Rabih Abou-Khalil grew up in Lebanon. Towards the end of the 1970s, his life complicated by civil war, he moved to Germany, where he married a German citizen and had a pair of multilingual children. Musically, he’s an experimentalist, a keen and flexible collaborator, a jazz musician, and a ney flautist who decided to devote himself to the oud instead. He’s very good on the oud.
I came across his work for the first time in 2003, when he released Morton’s Foot, a collaboration with the clarinettist Gabriele Mirabassi and a Sardinian singer named Gavino Murgia whose delivery was compared by one UK reviewer to “a man gargling with wet cement.” After that, Abou-Khalil made two more albums, Journey to the Centre of an Egg and Songs for Sad Women, both with different guest musicians, a German jazz pianist for the first and an Armenian duduk player for the second. Egg and Sad Women were released in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Now we have Em Portugues, which is something new again. This time Abou-Khalil and his troupe are accompanied by a 26-year-old named Ricardo Ribeiro.
Ribiero is the Portuguese part of Em Portugues. He’s normally a pure fado singer, not a man who works on crossover albums. Fado tends to glorify the soloist. Think of Mariza, standing out on the stage, gothically dressed, arms raised, looking like a black candelabra in a bathroom. So the sympathy between Ribiero and the Abou-Khalil ensemble, the way he works with them, taking on the role of another instrument rather than playing the part of the resident diva, is a joy and a thrill. The publicity material calls the result “imaginary folklore … [which sounds] as if it had always existed.” Comments in publicity material are usually hopeful exaggerations, decorative rather than accurate, but when I read that one I thought they’d summed it up pretty well. The combination seems natural. It doesn’t sound like several people from different traditions exploring one another’s roots. Instead it sounds like a single established tradition finding new things to do with itself. A tradition from Andalusia, you’d imagine, something that Radio Tarifa would have taken inspiration from. Related to flamenco, perhaps: some sort of association there, a relationship between this oud and a flamenco guitar, and the emotion in Ribiero’s voice like flamenco emotion translated into a different musical language …
Ribiero has a fadista‘s ability to make any phrase sound charged with meaning even when he’s singing very short words very quietly. It’s as if there’s a spring in his brain loaded with waiting energy. The melancholy that refines the raw emotion of fado—sharpening it to a point, making it different to the jaggy, splurging energy of a rock singer—comes together with the refinement of the oud, complementing it and adding to it. It can go places that the oud can’t. Ribiero swarms into long notes. He rises and whispers. He has the husky subtlety of a human. But the oud has the precision of an oud, and three minutes into the first track it proves that it can rattle off a blur of notes in ways that the voice can’t match. Michel Godard’s tuba has an untubalike brightness. Jarrod Cagwin’s drums are susceptible to flecks of chintz. There’s a feeling of power in this album, of adult strength being channelled and directed towards a common goal, the sound of years of experience being tapped. It’s delicious.