Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tunisia: Waking up from the Cold Sleep

In 1991 a young oud player from Tunis recorded an album for the classy German jazz label, ECM.  The album, Barzakh, announced the arrival on the scene of Anouar Brahem, a musician who since that debut has never lowered the quality or beauty or fascinating allure of his art.

In 1991, Tunisia was well on the way toward that all too common state that pertains in all one party states: deadened slumber. The government was setting up theatrical elections in which the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was returned by ‘overwhelming majorities’ as a sign of his adoring people’s love. Tunisians were compelled to remain quiet and voiceless and submissive.

I don’t know if anyone paid attention to the title of Anouar Brahem's debut album but it is a fascinating choice. Barzakh in Islamic thinking refers to a state of the soul after death not-dissimilar (but not exactly similar, either) to limbo in Catholicism.  Barzakh is that state where the soul of the deceased enters a deep, ‘cold sleep’ and awaits the Day of Final Judgment (qayamat).

At first blush Barzakh seems a bizarre title for an album but when one considers what was happening in Tunisia at the time, perhaps not. That the country was a political mortuary in which its citizens lay inert in an ever-waiting ‘cold sleep’, is now an open secret.

In the last few days the much ‘re-elected’ President Ben Ali has been chased out of Tunisia by his ‘adorning’ people.  The ancient land is vibrating with long-realized hope even as it teeters on the brink of the unknown.  The people, for so long asleep are now wakening. The state of barzakh seems to be ending. The final judgment has arrived for a government that for too long has oppressed those it claims to serve.

Whether Anouar Brahem attaches such political implications to his work is unknown. But given what is transpiring in that country there is no better  moment to share this magnificent masterpiece of modern Tunisia. Brahem is considered one of the most innovative and accomplished contemporary oud masters. Not only has he transformed the Arabic lute into a lead instrument (rather than an accompanying one) his spare playing style is instantly recognizable.

This album is one of my all time favorites, one that never ceases to pleasure the senses.

Track Listing:
1.    Raf Raf
2.    Barzakh
3.    Sadir
4.    Ronda
5.    Hou
6.    Sarandib
7.    Souga
8.    Parfun de Gitane
9.    Bou Naouara
10. Kerkenah
11. La Nuit des Yeux
12. Le Belvedere Asseige
13. Qaf
 Listen here

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