Shaabi mu­sic goes ex­per­i­men­tal

New suite of tunes per­formed by Praed Or­ches­tra proves sur­pris­ingly mu­si­cal

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - RE­VIEW By Jim Quilty For more, see http://shar­ja­­jah-art-foun­da­tion/events/praed-or­ches­tra.

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-ofthe-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 best­known 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 moviecum-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.

Hans Koch, fore­ground, and Mar­tin Kuchen dur­ing the Praed Or­ches­tra’s show.

Alan Bishop, left, Raed Yassin and Paed Conca, seated.

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