Alif – Aynama-Rtama (4 stars)

A thrilling debut of contemporary Arabic music

Alif – Aynama-Rtama

(Nawa Recordings)

Bringing together some of the most acclaimed and exploratory young musicians in modern Arabic music, Alif offer a tantalising, beautifully balanced mix of the traditional and the experimental.

The five players, of Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi origin, bring a range of disciplines with them. Vocalist Tamer Abu Ghazaleh is a renowned songwriter. Maurice Louca is an experimental electronica artist, soon to appear in solo guise at the CCA, Glasgow. Basha Farran provides low-end for a live, improvised drum’n’bass trio. Percussionist Khaled Yassine performs traditional Arab music and jazz fusion. And celebrated oudist Khyam Allami has had stints as drummer and bassist for the prog and noise-rock bands Knifeworld and Art of Burning Water, respectively.

This diversity imbues Aynama-Rtama (Wherever it Falls) with a great deal of breadth, depth and richness. Superb opener ‘Holako’ sets the tone: an instantly hooky, twanging oud riff crackles at the edges due to electronic manipulation, Ghazaleh soars and flits as he recites Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus’s dreamlike account of the 13th century Mongol invasion of the Middle East, and the whole thing blossoms into a lithe, irresistible lurch.

While rooted in various Arabic traditions, Alif’s music is also open-minded and fiercely contemporary, taking in everything from slinky, dub-infused grooves (Yalla Tnam) to hypnotically circling riffs (I Tiraf). Of particular note are Al-Khutba Al-Akhira, the muscular desert stomp-psych of which is incrementally obliterated by Louca’s gliding cosmic synth; and the climactic closing track Eish Jabkum Hon, in which Ghazaleh’s elegance and poise give way to a more fervent, ecstatic mode.

The lyrics, comprising poetry by Boulus, Mahmoud Darwish and Faiha Abdulhadi, as well as Ghazaleh’s own verse, are not only phonetically sumptuous to the uncomprehending Anglophone, but their translations reveal extra layers of impressionistic beauty, too.

Sensuous, smart and sonically lavish, Aynama-Rtama is a thrilling debut that owes as much to classic poetic forms and traditional instrumentation as it does to new technology and electronic textures.

Out now.

Alif - Holako (Hulagu) الألف - هولاكو