Monday, 23 March 2015

Dorsaf Hamdani - Barbara Fairouz

First published in fRoots issue 382, April 2015

Dorsaf Hamdani
Barbara Fairouz
Accords Croisés (61 mins)

It’s a brave person who takes on the repertoires of two legendary artists, especially when they are from such different styles as Lebanese singer Fairouz and French chanteuse Barbara. Here, Dorsaf Hamdani is that person.

The liner notes to the disc imagine the album as a fictional meeting between the French and Lebanese singers, and that’s basically a perfect description of the music within. The tracks alternate between the French and Arabic, and, at the beginning of the album, sound close to the original styles. As the tracks and the ‘meeting’ progress, however, each style begins to seep into the other until, by the end, each piece presents a beautiful fusion, an Arabic chanson.

Hamdani trained to sing malouf music from her native Tunisia, but has expertise in many styles from around the Arabic world as well as French, Persian and jazz music, all of which give her the skills to work her voice around, through and between the songs and styles of her heroes with ease.

Credit should also go to the project’s musical director. Daniel Mille leads the musicians – a quartet of guitar/oud, violin/oud, percussion and himself on accordion – through the same journey as Hamdani, slowly bringing the Arab influences to the French, and the French to the Arabic in a subtle, sympathetic and accomplished manner.

It is when the styles blend that Hamdani and her musicians create their best music, and the musical creation of a hypothetical meeting between Barbara and Fairuz is what makes this album more artistic and musically interesting than just a set of covers.

The Khoury Project - Revelation

First published in fRoots issue 382, April 2015

The Khoury Project
Enja Records (64 mins)

Over the past year or so, there has been a real glut of great Middle Eastern/North African jazz albums – recent records by Hijaz, Majid Bekkas Trio and L’Hijâz’Car have set the bar high. Now, Revelation by the Khoury Project can join their ranks.

The core members of the ensemble are the Jordanian Brothers Khoury – Basil, Osama and Elia – who bring violin, qanun and oud, respectively. For this project they are joined by double bass and jazz and Arabic percussion.

The elegance of the Khoury Project’s compositions is evident from the off, with the imaginatively-titled opener 'Intro' an intricate qanun solo with Arabic melody above complex chords that bring to mind ballad-jazz pianists. As the album continues, the group’s nuance becomes apparent: all the core elements of Arabic classical music and jazz are retained, meaning that their combination with each other seems so natural that at times one can forget that the traditions are from opposite sides of the world.

There are also other themes explored throughout the album, with a couple of pieces reflecting flamenco (especially their version of Paco de Lucía’s 'Zyryab', recorded live in Paris), and these additional influences are handled with ease. It’s a difficulty to pick a highlight from this record, the pieces are consistent and all seem to have equal value to the album as a whole.

Is there something about Arabic music or jazz that make their fusions so often successful? It just seems to work. Take nothing away from these musicians though: it is a combination that requires knowledge of many musical languages as well as virtuosity, and Revelation is another great example of this.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sonido Vegetal - Las Bases del Razonamiento

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 107, April/May 2015.

Sonido Vegetal
Las Bases del Razonamiento
Maldito Digital (40 mins)

For the most part, Sonido Vegetal seem to be part of the great line of Spanish ska-punk bands, with all the raucous energy and tones of psychedelia that that entails, but their own style also draws from Eastern European gypsy music. It’s a great combination executed with natural ease, the horn section switching freely between typical ska blasts and the pumping of Balkan brass.

As could be expected with a punk-gypsy mix, there are hints of the band’s spiritual siblings Gogol Bordello – former Bordellian Oren Kaplan makes several appearances throughout the album – but Sonido Vegetal’s dedication to Latin ska gives them their unique sound.

Every track here feels interesting and different, due to each having a slightly different twist, from the dubout of ‘El Hormiguero’ to the surf-rock of ‘De Nada’. Flamenco is also explored, with the title track examining the connections between the Spanish and Balkan gypsy styles, all in a punk-friendly timeframe of 2:40.

This album does what all ska-punk aims to do – it brings a great big noise that’s perfect to jump around to. The gypsy elements (both Balkan and Spanish) could stand to be explored more thoroughly, but an album this fun is its own reward.

The Ghana Bigshots - Tu Na Me Nsa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 107, April/May 2015.

The Ghana Bigshots
Tu Na Me Nsa
Goethe Institut (40 mins)

The Ghana Bigshots were originally founded as the University of Ghana’s house band, and this release is supported by the Goethe Institut with the aim of preserving and continuing live music in Africa. Elsewhere, this could seem a fairly dry and academic venture, but in Ghana with the Bigshots, dry is not an option.

This 17-strong band includes musicians of many styles, but their music flows naturally. A comparison that comes to mind is that of a Ghanaian Orchestra Baobab: although most of their songs have their roots in Ghana’s folk traditions, the Bigshots’ music includes a healthy dose of Cuban son as well as their own country’s highlife. The album also has hints of Afrobeat, rumba lingala and township jive - the latter especially prevalent in the aptly-named highlight ‘Dance Music’. On top of this, the band’s two balafons add an edge to this overall sound, their harsh buzz cutting through the group’s otherwise clean tones.

While the English-language lyrics are not the most profound you’ll ever hear, and the music doesn’t break any major new ground, this is an enjoyable first album, with summery sounds and rhythms made for dancing – you can’t go wrong!