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This archive is still under serious construction, 1999

Music From (or influenced by) Asia Minor, Persia and the Middle East

See also: Turkey, Armenia and Southeast Europe We are beginning to break these Asian music sections down into regional pages (spring-summer1998) so there will be a little more order to this as time goes on.
Regional sub-sections:
Indonesia
Japan
Northern Asia (including China) (under construction)
Central Asia (Including Russia)
Asia (General)


Look here for more music of Asia. Some reviews were contributed by many authors. Read the masthead to see who they are. All are copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by the authors.
There are always more recent reviews in our general review section

Recent Reviews

  • Ensemble Al-Kindi (Syria)
  • Naseer Shamma (Iraq)
  • Music From Yemen Arabia
  • Ghazal (Persian-India)
  • Rabih Abou-Khalil (Lebanon)
  • Hamza El Din (Egypt)
  • The Kamkars (Iran)
  • Sima Bina (Iran)
  • Munir Bashir
  • Jalilah: Raks Sharki
  • Burhan Öçal


    Anthology of World Music - Iran
    (Rounder)

    This two cd set is a reissue of a series of UNESCO-sponsored world music anthologies recorded "in the field" between 1968-87. Iran is perhaps the cradle of Arab and Indian music and a link to the concepts of the classical Greeks.

    For those interested in the tradition of classic music from this area, this is an excellent introduction. The current health of this music is problematic in its native home since the Islamic revolution, with the regime having a generally negative attitude towards music.

    There are extended solos by virtuosos of the tar (three stringed lute), kemanche (four stringed fiddle played cello style), santur (a cymbalom), ney (straight flute) and dombek (a hand drum). there are also a couple of extended, outstanding vocals. An authoritative booklet of notes (though a bit outdated) is a helpful guide to the uninitiated. - Stacy Phillips



    Najma
    Pukar (Calling You)
    Mondo Melodia/Ark 21 (versa@ark21.com)

    I want to give my unqualified adulation to Najma Akhtar, she of divine voice and innovative ideas. But again and again she comes so close to greatness and is held back by weird or gimmicky production. While her takes on film music and ghazal have always been intriguing, they just never seem to expand to a new and wondrous point in the way Sheila Chandra has been able to do. Her 1992 album Pukar (now released in the US) offers the same lustrous voice and the same strange and often frustrating mix, not surprising since the inspiration for this album came when she was asked to create a song for a Japanese bank advertisement. Never the less, I find myself listening through the music just to hear her voice, because it is still an instrument of remarkable soul and depth. - CF


    The Music of Arab Americans
    Rounder

    The European immigrants whocame to this country brought with them music and culture that has persevered to this day, and there have been numerous recorded histories if their music released over the last half century. But less familiar, historically and musically, is the large influx of Arabs to America in the first half of the 20th century. Here, then, is a chance to meet them, and hear their voices, from a series of reissued 78 RPM records made in America for the American immigrant population. They include professional "oriental" orchestras like that of Alexander Maloof and wonderful solos like Na'im Karakand's unique violin playing in which he imitates an Arabic clarinet. The set also includes the only known Arabic recording by Lebanese American actor and entertainer Danny Thomas. Another prime track has to be the reverb-soaked "Only You" by singer Kahraman, whose aggressive and spirited vocals (with the English hook lines) are a charm. And the wild, 60's Top 40 Radio-style intro is a howl. Very well documented liner notes accompany the CD, with insights into the period and the people, and explanations of the styles and instruments. - CF



    Ghazal (Shanachie) is a recording by KAYHAN KALHOR, SHUJAAT HUSSAIN KHAN AND SWAPAN CHAUDHURI, a blending of Iranian dastgah and Indian raga by some of the better musicians in their fields. Iranian Kalhor in particular deserves a high level of praise for his passionate and innovative approaches to the kamancheh, a traditional spike fiddle that he pulls powerful melodies and subtle rhythms out of. Shujaat Khan offers sitar and the infamous Swapan Chaudhuri completes the circle on tablas. Some of it falls into a vague swirl of lost improvisational wandering, but when they click, and they most often do, they make some interesting new music. It's a relevant, solid exploration of two related cultures. - CF


    SIMON SHAHEEN AND VISHWA MOHAN BHATT
    Saltanah
    Water Lily

    While there are lots of artists out there "fusing" their particular mode of expertise with that of another musician or culture, it usually implies an East-meets-West kind of approach, usually with an unskilled or uninformed western musician trying desperately to understand another realm by studying the culture for a few weeks-months-years. But the collaboration of Bhatt and Shaheen offers something unique and musically obvious. Shaheen is a recognized master of the Arab music world. He has worked with classical orchestras and pop stars in his career, but he has always held high standards for any of his work. His oud playing is respected throughout the world. Bhatt is the innovator. His deep understanding and respect for Hindustani classical and religious music did not prevent him from creating his own instrument to work out his music, the mohan vina, a hybrid guitar that incorporates the musical inflections of the Indian vina.

    Saltanah brings together two distinct musical modes, the Indian raq and the Arabic maqam. Both are complex modal styles that depend greatly on the innovation and understanding of the performer. (I'll leave the precise details to the excellent liner notes by producer-poet Kavi Alexander.) What they search for and find together is common ground in the complex melodies and rhythms of Indian and Arabic music. They push each other to interpret these modes in ways impossible within the confines of each artist's individual traditions. This is intricate, moody music, full of passion and power, subtlety and grace. - CF


    PARVIZ MESHKATIAN Dawn
    Kereshmeh Records
    Parviz Meshkatian is a well known and respected master of the santur, a Persian forebear of the hammer dulcimer. While most of his famous work is with larger ensembles, here he plays the santur accompanied only by percussionists Nasser Farhangfar and Jamishad Mohebi. Farhangfar is one of the most skilled Iranian tombak players and is featured in the first piece in the set. He is remarkably melodic, and manages to play superbly without ever overshadowing the santur, which is, of course, the heart of the matter. Meshkatian's playing is highly charged, an emotional outpouring (particularly in the second section of the work, accompanied by Mohebi) that marks this as a fine performance. The work needs to be taken as a whole, so allow some time on your program to at least play a full section, first or second, of this powerful work. As always, I shy away from explaining the complexities and formalities of Persian music, preferring to leave you to look at the expert liner notes included. I also recommend an excellent WWW site that delves into Eastern and Middle Eastern music at great length, Todd McComb's music pages at http://www.medieval.org/music/world/iran.html



    MOHAMMAD REZA LOFTI Mystery Of Love
    Kereshmeh Records

    Deceiving in it's simplicity, beguiling in its quiet strength, the music of Lofti is not going to grab you on the first listen. It needs time to build, to enter your consciousness slowly and with feeling. But once it is there it will hold you in rapt attention. Lofti plays the setar and tar, both small stringed instruments common in Persian classical and folk music. He is accompanied only by percussion instruments, tombak and daf played by Mohammmad Ghavihelm.

    This is a recording of a live performance, and its complex structure, while good for a number of pages of liner notes, is really very illusive. Lofti introduces a simple melody, played slowly and casually, and allows it to build, to be joined by percussion, and eventually it opens up, gains momentum. What happens in this 80 minute concert is a revelation, as his highly structured music seems to be exploding in improvisational bursts that will bring the listener to thinking that they hear blues and Celtic modes in the background. Incidental and unintentional, to be sure, but there they float. And like the great blues masters and Celtic soloists, his passion is clear, his conviction evident in every carefully chosen note.


    Esta
    Mediterranean Crossroads
    Newance

    I have been hearing about, but never actually hearing this Israeli/NYC quartet for over a year now. Finally, CD in hand I can report that the good news is they live up to most of their hype. Playing an assortment of klezmer, jazz, rock and folk instruments, they have delved into old songs from their middle eastern and Jewish roots to develop a manic, energized blend that will sit well with fans of both pop and rock. Traditionalists will find them abhorrent, to be sure, but that seems to be part of the point here, pulling on the roots to see if the come out. Sometimes, they do. They are all skilled musicians, and at the core of the unit is bagpiper/reedist Amir Gwirtzman, who adds a wheeziness to the proceedings that gives it an almost lunatic edge at times. They do drop into some well-travelled turf, and worn out cliches seem to have indelibly marked a few of what would otherwise be stellar performances. It's a mixed bag, to be sure, but for a first effort, this band shows a lot of sparks, and given a lot of freedom, they could really go over the top. - CF


    Rabih Abou-Khalil
    Blue Camel
    Mesa

    Blue Camel is a truly international experience, drawing from the African heritage of jazz, the north African and middle eastern traditions of the oud, and layered with the rhythms and percussion of India and the Caribbean. Abou-Khalil's classical Arabic foundation (one that has always encouraged improvisation) is augmented by a broad cast of characters. Steve Swallow (bass), Charlie Mariano (alto sax), and Kenny Wheeler (trumpet) weave in and out of swirling Arabic melody and solid Euro-American jazz. Nabil Khaiat (frame drums) and Ramesh Shotam (drums and percussion) bring the beat of the middle east and Indian sub-continent. Milton Cardona brings the congas of the Hispanic Caribbean. It is this trio of percussionists that give this record real substance. Instead of the jazz ethic of a single kit drummer, the set is dominated by a poly-rhythmic complexity, setting the beats against and around each other to create a new whole. The melodic bursts of the horns continue the thread, sometimes improvisational and cool, at other times percussive and hot. Unlike more most jazz, this Arabic music is played for the rhythms, not the chord changes, and the wide open spaces provided by this approach let each instrumentalist fly. Abou-Khalil's performance and composition both exemplify new world music, played to convey the history of the art to a new audience. Tracks not to miss: the fiery "Tsarka," the bouncy "On Time," and ever-so-cool "Ziriab." - CF


    Anouar Brahem
    Conte De l'Incroyable Amour
    ECM

    This album features a quartet of master musicians; Brahem on the oud, Barbaros Erkose on clarinet, nai (flute) player Kudsi Erguner and percussionist Lassad Hosni. These pieces are contemplative and stark, stretching the tradition without ever leaving it. All the songs are solo, duet and trio arrangements that highlight the oud and its music. Amour is an ember, a slow-burning, virtuoso work of beauty. - CF


    Haj Ghorban Soleimani
    Music From The Bards Of Iran
    Kereshsmeh Records

    Bards, griots, jalis, storytellers, moussoulou, topical song singers, broadsiders... every corner of the world has a minstrel, whether wandering or stationary, male or female, sacred or profane. In the past, they were the keepers of history and culture. In the present, they may more aptly serve as a reminder that all the technology we have developed, from printing press to radio to laser beam computer, still falls short when it comes to revealing the human side of our countries, our race, our selves. For that you still need to reach for the poet, the bard, the singer, to cut through all the facts and get to the really important things.

    In Khorasan ("the dwelling of the sun") in eastern Iran, they turn to the bakhshi, a singer, story keeper and player of the dotâr, a small two-stringed lute common to many cultures in Asia. 75 year old Haj Ghorban Soleimani, of Turkish-Iranian descent, is a farmer and bakhshi, a man torn between varied views of the role of music ion his culture. For twenty years he put aside his instrument at the admonition of a religious leader, only to return to it when another assured him it was "a gift from heaven." Such is the power of music, and such is the impact of this musician. Played with a ferocity more associated with pop rock than ancient tradition, he wails on his strings with passion, and adds to his voice a muscular pleading that reflects the essential character of any great folk singer, from American blues to African praise song. His topics range from mystical interpretations of Koran to heartbroken love songs; his instrumental approach from gentle to hyper-aggressive, at times evoking Appalachian plain song, at others a Chicago blues. These are not musical comparisons, merely emotional metaphors. The music of Haj Ghorban Soleimani will strike a unique chord in the ear. - CF


    Reza Vali
    Persian Folklore
    New Albion

    Words just sprang to mind as I was listening to "Folk Songs (Set # 11B) for String Quartet)"; sorrowful, visceral, jarring, immediate. Composer Reza Vali's work is new to me, but he ranks with Hossein Alizadeh and maybe even Bártok as an interpreter of folk songs in new contemporary music. Less centered on the strict modes of Persian music that Alizadeh uses as his base, Vali pursues a unique vision of his people's music, one that incorporates, distorts and never emulates the old folk songs.

    The performances here (three pieces ranging 8 to 35 minutes) are given life by the Cuarteto Latinamericano, joined by the Mellon Philharmonic and a few soloists, flautist Alberto Almarza from Chile, and Chilean born, Mexican cellist Alvaro Bitrán. Cuarteto Latinamericano is one of the leading groups interpreting new work today, and their performances of two of these three works is perfect in tone for the music. Don't let the title deceive you. This is not folk music... yet. - CF


    Hossein Alizadeh
    Torkaman and Hamnava'i
    Kereshmeh Records

    My introduction to Hossein Alizadeh was at a little coffee shop here in New Haven. The Iranian women who own it have endlessly delighted me with their unique musical selections, but when they popped in a tape by Alizadeh, I was immediately taken in. Here was music that was both richly traditional and defiantly new. After many requests on the computer nets, I suddenly found myself deluged with information on this Iranian artist, and with an address for a record label in California dedicated to bringing new Iranian music to America, Kereshmeh Records. They have two recordings of Alizadeh's work currently available, with more on the way next year. Torkaman is a solo work that seeks to praise and honor the Torkaman people. His masterful tar (lute) playing is complimented by a remarkable range of emotions in his composition and improvisations. Hamnava'i is a work for a trio, with Alizadeh, Arshad Tahmasebi (tar) and Dariush Zargari (tombek drum). It is a spirited work, highly dramatic, and richly embellished for such a simple trio setting. Keresmeh plans to bring more of the neo-classical music of Iran to an American audience over the coming years, and these recordings are an interesting start. - CF


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