TUNISIA: The Astounding Eyes Of Rita - Anouar Brahem
The oud pioneer manages to create a softly smooth album of intricately constructed genre-bending melodies
The oud has a long history in the music of North Africa and the Middle East. We have reviewed albums of oud music from Arabian Peninsula nations like Yemen and Qatar, as well as from Sudan and Lebanon. Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem is considered to be one of the greatest masters of the instrument in recent years, and he is considered as having innovated its use in modern jazz music. The oud is traditionally used alongside vocal accompaniment, with it mainly playing second fiddle (if you can excuse the strange metaphorical image that conjures up) to the human voice. Brahem decided to that the oud was more than capable of holding its own as a solo instrument taking the prominent place as the lead instrument in an ensemble. Beginning his career in the 1980s in Tunisia, he has had remarkable success in his home country, as well as in jazz and world music circles abroad, and he was then signed to the German record label Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM for short) in the early 1990s, with whom he has stayed with since. This confluence of East and West has defined much of his career with ECM, and it is no different on The Astounding Eyes of Rita, where jazz and Arabian oud combine mellifluously.
“There are even moments where the beauty of the music allows the songs to become near-spiritual...”
Released in 2009, The Astounding Eyes of Rita gives one a good impression of Brahem’s skills as a musician. The album is entirely instrumental, save for some moments of light vocalisation on some tracks, and Brahem plays in a quartet with Björn Meyer on bass, Klaus Gesing on the bass clarinet, and Khaled Yassine on the doumbek and bendir (both types of Maghrebi percussion, with the doumbek similar in appearance to a West African djembe or an Indian tabla and used in a similar fashion, while the bendir is a hand drum similar to an Irish bodhrán, or a large tambourine without the metal cymbals. What is remarkable about the album is how organic and contiguous it feels. Not once do you feel like this is fusion music, though in many ways it is, it just feels as fluid and rhythmic as the best contemporary jazz. A great example is in the title track, where we begin with a melodic oud intro, before some gentle vocalisations begin, the drums join in, giving it a soft yet assured beat, and suddenly the clarinet and bass are all performing alongside the oud, and it has become a full piece of music seamlessly. There are even moments where the beauty of the music allows the songs to become near-spiritual, namely on Al Birwa, where the bass clarinet is allowed to shine and guide the listener through new musical heights. Though the album is languid and slow in tempo, lending itself to being relaxing background listening, through the talent of the musicians on display it is more than capable of withstanding several active listens.
This truly is one of those albums that feels like it is completely one piece of music. There are eight songs in total and it is hard to pick one that stands head and shoulders above the rest as they are all of a similar quality. I could pick the title track, but equally Stopover at Djibouti or The Lover of Beirut could sneak in there. This also means that you can probably work out whether it is an album you will enjoy from the first song or two, as there is little variation on the style throughout. I do find it to be a more intellectual experience overall than an emotional one – it is often quite hard for music alone without singing or lyrics to be as powerful than purely instrumental music – but that’s not to say it does not have its moments of emotional resonance. Brahem and his group of musicians managed to craft eight pieces of music in an immaculate manner, and I think the skill on display would be enough to at least impress those for whom jazz is a genre they disdain, if not win them over outright. For me, as a casual fan of jazz, it works brilliantly.