Cypriot composer, percussionist and singer Vassilis Philippou on bendir, riq and tombak, is joined by illustrious colleagues in this elegant album of his compositions that fit very naturally into the eastern Mediterranean modal music tradition. His group here consists of Michalis Kouloumis (violin, viola), Giannis Koutis (oud, guitar), Meir Gassenbauer (ney) and Michalis Messios (double bass).
Guesting, on lyra is Zacharias Spyridakis, and on kopuz the multi-talented Efrén López Sanz (whom I venture to suggest Philippou might have met at that modal music nexus, Ross Daly’s Labyrinth workshop in Crete).
It’s an ensemble work, interpreting and exploring Philippou’s songs and instrumental compositions. In the rich instrumentation, fiddle and lyra edge into yearning, duskily fluting harmonics, with gutty oud, breathy ney and double bass, underpinned by his deeply resonant hand drums that blend melodically rather than driving or showing off.
The enticing slithering instrumental conversation of the opener segues smoothly into the title song with Philippou’s warm vocal, and Gassenbauer’s ney floats airily over the bowed strings. Then in the exuberant “Dark-skinned Beauty” an oud intro joined by vocal, ecstatic strings and slapping fingers on bendir-skin.
Six of the nine tracks are songs. “A Few Words About You” is a love song to an imaginary goddess. The lyrics of “Across The River” are a narrative poem co-written with his sister Marianna, who speaks its opening and closing lines. The chiming of Sanz’s kopuz long-necked lute features in “The Letter," a fable about two brothers in conflict over their inheritance of ten olive trees, and there’s a solo section for Spyridakis’ lyra in “Yearning."
Deep solo ney opens one of the three instrumentals among the nine tracks, “Olive Tree," in whose eight minutes a sultry slow-winding melody builds gradually to almost threatening. And, as a lovely reflective closer, in the misty instrumental “Aura II – Amphilyke” violin and oud reinterpret melodies from the title track.
YouTube videos linked on Philippou’s website are evidence that the Sol Aurorae Ensemble, usually a quartet of Philippou, Kouloumis, Koutis and a bassist, or a quintet including Gassenbauer, is as attractive live as on the album.
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Photo: Yiannis Avraamides