A tale of two Arabic music fusion united by the iconic Oud

By Georgina Benison — Saturday night saw a fascinating double-bill of Arabic fusion music at the Royal Opera House, Muscat. The second half of the concert featured 47-year-old Omar Bashir and his band in a Spanish-influenced performance, opening with an extended Oud solo called, ‘Baghdad is crying’ dedicated to the innocent victims of Iraq’s wars. It demonstrated the command that Hungarian-born Iraqi, Omar Bashir, holds over his instrument, and the superb quality of sound and intonation in his lyrical performance.
After rousing applause for his opening number, Omar’s fellow musicians trouped on stage, clad in black they looked for all the world like a rock band, but the flavour of their sound is distinctly Spanish, with a nod to jazz, suggested in their first ensemble piece, ‘Caravan’.
IMG_1348This was followed by an arrangement of Iraq’s most iconic and much-loved folksong, ‘Fog al Nakhal’ which opened with a sublime oud solo, joined by the sextet in their signature driving latin rhythm.
This was the most identifiably Arabic of the pieces while ‘Al Hambra’ unashamedly moves to Granada in Andalusian Spain for a reminder of the confluence of Moorish and Spanish civilisations in the middle ages.
The musicians are all individually masters of their craft and together form a tight, cohesive ensemble with immaculate timing and precise, impressive endings.
The tuning of Bashir’s oud is based on a Western scale to blend with the classical guitar resonance of harmonic mastermind, Balint Petz, the electric piano of Budapest-based Levente Molnar and Bass guitar of Donat Takacs – ironically opposing the Arabic roots he seeks to preserve and present.
Other pieces in the concert – Sorrow of a Child, his hit single, To my Mother and the landmark, Bint al Chalabia – reflect Omar’s work and influence with the Gypsy Kings and provide an accessible if uniform quality to the music of this world-acclaimed composer-musician.
The first part of the evening opened with jazz trumpeter, santur (dulcimer) player, singer and composer, Iraqi-born Amir Elsaffar and his 16-piece orchestra. Here lay the problem with the programming: the show should have begun with Omar al Bashir’s comfortably familiar, mellow and undemanding performance, allowing the brilliant disarming sound of Elsaffar’s microtonal big band to awaken a complacent audience into its fresh, uneasy language of contemporary free-jazz before releasing them in to the night.
Their programme was of an extended single work entitled, Rivers of Sound – “Not Two” which took the listener on a musical journey in many sections, full of surprises and unexpected sonorities.
IMG_1361Elsaffar is first and foremost a world-class jazz musician who has come to Arabic music, specifically Iraqi ‘maqam’ lately and is now forging a challenging cross-cultural link by blending instruments and styles with intrepid inspiration. During the excellent trumpet solos one had an impression of Miles Davis displaced from New York to the Arabian desert. Much of his work uses tricky time signatures such as 5 or 7, cross-rhythms and insistent ostinatos that drive the music forward in a constantly evolving texture.
Nasheet Waits on drum kit provided the perpetual motion of the underlying rhythms together with brilliant acoustic bass player, Carlo de Rosa and Miles Okasaki on rhythm guitar. In addition were 3 other percussionist – Tim Moore on Dumbek and frame drum and a stunning solo towards the end by mridingam player, Rajna Swaminathan which endeared and delighted the audience.
The piece opened with an interplay between rarely heard bass saxophone (which needed to be held in a frame to be played) by the experienced clarinet player, JD Parran and virtuoso alto sax improvisations of Fabrizio Cassol.
Despite the fluid nature of jazz as an improvisatory genre, this work had a detailed score throughout, clearly visible by the musicians’ attention to their charts, but this only enhanced the broad brush-strokes Elsaffar achieved in this innovative creation. Arabic in mood came the beautiful solo on Cor Anglais-oboe by Mohammed Saleh against the ethereal bell-like melodies played by Jason Adasiewicz on a re-tuned vibraphone, while the Cecil Taylor inspired solo of Aruan Ortiz on concert piano stayed firmly in the Western jazz tradition.
IMG_1354Completing the string section was Amir’s sister, Dena Elsaffar on violin, bridging the gap from East to West, and Naseem al Atrash on ‘Cello.
On traditional Oud were George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, while Tareq Abboushi lent a plaintive Greek quality with his Bazuk accompaniment.  An exciting section in 3-time sounded anything but a lullaby-waltz under this intrepid ensemble, and one of the highlights came half way through when Ravel’s Bolero was treated to a compelling arrangement, reaching an intoxicating climax when Amir played a trumpet melody over it in impossibly high and intricate configuration. He is a brilliant trumpet player no matter the style, and in the free-improvisational finale section he didn’t need to play for long to show his mastery.
Towards the end the “B Half-Flat Fantasy” gives a clue to the use of microtonal harmony in some of the ensemble’s work, taken from the ‘maqam’ tradition combined with contemporary jazz texture, and here the two families of instruments sit self-consciously apart.
This is still a work in progress, to be released in May this year and described as “an almighty river, full of twists and turn, troughs and peaks and gushing waterfalls of sound”. For this listener at least, Elsaffar’s bold project in fusing the two musical languages hails him as a visionary genius for succeeding where other more hesitant musicians may have faltered. I hope his first concert in Muscat will not be his last.