Michel Sajrawy,
(Ozella, 2006)

For those of you who have ever wondered what Middle Eastern jazz/rock with a lot of electric guitar might sound like, Michel Sajrawy's Yathrib provides an easy answer: interesting.

In this case, "interesting" doesn't translate to wholly enjoyable, but there is still something to be said about a recording that sounds unlike anything else.

Undaunted by the absence of liner notes in the digipak, I turned to Wikipedia and discovered that "Yathrib" is the old name for the holy city of Medina, which is distinguished by its multicultural past and present Muslim exclusivity. Sajrawy's Yathrib, appropriately enough, returns to multiculturalism with its eclectic assortment of Western and Middle Eastern instruments and styles. Sajrawy's guitars take the spotlight, but accompanying them are the oud, violin, tabla, bass and a number of other instruments too obscure for even Wikipedia to identify.

Notes would definitely have been a welcome addition. As always, however, the music speaks for itself; tellingly, Yathrib opens with a 30-second chorus of yowling electric guitars. This segues into the rapid tabla beat of the title track, where it is soon joined by frenetic electric guitar -- though not for long. About a minute into the song, the beat drops into a chilled, vaguely Latin saunter on guitar, violin and Western percussion. But don't relax too much: a few minutes later, the frenzied pace of the opening is back.

Interesting? Yes. Borderline schizophrenic? That, too. Disregarding the intro, six out of the eight longish tracks include feverish electric guitar and rapid changes in mood, instrumentation and rhythm that can make them uncomfortable to listen to. "Flying Carpet" offers an exquisite oud solo embedded between pop rhythms and chaotic electric guitar. The staccato "Four Commandments" has an introduction that reminds me oddly of the old Batman theme and internal drum sequences that are best described as jazz rhythms on crack. But within the controlled chaos of the tracks are definite highlights: beautifully effective musical "dialogues" in which tabla, Western percussion, guitar and oud seem to call and answer each other.

Most tracks still suffer from a lack of internal cohesion, with the exceptions of "Spiritual Oasis" and "Father," both of which clock in at around nine minutes. Meditative and quieter than the others, "Spiritual Oasis" has a clean, spare quality that allows the distinctive sounds of its instruments to shine. It features the electric guitar as a surprisingly effective surrogate for a more traditional instrument, and later, an intricate conversation between two very different types of percussion. "Father" is one of the most successful fusions on the CD, beginning with a jazzy, laidback, Westernised beat that subtly gives way to a more traditional sound and ends in a duet between oud and guitar.

Fans of world fusion will find much of interest on Yathrib, though it is too experimental to be easily accessible. Those looking for a smoother blend of Western and Middle Eastern music may want to try the contemporary Persian group Axiom of Choice instead.

by Jennifer Mo
19 May 2007

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