Middle Eastern Intrigue

New releases blend traditional styles with contemporary flair

First came the Three Tenors, then the Irish Tenors (there were three of them, too), and now come the Two Tenors — with a difference. Historic Live Recordings of Arabic Masters (ARK21), credited to The Two Tenors & Qantara, sees renowned singers Wadi Al-Safi from Lebanon and Sabah Fakhri from Syria joined by ud (short-necked lute) and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen and his group Qantara for more than 70 minutes of music on an album issued in part to fund scholarships for the American University of Beirut. Shaheen grew up in Jerusalem and Haifa, graduating from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem with a double degree in performance and Arabic literature before settling in New York City 20 years ago. He was one of the earliest and more visible exponents of world music in the U.S., working with producer Bill Laswell and recording traditional Arabic music as well as numerous collaborations with jazz and flamenco artists. In 1994, he was presented with a National Heritage Award by Hillary Clinton. With the eight-member group Qantara, (Arabic for "arch"), he aims to establish "a gateway to a new musical expression."
While Shaheen and friends get equal billing on the sleeve here, a close look at the fine print reveals that they only play on two of the 15 tracks. The album starts with "Dance Mediterrania," an 11-minute instrumental workout that fuses distinctive Middle Eastern violin, ud, ney (flute) and rhythmic improvisations with obviously Western values, which at times veer awfully close to the questionable "adult-contemporary/jazz" (Shaheen's own words) neck of the woods. Then it's over to Wadi Al-Safi and his own group for seven songs of love and life, mostly of his own composition.
Wadi Al-Safi was born in a small village in 1921 and moved to Beirut in 1938 to pursue formal vocal studies at the Lebanese National Conservatory of Music. His adaptations of traditional forms have gained him massive recognition at home over the years, and he's considered by many to be the founder of what later came to be known as the urbanization of Lebanese folk music. His 300 songs often invoke the beauty of his native landscape and are popular with Lebanese emigrees the world over, but his tendency to improvise has also gotten him into trouble with purists at times.
There are plenty of swirling strings here — six of his 16-strong ensemble play violin or cello — as well as the expected accordion, ud, ney, percussion and chorus singers. Shaheen & Qantara then return for a further cross-cultural exploration, this one dominated by Spanish-sounding classical guitar, before Sabah Fakhri and his even larger group take the stage.
Fakhri was born in 1933 and studied at the Damascus Conservatory. He debuted with the National Syrian Radio Orchestra in 1950 and today covers an enormous range of song styles, some dating back to the medieval Islamic courts, from qasida (solo accompanied classical poetry) to dawr (a genre developed in 19th-century Egypt) and muwashshah (Andalusian-influenced chorus alternating with soloist). Judging by the crowd reaction here, the audience was on its feet clapping and singing along for the bulk of this set.
Musically, Algeria is best-known for the crop of rai rebels it has produced over the past 15 years. Many of them live in the safety of France, where they can practice their craft without fear of being gunned down in the streets by fundamentalist groups who are offended by their lyrics, as rising star Cheb Hasni was in 1994. Takfarinas is the latest Algerian star to take a shot at the American market, with his fourth album Yal (Tinder).
The opening "Zaama Zaama" is a catchy, Peter Gabriel-influenced (yet still very Arabic-sounding) number, which was a hit both at home and in France. Takfarinas, whose name is borrowed from a Numidian King who fought battles against the Roman presence in ancient North Africa, considers himself an exponent of the broader kabyle musical style and he certainly draws on a lot of diverse influences here. Straight-ahead rai, Turkish violins, gypsy rhythms, romping horns, mournful Arabic balladry and modern, occasionally rap and techno-inflected party music all get a look in.
Takfarinas clearly aims to differentiate himself from the previous generation of rai masters such as Khaled. He succeeds in this both musically and with the CD sleeve, the back of which shows him looking like a young John McLaughlin (from the first Mahavishnu period), hugging a twin-necked, 24-string electric guitar. Given this, it's interesting to note that he mostly defers to others when it comes to guitar work on this meticulously produced, fun album.
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