse/keyboardist Mariana Sadovska, the even wilder New Orleans Russian folk-punk band Debauche, hypnotically kinetic Ethiopian krar harp-driven dance band Fendika and Shaheen himself have all made appearances there.

Fendika’s distinguishing characteristic among similar Ethio-folk acts is their heavy, insistent western dancefloor beat: they switch out the frequently intricate rhythmic latticework for a more straightforward approach for the sake of western audiences who don’t have a feel for those ancient and sometimes tricky beats. The crowd of dancers onstage grew as the music followed a slow trajectory upward toward fever pitch as the krar fired off simple, catchy, upbeat major-key riffs. The dancefloor was pretty empty when they started; by the time they’d finished, the club’s big main room was packed.

In the small basement studio space, Sadovska and her multi-instrumentalist bandmate – who switched in a split-second between drums, keys, what looked like a tsimbl dulcimer and a mixing board – treated the crowd to a phantasmagorical, otherworldly mashup of ancient Carpathian folk songs and eerie electroacoustic art-rock. Sadovska shifted between her trusty harmonium and an electric piano as her voice lept, soared, snarled, snorted and screamed, through a series of pretty wild old folk narratives and finally, a somberly lingering dirge that eventually rose to fullscale horror as a depiction of war in general, and in particular, ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, even the wildfire noir cabaret punk antics of Debauche couldn’t upstage Shaheen. Equally erudite and thrilling on both oud and violin, he’s simply one of the world’s greatest musicians (in context: it’s probably safe to say that Kayhan Kalhor, Richard Thompson and JD Allen are operating on his level). This ensemble included oud, kanun, strings, multiple percussion plus flamenco and classical Arabic singing and dancing. Matter-of-factly and expertly, they made their way seamlessly and rivetingly through themes from Arabic, Jewish, flamenco and possibly Romany music, interwoven with biting minor keys, ominously elegant Middle Eastern modes, slowly slinking rhythms and frequent, exhilarating peaks. At the end of the show, after having to shush a disinterested crowd (that a crowd could possibly find Shaheen disinteresting speaks for itself), how did he respond to a two-minute warning from the sound guy? With one of the most bittersweetly beautiful violin solos of his life. OK, maybe not the very best one, but it was awfully good, and Shaheen showed not the slightest interest in cutting it short, going on for at least five minutes as his fan base at the front of the room looked on raptly. If that’s not punk rock, nothing is.

Although the acoustic Gogol Bordello-esque Debauche downstairs were pretty close (memo to the frontguy – that incessant wolf whistle has got to go). Ultimately, where all this goes down best is in more spacious Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where everybody seems to be a lot happier and a lot less cynical, an emotion that at this festival gets contagious real fast and shouldn’t be considering the quality of the music. It’s too bad that the overall experience, year after year, doesn’t measure up.

Transcendence, Thrills and Fun with Simon Shaheen and Rima Khcheich

Saturday night, Palestininan-born oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen played a rare duo performance with Lebanese chanteuse Rima Khcheich to a sold-out crowd at Roulette. It was the Middle Eastern equivalent of Richard Thompson backing Rosanne Cash, or Duke Ellingon doing a duo show with Ella Fitzgerald. In a survey of iconic Arabic songs dating as far back as possibly the 12th century and as recently as the 70s, the two delivered two sets that were as rivetingly intense as they were friendly and intimate – no surprise, considering that most of the songs were about unrequited love.

Through endless dynamic shifts led by both the singer and instrumentalist, there were many moments of clenched-teeth angst but also lots of deviously funny repartee, much of it wordless. Humor is big in the Shaheen family. It wasn’t long before Simon started relating some funny stories, including one about how he eventually succeeded in getting a Beirut opera house crowd to loosen up, while his brother Najib – also a distinguished oudist – bantered with him from the audience. “Should we take a break?” Simon grinningly inquired at the concert’s midway point, “Not for us – but for you!”

“No. Violin, thirty minutes!” Najib heckled back. And to satisfy his brother, as well as the others who’d requested some violin, Simon opened the second half with a measured, thoughtfully paced solo improvisation that rose from somber to bitingly animated and then savage, winding up with a series of whirlwind downward runs. Before the concert, he’d given a characteristically enlightening talk, self-deprecatingly relating that he thought that this show would be “Not challenging, but beautiful and fulfilling,” his oud serving simply to provide counterpoint and rhythmic drive for Khcheich’s vocals. But it was so much more than that. The two have done duo performances before, and their chemistry was electric, sometimes haunting but also high-spirited, especially when the other would take an extra verse or extra chorus or add extra melismatic tingle to a phrase. At one point, Shaheen opened a song with a bristling flurry of notes and Khcheich shook him off. For most musicians, that would be a faux pas to the extreme: you don’t shake off Simon Shaheen any more than you tell Chopin or B.B. King to start over again. But Khcheich wanted a slow backdrop and Shaheen gladly gave her one, a stately, swaying pulse that the singer slowly built to a mutedly majestic sense of longing.

Shaheen explained beforehand that Khcheich’s repertoire begins in pre-Renaissance Andalucia and stops in Lebanon in the 70s: “Now in the Middle East, if you listen to one song, you listen to thousands…a replica of the west,” he groused. But he’s largely right about that, and he pretty much nailed what Khcheich is about. In the same vein as the legendary Fairouz, she’s not a big belter, using her minutely nuanced alto to channel the subtlest emotional and dynamic shifts with a fine-tuned sense of irony and a surprising grit that she occasionally employs to ramp up the unease. Shaheen delivered his usual blend of profundity and thrills: much as his searing volleys of chromatics and wild if surgically precise tremolo-picking drew appreciative applause throughout the show, most of what he played was far slower and more contemplative – which made the fireworks all the more thrilling.

“The program wasn’t finalized, and it’s still not,” Shaheen joked as the two made their way raptly into an early Andalucian anthem awash in emotionally charged, wavering melismas, following with a number of songs by 20th century masters Said Darwish and Mohammed Abdel Wahab full of suspenseful push-pull, swells and ebbs and elegant tradeoffs between oud and voice. From there they parsed the Fairouz catalog for a handful of plaintive, rising and falling anthems by Felimone Wihbi and paradigm-shifting Lebanese art-rock/art-song composer duo the Rahbani Brothers. After a long, unexpectedly nebulous anthem to close the show, Khcheich encored with a bravely resolute a-cappella number. “You close your eyes, there’s something beyond the technicality, the knowledge: a spiritual experience, I would say,” Shaheen related before the concert, then made good on that promise.

Promoters Robert Browning Associates have more concerts that promise to be just as exciting coming up at Roulette. On April 26 at 8 PM Amir Nojan & the Nava Ensemble play haunting classical Persian music here, then on May 3 there’s a show with visionary Turkish composer/multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek with his percussionist son Murat.