astrakan café
Recorded June 1999
ECM 1718

Anouar Brahem

Astrakan Café

  • Anouar Brahem : oud
  • Barbaros Erköse : clarinet
  • Lassad Hosni : bendir, darbouka
  • Aube rouge à Grozny
  • Astrakan Café
  • The Mozdok's Train
  • Blue Jewels
  • Nihawend Lunga
  • Ashkabad
  • Halfaouine
  • Parfum de Gitane
  • Khotan
  • Karakoum
  • Astara
  • Dar es Salam
  • Hijaz pechref
  • Astrakan Café

Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem counts as one of ECM's most important "discoveries" of the last decade. After his highly successful trans-cultural recording "Thimar", he returns to a more purely Middle Eastern music on "Astrakan Café", with the trio that has been his first priority for several years. The improvisational exchanges between Brahem, clarinettist Barbaros Erköse and percussionist Lassad Hosni are exceptionally fluid, and the atmospheres that they create by turns mysterious, hypnotic, dramatic...

***** The Guardian (United Kingdom)

***** Jazz Wise (United Kingdom)

"Recommandé" Classica (France)

***** Stereo (Germany)


Le trio d’Anouar Brahem nous fait voyager dans le temps et dans l’espace, dans ces contrées heureuses où le oud est roi ; des grandes cours de l’Empire ottoman aux jardins parfumés del’Andalousie ; du fin fond de l’Azerbaidjan aux terrasses d’Halfaouine, à Tunis ; du coucher de soleil à Dar es-Salaam à une aube rouge à Grozny. Portées par toutes les riches harmoniques que la musique arabe a fécondées, les compositions d’Anouar Brahem sont d’une légèreté exquise.
Tewfik Hakem, Télérama

Maîtrise instrumentale de chaque intervenant, intense écoute mutuelle, compositions superbes, richesses des atmosphères, parti pris de la sobriété et de l’intériorité, tout converge vers une magnificence totalement dépourvue d’apparat, une poésie existentielle.
Fara C., Jazzman

Anouar Brahem’s oud playing is expressive, entrancing and beautyful. It’s so moving and anthemic it’s hard to believe any listener wouldn’t be frequently overwhelmed by Brahem’s brilliance. While one can debate whether Brahem’s music should be considered jazz or world or some hybrid of the two, there’s no denying the songs on Astrakan Café rank among the most lyrical and elegant in any genre. Brahem blends elements of traditional Arab and Islamic religious and popular music with just a slight nod to the American improvising tradition. ... Barbaros Erköse, on clarinet, and Lassad Hosni, on percussive instruments bendir and darbouka, prove equally exciting players.
Ron Wynn, Jazztimes

It's a fearsomely powerful album, unremitting in terms of its virtuosity and almost puritanical intensity of sound. All through their meanderings these three musicians rely solely on their instruments to recreate the required mood and sense of place. There are no vocals, samples or guest musicians to disturb their meditative focus. The music delineates the mournful beauty of a desert landscape from a myriad different angles. Brahem takes the torch from the late, great oud master Munir Bachir and makes sure that it continues to burn brightly and vividly.
Andy Morgan, Songlines

An exemplary instrumentalist, the 44-year-old Tunesian oudist leads an improvising trio through a dozen sublimely wrought original compositions and two adaptations of classic themes on his sixth recording for ECM. Throughout the disc, Brahem’s sound is striking in its immediacy and lack of pretense, despite its exoticism. ... Brahem’s fingers are steady, sure, and sensitive, plucking his 12 strings delicately over the hardwood soundbox of his fretless instrument. Dark melodies bead up, entwine with Turkish clarinettist Barbaros Erköses’s throaty, mid- and low-register beckonings, and are carried along or accented by Lassad Hosni’s nimble hand-drumming. The separate parts and ensemble wholes are impassioned yet elegant, melancholy almost to desolation, rarely flashing joy. This is music of discipline and deliberation as well as inspiration. It might find verbal equivalence in a lyric poem, a persuasive metaphysical argument, or a simple, sensual sigh.
Howard Mandel, Jazziz

Anouar Brahem, der berühmte tunesische Lyriker auf dem Oud, sein Landsmann, der Perkussionist Lassad Hosni und der türkische Klarinettist Barbaros Erköse bewegen sich mit großer Sensibilität und kreativer Kompetenz im Feld arabischer und islamischer Musik, das weit über den mediterranen Raum hinausreicht. Ein meditativer Musikkosmos zwischen Europa, dem Orient und Asien tut sich auf, der einen gefangen nimmt und dem man sich kaum entziehen kann.
Johannes Anders, Jazz'n'More

Exploring the world with a lute

The lute is an instrument laden with symbolic significance that marks like an acoustic icon the conver-gence of Asia, Europe, and Africa as they come together to form the irregular circumference of the Mediterranean. An oud player like Anouar Brahem, who has explored the most secret depths of sound and pondered long and lovingly on the legacy of the artistic music of the Arab world, and of the Is-lamic world in general, is thus a witness to cultural transformations as complex as they are profound.

The way Brahem's music resists classification is a measure of the quality of his artistic career. By eluding labels, or better by slipping through all kinds of definitions from jazz to, by way of world mu-sic, he has sanctioned a freedom of expression that is uncommon in the musical context within which he works. Between popular songs and large orchestras with a plethora of instruments there would seem to be little room for a soloist. Yet, with tenacious patience, Brahem has successfully carved out a niche for himself, in places where his instrument would seem relegated to a supporting role. If many young lutists of today think of the oud as a particularly expressive instrument then it is thanks to the example set by this Tunisian musician, as well as to that set by the Iraqi brothers Jamil and Mounir Bashir. Brahem's taste for the cosmopolitan forms of Arab music, influenced by the Turkish school, at once reveals his concept of the oud - a concept intimately linked with the essence of the traditional language, that transnational frontier represented by the modal constellations known to Arab musicians as maqamat - and the organological kinship between the various members of the great Mediterranean lute family. Hence the allusions to the guitar, the saz, and the baglama, seen as elements of a composite identity that highlights the affinities between these instruments.

Brahem's questing out towards the East, from Tunisia and the Arab world towards Asia, from Turkey to India, suggests a restlessness of spirit that has never been allayed. And there is no doubt that accuracy and perfectionism are highly significant, even quintessential, traits of the art of Islamic music. On the one hand there is the "classical" legacy, a certain penchant for melodic geometries and symmetrical patterns, and on the other a capacity for abstraction: from the present, from history, and from the material world. In Brahem's music all this combines to create a characteristically sublime and ethereal sound, a personal trademark if you will.

Fascinated by the cinema, the theatre, and dance, Brahem seeks out musical signs in all other forms of artistic expression in order to decant them into his pure distillate of sound. Elegance, transparency, simplicity, and above all an unmistakable style and touch. His mastery of the instrument springs from a school as illustrious as it is little known, that of his teacher Ali Sriti, a lover of "eastern" Arab music, in other words of the Syrian and Egyptian schools. From the subtle combination of the different modal sensibilities of the Mahreq and the Maghreb, and from the confluence of different improvisational styles, the Tunisian artist has created a fascinating and highly personal idea of Arab music, far removed from stereotypes, and one that makes no concessions to the fad for the oriental "revival" now afflicting a part of the musical output of this area. The gap between his work and current musical praxis in the Arab world is the mark of his awareness of a steady and rapid decline in artistic values. But rather than look to the past Brahem looks beyond, adumbrating a music free of any form of parochial self-satisfaction, a music that fortunately avoids the hybrid juxtapositions that spring from the mania for globalization.

Shunning all forms of aesthetic or social theorizing, he lets the music speak for itself, with a synthetic power that surprises and moves the listener.

Titles and footnotes tend to be pretexts for disquisitions on the creative process in music, which is stimulated by highly diverse factors. But Brahem's music can be listened to without any knowledge of his origins and culture, and it goes straight to the target all the same. The mellow and persuasive sweetness of his themes call up an acoustic imagery that knows no frontiers while the apparent tranquillity of his musical discourse conceals an explosive charge of silences, behind which there lurks a positive barrage of interrogatives.

If one were to seek a nexus or a direct comparison between the places evoked by the titles, from Asia Minor to the Caucasus, from Turkmenistan to Tanzania, from the Balkans to Azerbaijan, one would risk misleading listeners, accustomed to looking for correspondences between an artist's works and his biography. The most exciting thing about Brahem is precisely his capacity to project a contemporary dimension into the world of lute playing. While his music embraces the signs of the times it also seems to transcend them, but having said this it cannot be denied that his music has, perhaps uncon-sciously, absorbed much of the anguish caused by the events that filled the international pages of the newspapers between 1999 and 2000.

Over and above all these considerations there stands the instrument. The oud is the most evocative symbol in Arab music. It is its commonplace, essence, synthesis, and development. The theory of modes was based on and explained by the oud, from whose strings legends and cosmogonies have sprung. Its sounds have been compared to aspects of the human temperament itself. The oud player is the creator of a concept of music made up of an extraordinary balance between technique, form, and inspiration.

Brahem's instrumental explorations never stray from the model of the takht, that little ensemble of musicians capable of improvising to the point of inebriating themselves and the public alike. Barbaros Erköse's clarinet is not merely a clarinet, it is an instrument-region that runs straight across the Balkan world to express a wordless song of rare intensity. Brahem's first meeting with Erköse, a Turkish clarinettist of gypsy origins, took place in 1985 on the occasion of a project entitled Rencontre 85, which had an enormous impact on the Tunisian scene and which was the first of a series of creations that consecrated Erköse as his country's most original and promising artist. Later, the Turkish virtuoso was to become a member of the quartet that recorded Conte de l'incroyable amour, a superb disc cut in 1992. The timbre of the clarinet is the ideal accompaniment for the lute in its modal forays and Brahem has often called in one of the Erköse brothers to accompany him during live concerts. The precise and sober touch of the percussionist Lassad Hosni, who frequently co-operates with Brahem on his various projects, represents the perfect balance between accompaniment and musical ideas.

The elliptic and penetrating titles full of conceptual resonances that characterized his previous record production have given way to the image of a café. A place where people meet, come together, and move on, a place where geographical references never have a descriptive intention but call up modal nuances that refer in their turn to the world of the original classical tradition in which the mode is a place of the spirit encapsulated in the memory of various lands and peoples.

This record includes recent compositions and reinterpretations of older pieces performed by a trio made up of lute, clarinet, and percussion. Taken as a whole it is a portrait d'auteur that epitomizes different aspects of Brahem's creative activity, as it has been developing since the mid Eighties. For example, the disc contains the popular theme from Ferid Boughedir's film Halfaouine, which tells the story of life in the working-class district of the same name in the medina of Tunis, where the artist was born, and Parfum de gitane in which Brahem revisits the indissoluble bond between Iberian and Maghrebi culture, as well as versions of some "classics" from the Arab-Ottoman tradition - ever cen-tral to his musical development - the relatively explicit traces of which form the bases for some of the pieces on this CD, his sixth. It is precisely these classics that give us an overview of the career path taken by this Tunisian musician, today highly thought of in many countries.

His need to get out of the mainstream of the tradition, understood as the stratified sum of recognizable musical patterns, and to explore different territory has led him to cross the paths taken by other musi-cians, interpreters of musical cultures from various epochs and regions, from Renaissance music to flamenco, from jazz to classical Indian music. At a time when the dialogue between different schools of music was still innocent of today's frenetic vanity, Brahem was experimenting with encounters that have brought his capacity to assimilate and compare to maturity. The profound tension generated by respect for traditional models, on the one hand, and the desire for innovation, on the other, a tension that was moreover the mark of the most prestigious and renowned masters of the past, is the inspiration behind the music in Astrakan Café. The overall effect is a perfect synthesis of the artistic person-ality of Brahem, now an outstanding figure in the world of Arab music. The quality of this recording is also due to the complete acoustic equilibrium of a sacred place in which the three instruments can be heard to perfection. Brahem's oud leads us to discover a world that, although it may sound familiar, is nonetheless a source of unceasing fascination thanks to its capacity to reveal novel aspects of itself.

Paolo Scarnecchia

Translation: Alastair McEwe