Beirut: Taking the classical-jazz fusion to a new level

June 23rd, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Culture, Lebanon, Egypt
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    Daily Star. by Jim Quilty. Thursday, June 19th, 2008

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    Photo: Buildings in downtown Beirut.

Beirut: “I was in Cairo for my first Egyptian concert,” Rima Khcheich smiles. “I was preparing an Umm Kalthoum song, a dour [a classical vocal form without improvisation] called ‘Dour Emta al-Hawa.’ Two days before the concert I met [iconic Egyptian composer] Fouad Abdel Majid. The rehearsals were difficult and I was very tired but they asked me to sing his song ‘Foutina al-Lathi.’ They recorded it on a little cassette tape recorder.”

Khcheich was 12 years old when this musical encounter took place. Now, 22 years on, the 90-second recording from 1986 appears on her album “Falak.” The track features Khcheich’s immature but already dexterous voice, an energetic oud accompaniment and the urgings of her small audience.

If it were reproduced here on its own, the tune would be a sweet (if somewhat extraneous) curio from Khcheich’s musical family album. Instead, it prefaces a very different interpretation of the tune, and provides some sense of how much the vocalist has grown.

Returning to Abdel Majid’s song in 2007, her little girl’s voice has developed to its full stature, fully mastering the Arabic classical form. At once warm, silky and crystalline, her vocals course up and down the register with a calm, leisurely grace. These qualities are reiterated and amplified by her accompanists, a top-notch Dutch jazz quartet headed by contrabassist Tony Overwater.

“Of all the songs on ‘Falak,'” Khcheich continues, “‘Foutina al-Lathi’ is the most Arabic in mood, the maqaam, everything. The vocals and the bass are the center. We later added Ali [al-Khatib]’s riq and mazhar [different sizes of frame drums] to accompany the ‘He is walking’ passages.” She pauses, “I love Ali’s work here. It adds a lot to the character of the record.”

Khcheich feels this to be her most mature recording. “‘Falak’ is fully pre-composed and pre-arranged,” she says. “During ‘Yalalalli,’ we were still thinking about what we wanted to do when we went into the studio.

“Another important thing about this record for me is that we were all performing in the same room. The first record [‘Orient Express’ (2002)] was live. When we made ‘Yalalalli’ [2006] we performed separately.

“Many singers love to record in the studio because they can make mistakes. For me, I prefer the interaction with the band. This time we could all see each other as we played,” Khcheich adds. “It makes a difference.”

“Falak” is the most polished of Khcheich’s three recordings and there is considerable variety among its nine tracks. In addition to the ensemble work, there are two live tracks and three duets – one of them Wadieh al-Safi’s “Mawwal Walaw,” the moody duet she performed with Overwater during their 2007 concert at Beirut’s Monnot Theater.

The basic “character” of her work, though, has remained consistent. Like her first two records, “Orient Express” and “Yalalalli,” this recording is a hybrid of classical vocal technique with jazz instrumentation, arrangement and temperament. Like them, it mingles the work of giants in the Arab classical tradition (Abdul Majid, for instance, and Shaykh Sayyed Darwish) with that of contemporary composers (Issam Hajj Ali and Rabih Mroueh).

The personnel are somewhat different. Where “Yalalalli” features a mix of Beirut’s best-known jazz musicians – Ziad Rahbani, Joelle and Maurice Khoury – for “Falak,” Khcheich’s crew is (except for Khatib) fully Dutch. Overwater (her collaborator since Orient Express), heads an ensemble comprised of Yuri Honing (tenor and soprano sax), Maarten Van Der Grinten (acoustic guitar) and Joost Lijbaart (percussion).

In past conversation, the vocalist has discussed the challenges of combining the classical Arabic and jazz forms. It’s difficult for classically trained vocalists to sing jazz because jazz music intervals are different than in Arabic music. Arabic classical ensembles literally accompany the vocalist, providing the pitch, rhythm and so forth. Jazz musicians, as she observed at the time, are working separately, in parallel.

“After the last [June 6] concert, [Lebanese oud virtuoso and band leader] Charbel Rouhana told me, ‘Rima you seem so alone when you’re up there with these guys.’

“It’s true but, after all these years playing with jazz musicians … ” she shrugs and smiles. “It feels a little strange to sing with oriental musicians, playing along with every word. I love the classical ensemble, of course, but experienced accompanists don’t play every note with the vocalist. Some musicians don’t know when to step back a little.”

Khcheich reckons the greatest change in her recording experience over the years has been the increasing degree of comfort among her band members, which allows the musicians to bring their various talents to bear more effectively upon the form.

“‘Orient Express’ was an experiment,” she recalls. “Two jazz musicians and two oriental musicians. There was a chemistry among us but it was also very new. Tony was the best at communicating the music, maybe because of his instrument, maybe because he’s able to play Arabic quartertones.

“Now I’m having much better communication with the percussionist. In the beginning, I was chasing after him, trying to keep up. Now we work together more closely, so the sound is more mature.”

Arabic speakers with some casual knowledge of the classical canon will likely appreciate “Falak” more than the average foreign listener, simply because the lyrics and music will reverberate with them more. But one of the beauties of this classical-jazz hybrid is that the musicianship is of such a high caliber that even a gormless Westerner can find gems to enjoy.

One of the bolder pieces on this record is a new arrangement of Darwish’s “Muwashah Mounyati ‘Aza Istibari,” (translated here as simply “Yearning”). A duet with her Dutch drummer Joost Lijbaart, the tune is the “show stopper” of the newest CD.

Upon first hearing it, there is a jarring incongruity in this instrumental-vocal combination. But the intensity of Khcheich’s interpretation and improvisations – and the lyrics themselves, which mix motifs of obsession and war – play off the sonic range of Lijbaart’s percussion to evoke a primal sweatiness that is a remarkable departure from the rhythmic sweetness characterizing much of the rest of the record.

Though it may seem an unconventional accompaniment for a duet, Khcheich explains that this version of Darwish’s tune is utterly classical.

“We have a 14-by-4 beat in Arabic music,” she says. “That means with each 14 beats you complete one measure. It is considered a difficult rhythm to maintain even for an Arab percussionist and it’s seldom used. Even classical musicians don’t go very far with it. But I love the way Sayyed Darwish composed this rhythm. Joost is a great jazz musician, so he just lets go.”

Rima Khcheich’s “Falak” is produced by Chill Island (www.chillisland.com) and distributed in the Middle East by Temple Entertainment (+961 1 803 656, www.temple-entertainment.com). The ensemble’s next concert will be in Athens on July 2.

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