“The Astounding Eyes of Rita” introduces a new Brahem group, in a sinuous dance of dark sounds (oud, bass clarinet, bass guitar and hand drums), strong melodies, earthy textures... Where Anouar’s last two recordings – “Le voyage de Sahar” (2005) and “Le pas de chat noir” (2001) found him at the centre of a trio orientated towards chamber music, with “Rita” there is a sense of coming full circle. This, too, is a modern record but it also carries a sense of traditions - including Brahem’s own, and reveals affinities with such early discs as “Barzakh” and “Conte de l’incroyable amour”. There has long been a balance between Western and Eastern components in Brahem’s work. “I need both elements”, he says, but ratios change with each project.
Born in Halfaouine, Tunisia in 1957, Brahem is regarded as his country’s most innovative oud player. As a former pupil of oud master Ali Sriti, he is thoroughly steeped in the secrets and subtleties of Arab classical music. He has absorbed this information and, armed with it, gone out to meet the world, a contemporary musician of profound historical knowledge.
“When I write music”, he explains, “my focus is simply on the melodic universe. Ideas for instrumentation come later.” Perhaps significantly, the music for “Rita” was composed on the oud, where the “Pas de chat noir” concept had been sketched and shaped from the piano. The new music modulates between the disciplines, as befits a line-up pooling players from Tunisia, Germany, Sweden and Lebanon. “As the new work developed I thought about traditional players and perhaps using more middle-eastern instrumentation but there were also pieces of a different character emerging. I knew I needed darbouka [the goblet-drum of Arab tradition], for instance, and I thought about bass. It took quite a while to find the right combination of instruments and personalities. While I can easily find fantastic traditional players in my region, I often miss qualities specific to European jazz players, a certain open-mindedness in approaches to improvising, aspects to do with freedom”.
Producer Manfred Eicher helped bringing Brahem together with German bass clarinettist Klaus Gesing and Swedish bassist Björn Meyer, players heard on ECM in, respectively, the groups of Norma Winstone and Nik Bärtsch. “Manfred knew, from our experiences with John Surman [see the “Thimar” album of 1997] that I liked very much the combination of bass clarinet with the oud: the instruments just seem to belong together. In Klaus’s playing on Norma’s album (“Distances”), I thought I could hear ways in which we might work together. Manfred helped to set up rehearsals, with just Klaus and myself, in Udine. The potential was there, I felt. But we really came together as a band during the record production – until that point, I’d played only separately with each of the musicians.”
Björn Meyer and Klaus Gesing share Brahem’s interest in a broad range of musical expression. The classically-trained Gesing has been extensively involved also with East European musics and with jazz, while Meyer grew up listening to Cuban music, and played flamenco before diving deep into Swedish folk. He also plays music influenced by Persian tradition in groups with harpist Asita Hamidi and his bass often serves as a lyrical lead voice in the throbbing cellular music of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (ECM albums: “Stoa”, “Holon”).
The band’s fourth member, Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine, was brought to Brahem’s attention by his sister-in-law, choreographer Nawel Skandrani. Khaled’s experience of working with dancers helps to give this music its gently insinuating, swaying pulses. “Khaled’s a very interesting player. He is deeply grounded in the traditional music, but also very open-minded: he plays in a lot of different contexts, is very informed. There is a new generation of musicians emerging in countries like Lebanon.” Anouar suggests that these are players of broader vision.
After a highly-productive recording session in Udine’s Artesuono studio, Anouar Brahem brought the new band to Tunisia where they played to enthusiastic audiences in Carthage.
The album’s unusual title references the poetry of Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008, to whom the disc is dedicated. A hugely-influential figure in the Arabic world, Darwish wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry, and his readings frequently commanded audiences of thousands. When he died in 2008 he was honoured with three days of national mourning and a state funeral in Palestine.