Anyone who bought the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble’s debut album is going to look at the cover of this one and feel a zing of familiarity, as if an old friend has turned up in new clothes. “The font,” this person will say, musing to themselves. “I remember that font. And the whole vibe of the thing, bilingual, severe, one step away from monochrome, and oh, the gray portraits of the composers too ... But isn’t this a different group?” They check the inlay. “No, the same group with a new name. That explains it.”
The Ensemble has changed both its title and its lineup since it recorded 2006’s Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh but The Music of the Three Musketeers suggests that its raison d’être has remained intact. The musicians are still performing decades-old Egyptian music with accuracy and style, and it’s clear that they still want to plant composers, rather than performers, firmly in the spotlight. The Three Musketeers of the title, Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al Qasabji, and Riyad al Sunbati, all wrote music for the singer Umm Kalthoum, a woman so famous that her albums are still selling in the tens of thousands more than three decades after her death. So, from a marketing point of view, it would have been sensible to call this CD For the Love of Umm Kalthoum, or Umm Kalthoum’s Composers or something else with Kalthoum’s name in it. But no ... the Ensemble has removed these songs gently from her grasp and decided to reflect glory on the people who devised them.
Kalthoum had a wide repertoire of love songs, therefore The Three Musketeers is an album of love songs. Six of these love songs are personal and one is patriotic, yet even the patriotic one has turned intimate by the end. “I have in Egypt a lover,” sigh the translated lyrics. “His distance keeps me up at night.” Youssef Kassab’s voice quivers as he sings.
The playing is richly ornamented, and the exchange between Kassab and the musicians with their ‘ud, qanun, ney, cello, violin, and percussion, is close and sympathetic. This is music as poetry, music that rises and falls like a voice. It has the flexible measure of a good Shakespeare recitation. In both cases the material is old, but there’s a core of human feeling in it that keeps it from sounding crusty. When Kassab asks his lover to sing to him “shewayya, shewayya,” or “softly, sweetly,” his tone incorporates longing, appeal, and insinuation, even a slight, hopeful sleaziness, as if he wouldn’t say no to something more physical than soft singing. He makes the word swerve like a swallow, beginning with a susurration on the “S”, swooping downwards, and pulling back on the final “A”, giving “shewayya” the shape of a shallow hook. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the same shape throughout any piece of Arabic script.
The Three Musketeers has a plush appeal that sets it apart from the operatic ambitions of its predecessor. Those of you looking for music with snap and spark are going to like Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh‘s “Ya Barget eh-Roh”, with its female chorus whipping out responses to the men, more than Three Musketeers’ “Leh Tilaw’ini”, “Ya Fayetni”, or anything else in this muscular whirlpool of love. I think that listening to them in reverse order is the answer. First Three Musketeers, a fat slice of chocolate cake. Then Darweesh the palate cleanser. There. Done.