Shaabi music goes experimental

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: In the historic quarter of this emirate’s capital city squats a square honoring penmanship. Facing Calligraphy Square is an ensemble of historic-looking single-story structures, part of a warren of contemporary art exhibition spaces renovated older rooms and state-of-the-art halls designed to conform to the old-town ambience of the place owned and operated by the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Naturally the square is best-known not for its calligraphy, nor for the visual art it’s exhibited, but the musical events it’s hosted.

In 2012 it was the venue for a beefed-up version of “Revisiting Tarab,” a 5-1/2-hour-long concert conjured up by sound artist Tarek Atoui, featuring the cream of the international experimental music scene and a smattering of Arabic classical players. Earlier this year, the square staged contemporary artist Wael Shawky’s “The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version,” which saw the medieval European tale of Muslim-Christian conflict retold in a choral mode, specifically fidjeri associated with the Gulf’s pearl harvesting tradition.

Last Saturday, Calligraphy Square hosted an SAF-supported show by the Praed Orchestra. The concert marked the debut of a suite of seven new compositions by the eponymous Lebanese-Swiss duo aka Raed Yassin and Paed Conca performed by them and an ensemble that included some of the more prolific experimental and improv musicians on the scene.

In addition to Conca and Yassin, the players included Sam Shalabi (oud, electric guitar), Alan Bishop (saxophone, vocals), Maurice Louca (keyboards) a trio otherwise known as The Dwarfs of East Agouza as well as Nadah El-Shazly (vocals, keyboard), Khaled Yassine and Michael Zerang on percussion and drums, Christine Kazarian on electric harp, Hans Koch and Martin Kuchen on various saxophones, Radwan Moumneh (buzuq, synthesizer, vocals) and vocalist Ute Wassermann.

The SAF concert marked the debut of this particular configuration of players but it wasn’t amateur hour. All the performers have flourishing professional careers and nearly all have played together at various concert venues over the past decade or more.

Wassermann commenced the evening with a solo master class in transcultural vocal technique. Standing, palms raised like a statue of the Virgin Mary, she launched into what might have been the opening notes of a soprano aria before veering into a bit of tongue trilling.

Subsequent bel canto outbursts were all toppled toward something distinctly unconventional a line of dissonance not unlike electronic feedback, gasps, grumbles, the choking sound of a creaking door, unintelligible cartoon chatter, and throaty lower-register vocalizing that sounded vaguely Tibetan.

After some minutes of Wassermann’s virtuoso solo work, keyboards injected a monster movie-cum-sci-fi organ theme into the mix. Saxes and clarinet pitched in discretely until vocals and keyboards fell away, leaving room for some quiet percussion work from Yassine and Zerang.

This discreet percussion duet provided ambience to introduce a maqam-redolent oud improv by Shalabi the end of which marked the conclusion of the suite’s first movement, called “The Last Invasion.”

When a few tentative notes of Koch’s bass clarinet picked up Shalabi’s chain, it seemed the performance would linger over a contemplative mood, until an abrupt blast of sampled Arabic dance music was released from Yassin’s laptop.

Koch’s solo followed the contours of the beat and Conca’s clarinet soon added a third voice to the duet.

By degrees the players superseded the sample Zerang and Yassine elaborating on the percussive line, horns and electronics adding ornamentation, Wassermann and Bishop vocalizing a tune that might have been lifted from one of the Egyptian sequences of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”

As the suite’s beat-driven second movement (titled “Doomsday Survival Kit”) wound down, Yassin and Bishop stood for a duet actually an exchange of howling, shouting, reverberating, word-free vocalizing that amounted to an entertaining lampoon of duet conventions.

The balance of the concert continued more or less along these lines. Each passage of completely live performance alternated with another that forced the musicians to play with (or against) sampled beats. Each movement featured different clusters of musicians navigating Praed’s compositions and ornamenting them with solo, duet and ensemble improvisation.

In an artist talk the day after the Calligraphy Square gig, Yassin and Shalabi discussed their own experiences working in the experimental music scenes in Lebanon, Canada and Egypt. Naturally the discussion turned to how Conca and Yassin came to compose the pieces performed at the concert.

Yassin said the origin of Praed’s latest tunes is Egypt’s beat-heavy shaabi music. Praed had a number of these musicians lay down some of their 4/4 beat sequences. These Yassin and Conca dissected and used as the basis of their instrumental composition. The decision to write for horns, Yassin said, had less to do with Egyptian shaabi music than the composers’ love of soul and funk.

It was great fun, the intersection of hybrid composition and exceptional musicianship sheer talent, diversity and improvisational skill that met at Calligraphy Square.

The show had several highlights and standout performances Wassermann’s opening solo, Shalabi’s oud solo, Moumneh’s hyperactive buzuq work in the third movement of the concert ... but it was Alan Bishop powering through the solo vocals of “The Nerves,” the piece’s final tune who stole the show.

Though it draws heavily on the talent, and the music, of this region, this work sounds placeless.

Experimental music is never more alive than during performance, and the suite performed last Saturday was strikingly digestible, at least to open-minded audiences.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 10, 2018, on page 12.




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