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Written in fRoots issue 221, 2001

Network 38410 (2001)

El Hechizo De Babilonia

Intuition/Nubenegra INN 1104-2 (2000)

Lebanese concert pianist Zad Moultaka, driven in adolescence from war-torn Beirut to France, rediscovers the delights of quarter-tones and Arabic music, returns to home country with a large-scale eight-section composition, for solo female vocal, choir, orchestra and Middle Eastern percussion, based on the writings of 11th-century Sufi writer Hallage and an interpretation of the Song of Songs which introduces a third character between Solomon and his mistress. Anashid is that piece, excellently recorded live at the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbeck.
      The singer, rich-voiced and regal, is Lebanese Fadia Tomb El-Hage. The orchestra is a western classical one, from France, the Orchestre of the Conservatoire National de Région de Boulogne-Billancourt, so not much in the way of slithering Arabic-strings micro-tones there, but Moultaka’s string arrangements are very fine and fluid and there are no culture clashes. The choir, the Chorale of the University of Notre Dame de Louaizeh, is Lebanese but is also pretty much western classical in style. Not plummy-sounding, though; Arabic is a great singing language. The pair of percussionists seem to be French and Greek, and a qanun player appears in the photos but isn’t named or really audible.
      On the face of it it could be a pretentious and uncomfortable collision between Western classical and Arabic music, but Moultaka is clearly a substantial composer and arranger, the whole thing weaves and flows well and Tomb El-Hage is a commanding singer. It’s a class act, and rather upliftingly splendid; it would be a great and culturally enlightening thing, not to mention a publicity hook, if it were to be performed at some Aida and Ring-obsessed international opera and arts festivals.

      Spanish multi-instrumentalist Luis Delgado’s El Hechizo De Babilonia, its digipak graced with an appropriate and striking eye-contact photograph of an unnamed coin-headdressed lady, also draws on the work of early Arabic poets. His text sources, though, are all women, six poetesses who lived in al-Andalus, the Iberian part of the Moorish empire, at the time of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties of the 11th to 13th centuries.
      In the absence of extant tunes for their poetry, Delgado composed his own, and with little clear indication of the singing styles of the time he chose to sing the lyrics Catalan singer Maria Del Mar Bonet, Occitan Herminia Hugenel, and North Africans Mohamed Serghini El Arabi and the wild, hard, husky-voiced Mariem Hassan, the latter delivering four of the seven songs while the others take one each with distinction.
      The instrumental sounds are full and lush, achieved by no more than three musicians per track: Delgado himself on a range of instruments including oud, santur, percussion and programming of computerised sounds, his La Musgaña colleague Jaime Muñoz on kaval and clarinet, and a percussionist, usually Hossam Ramzy. On past albums Delgado has sometimes been rather heavy on sweeping string-synthy sounds, and though there are less of them here, they’re still evident; a bit of real Arabic fiddle, for example, to cover or replace them would have been an asset. Delgado’s concept and music are interesting, the singers all deliver the goods, but the whole thing, while impressive, might have been fresher and more evocative of the spirit and feeling of the poems, which he clearly values highly, had the programmed guide structures been more completely clothed in real instruments.
      www.networkmedien.de, www.nubenegra.com, www.intuition-music.com

© 2001 Andrew Cronshaw

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