Taking the oud and the music of the Middle East and fusing it with Western genres, Rouhana has formed an album that is accessible while also intricate
Lebanese oudist Charbel Rouhana’s album Sourat – Trait D’Union is an entertaining modern take on Arabic oud music, yet it still contains a reverence and love for the traditions that shaped the genre. Rouhana has always been an innovator of the form. According to his website, he established a new method of playing the oud, which has since been adopted in several prestigious music schools in Lebanon. What exactly he does differently to the traditional oud players, I don’t know, but nonetheless it’s an interesting fact that shows his mastery of his instrument, and that mastery is on show on Sourat as well. Though perhaps at times the orchestration around the oud takes centre stage, I personally found that to be a point of difference to the other oud albums I have listened to, and reflects Rouhana’s time living, studying and working in France, as well as his collaborations with a number of European musicians. What follows on Sourat is what one might call “oud jazz”, where Arabic rhythms and traditional folk melodies are married nicely with the backing of a jazz ensemble.
“This magpie-like grasping onto different sorts of traditional music makes for a compelling listening experience, as while it is all in a similar jazz-oud style, the subtle improvisations and changes in each song are beguiling.”
On a musical level, there’s a lot to dig into with this album. Rouhana has taken inspiration from jazz as well as chamber music, all of which he has given an Arabic twist, and he has looked across the Middle East and Europe for tunes which he can adapt into his own style. For example, and perhaps most obviously, he has adapted the well-known Andalusian Arab song Lamma Bada Yatathanna, adding a jazzy accompaniment to his lead oud part. Compare it to Egyptian oudist Hamza El-Din’s far more traditional though still excellent version (entitled Mwashah) and you’ll get a good sense of how far Rouhana is willing to go in adapting and pushing the form. Further afield, Rouhana has looked to Turkish folk music on Tableau De Sourat – Ya Banat Iskandaria, which adapts the tune Uskudar’a Gider Iken, also known as Katibim, and perhaps best known to some of you as the basis for Boney M’s hit song Rasputin. He also adapts an Armenian song on Variations Sur Une Danse Armenienne and an Egyptian one on Zakrayati. This magpie-like grasping onto different sorts of traditional music makes for a compelling listening experience, as while it is all in a similar jazz-oud style, the subtle improvisations and changes in each song are beguiling. For example, in his version of Lamma Bada Yatathanna, he begins with a piano and string introduction that is closer to Western classical music before it slowly segues into the familiar Arabian tune, where by roughly halfway in it becomes a far more traditionally Arabic arrangement. His version of Katibim is introduced by a violin segment that’s reminiscent of Balkan Romani folk, and this near-klezmer feel is recurrent throughout his reinterpretation of this famous tune. It’s these playful twists and turns that elevate the album above the average.
Sourat – Trait D’Union is an enjoyable and interesting piece that remains so throughout.
Though he is an oudist, he is not afraid to let the piano or strings come to the fore on certain songs over his own oud as we have mentioned, though the oud is present throughout. This is one of those albums that, for me, achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It is very well made and accessible, and for fans and casual listeners alike there’s much to glean from Rouhana’s music. On the one hand, it is pleasant passive listening, and on the other, if you are a world music aficionado, it’s fun to listen to actively and try and examine each piece to wonder which genre Rouhana is dipping into here or which country’s folk music he is inspired by for each song. While it may not reach dizzying heights of musical sublimity, this is a good, often great, musical effort that deserves repeat listens.