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Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding, foggy behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat. 

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Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Rivers of Sound, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Naseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

Dolunay Raises the Bar for an Amazing Night of Music Downtown This Friday

More about that amazing lineup this Friday, January 15 at Alwan for the Arts at 16 Beaver St. in the financial district. As you may remember from yesterday’s piece here, the acts are slightly staggered, Lolapalooza style, on two stages, so that you – and the booking agents in town for this week’s convention – can sample all of them between 7:45 and around 11. The concert isn’t cheap – $30 – but the lineup is killer. Starting at 7:45 PM: on the fourth floor (the main space of this Arabic-diaspora cultural center), there’s singer Jenny Luna’s exhilarating Turkish/Balkan/Middle Eastern band Dolunay, followed an hour later by similarly intense Palestinian-American buzuq player Tareq Abboushi’s Shusmo art-rock/funk project, then the whirlwind Russian Crimean Tatar Ensemble at 9:45. Upstairs on the sixth floor, there’s wild southern Italian folk reinventors Newpoli at 8, then veteran Malian griot guitarist Abdoulaye Diabate at 9 and then at 10 Punjabi chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia, who makes mystical, mysterious albums but is much more charismatic and animated onstage than you might expect.

Dolunay’s epic debut album, Our House, is streaming at Bandcamp. Over sixteen tracks, the band weave a bristling tapestry that runs the gamut from quiet and moody, to suspenseful and serpentine, to a sort of elegantly feral dancing quality. The material mixes traditional Turkish and Rumeli (Balkan-Turkish) songs as well as originals: without knowing which are which, it’s impossible to tell the band’s own material from the centutires-old songs in their repertoire. Bracing Middle Eastern modes, eerie chromatics and minor keys rise and fall, sometimes into a gentle, jangly backdrop that brings to mind traditions as diverse as Greek and Macedonian dances or Elizabethan British balladry.

When the band aren’t snaking or dancing their way through an instrumental, frontwoman/percussionist Jenny Luna’s spellbinding voice is front and center. Depending on the song, she can be austere and plaintive, or chillingly imploring, or jaunty and triumphant. Not a lot of the material on the album employs the flickering microtones common to a lot of Middle Eastern music, but it’s when Luna glides in and out of them that she resonates the most.

One of this city’s great fretted instrumentl players, Adam Good plays the oud with his usual incisive resonance, but he also takes a turn on the janglier, higher-register cumbus – the closest thing her to his original instrument, the electric guitar – as well as the less resonant, more plinky tambura. Violinist Eylem Basaldi matches the clarity and inciisveness of the vocals, with several wickedly spiraling, spine-tingling solos throughout the album – and adds her own vocal harmonies to the mix on its most ornate, memorable numbers. Alongside Luna, percussionists Polly Ferber propels the songs through thickets of tricky meters with a scampering grace or steady, minimialist insistence, employing n an assortment of drums from across the region. Turli Tava leader Jerry Kisslinger guests on standup drum on one of the later tracks.

Considering that it bridges the chord-based song structures of western music with the more improvisational, microtonal flair of the Middle East, Balkan music in general tends to be pretty exciting stuff and this album is a prime example: it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable mix of songs put out by any New York band over the past several months. .

Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else

“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. ElSaffar and all of these players perform the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.

Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.

Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.

After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.

The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.

Amir ElSaffar Unleashes a River of Sound at Lincoln Center

Chicago-born, New York-based composer Amir ElSaffar books a comfortable, classy joint in the financial district, Alwan for the Arts, a hotbed for cutting-edge new music coming out of the Middle East and cross-pollinating with other styles from around the world. This evening at Lincoln Center, the trumpeter-santoorist-singer debuted his new suite, Not Two with a mighty seventeen-piece ensemble centered around the members of his regular quintet Rivers of Sounds: drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Carlo DeRosa, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen. It was a magically epic performance, one which will momentarily be recorded and which is scheduled to be released on vinyl within the year. That’s major news.

As the group slowly rose with a pensively emphatic, mournful signal from the trumpet, were they going to continue in the direction of long-toned massed improvisation, a slightly Arabic-toned take on Karl Berger or Butch Morris? As it turned out, no. The opening segment grew to a sort of take on the distant, august majesty of a theme from another cross-pollinator, Hafez Modirzadeh, with whom ElSaffar has memorably collaborated. As the work went on, multiple themes rose and fell, slowly crescendoing long-toned melodies against an uneasily rippling, relentlessly rhythmic backdrop, Waits augmented by several percussionists including Tim Moore (of the transcendently good Middle Eastern jamband Salaam). ElSaffar’s sister Dena – leader of that group – supplied what was arguably the night’s most plaintive moment, playing achingly raw, sustained lines on her joza fiddle, also adding austere oud and atmosphere on viola and violin. DeRosa did the heaviest lifting of anybody in the ensemble, working up a sweat with endlessly vamping, incisively circular riffs, a couple of times racewalking his scales as he pushed the tunes into a couple of lickety-split hardbop swing interludes.

Abboushi, Tawil and fellow oudist George Ziadeh each got to take long, crescendoing solos against a hushed, anticipatory backdrop, ElSaffar adding more rippling, suspenseful flourishes on his santoor than he did on trumpet. ElSaffar built Gil Evans-like lustre, from the bottom of the sonic register – bass, cello and JD Parran’s bass saxophone – to the very top, with the santoor, violin, vibraphone and pianist Craig Taborn’s insistent, repetitive close harmonies. The rhythms would shift artfully from a stately dirge, to galloping triplets or a circling gait evocative of Ethiopian folk music. The themes embraced Mohammed Abdel Wahab-esque classical  Egyptian anthemicness as well as lingering, otherworldly, minimalist Iraqi melodies and a couple of romps through pretty straight-ahead American postbop tinged with Monk-like modalities. They took it up for an explosive outro and then slowly wound it down at the end. ElSaffar has enjoyed a long association with Lincoln Center, who co-commissioned this work, another impressive notch in the  belt for both.

This show is typical of the kind of coucerts in the atrium series at Lincoln Center: an abundance of styles from across the spectrum and around the world. One particularly enticing upcoming show is the JACK Quartet‘s appearance on April 23 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be playing works by John Zorn, Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw and others.

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.