Ramzi Aburedwan was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp. As a child he participated in the first intifada—the popular uprising against Israeli occupation—and became an inspiration to his people due to a widely-circulated photograph showing him poised to throw a stone at a tank. As a teenager, his life changed: he began playing the oud, the Middle Eastern lute. After studying at the National Conservatory of Angers in France, Aburedwan lauched a successful musical career. Now he is the leader of the Palestine National Ensemble of Arabic Music and founder of a music school.
Reflections of Palestine is the first of Aburedwan’s recordings to be available in the west. A collection of original instrumental tunes, it incorporates accordion and percussion in a varied set of folk-inflected songs, with traditional instrumentation and enough variation in tempo and arrangement to keep things engaging.
Album opener “Rahil” sets a stately tone that will recur throughout the album, with rich accordion chords providing a deep sonic backdrop for the oud’s crisp fretwork. The oud sounds more like a mandolin than a guitar; its strings are taut and too stiff to easily bend, so sustain is created through repetitively brushing them, rather than bending and holding the note. This stiffness to the string also rewards a fast-paced fingerpicking style. “Rahil” incorporates both these techniques, and more, in its seven minutes. Shifting tempos between slower, almost dirgelike sections, and lightly trotting fingerpicking runs, the tune serves as an opening statement of sorts.
These same elements are present elsewhere on the album. “Sans Addresse” incorporates some nice percussion—it sounds an awful lot like the Indian tabla—into its reflective, downtempo composition, while the equally deliberate “Bahar” moves the accordion into the spotlight for a time before shifting attention back to the oud.
Not every song is slow; “Sodfa” ups the pace a bit, aided by some snappy hand-drumming and quick rhythmic pulses of accordion. “Tahrir,” possibly the most immediately accessible and enjoyable composition on the record, gallops along thanks to spirited and skillful interplay among all three musicians. Had this been the opening track, it might perhaps have set a very different tone for the album as a whole, but as it is, the song occurs midway through the set, and breathes a bit of fresh life into the proceedings.
The songs here are often fairly long—half of them are over six minutes—which gives them time to stretch out and explore different avenues. Every tune has multiple sections, lending them a sonic richness and complexity that rewards repeated listenings. That said, the sonic palette is fairly limited, and the lack of vocals adds to this. The production, too, is clean almost to the point of airlessness. For all that this record is born of populist, Palestinian folk music, the whole affair feels somehow terribly polite.
This is likely to be a special-interest album for aficianados of Middle Eastern music, or perhaps fans of accordion or oud. The arrangements are interesting and the musicianship is solid, but the staid quality of folk-inspired instrumental music won’t appeal to everyone.