Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Arab Music at Joe's Pub

Well, it was almost a month ago now that my friend Abigail and I went down to Joe's Pub to see one evening of the Brooklyn Maqam Arab Music Festival. (Wait a second. Isn't Joe's Pub in Manhattan? Hmm... I guess Brooklyn is a state of mind.)

I had been tipped off to this show by seeing one of the two groups involved--Zikrayat--playing in band leader Sami Abu Shumays' living room. (I know his downstairs neighbor.) And I also had seen the featured vocalist, Gaida, along with the leader of the second band, Amir ElSaffar, in a wonderful show at Drom, which I described in a previous post.

The show at Joe's Pub was also terrific (particularly after Abigail and I moved from the bar--where there were several tall people standing in front of us--to some bar stools down on the lower level of the venue).

Zikrayat specializes in repertoire from the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, and so most of their set focused on songs from Egyptian films. I know very little about the genre, so I just sat back and enjoyed the groove. The band consisted of violin, buzuq, oud and two percussionists. Two different vocalists, Gaida and Salah Rajab, sang several numbers each. The crowd was completely into the show, and so was the band. I really like watching these guys because they play in such a nonchalant way: percussionists Johnny Farraj and Nikolai Ruskin just sit there doing their thing, as if nothing could really disturb them (and sometimes bordering on appearing not to actually want to be playing), while Tareq Abboushi lets the notes ring out of his buzuq with a sly smile on his face.

The band Safaafir played second. When Dan and I had seen band leader Amir ElSaffar at Drom, he had played both santoor (Arabic hammered dulcimer) and trumpet and had not said a word. He played some amazing music that night but left the spotlight mostly to Gaida, who was the featured performer. At this show, he began with a monologue describing how he had come to learn the Maqam, an important Iraqi vocal tradition, and describing his travels to Iraq before the beginning of the 2003 U.S.-led war. He noted that the concert was happening exactly on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of U.S. attacks on Iraq.

Joining Amir ElSaffar were Dena ElSaffar on violin and joza, the spike fiddle made from a coconut, and Tim Moore on percussion. They performed a range of maqam with Amir providing brief translations of some of the poetry. Interestingly, the story lines in some of the poetry reminded me of the translations of French-language Cajun songs that one hears at folk festivals: something like, "This is a song about a boy who sees a girl that he likes, but her father is a big man, and so he tells him to buzz like a bee. But the boy is persistent, and eventually the girl sneaks out to see him in the moonlight. But then they hear a bee buzzing nearby." (Something like that anyway.)

They put on a wonderful set, although the focus was much more on the songs and the singing than on the santoor playing, and Amir did not play trumpet at all. It was beautiful and interesting music, and I wish only that I knew more about it.

Zikrayat will perform on May 3rd in Jamaica, Queens, and then on May 15th at the City University of New York. Check their website for the details.

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