Arabesque Music Ensemble: The Music of the Three Musketeers

Deanne Sole

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 ...

Arabesque Music Ensemble

The Music of the Three Musketeers

Label: Xauen
US Release Date: 2008-01-01
UK Release Date: Unavailable

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.