Ahmad Al Khatib & Youssef Hbeisch
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Ahmad Al Khatib & Youssef Hbeisch
Institut du Monde Arabe (www.imarabe.org )

This recording is the work of two Palestinian men who studied music at the Edward Said Conservatory in Jerusalem, players who have incorporated influences from far outside their Middle Eastern home turf. Yet it is also music guided by the deep influences of traditional Arabic song, with more than a nod, in Al Khatib’s case, to the work of Iraqi oud playing shaman Jamil Bashir. Hbeisch, the percussionist here, has slurped up Latin rhythms from Cuba and North American jazz, but, again, without it replacing the music of his home. Between them, they have resumes to slobber over: film soundtrack work, festival slots from Antwerp to Essaouira, Bahia, Brazil to Sweden, stacks of recordings, instructional books, as well as teaching gigs. And on this CD, a playful, open-ended, modal oud/percussion workout honors improvisation as well as tradition, without wearing any particular genre stamp.

Theirs is a music that acknowledges the uncertainty of existence in a region of the world where there seems to be no peace in sight. As a result, the tracks here can be as somber as they are playful. In fact, “Li Alix,” finds them both on percussion, entering slowly, seemingly stalking each other until the pace is picked up, ever so slightly, as if a wary trust has been won. “Maqam for Gaza” is even more grave, with Al Khatib’s oud on its own, spinning phrases free of meter, but also seemingly wandering, as if being untethered is as much a product of displacement as it is any chosen individuality. But it’s also beautiful stuff, calm, restrained, and ultimately sacrificial. Elsewhere, the title track is nearly Spanish, with stop-start flamenco trills from the oud and percussion that both supports and encourages.

Their ability to shift tempo and time signature at a moment’s notice sounds like the product of painstaking rehearsal, but is more likely to be founded in an inexplicable intuition, as if they’ve been connected, at least musically, since birth. This is music so thrilling to listen to, one can actually see it, as it holds a listener in Clouzot-like suspense, the duo sprinting up musical mountains, jumping off cliffs, trusting that their own wind, conjured from a kind of virtuosity that doesn’t forsake feel, will carry them wherever they need to go. Whoever thought that a passionate display of respect for maqam-related modal improvisation could be so much fun? - Bruce Miller

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