Quick, off the top of your head: What is your all-time favorite instrument? If your answer was “the oud” then I`m glad to find out you`re reading my blog Mr. Brahem. But for all others who’ve never heard of it, the oud is “a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in North African (Chaabi, Classical and Andalusian) and Middle Eastern music” (helpful as ever, Wikipedia). The oud’s construction is similar to that of the lute and it`s considered an ancestor of the guitar. In Le Voyage de Sahar this instrument takes center stage and gets to shine in the hands of gifted Tunisian oud player and composer Anouar Brahem.
Before I begin discussing this record I would like to mention something: The purpose of this blog is to draw attention to certain musicians and their work in the hope of making it known to a larger audience. I am a big admirer of each and every record I review on my blog. Were that not the case then I wouldn`t be spending many hours writing about them. The goal here is to share my interest in these albums and my love for them with the millions who read my blog every week. And while I feel the deepest affection for each and every one of the records I talk about there are a select few that resonate with me so much that I like to refer to them as my “desert island collection”. They are a part of who I am as much as my own mind and flesh and bones and beating heart. They define me as a person as much as everything I think and everything I say. They are the ones I`d take with me on a journey from which I wouldn`t know for sure I’ll return. They aren’t many, and that`s what makes them so valuable to me. Le Voyage de Sahar is one of them.
I found it hard to write an entry about a work I feel so attached to for fear that it might cloud my judgment and impair my objectivity but I do realize that the reason this record is so dear to me has less to do with its quality (there are many excellent works out there) and more to do with the fact that its vibe just resonates with mine.
Le Voyage de Sahar was released in 2006 on Manfred Eicher`s ECM label (which I`ve mentioned before) and features, aside from the sound of Brahem`s oud, Francois Couturier on piano and Jean-Louis Matinier on accordion. This simple yet amazing combination of oud, piano and accordion creates the landscape of the music, a vast and seemingly never-ending scenery of sound through which the listener is invited to take his journey. The reason I refer to it as “seemingly never-ending” is the unity of the record, the way in which the music is delivered and how the songs relate to each other.
The generous 65-minute masterpiece consists of thirteen songs. Paradoxically, although each track has a very powerful individual presence and leaves a distinct impression and specific “aftertaste” the atmosphere the album creates as a whole, when enjoyed from start to finish, is so hypnotic that the listener gets caught up in the voyage and the borders which separate the songs become indistinguishable. Thus, you find yourself so immersed in the music that you are not always aware when any individual track ends.
The record is, in my opinion, built around two very powerful tracks namely the title track and the one called Vague/E La Nave Va, which had been previously released, in another form, on the record Khomsa and which seems to be the focal point of the album. My belief is strengthened by the fact that Brahem chooses to close his album with a variation of the Vague theme. Le Voyage de Sahar is also a very profound and haunting track and I was surprised that he did not use it to open the record and make an instant powerful impression opting instead for Sur Le Fleuve which is beautiful but possesses little of the presence and charisma of Sahar. Instead, Sur Le Fleuve seems to be a warm-up for the rest of the album. The oud sets the tone and is followed by piano and accordion, perhaps giving the listener the opportunity to get accustomed to this combination of instruments and the sound it creates, acting as a preview before the general direction of the album begins to become evident. And if the point of the track is to get the listener accustomed to the sound then it does so in spades as both the oud and the piano get an opportunity to stand out in their own solos and the accordion provides the background that creates the mood, something it does on the rest of the album too. The track is followed by the title track and one of the best songs on the record, Le Voyage de Sahar.
If Vague is the heart of the album then I imagine Le Voyage de Sahar to be the personality, with the calm yet profound intensity and the manic-depressive fits this implies. The track is an instant charmer with the fifteen-second accordion intro (I have a soft spot for the accordion) commanding the listeners attention before the haunting tune of the perfectly homogenized instruments unleashes. L’Aube follows and works as a liaison between Sahar and Vague the two powerful forces that drive the record. Again, no one instrument dominates and the only hint we get that the oud is supposed to be the lead is that its sound usually precedes the others by a few seconds. The three instruments perfectly balance each other out and the track even features vocals, a hummed melody, almost like a musical whisper that is so gentle it is, at times, indistinguishable from the acoustic resonance of the instruments.
Vague/E la Nave Vas, is at the same time the most conventionally beautiful (the romantic piano tune is guaranteed to instantly impress a first-time listener) and the most complex of the tracks. It presents the piano theme first heard in Khomsa, for which Brahem seems to have a special affection and couples it with the subtle lament of the accordion fading both out at the two-minute mark to enter the second part of the composition where, backed by the mood set by piano and accordion, Brahem`s oud gets to take center stage and erupt into a heartfelt declaration of love for music. The song demands intimacy and refuses to stay in the background and I hold that it is impossible to just play this while reading or working. It won`t be long before you will stop whatever it is you are doing on the side and offer the song the complete attention it demands and deserves.
Often the tracks are organized in such a way that the ending to one track will correspond to the beginning of the other. For example E la Nave Vas ends with the focus on the accordion allowing for a smooth transition to the more lively, more exotic Les Jardins De Ziryab demonstrating the composers fine knowledge of the structure of music. This helps the overall flow of the record and leads to that sentiment of unity I mentioned before. The amazing thing about this music is the way in which it stands alone and refuses to act as a vehicle for something else, be it a trend or a musical direction (think of Nils Peter Molvaers Khmer), a political or spiritual message, a cry for freedom, an image, a character (as was the case with Tom Waits) and so on. This is music for music`s sake, beauty for beauties sake and that, I think, tremendously helps one enjoy it as one is never distracted from the sound. The focus is solely on the melody, on taking and enjoying every second of it at a time.
Think about taking a long walk where your attention is not devoted to the scenery, or getting exercise, or to introspection but just to trying to be fully aware of the reality of each step you take, transforming a normally passive activity into a thoroughly active one. The song Nuba continues the more alert rhythm with the oud, once again taking center stage, and leads the listener to the haunting La Chambre in which it seems that Brahem tried to recreate the “feel” of the title track. The effect is similar but, in my opinion, not as successful. With the resemblance between the tracks as well as the positioning of Le Chambre on the record the listener gets the impression as though he`s reached the midway of this intense and adventurous journey. The theme repeats in La Chambre. var, the tenth track which seems to highlight the importance of this song.
Interestingly, La Chambre var rather than being a variation of the song (by adding or subtracting an instrument or by changing the tempo) seems more like a continuation of La Chambre as though it`s just one song that was split in two, perhaps to add to the feeling of continuity or to provide a frame for Cordoba and Halfaoiune, both tracks with a very exotic feel to the European listener.
While the melancholy Cordoba suggest contemplation and the passage of time the very melodic Halfaouine, a song revisited from the album Astrakan Café immediately sticks with you as the piano and oud mash together perfectly to create another instant charmer, something fairly rare for this record which usually takes a few listens in order for one to fully appreciate the quality of the music. The “earworm” trend continues with Zarabanda where the accordion takes the lead in a much-welcomed lighter tune for the listener to enjoy amidst the mostly heavy, contemplative tone of the larger part of the album. It is fascinating to notice how the accordion is almost always the instrument that creates the state of spirit, whether it’s the melancholy and reflection of the slower pieces or the lively Arabic celebration of the few faster ones. The album closes with the combo of Ete Andalous, a sleepy mood-piece followed by Vague var. in the ECM spirit of finishing a record with a short “outro” which is, sometimes, another variation of one of the more important tracks. In some cases it works (I`ve mentioned the track Exit off Nils Peter Molvaers Khmer ) and sometimes it doesn`t (A Tale Begun from Jan Garbarek`s In Praise of Dreams) but thankfully this song falls in the category of the former, as the “soul” of the piano theme from Vague feels ever-present throughout the album making it the logical closure for this work.
Overall, this record is, for the music lover, a very satisfactory hour, one in which the focus is set simply on enjoying the sound and nothing else. It might take a few listens for you to be able to truly embrace it but if you do decide to dedicate an hour to this superb collection of music please do so with an open mind, an open heart and offer it your full attention. You will not be disappointed.
Watch out for: the oud. A fascinating instrument which, in spite of its little range of “emotion” manages to evoke a very “raw”, instinctive fascination for its sound.
Best track: Vague/E La Nave Vas. It was very difficult to pick between this one and the title track. I tended to lean towards Sahar while my wife preferred this one but now I agree with her because this track has the added effect of being instantly likeable, the track I would use to introduce someone to the music of Anouar Brahem.