Egypt Noir: Nubian Soul Treasures
Ali Hassan Kuban, Mahmoud Fadl & more
We say: Funky Nubian grooves from Upper Egypt
Living in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, Nubians tend have a more relaxed take on things than their cousins to the north in the cities of the Nile Delta. With a culture that bridges sub–Saharan Africa and the Arab world, Nubia, the "Egypt Noir" of this recording, is a meeting place where different worlds—African and Arab, nomad and pastoralist—merge together. The music reflects this to some extent. With simple melodies and straight–ahead rhythms, it tends to be more accessible to Western ears than most Arab music.
The claim of "soul treasures" is not so far–fetched: this varied anthology has some surprisingly funky bass playing on several tracks, and in one instance I swear that I can even detect a Duran Duran riff (although surely the words "funky" and "Duran Duran" do not usually coexist as neighbors in the same sentence). Most of the selections lope along in a relaxed, good–natured sort of way and, as well as the standard funky bass/darbouka partnership, there are lots of flute and accordion flourishes, circus band saxophones, and tooting trumpets too.
Although some of the male voices like Ali Hassan Kuban ("The Godfather of Nubian music") sound a little strained, to these ears at least, the female vocals tend to be far more on the money. The third track, "Salma" by Yanas Baridouh, which sounds much more Black African than either of its predecessors, has a female chorus that might hail from Mali plus Ethiopique–tinged guitar and organ. It's not all modern instruments and contemporary groove though: Salawa Abou Greisha's long and slowly unfolding love song "Galbi el Atouf," co–written by the ambassador of Cairo cool, Mahmoud Fadl, is deliciously minimalist and none the worse for that, with simple accompaniment from hand drum and oud joined by a sporadic and distant electric guitar. Consequently, the musical freedom and languid pace allows Greisha's beautiful voice to soar.
It is true to say that most of the songs on this recording are none too hurried in terms of pace. Essentially, this is wedding music, and you've got to last the whole evening—in fact, if you are a wedding guest you have probably got to survive a full three–day event.
Fall of Spring
Lonely Karen Drifter
We say: Fresh out of Belgium, a second helping of timeless European whimsy
I reviewed the first album by this three–piece back in 2008 and was impressed by what I heard—a whimsical, trans–European, Parisian–cafe melange that was hard (and perhaps pointless) to categorize. This may not be world music in the strictest sense but it is undoubtedly international. The singer is Viennese, by way of Sweden and Catalonia; the pianist, Mallorcan; and the drummer, Italian. The band came together in Barcelona but now bases itself in Belgium. This latest album was recorded at various venues throughout Europe—a drifter spirit if ever there was one.
On this second outing, the melodies remain as charming as ever, wilfully childlike and occasionally tinged with a hint of sadness. Tanja Frinta's voice seems a little stronger than before and makes use of a wider dynamic range, as does the instrumentation, which even occasionally verges on the raucous, quite shocking for such a fiercely non rock–and–roll combo. Generally, there's more instrumental color than before, with double bass, electric guitar, and even pedal steel on some tracks to compliment Marc Meliá Sobrevias's inventive keyboard arrangements and the deft drumming of Giorgio Menossi.
It's hard to pick out individual tracks as Fall of Spring works as a whole to charm, involve and seduce. As with 2008's Grass is Singing, there's not a single duff track, although you might argue that "Railroad" and "Side By Side" are even lovelier than the rest of the selection. These are the sort of songs that you might hum to yourself whilst slowly cycling a shady country road in rural France. The birds are singing, it's a sunny day and there's cheese and wine for lunch.
We say: Syrian samba and jazz muezzins on the road to Damascus
Syrian–born but New York–based, Gaida claims her musical soul derives from hearing the muezzin as a child in Damascus. The combined calls to prayer from the various mosques close to her home would create unplanned harmonies that the muezzins would sometimes improvise around. This memorable childhood soundscape gave her a collection of melodies to draw upon and a taste and fearlessness for improvisation that has stuck with her to this day.
This collection begins traditionally enough with a pair of Syrian folk standards that feature oud, santor and darbouka before wandering into the far less orthodox territory of Brazilian–Arab–jazz crossover on "Illak Shi," a newly–minted hybrid that sounds surprisingly unforced and natural. The recording's only other non–traditional track, "Kaifa Uhibuka," is a bitter–sweet jazz ballad in which it is only Gaida's heartfelt Arabic vocal that hints at any connection with the Middle East. Mostly though, Levantine Indulgence is made up of traditional Syrian tunes, with silky meandering classical melodies and unhurried instrumental breaks over the sort of Middle Eastern time signatures that make most rock drummers break out into a sweat.
Despite her obvious talent, Gaida is still a part–time performer. Family expectations have meant that she has found it necessary to lead a double life and, as well as performing music, she moonlights— or, rather, daylights—as a health professional. Gaida's sweet and strong voice is such that you know that she has a musical career at her disposal is if she ever decides to give up the day job. The last track on the disc, "Bint El Balad," if my rudimentary Arabic serves me well, means something akin to "Girl from the Country." With roots in both Syria and New York, and in traditional Arabic music, jazz and samba, this is one girl from the country who clearly likes to travel.
We say: Tropical guitar strumming of the highest order
Costa Rican guitarist Jorge Strunz is usually heard in partnership with his Iranian–born collaborator Ardeshir Farah but here in this solo outing he has the freedom to fully explore his Latin guitar roots. A diplomat's son who has lived in Mexico, Colombia, and Spain as well as Britain and the US, Strunz has absorbed no end of influences along the way, in particular flamenco, a genre in which he became professionally adept whilst still a teenager. This collection of instrumental pieces draws on a wider musical range, however, with cumbia, Afro–Peruvian landó and even tango providing flavor. Strunz's flying fingers are well to the fore but this is no one–man show as, in addition to double–tracked guitars, there is also unobtrusive double bass, light percussion, and occasional violin and cello.
Naturally, as Neotropical Nocturnes showcases the talent of just one man and his instrument there is always the slight risk of "fret board fatigue" stepping in, beating the listener into submission with too many notes and not enough variety. This never quite happens but you do sense the danger— a little more variation in tempo and texture would not have gone amiss, as would a more natural sounding production job. Nevertheless, this is a highly accomplished set redolent of warm nights and tropical rainfall in lush gardens. It is just a pity that it doesn't have a few more rough edges to give integrity so that you get to smell the vegetation and hear the crickets too.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His photographic website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.
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