Le Trio Joubran - Arabesque Music Ensemble
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Le Trio Joubran
Randana (www.letriojoubran.com)

Arabesque Music Ensemble
The Music of the Three Musketeers
Xauen Music

As modern as some music from the Arabic world is getting, the traditional side of things isn't going anywhere soon. The most recent works by Le Trio Joubran and the Arabesque Music Ensemble won't pack any dance floors or tempt Al Qaeda to forsake monkey bar training for booty-shaking, but their strengths are keenly heard and felt just the same.

Nazareth-born brothers Samir, Wissam and Adnan Joubran were destined to be masters of the oud, that pear-shaped lute which has been a staple of Middle Eastern music for centuries. Their father is a renowned crafter of the instrument, and from a young age the boys sought to merge their developing oud skills with the creative spark of the jazz, rock and flamenco guitarists they grew up listening to. Their debut CD Randana from a couple years ago was experimental, its three-oud configuration seeking out ways to achieve both symbiosis and contrast within the brothers' respective styles. That disc was a good one but the new Majaz is better. The addition of percussionist Yousef Hbeisch gives the music a stronger core, enabling the siblings to build in intensity on slower pieces like the stunning opener "Masar" or go full throttle with more melodic grace when the pace is quickened. Each brother gets a solo track that shows his signature approach, clarifying just how unique their respective voices are once they re-converge. The intricate power they achieve can truly be called lyrical even though only one track (the folkloric non-original "Min Zaman") includes vocals. Equal parts fire and finesse with no hint of indulgence or one-upmanship, Majaz is a splendid release.

The work of a threesome is also at the heart of the latest by the Chicago-based Arabesque Music Ensemble, although The Music of the Three Musketeers has nothing to do with swashbuckling Frenchmen. Rather, the individuals celebrated here are composers Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al-Qasabji and Riyad al-Sunbati, who created much of the music which made the songs of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1904-1975) such a phenomenal and enduring success. Schooled in the musical applications of Koranic chanting, Kulthum was nonetheless a singer of popular songs. Themes of love and longing abounded, and her intrepid trio of composers (along with poets/lyricists Bayram al-Tunsi and Ahmad Rami) crafted tunes that suited her powerful and nuance-laden voice. Seven lengthy songs originally recorded in the 1930s and '40s comprise this new Arabesque Ensemble CD. To ensure authenticity with regard to the playing style of the period, the group sought the assistance of Syrian singer and music professor Youssef Kassab, whose 50-plus years of making music began when the "Three Musketeers" were still alive and in their prime. While Kassab's input no doubt helped the disc sound as good as it does, I'm puzzled as to why a female singer wasn't chosen to fill Kulthum's vocal role. That head-scratcher aside, the music here is stunning. A lineup of violin, cello, oud, qanun (zither), ney (flute) and percussion topped by Kassab's passionately vintage vocals moves the songs along with a stately sway that to me sounds much like a stripped-down version of Swahili coastal taarab, itself highly influenced by Egyptian sounds. You won't think you're listening to some scratchy old record, but the tart, subtly shifting melodies and the way they frame Kassab's solitary wail have a throwback feel that's enjoyably elegant. The three composers were reportedly under-appreciated in their time, so let's hope this fine music leads to a new level of recognition for their efforts. - Tom Orr

Trio Joubran available from cdRoots
Arabesque Music Ensemble available via cdroots.com

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cd cover

Trio Joubran: "Sama"


CD available from cdRoots

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