First published in fRoots double issue 379-380, January-February 2015
Igloo Records (70 mins)
Moroccan oud player Majid Bekkas has worked his way through collaborations with many artists from many different styles, but this is the first outing of Bekkas’ Afro Oriental Jazz Trio. With Al Qantara, the group live up to their name and stay true to the influences from Bekkas’ previous collaborations.
The trio are Bekkas on oud, guimbri and vocals, Manuel Hermia on bansuri flute, saxophone and clarinet and Khalid Kouhen on tabla and percussion, and with these tools they create what is, first and foremost, a jazz album. Most of the pieces work in the jazz form, but the ‘Afro Oriental’ lens through which it is heard is what makes the album special. Both the music of the Arabic and Gnawa populations of Morocco influence the melodies here, with elements of blues and even music from the Far East seeping in. The rhythms used are largely Indian-inspired and their combination with the Moroccan jazz melodies works so well, the traditions don’t sound as if they grew thousands of miles apart.
The trio’s jazz elements echo the ‘modern’ era of experimentation, drawing especially from the Afrocentric periods of Don Cherry (whose loveletter to the Gnawa, 'Guinea', is covered here) and Randy Weston, who also provides liner notes. It’s interesting to hear Afro-Arabic jazz created by those closer to the original tradition, and refreshing that the American elements don’t sound faked either.
The last couple of tracks seem a little oddly placed – they are more introspective pieces that cause the album to ‘fade out’ rather than end with a bang. As with the rest of the album, the pieces are musically accomplished and work well on their own, but may have been more effective with a different placement on the album.
Arabic jazz has been well-covered by many artists, but Al Qantara, while not pushing many boundaries, uses the genre to good effect – there are some great tracks and the overall sound is very enjoyable. A successful album, and a promising new project.