Tunisian Anouar Brahem is one of the modern giants of the ‘ud, the Arabian lute. Steeped in the classical tradition (he studied for years with Tunisian master ‘udist Ali Sriti), Brahem is at the same time extremely open to music from outside the Arab tradition, including, as he says, “all the music left in my country by the colonialists.” He has been performing for over 20 years, both in Tunisia and abroad, and began recording for ECM, the prestigious German jazz label, in 1990. His earlier recordings for ECM include collaborations with noted jazz musicians Jan Garbarek, Dave Holland and John Surman. Astrakan Café, his sixth ECM release, represents a return to a more classical Oriental sound, but still retains the sense of openness to other, variegated influences and the improvisational feel of his more jazz-oriented work.
Here Brahem works with Turkish gypsy clarinet player Barbaros Erköse, with whom he first collaborated in 1985, and Lassad Hosni on percussion (bendir and derbouka). Although not a jazz ensemble per se, the trio plays together very much like one. Improvisation, in fact, is very much in the mainstream of the Arabic musical tradition, and Brahem’s trio can be considered a takht, the classical little ensemble, which thrives on improvising. “Authentic” Arabic music, in fact, is essentially very jazz-like in this regard. Regrettably, this tradition has waned in the modern period, but Brahem is in the forefront of evorts to revive it.
Brahem’s penchant for other musical influences is also very much true to the Arab tradition, which historically has been very cosmopolitan, as befits a region that sits at the crossroads of the world’s major historical civilizations. Brahem has been influenced variously by classical Indian, Renaissance, flamenco, and American jazz, and one hears all of these strains wafting through Astrakan Café. There are also the sounds of Turkey and Central Asia, evoked in titles like “Astara” (an Azerbaijani city on the border with Iran) and “Astrakan Café”. Astrakhan (as it’s spelled in English) is a Russian city on the Volga, and was the site of a Tatar khanate before it was conquered, Christianized and absorbed into the Russian Empire in the sixteenth century. Astrakhan remains a very ethnically diverse city until this day.
Anouar Brahem’s trio manages to combine very diverse influences, extraordinary musicianship, and subtle improvisational interplay to create a work of exquisite artistry and craftsmanship. Each song is something like a Joseph Cornell box: small, delicate, mysterious, assembled of disparate materials, and gem-like. “Halfaouine”, the theme song from Ferid Boughedir’s film of the same name, is a moody tribute to the working-class district of Tunis where Brahem was born, and features magical soloing from Erköse and Brahem. “Pafum de gitane” (Gypsy perfume) manages to evoke the continuities of Arab, Spanish and gypsy music, as they evolved out of Andalusia. “L’aube rouge a Grozny” (Red dawn in Grozny) is a forceful lament for the horrific bloodshed in Chechnya’s capital, with Erköse’s clarinet wailing like a muezzin. “Karakoum” is upbeat, evoking a caravan happily moving through Turkmenistan’s great desert.
Astrakan Café is a real jewel, truly a work of great artistry and passion. Surely one of the finest world music releases of the year.