Flensed maqam, analogue trumpet

BEIRUT: Khyam Allami is best known as an oud player and percussionist, whose work, whether solo or ensemble, gestures to Arabic classical tradition while embracing the contemporary. He was on solidly contemporary ground Thursday evening with an abrasively lyrical performance at Irtijal. Allami was scheduled to perform a pair of numbers – Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s 1966 experimental work “Solo,” for melody instrument with feedback (in this case electric oud), and his own improv work “Kawalees [Alpha v0.1].” As the festival program describes it, “Kawalees” explores “some of Allami’s recent experimental musical research on oud, buzuq, electronics and [Iannis] Xenakis-inspired percussion.”

What he performed, in a set lasting perhaps 45 minutes, was a fluid stream of feedback-inflected sound oscillating from solo oud to percussion and back again.

If the first part of the set took its cue from Stockhausen, its execution wasn’t so far removed from a maqam-inspired oud improvisation – albeit an abrupt, sharp-edged interpretation of the classical form.

There was a surfeit of feedback. Oud playback, mediated through the performer’s laptop, gave the opening solo component of the performance a duet aspect. In addition, the movement was framed by loud, creaking moans of – perhaps unintended – feedback, both when he picked up the instrument and when he put it back down.

The set transitioned from strings to percussion with a few mallet taps to the body of the oud. Allami then turned his attention to the battery of acoustic and electronic percussion instruments erected behind him. This second movement was as varied in tempo and texture as the first, but the energy he threw into hammering the bass drums and congas made it a much more bombastic experience – filling the cavernous central hall of the Ashkal Alwan Workspace.

Allami concluded the set with a couple of minutes of lyrical oud solo.

It’s tempting to say the performance sounded like an artful venting of anger and frustration – a reading to which the musician didn’t object after the set was done.

Taken as a whole, Allami’s contribution to the evening was reminiscent of the sort of “deconstruction” of oud and maqamat that sometimes finds purchase at events like Irtijal, though, the effect here was less orderly. In energy levels alone, the sound was closer to that of skinning a living animal than deconstruction.

The second day of Irtijal was a busy affair. The music got started early in the evening with Aya Metwalli’s solo “Beitak,” at Sioufi’s Onomatopoeia. Afterward the sounds moved to the haywire of flyovers called Jisr al-Wati, home of the Ashkal Alwan Workspace. Here the central hall hosted three sets that were heavy on electronics.

This leg of the evening started with a solo by Marc Codsi, the multi-instrumentalist known locally for his work with post-punk-cum-improv ensemble Scrambled Eggs and the electronic rock duo Lumi. For Irtijal he abandoned his guitar for a bank of analogue and modular synths.

The evening wound to a close with a large group performance by the Tarek Atoui Analogue Ensemble. The performance was the fruit of an workshop that electronic music guru Tarek Atoui led in Beirut last December – a collaboration with the music networking platform Simsara and Swedish electronic studio Elektronmusikstudion (EMS).

Musicians from Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia collaborated with EMS producers and engineers Mats Lindstr?m and Daniel Araya in creating customized electronic instruments to be used in subsequent live and studio performances. Thursday evening’s show included workshop participants and Irtijal musicians.

Stationed behind the soundboard, Atoui was the conductor, or master of ceremonies, pumping up the volume of selected soloists and – as was pointed out by a more attentive set of ears – inverting the sound late in the performance.

The final “word,” though, came from trumpet-player and illustrator Mazen Kerbaj, performing this evening on a replica of a classic analogue electronic instrument, rebuilt for him a couple of years back during a music residency in Amsterdam.

“You may have noticed,” he winked after the show, “I play it like a trumpet.”

Irtijal 17 closes April 8. For programing details, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 08, 2017, on page 16.




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