Wherever it Falls

Alif

Alif
Aynama-Rtama
NAWA RECORDINGS NAWA003 CD/LP (2015)

Summer is the time I typically turn to desert blasted, Arabic acts like Tinariwen and Omar Souleyman. So I find myself slipping on the debut CD from the Middle Eastern ‘supergroup’ in the hope of tricking the sun into visiting these drenched and dreary regions. Draping their dramatic and dynamic rock-fusion in the local colours (which could be anywhere given the members’ far-flung origin points range from Palestine to London), this five-man diaspora boldly stations itself ‘at the forefront of the independent music in the Arabic world’: a boast consolidated by their choice of name – Alif – the head letter of the Arabic alphabet. With equal candour, their ambitions exceed the merely musical, encompassing socio-political poetry, progressive humanism and a diversity of personal/cultural histories while concentrating decades’ worth of studio know-how into taming the resulting explosion for the western ear. Put briefly, it’s a sleek set of psych-rock beasts not entirely unlike those of the Invisible Hands’ surprisingly smooth second turn, Teslam.

Difficult for this reviewer then is it to account for such adventurousness without feeling like a hapless, pastel-garbed tourist who finds hair blown back upon passing a vibrant street band while on holiday; one driven albeit by such formidable musicianship that whatever pleasure one took in music at home momentarily disappears. Such is the group’s mastery of tension and their comfortably passing it to one another across these eight songs, which are said to have resulted from two years of committed international collaboration followed by a blitz of last-minute pre-gig rehearsal time that must have brought a colossal amount of nervous energy into those early Cairo shows. It is certainly evident upon hearing the synergy of a rhythm section as powerful and propulsive as ‘Synth whizz’ Maurice Louca’s atmospherics are space-inducing 1. We inhale the intoxicating residue as they calmly build steam without premature release, as in to ‘Al-Khutba Al-Akhira (The Last Declamation)’ and we wig out amid the disorienting psychedelic fluttering of “Dars Min Kama Sutra (A Lesson from Kama Sutra)”.

Potent as it is, the sticking point for some may be the Arabic lyrics, though given the Palestinian singer Tamer Abu Ghazaleh’s avowed vocal power this shouldn’t necessarily be the case. I am ashamed to say however that in spite of the music’s resilient and poetic heart – including recitals of avant-garde poets such as Iraqi Sargon Boulus (“Holako (Hulagu)”, and the feminist writer Faiha Abdulhadi – his impassioned singing style actually brings to mind past restaurant dining experiences of mine. In my defence, my copy is not furnished with the standard edition’s English translations of the songs, and it takes little imagination to perceive a collective mind as familiar with the intricacies of modern geopolitics as with the geography of the human heart.

  1. Louca has actually just turned up in Alan Bishop’s new group, Dwarfs of East Agouza, adding his wonky weirdness to that group’s brinkmanship jamming, and just enough of it here to mark his own territory without inducing vertigo.

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