Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Artists: Reinette l'Ornaise and Taha Rachid

This is the story of two musicians from the same but very different country. One kept an old tradition alive. The other transformed it and made it something modern.

Chapter One:  Princess becomes Queen

Sultana Daoud was born in the scrabbly hill town of Tiaret into a poor Algerian Jewish family at the end of the First World War. Before she was three the little girl had lost her sight from small pox and seemed doomed to a life of insignificance and anonymity. But Sultana (Princess) loved music. For years, while attending a school for the blind, she sang to herself and friends without arousing much interest. But Sultana’s mother was moved by what she heard and approached a master musician, Souad l’Ornais, who operated a music café in the Jewish Quarter of city of Oran, near the Mediterranean coast.

Souad l’Ornais, was a living master of an old musical heritage often referred to as Arab-Andalusian.  I quote from the French Israeli writer Pierrette Missika: “Arab-Andalusian music, a unique art form, the love and knowledge of which are transmitted entirely by oral tradition, is not played in Morocco in concert halls, but is performed at festivities, often at family gatherings, where the traditional songs are sung. In this living creation, moving like the sands of the desert, the musician is guided by a master or by the musical community which each year is present at Fez or at Oudja.
“The texts, set to music, were written between the eighth and 15th centuries in classical Arabic form. This classical Arabic, hardly understood by the population at large, is still highly appreciated in Moroccan cultural circles. As for mystical poetry, often connected with Sufism, this is sung outside the mosques, inside which is no singing, unlike the case in the synagogues, where piyyutim (liturgical songs or poems) are part of the ritual. Various themes courtly love, devotional celebrations of the Prophet or of Islam, descriptions of the gardens of Andalusia, of Seville, Granada and the River Guadalquevir, or the nostalgia of the expelled Arabs for Andalusia, which parallels the poignant aspirations of Sephardi Jews were treated by the great Andalusian poets, either in classical Arabic (muwasha, a poetic form originating in Andalusia but formulated in classical Arabic), or in the Andalusian dialect of the period, zajal. The Moroccan Ministry of Culture has recorded the whole of the 14 musical modes (originally 24, each corresponding to an hour of the day), interpreted by great masters.”

Sensing grace, l’Ornais, mentored Sultana in learning the Arab-Andalusian tradition, a mix of folk, semi-historical and spiritual songs, enjoyed by Muslims and Jews equally. She mastered several string instruments and continued to sing, and kept the flame of old Bedouin song streams, like rai, alive. Such a powerful student did the blind Sultana turn out to be, that the Grand Master changed her name to Reinette l’Ornaise (Queenie of Oran). The Princess became a Queen.

Reinette travelled to Europe in the footsteps of her Master who had opened a music café in Paris. He encouraged her to return home which she did where she began to make her name. Back in Paris, the old musician and her Guide, was picked up by the Gestapo and exterminated in a concentration camp several years later.

In Algeria Reinette’s reputation continued to grow and she was a regular performer on national radio and concerts across the region. In the 1980’s she was ‘rediscovered’ (horrendously Oriental as that phrase is) by French musical boffins and ended her career and life the toast of concert halls and gala celebrations, at the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment.

Chapter 2: Rock’n roll is my soul

About 175 kilometers from Tiaret, the birthplace of Rienette l’Ornaise, is the town of Sig. Several decades after Queenie’s birth a boy child was born into the family of strict and lower class Muslims. Like many others the family answered the call of the French government to come to Europe to keep the factories of a booming post-war economy humming.

Settled in Lyon, Rachid Taha, dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll hero like his idols Elvis, and Robert Plant. While working in a heating appliance factory in the late 1970s, Rachid had hooked up with other Algerian immigrant kids and a few French ones to form a band. Finding there was little hope of playing in French clubs, he set up Les Refoulés ("The Rejects"), a nightclub where he would spin mashups of Arabic pop classics over Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley and Kraftwerk backbeats.  Drawing on the traditions for rai and the Arab-Andalusian music Reinette l’Ornaise had kept alive and introduced to Europe, Rachid Taha made sure that his own music was both Arabic and hard rocking. His live shows are something to behold: his long hair twirls like a dervish gone mad and electric guitars scream as mandolutes and ouds  dance delicately above the mayhem.

The Washerman’s Dog is very pleased and thrilled by the two collections on offer today.  Two outstanding artists from the same country and traditions but taking their music in very different if equally exciting directions.

            Track Listing:
1.    Fenit Ouachma Essabern
2.    Aachki Fezine Ensaha
3.    Menzinou N'har el Youm
4.    Aadrouni Ya Sadate
5.    Na Ouelfi, Enhabbek Enhabbek
6.    Selli homomec
Listen here

            Track Listing:
1.    Menfi
2.    Nokta
3.    Ida
4.    Ya Rayah
5.    Bent Sahra
6.    Medina
7.    Barra Barra
8.    Foqt Foqt
9.    Ala Jalkoum
10. Voila Voila
11. Garab
Listen here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Best Music Festival in the Southern Hemisphere: Bluesfest 2011

Byron Bay

Surf at BB

Groove with the dolphins
Tomorrow marks the end of the Bluesfest 2011, the best blues and roots musical festival in the southern hemisphere, if not in the world.   Held in Byron Bay, on the northern coast of the Australian state of New South Wales, the festival DEFINITELY gets the gong for Major International Festival Held In Closest Place To Paradise.
Ernest Ranglin

One of the Washerman’s Dog’s old school mates who lives in that amazing part of the world has requested a special mix of some of the acts that headlined this year’s event.  With great pleasure and in the hope of enticing all readers and followers of the Dog to save up their shekels for Bluesfest 2012, the following Selection Musicale  ala Carte is offered for your listening and grooving pleasure.

Enjoy MP!

            Track Listing:
1.    She’s Rare (Paul Kelly)
2.    Dignity [Unreleased, Oh Mercy] (Bob Dylan)
3.    Haayo (Ernest Ranglin)
4.    Neph (Trombone Shorty)
5.    Freedom Train (Toots Hibbert)
6.    La Grange (ZZ Top)
7.    La Pistola y el Corazon (Los Lobos)
8.    Black Diamond Bay (Bob Dylan)
9.    Oh, My God (Michael Franti and Spearhead)
10. Great Controversy (Luciano)
11. Every Day I Have the Blues (B.B. King)
12. Victor Should Have Been a Jazz Musician (Grace Jones)
13. You Send Me (Aaron Neville)
14. Motherless Child (Blind Boys of Alabama)
15. 99 ½ (Mavis Staples)
16. In Between Tears (Irma Thomas)
17. Sweetest Waste of Time (Kasey Chambers with Shane Nicholson)
18. Friar’s Point (Susan Tedeschi)
19. Cedar Grove (Jeff Lang)
20. (Doin’ the) Boom Boom (Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and the True Loves)
21. Talkin’ Lion Blues (C.W. Stoneking)
22. Rich Woman Blues (Tony Joe White)
23. Quality of Mercy (Michelle Shocked)
24. Just Be Yourself (Ash Grunwald)
25. Wanted to Write a Love Song (Cat Empire)
26. Changing Partners (Elvis Costello)
27. Taught by Experts (Paul Kelly with Uncle Bill)
28. Love’s Recovery (Indigo Girls)
29. Green Spandex (Xavier Rudd)
30. I Get Off On It (Tony Joe White)
31. The Thrill is Gone (1969 Single Version) (B.B. King)
Listen here.

Ms G Jones

Le Bobster de la Minnesota

Honorary Aussie Tony Joe White

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Mohammad's City: Haji Aslam Sabri

Ajmer Sharif

Switching gears from great singers of the Christian ‘gospel’ tradition, we move to another form of spiritual music: qawwali.
Much of South Asia’s Muslim culture and worship was born and unfolds around the shrines (dargah) of sufi poets and teachers who are usually revered as saints. The pace and feel of life around these shrines is very different than the often solemn, segregated and increasingly shrill atmosphere that dominates the large ‘mainstream’ mosques (masajid).
At the fairs that mark key dates in the life of the pir (saint), especially the urs (death anniversary) the surrounding countryside comes to life like savannah after rain.  Tents large and small pop up and all manner of hucksters, carnival masters, caterers, itinerant shopkeepers and wandering holy men converge to fill them up far into each night.  Buses and pickup trucks loaded with villagers roar back and forth between nearby towns, guns are shot occasionally, into the air mostly and of course everywhere there is music. Pop music blasts from the restaurants. In small groups men pluck and bow battered sarangis, iktaars and beat dholak singing songs with deep folk roots. And of course late into the night qawwal parties regale listeners with songs of praise to Mohammad, the Koran, Allah and the local pir.
I quote from a study of a shrine the Washerman’s Dog used to frequent years ago, Golra Sharif, a few short kilometres from Islamabad.
At about 10:15 a.m. attendants roll out carpets on which the murids will sit in the large assembly hall. The pir sits at one end and his male murids (disciples) sit in rows along the three remaining sides. A basket of flowers are placed next to the pir along with other decorations. The qawwals, one playing a sitar, another a box harmonium and a third drums, sit on one side in the front row so that the murids have ease of access to them. Next to them sits a hafiz (one who knows the Quran by heart) who opens and closes hour long performances with a Quranic reading.
During the performance, the pir, usually three or four times, gives a rupee to the hafiz, who in turn gives it to the qawwals. This triggers a stread of murids who leaving their seats, offer money to the qawwals. While the qawwali continues the secretary, sitting near the door, hands the pir his mail and periodically confers with him over replies. Despite this undercurrent of activity a real feeling of reverence is generated and rapt attention characterises the murids. No one breaks the mood by talking or smoking—with their shoes removed and heads covered, occasionally swaying with the rhythm, one is left in no doubt that is an act of devotion and considered as such. (Pirs, Shrines and Pakistani Islam, P.Lewis, Rawalpindi, 1985)
The most important dargah in India, if not South Asia, is that of Moinuddin Chisti, the founder of the Chisti silsila (order) of Sufis in the sub-continent. Located in Ajmer, Rajasthan, where he came as a preacher from Iran via Bukhara, the great center of Islamic learning in the early middle ages. His tomb in Ajmer rose to a position of preeminent prominence during the time of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (16th century) who humbly walked to Ajmer to honor the sufi after hearing qawwals singing the great saint’s praises. Ever since it has been one of the major pilgrimage sites for not only Muslims, but Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians.
In this post the Washerman’s Dog offers a selection of contemporary qawwali by Haji Aslam Sabri a devotee of Moinuddin Chisti and frequent visitor to Ajmer Sharif.  Sabri’s style in this collection is more restrained then the fiery vocal pyrotechnics of the performers more familiar to Western audiences. Indeed, in some instances, the feel touches the fringes of mainstream ‘filmi’ qawwali, but Haji sahib’s soft tenor voice and lovely Urdu pronunciation keeps the music true to its devotional roots. Indeed, one can argue that it shares something with the Hindu bhajan (hymn) in its quiet intensity and allows the worshipper to focus on the real object.  As mighty as Rizwan and Muazzam are, one can’t help but feeling as one listens to some of their more energetic qawwalis that one is sitting dangerously close to a runaway train. The highpoint of this volume is the 30 minute qawwali in praise of the Mecca. Mohammad ke sheher mein (In Mohammad’s City) is a masterpiece that in addition to relating the healing and holy properties of Mecca includes poetry by Mohammad Iqbal and Sufi Bismil Baba.
            Track Listing:
1.    Bigri Banti Hain Unka Khaya
2.    Dar Chood ke Aap ka Sabir
3.    Jaan Se Piyara
4.    Main Ghulam-e-Mustafa Hun
5.    Mere Sabir Nirali Teri Sha
6.    Mil Gaya Unka Dar Jisko
7.    Muhammad ke Shahar Mein
8.    Qaul
9.    Sabir ke Martabe ko Kya
10. Wa ko Naam Moinuddin Pyaro
Listen here.
As an Easter bonus, the Washerman’s Dog has included a small mix of other qawwals.

            Track Listing:
1.    Makkah Madina (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)
2.    Teri Ishq Nachaya (Wadali Brothers)
3.    Allah Ho Ya Rahman (Rizwan and Muazzam)
4.    Mohabbat Karne Walo Hum Mohabbat  (Sabri Brothers)

Listen here.