[25 November 2008]
Middle Eastern music can be a tricky thing to approach. Where do you start? There is pop, there is classical, there is folk, there are oud traditionalists getting as tetchy as Fanfare subscribers when newbies arrive and try to change things around too much. Introducing Dozan is conceived as an answer to that problem, an album that gives you a small taste of what’s out there, couching it in soothing, persuasive compositions that seem both familiar and foreign.
Dozan’s seven Jordan-based musicians come from Palestine and Syria, as well as Jordan itself. The group is named for the Dozan wa Awtar Music Establishment. Its founder and lead female singer, Shireen Abu-Khader, is also the director and founder of Dozan wa Awtar. She is the woman holding one hand to the side of her head on the front cover of Introducing Dozan. Abu-Khader also heads the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at King’s Academy in Madaba, directing choirs, composing music, and running workshops. The photograph on her Academy web page makes her seem less mysterious than the one on the front of the album. On the album she appears to be a representative of the sandy, antique building behind her, a thoughtful, prophetic woman. On the website she looks like a chirpy drama teacher.
Dozan, the press release tells me, is engaged with its “Levantine heritage”. “Levantine” here is a useful word. It gives a better idea of the way Introducing sounds than the more general, the more obvious term, “Middle Eastern”. There’s an arching, regal, sad tone to much of this album, which sidles through music from other parts of the Levant, through cantorish Jewish melancholy, through Turkish folk, through Greek rembetika. The voices croon, drawing themselves out and up, a tar drum is tapped, a cello swells and recedes, the oud prances, and the whole album moves at a regular, flowing pace.
Nothing is ragged, nothing startles you. A man’s tenor streams creamily around corners. Any abrupt noises, such as the swift pip-pop of multiple voices in “Tal’a Min Bayt Abuha”, are foreshadowed and repeated until they settle comfortably into your brain. “Ya Olali” works on the Hallelujah Chorus idea of saying one basic thing beautifully at different speeds, tones, and volumes. “Lau Rahal Sawfi” brings out a silvery children’s choir. There’s a glide at the start of “Ya Layl” that moves eventually into a bit of qawwali joy—it’s not a qawwali, you’d never mistake it for one, but there’s a hint of a voice pitching itself towards the heavens. Abu-Khader draws on Sufism in a modulated way, turning the usual ecstasy into something tidier. The next song breaks up this serious mood with an informality that is almost chatty, the strings and tar moving like a trotting donkey.
The music is primarily, strongly, but not exclusively, Arabic. Outside influences segue in. There are times when the musicians decide to give their Levantine heritage a jazz moment. Near the start of “‘Ajga” it sounds as if the instruments might be about to launch into the overture of an opera, perhaps a minute or two of incidental Western classical music. This impression flashes past, then we’re back to the oud. The neatness of the arrangements, and the way the voices come together, suggest madrigals. It’s this easygoing combination of Middle Eastern and European sounds that make Introducing Dozan a good bridge, a useful album for someone from a Euro background who wants to feel her way into Middle Eastern music but isn’t sure where to start. An urbanely cultured folk music disc.