It's not often that an independent's album songs sounds as good or better than that produced on established record labels - and by 'independent', I mean self-produced; not a small label with fifty artists.
FAR FROM HOME is also unusual in that it's entirely Armenian folk songs, yet doesn't sound like any Armenian music I've ever heard before: previously all Armenian music we were familiar with were sacred chants or oud-dominated dance music known in the West as 'bellydance music'.
Most of our favorite oud players are Armenian so at first we were disappointed, as the guitar is used more than the oud on FAR FROM HOME, and the songs aren't for dancing - but the beauty of FAR FROM HOME shines through and easily overcomes any preset expectations.
Mariam Matossian has a beautiful voice and the original, clever arrangements set off her voice perfectly. Fans of India's Najma, Sheila Chandra, Vass, or Enya will be delighted with FAR FROM HOME's enchanting, professional and haunting vocal style.
Unlike some American and U.K. singers who have come up with a similar (but not exactly the same) sound, the language on FAR FROM HOME is real, and the lyrics hold deep meaning for those who understand the language.
Besides guitar, other non-Armenian instruments are blended in with some Armenian and Middle Eastern instruments: for instance, West African drums like the djembe, some synthesizer, and drum programming are also used - but only in subtle ways. They never get in the way of her voice, or spoil the mood.
I've listened to FAR FROM HOME four times through so far - and it just keeps getting better and better: an exceptional production and a 'must' for any serious collection of Armenian or Middle Eastern music.
CDs by Moroccan oud players are hard to find, never mind one who does solo improvisational music as well as plays in a band (Al-Andalus). Tarik Banzi's VISION (his musical plan, not just this cd) reminds me a great del of the East-meets-West experiments of the mid- to late-1960s known then as 'psychedelic music': both the music on Tarik's solo VISION and his group Al-Andalus have the spirit, sound, and idealism of that era. The big difference is that this is better.
Instead of a Western guitarist trying to approximate the music of the East, we have someone who grew up in Morocco playing an Eastern instrument (oud), who then spent years in Spain studying Western music, particularly Moroccan-influenced music.
On VISION Tarik overdubs himself on ouds both acoustic and electric. On two tunes he also adds percussion, and on these same two songs he also employs feedback as if he was playing a solid body guitar. I found this a little difficult, but forty years ago I'd have loved it.
On the tenth cut, 'Exodus', he adds that wonderful African-derived instrument from Brazil the birimbao: this is a great touch, and hopefully a sign of things to come.
Al Andalus is a project of Moroccan-born oud player Banzi and his wife Julia Banzi, who plays guitar. Usually in a group like this a "pretty girl" sings or dances and yes, the group does have two ladies who fill that role, but Julia plays fine backup guitar that helps underline the oud playing of Tarik. She receives some great help from Joe Henieman on piano. Tarik also overdubs on bass, percussion, ney (a reed instrument), sentir and keyboards.
Tanjang Kirshnan does a great job of the mostly-haunting vocals, including one tune from Southern India sung in Tamil - this from a group that claims to be based on the music of Moorish-controlled Andalusia Spain (when Spain was controlled by Muslims, but Jews and Christians supposedly lived in peace and harmony with them. This idylic scene was destroyed by the rise to power of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the Spanish Inquisition).
I got the feeling GENETIC MEMORIES only offers a slice of what this band can really do, but even if VISION is much the same, that's nothing to be ashamed of: Al Andalus is one of the best East-meets-West bands of all time, and a joy to listen to.
Ancient Future is an East-meets-West band which has deep roots in India, but has been exploring the Middle East more and more over the years.
The band revolves and evolves around guitarist Matthew Montfort, who plays a specially-made scalloped neck guitar similar to the veena of Southern India. Matthew can sound more like an Indian-stringed instrument than John McLaughlin did in his Shakti days, and John's guitar is not only scallop-necked, but has resonating or sympathetic strings as well.
The personnel of Ancient Future keeps changing: that's because its members perform as a network of musicians rather than as a singular group, with members rehearsed and ready to produce a specific style for each individual concert . The neat thing about PLANET PASSION is that it showcases and grows this network internationally over a period of years, yet the songs are strung together in such a way as to tell a story - a love story.
The first two songs are of flirtation, the next three focus on courtship, the next two sex (or as Ancient Future refers to it, as 'sacred Eros'); then we have two songs about the wedding, then problems begin with a tune on seduction. The last two cuts both called 'Socha Socha' focus on longing for the beloved. So the ending is a bit sad; but even this section is beautiful to listen to.
The musicians are all top rank, the playing is superb, and the influences varied, from gentle ragas to Afro-Cuban drum rhythms. Exciting stuff, yet somehow spiritual most of the time without being preachy.
Ancient Future's always evolving, almost always exciting. Their extensive web site offers insights, explanations, and a diverse focus on the band's evolutionary phases, influential members, and fusion of Middle East/Indian sounds.
Listening to MAKAR by Melike woke me up to the fact that in may ways Turkey is like a European country: yes, there are 'Middle Eastern' sounds here, but many European additions as well.
Sometimes Melike Tarhan sounds like a French pop singer; at other times like a British folk singer: her instrumentals combine Middle Eastern and Western classical instruments, with occasional electric guitar played in a very subtle manner, like a jazz musician who listened to bossa nova from Brazil.
MACAR is not dance music; it's more like serious folk singer meets classical with jazz, Brazilian, Arabic, and Turkish overtones.
The overall effect is not happy music: it's anti-war music: haunting stories of World War I right up to the Iraq War.
Melike and her compatriots have stirred things up in Turkey and her career is moving forward.
Will the rest of the world embrace her music? Will Turkey come to be accepted as a part of Europe? Time will tell.
WOW - I'm reacting to the music of THE MAGIC OF JOHN BILEZIKJIAN, not just the cover.
Bilezikjian is one terrific oud player: one of the best I've ever heard, and he's a very good singer, singing primarily in Turkish on THE MAGIC OF.
Despite being of Armenian extraction, John is familiar with musical styles throughout the Middle East: whether Arab, Turkish, Persian, or Armenian. Different time signatures are no problem for him, from 11/8 time to 2/4 he can do it, and this is very important: to keep it danceable for belly dancers.
The liner notes suggest what type of dance goes well with each tune.
Bilezikjian is accompanied on THE MAGIC OF by Souhael Kaspar on the single Middle Eastern drum known as a tabla (this is not the same as the Indian drum known as tabla).
Even though playing only a single hand drum, Souhael gives John all the percussion he needs and gets to do a great drum solo.
THE MAGIC OF JOHN BILEZIKJIAN is a must for any belly dancer; particularly those tired of all the synthesizer-dominated music of the last twenty years or so.
This is the real deal: magic indeed.
Soud Massi's DEB is a double treat from the prolific Algerian singer: first, there's the music on DEB (HEART BROKEN): a series of poignant laments spiced with guitar, all designed to highlight Massie's rich Middle East vocals.
Soud's guitar and vocal style is smooth and rich, as on her evocative next tunes 'Ghir Erta' and beyond. Cut #5 goes into a Congolese rhumba beat: a first for a Middle Eastern or North African performer.
Just when you think DEB can't get any better, the case reveals a bonus: a 52-minute documentary DVD featuring Massi.
A compelling Arabic/North African production, Soud Massi's quiet compelling vocals in DEB are simply not to be missed.
1. The Second Baghdad
Rahim AlHaj plays solo oud in a manner that shows his classical training (Baghdad Conservatory). Western listeners will, when listening to SECOND BAGHDAD and IRAQI MUSIC IN A TIME OF WAR, often compare them to Spanish guitar greats more than to other oud masters who play more popular styles geared to dancing or orchestral work. John Bream comes to mind, as well as Segovia.
But upon listening further, other sounds appear, such as the way Rahim can hold and stretch a note, similar to American blues musicians or artists such as John Fahey, Leo Kotke, or Sandy Bull, who took the folk, blues and country sounds and experimented with them, changing them into something new.
Occasionally a rolling thumb and finger style similar to bluegrass banjo or the style of guitar known as 'Travis picking' shows up, only to be replaced by Flamenco-like strums.
AlHaj's overall style can be haunting and fascinating: his music can be very moving in an emotional - even spiritual- manner: this is not belly dance music; this is serious playing.
My only criticism would be the dialog on IRAQI MUSIC IN A TIME OF WAR - but this is a live concert in New York City. Rahim explains the meaning of each instrumental in an introduction before each piece.
This is great live; but listeners who just want to music might want to choose THE SECOND BAGHDAD if musical background isn't the goal.
Listening to Rahim's beautiful tone on the oud makes this listener wish more Western musicians would trade in their guitars for ouds (there are many different kinds of oud).
Another unusual plus: all performances were recorded in one take: no overdubs, no sweetening, no studio tricks - Rahim doesn't need them. He is beyond merely 'good'.
ZAKIRA is a serious or classical approach to Middle Eastern music: very composed, very strongly influenced by modern 20th century composers.
Mahmoud Turkmani studied classical guitar in Moscow before moving to Switzerland to become a teacher; his interest in the oud and Middle Eastern music eventually led to ZAKIRA, intended to blend classical interpretations of Arabic tradition with modern Arabic art music.
He recorded ZAKIRA in Cairo to use professional Egyptian musicians playing on Arab instruments, providing a sound based on a smaller group than some of the orchestra recordings produced in Egypt and Lebanon over the last 50 years, though the use of female vocalists draws comparisons.
The level of musicianship is of course superb: this is most definitely not easy listening music.
Imagine Farouz singing with a small group that occasionally deliberately goes atonal: fascinating.
1. Classical Instrumental Music of Middle East
Global Village Music's cds may be hard to find in your usual store but all are historically significant, as they preserve styles of playing (and in some cases, singing) that are in danger of disappearing. Some cds are of recent enough vintage to be easy to listen to, and very entertaining: for example, two cds by the great oud ( an instrument which is granddaddy of the guitar) player George Mgrdichian.
George is accompanied by acoustic guitar and a hand drummer playing what sounds like a dombek. The drum really helps ground the music: George has a clear modern style that reflects touches of Western popular styles mixed with Armenian music, and is one of our favorite oud players. He became the rage in world music circles in 1990 for his cd on the Shanachie label ONE MAN'S PASSION. Anything by George Mgrdichian is worth listening to; but especially ONE MAN'S PASSION, GEORGE MGRDICHIAN ON THE OUD and THE OUD.
Another of our favorite oud players is John Bilezikjian, also of Armenian ancestry. John's playing is spectacular on MUSIC FROM THE ARMENIAN DIASPORA: simply stated themes keep changing, jumping from mid-range to low notes and back. Clear notes are piled upon one another in great cascades while a very deep-rooted style makes for an exceptional player who's not afraid to touch upon styles outside the core of his playing.
MUSIC OF THE ARMENIAN DIASPORA is a joy to listen to, and also would be great for belly dancers.
Farid Goshn's THE STORM: AL-ASIFA sounds like a live recording from the early sixties folk era. A very attentive, worshipful audience listens to a great master show what he can do while playing solo.
Farid Goshin is famous in oud circles for several things: he introduced Flamenco music as an influence on Middle Eastern music styles (he was from Lebanon), and he played in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s, influencing the direction of Arabic music among his many students. He was the great oud player, singer and actor Farid Al-Atrash.
Farvid Goshin's most famous tune was 'Al Sifah' (The Storm), which he plays here. Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, among others, could have learned from this one: the sound recording may not be the best ever recorded, but Farid Goshin's virtuoso playing is not to be missed - it's totally thrilling.
George Michel's MELODIES OF THE OUD is another 'Global Village Masters of Arabic Music' series contribution. Michel was already an old man in the 1970s when this cd was recorded in Egypt, but his playing was still very sharp and precise: the sound is remarkably clear, accompaniment is minimal, and most of the time the great master plays solo.
George Michel was not only a great musician, but a theoretician and teacher who often was consulted by Egypt's most famous composer/arranger Abdel Wahab. MELODIES OF THE OUD is mostly low-key, but still exciting and a joy to listen to.
Karim Mahmoud's EGYPTIAN OUD AND VOCAL presents another consummate oud player and vocalist. Born in 1922, he studied under many of the great teachers at the Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo, where he excelled. Karim had been singing Arabic religious verse with his brother since childhood.
For years, I had people tell me that sometimes Middle Eastern music sounded like Chinese music to them. I thought they were all crazy until I heard Karim Mahmoud sing: on occasion he does remind me of certain styles of traditional Japanese singing: amazing!
EGYPTIAN OUD AND VOCAL was recorded in New York City in a professional recording studio on his visit to the USA: as a result the sound is clear as a bell.
Each tune begins with a nice oud solo starting the theme, but once the vocal comes in the oud usually (but not always) becomes simpler.
Cut 3, 'Samra Y Samra', is exceptional: the vocal on this cut is more like the type of vocal I associate with Arabic music. On cut 5, 'Takseem Nahwand for Aman Alaik', Karim takes an extra long oud intro: not virtuoso perhaps, but very solid.
Getting away from solo performances, we come to Salah Arram and Firquat Al-Awtarval Dahabiyyah (the Golden Strings Orchestra)'s CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC OF THE MIDDLE EAST.
Although this cd is subtitled 'Classical Instrumental Music from the Middle East', any listener will have no trouble visualizing a belly dancer performing to this music, which includes percussionists despite the 'strings orchestra' in the title.
One can easily hear where Ketelby and other Western classical composers got their 'exotic' sounds from listening to this group: although Egypt may be the primary sound, you also hear Turkey and Armenia contributing to the sound: apparently this transition happened in the 19th century. Egyptian and other music lovers everywhere are much richer for it.
Cut 8 is a bit different as it features the sound of a flute, thus closing the cd with a change of direction - we loved the bird-like trills.
Hakki Obadia, originally from Iraq, is represented by two 1969 recordings on Global Village, IRAQI JEWISH AND IRAQI MUSIC and CLASSICAL MUSIC OF THE MIDDLE EAST. The latter cd is the easier of the two to listen to, as it's well recorded and has minimum accompaniment.
Hakki was well schooled in both Middle Eastern and Western classical musics, and is a multi-instrumentalist. On CLASSICAL MUSIC OF THE MIDDLE EAST he overdubs himself playing violin, viola, oud and percussion. The sound is very clear and sparse despite his ability to play all the instruments.
IRAQI JEWISH AND IRAQI MUSIC is his tribute to his Iraqi Jewish roots. Listening to how authentic these 21 cuts sound, it's hard to believe that Hakki had spent decades in the USA; much of that time teaching Western classical music.
Many different styles are represented here. Hakki sings as well as plays several instruments. Oddly enough, some of the Jewish songs are sung in Arabic rather than Hebrew. Jews were in Iraq long before the Arabs arrived, but Arab culture dominates the country. IRAQI JEWISH AND IRAQI MUSIC is more for posterity and study than dance, though there are some dance tunes: a good cd for serious students.
Sami Shawa's MASTER OF ARABIC VIOLIN is a truly historic recording by the man considered the greatest violinist in the entire Middle East during the 1920s and 1930s, who was still going strong in the 1950s. Some of this recording was done on his third concert tour to the USA in 1953.
Sami plays tunes from more than a dozen countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East: sometimes with a full Middle Eastern orchestra, sometimes solo. I prefer the cuts with orchestra; violin students will appreciate the solos.
There is even a tune from the Sudan done with orchestra in the pentatonic scale of C: the beat, like most Sudanese music, is exciting; though it's a bit more subtle than what we are used to, today. Where did they ever find musicians who could play authentically in so many styles? In the magic of New York City.
Victoria Hazan's TODAS MIS ESPERANSAS is subtitled '1940s Recordings of Judeo-Spanish, Greek & Turkish Song'.
Victoria lived in New York City and was born in Turkey of Sephardic Jewish parents. She lived most of her adult life singing for the Turkish Sephardic community in New York City. She refused to record for two decades but finally relented, and her recordings sold well to Sephardic Jews and others throughout the world. Her type of singing has nearly disappeared today, although some are trying to revive this 'folk' style so popular only 50 or 60 years ago.
Her accompanying group is rather small, consisting of violin, oud, kanoun (zither), and occasional clarinet.
Victoria's voice would be considered middle range for a woman. There are twenty-four songs on TODAS MIS ESPERANSAS: such a deal. Serious fans of Middle Eastern, Sephardic, or Klezmer music alike should check out TODAS MIS ESPERANSAS.
OUT OF THE REEDS by the group Pharaohs Daughter, led by multi-instrumentalist Basya Schechter, was only the second recording by an artist steeped in Jewish tradition that I ever heard that was not also of European tradition - and it's great to have it back in print again.
Many people fail to realize that Jews lived (and still live) in the Middle East long before the founding of Israel. Many Middle Eastern Jews share musical ideas with their non-Jewish neighbors: in fact, Middle Eastern groups in New York City during the 1940s and 50s included a mix of Jews, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks and others.
Pharaoh's daughter continues this tradition and expands on it. Basya Schechter is a talented performer, a singer, a songwriter, an an innovator in the concepts of playing guitar and world fusion. Basya tunes her guitar like a Turkish saz while also playing oud (granddaddy of the guitar) and dumbek (Middle Eastern hand drum).
Sometimes the playing on OUT OF THE REEDS reminds me of the best Middle Eastern folk fusions of the 1950s (like Sandy Bull, for instance): the group itself consisted of six musicians for OUT OF THE REEDS, with over dozen guests appearing sporadically throughout. Everyone except drummer Jairod Cagwin sings.
This music is great for listening to or dancing - at least one track has a Latin feel. Can tabla and dumbek blend with cello, oud, flute and electric guitar. You bet they can. I'd love to see this group live.
On EXILE the group line-up is totally changed, with group leader Basya Schechter being the only holdover. Big differences between OUT OF THE REEDS and EXILE include the use of electronics, vocals in English, and less of a Middle Eastern feel and more of a post-Beatles pop feel.
EXILE is a real shock after OUT OF THE REEDS and a listener used to OUT OF THE REEDS may keep listening for Middle Eastern music - but after a few listens, it grows on you.
Joni Mitchell would be proud to do EXILE. Some tunes like 'Change Your Mind' are really catchy, almost - dare we think 'radio friendly". Most of the tunes have more of a serious album-only sound, though, and there's not much to dance to here.
Two albums so totally different from each other - but both very interesting, and both recommended!
1. Last News by Goo Goosh
An Iranian pop singer: can there be such a thing? Yes, indeed: before the revolution and the rise of the Mullahs Iran had a thriving music scene with pop, folk, and classical musicians and singers - and Goo Goosh has been the queen in the pop scene for many years. She still performs and records today - just not in Iran.
There are many communities of Iranian exiles throughout the world; especially in the USA and Europe: LAST NEWS was recorded in Southern California, which has a very large Persian population. Interestingly enough, Persian performers make little or no attempt to bring their music to the world outside of their own community: for example, there's no English liner notes on LAST NEWS, all lyrics are in Farsi (the language of Iran), yet if those outside the personal expat community were exposed to this music, many would like it and would like to purchase it.
Of course, in the future this will change as it always does with second- and third-generation immigrant communities - but why wait? This is modern adult music; not teen pop or crude field recordings.
Listen to those electric guitars play with the accordion and the gentle embrace of Goo Goosh's voice: dreamy stuff, especially the romantic duets with the male singer (Mehdad Asemani, who composed much of the music....ok, I found one page with a small amount of notes in English). It makes you want to find a Persian restaurant and soak up the culture for a few hours of quality listening.
Sima Bina is a singer from Iran who specializes in the folk music of the different regions of her country. She's spent many years researching this music, then gently re-interpreting it for a contemporary Persian (Iranian) audience. Only after she has consulted with the great masters of these traditions does she interpret them in public.
The three cds we received by Sima Bina are each devoted to a different region of the country. All focus on the rural traditions in each given region.
The Khovassan is a vast area of Northeastern Iran, so THE MUSIC OF SOUTH KHORASSAN is devoted to the music of the southern portion of the northeastern part of the country - are we clear on this?
SOUND FROM THE PLAIN is my favorite of the three: the melodies just seem easier to grasp. The plain referred to is the central province of the country.
MELODIES OF THE SAHARA is a confusing title, as the music appears to be more Persian folk music; not music from Northern Africa. The liner notes speak of Khorasan (the North and East of Iran) and Lorestan (the mountains are a part of the Southwest).
All three albums are strictly acoustic and traditional, and all changes for modern ears are very subtle.
Sima Bina started by working with her father, a master musician (Persian classical as well as traditional folk music). As a young child she appeared on the radio as a singer, for decades.
When Sima Bina sings, she captures the heart and soul of the Iranian people: anyone interested in Iran and its traditions must have her music.