And yet, as the album went on, I began to realise that there was something of substance here...
So the press kit tells me that Alchemy "makes perfect music to listen to while you are reading The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dreams, a wonderful book written by Paulo Coelho" and even before I've put the CD in the stereo I'm afraid that this is going to be one of those drifty, noncommital relaxation pieces on which ethnic harpstrings wander through tranquil rainforests while water trickles down rocks and the bodhisattva lies down with the lamb.
It doesn't help that the title is written in an ornamental font so busy being mystical and antique that it forgets to be easily legible. The word looks like ACHMI until you realise that the right side of the A is supposed to be the backbone of an L, and that the small curl coming off the I is one branch of a Y. E is growing out of H. Grrrr, people. Grrrr. If I saw this in the shops I'd run a mile.
As the album opened (twinkling stardust noises, soothing bass sailing serenely) I thought my worries were being vindicated. The earliest tracks are the softest ones. The liveliness of "Al-Boustan" is tempered by a piano, and "Casida De La Muchacha Dorada" has spiritual ploings and sweeping voice and more of those twinkles.
And yet, as the album went on, I began to realise that there was something of substance here. Tarik Banzi, one half of the Al-Andalus duo, has worked in the past with Radio Tarifa, and in some ways you could look at Alchemy as the result of a fresh personality taking hold of the same raw material that Radio Tarifa use to create its Spanish-North African fusion, and giving it a different character.
Radio Tarifa are showmen, they're fast and vigorous and loud, exhausting and thrilling. Al-Andalus work in a more temperate key. Radio Tarifa gallops where Al-Andalus floats. Radio Tarifa fills space with noise and electric charges. Al-Andalus let pauses remain pauses. On "Durme Donzella", they create a slow dialogue between an 'ud and a woman's voice, with one side of the discussion pausing often to give the other side room to speak. The 'ud makes a quiet, questioning sound. The woman's voice suggests a mournful prospect. The 'ud considers it. She elaborates. The 'ud shakes its head. The song is a lullabye in Ladino, and it sounds sad.
"Conversation" is a discussion between a darbuka drum and a kamancheh. In the inlay, the kamancheh is described as a kind of violin, and in this tune it sounds very much like one, although the instrument itself doesn't look like a violin at all, being a long-necked thing with a fat pot belly sitting upright on a spike.
The darbuka on this track makes a full, meaty sound; chunky and alive. There's a vitality in the noise that makes you think of real fingers hitting a surface. The kamancheh is nervy and perky, the darbuka is relaxed and forceful. On "Conversation" the group shifts into high gear and the sound becomes less mystic, more refined and classical, harder and faster and focused. It's followed by "Grenadina", which gives Julia Banzi a chance to show her confident handling of a flamenco guitar. Like "Conversation", "Grenadina" is quick and firm. The song is dedicated to luthiers, which makes sense, and yet it's the first time I've seen a musician do this -- use a song to celebrate the people who make the instruments. "Without our luthier friends," they write, "we would have nothing to play on." Good point.
By the end of the album they've pulled far away from the awful promise of their font and I'm convinced. I'm won over. It's not a relaxation piece, they know what they're doing, and Tarik Banzi can whip out a brilliant darbuka when he needs to. Alchemy is much better than it looks.