The Astonishing Musical Silence of Minimalist Anouar Brahem

Nelida Nassar  10.29.2013

The Tunisian Anouar Brahem, who over the past 20 years has developed a personal jazz language inflected by the Orient, reaffirmed his outstanding creativity at the Beirut Music Hall in a concert based on his album “The Astounding Eyes of Rita.”

He was accompanied by the other members of his quartet: German bass clarinetist Klaus Gessing (heard on Norma Winstone’s “Distances”), Swedish bassist Björn Meyer (a veteran of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the ultramodern jazz-trance ensemble), and Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine. Brahem keeps one foot firmly planted in jazz idioms and territory, while the blend of his oud (oriental lute with 12 strings) and the drum (darbouka) creates a distinctly Eastern sound.

Brahem, a revered musician in Lebanon, is one of the few alchemists capable of marrying the sounds of the oud with some of the more extreme aspects of improvised jazz. He established an atmosphere of mystery right from the first tune, “The Love of Beirut,” a meditative, fluid piece that transported the listener to a haven of refinement as Gessing’s deep bass clarinet tones mingled with the subtle nuances and punctuations of the master’s oud. “Dances with Waves,” an up-tempo jazzy oud solo, was airy, expansive, ethereal and harmonious. This was followed by Gessing and Brahem’s jazz duo “Stopover in Djibouti,” which, though richly textured, was bouncy and spirited.

The mood then became pensive and melancholic when the group turned for inspiration for the remainder of the concert to the work of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwiche, a controversial figure for some and beloved by others. “The Astounding Eyes of Rita” is dedicated to Darwiche, although the evening’s concert was in memory of one of the Arab world’s most beloved tenors, the Lebanese Wadih al Safi who had just passed away. Continuing with “Al Birwa,” the quartet performed exquisitely, with Brahem on the oud demonstrating his exceptional skills in instrumentation, arrangement and improvisation. In a reprise of “Eyes” the music displayed a sinuous and gentle lyricism, becoming dreamy but always poised and precise, evoking, for this listener at least, Mediterranean cafes and marketplaces.

Brahem is an impeccable musician, a magician of silence and chiaroscuro. His music is born of silence, the canvas from which it emerges. Silence, which allows him to create meaning, functions somewhat like the unsaid in a Bergman film … or in everyday life! His concern for balance between black and white, full and void, seems to refer to a form of Taoist art. The result is indeed quite close to Zen painting. The silence in music is similar to the white of the canvas, a necessary place left to the viewer’s imagination. In fact, with this music the listener’s perception, his or her personal interpretation is as important as the work itself. Art for Brahem is the confluence of two equal sensibilities: the transmitted and the received. Hence the constant desire for balance, which,
of course implicitly acknowledges the possibility of the listener not liking what
Brahem does.

Brahem’s music, with its meditative dimension linked to silence may put off many people who are accustomed to the music that daily fills our mental space (from fear of emptiness). He is the musician of simple expressions, with no frills, satisfied only when his music says less not more.

The concert, held under a gorgeous starry sky, was full of civility, drawing on elements of the music of the East, the Mediterranean, and India, along with Flamenco, and Western music of both the early and classical periods – all eloquently expressed within an essentially jazz-based framework. Classical clarinet, jazz bass and eastern drum and oud joined in a lyrical celebration of the art of taqsims, of micro-maqam improvisations, the heritage of an elaborate musical system whose adherents can be found over a broad span ranging from Morocco to Central Asia. The oud, moved by the tribute to
its culture – lovely and sensuous – became barely audible until finally it was
masterfully silenced.

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