[11 August 2011]
The first track is quiet: calm guitars, a peaceful name, “The Pear Tree”, pastoral hush. The second track starts with strings grinding, a violin being dragged and battered, the guitar transformed and electric. The violin stabs the cello, the guitar bites the violin, the violin screams, and everything snaps and rips, leaps and charges, and there’s sort of a lush violence here that carries over into the rest of Kef, standing back sometimes, and sometimes coming forward.
“Raki’ is harsh, but the heart of “Karasalama” is a production of a folk dance, as neat as a set of dots. “Pineta” is simple, melodic, a single guitar. “Shish” pranks along with a toddle of Dada midgets. The album can be soft, but it never seems to be really resting, never totally mellow. Every bit of quiet is followed by a sting. You learn to anticipate the stings.
Aram Bajakian is a North American with an Armenian background, and the “kef” in the title is a style of music that developed in the U.S. among migrant Armenian communities—traditional music updated and changed, played by bands at gatherings in halls and churches. The word drives some Armenian-Americans into a spitting rage. “Kef is a Turkish word meaning merriment (khrakhjank),” writes Dr. Henry Astarjian in the Armenian Weekly. It “make[s] me feel like a matador looking at the bull ready to charge”. “This is to Armenian music, what Chop suey is to Chinese Cuisine”, writes one Amazon poster, reviewing an album called My Heart for You: Kef Music from Armenia.
But Aram Bajakian’s Kef is superb. The transition from smooth to rough between the first two tracks is so brusque, it’s clumsy, as if someone has made a mistake and switched us over to the wrong playlist, but once the point about calm verses harsh has been made, he proceeds to experiment with it more cunningly. The quietude doesn’t always come from the folk music—the quick dance in “Karasalama” supersedes a hum of postrock drone.
In its strongest moments, the album goes after its ideas with an absence of restraint back-boned by a strong traditional structure, and this absence of restraint seems to be driven by a mature seriousness, as if it might say, “When you mean it, then there is no reason to bother with the middle ground”. The violin in “Raki” squeals, and the electric guitar sounds drunk, but all of the instruments take a break from their roaring and swoop down into a few seconds of Armenian jig, grounding themselves on the earth of this clearing, before running off again.
That’s the album in a nutshell. If your typical kef really is as chop suey-like as the Amazon poster says—I haven’t heard it, I don’t know—then this is better-than, and genuinely deserves to be called Aram Bajakian’s Kef, not anybody else’s, but his, clever and fearless.