Album review: Lisan Al Tarab – Tarek Yamani

Tarek Yamani’s second album takes classic Arabic songs and reinvents them with a modern jazz flair.
While browsing in a Beirut record shop, Herbie Hancock’s music began playing and this stands out as a defining moment for Tarek Yamani. The music shook me so strong, he says. Courtesy The Fridge
While browsing in a Beirut record shop, Herbie Hancock’s music began playing and this stands out as a defining moment for Tarek Yamani. The music shook me so strong, he says. Courtesy The Fridge

Tarek Yamani has always been captivated by repertoires from around the world – classical music, African beats, rock and jazz. But for his second album, the composer has focused on the union of classical Arabic music and jazz.

Lisan Al Tarab is an exploration of the rhythmic dialogues between the two genres and a celebration of craftsmanship and dexterity.

Here we find 1900s-era music from Egypt and muwashahat, or folk songs, from the Levant reworked with a modern jazz take.

The Beirut-born composer began listening to classical Arabic music intensively in 2005 as a music student and was moved by the emotional power of this ancient tradition.

“It is so deep as it carries thousands of years of evolution from musician to musician, with each adding his own trademark and philosophy,” he says.

Among the remastered pieces are the folk song Ah Ya Zein, a tribute to his homeland Beirut Zahra Fi Gheir Awanha and one original composition by Tarek titled New Dabke.

Yamani calls this hybrid “Afro Tarab. “I have always mixed Arabic music and Jazz,” he explains. “However, it wasn’t until now that I decided to focus all those experimentations into one single project with a clear identity. I felt that the identity should be reflected in what I always wanted to do, which is look for old beautiful muwashahat, or folk songs, and bring out the jazz inside.

“Tarab has this density and listening to it transports you back in time to places you’ve never been, or [places] you’ve been but don’t remember.”

One of the composer’s main challenges was rhythmical – bringing together the tonalities of jazz and Arabic music has long been a question for musicians and scholars. But the results bring together the melancholy of jazz and the intensity of Arabic songs in a language that reflects the rich explorations of the composer, both geographic and cultural.

The album features Yamani’s fluid piano performance and two New York-based musicians: Greek bassist Petros Klampanis, the lead of the band Contextual, who has toured with renowned musicians such as Jean Michel Pilc, Ari Hoenig and Gretchen Parlato and acclaimed American drummer John Davis, who is touring with jazz legends Cassandra Wilson, Ben Williams and Etienne Charles.

Yamani met the musicians in New York, where he has lived since 2011. When he decided to record the album, he applied for the Culture Resource’s Production Awards Programme, an institution that offers grants to artists from the Arab world. He won the grant last February and they recorded the album in less than two days in March.

Yamani has also been working extensively in the Middle-East this past year – touring across the region and organising the Beirut Speaks Jazz festival in Lebanon.

He also recorded the soundtrack for the short movie Ash, which premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and was produced by his wife, filmmaker Darine Hotait.

The composer’s eclectic musical discovery goes back to his childhood in war-torn Lebanon. Yamani grew up taking piano lessons, focusing on classical music and Bach and later enrolling at the Conservatory. He later switched to the electric guitar for several years, composing and experimenting with hard rock, heavy metal and rock. Yamani then enrolled at the American University of Beirut’s computer engineering programme, but quickly became disenchanted with the discipline and left to focus on music, playing with the rap band Aks’Ser.

He discovered jazz when a friend, musician Raed Yassin, introduced him to classic recordings such as Autumn Leaves and In a Sentimental Mood. Soon he was discovering more artists.

“The most powerful moment was when I was strolling in a record store in Hamra looking through the jazz section as The New Standard by Herbie Hancock blasted,” Yamani remembers.

“The music shook me so strong that it was the truest calling for me to go there, because that’s where I wanted to be and absolutely nowhere else.

Yamani then started listening to classic jazz – John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk – and teaching himself the rules of rhythm with only the help of a manual – The Jazz Piano Book.

Later, he played with Ziad Sahhab’s band Chehhadine Ya Baladna, where he met several like-minded musicians and started to experiment with Arabic music and jazz. He began playing extensively, later under the band Fenjan Shay (Cup of Tea).

Feeling lonely in the Beirut jazz scene, Yamani obtained a scholarship to study at the Prins Claus Conservatoire in Groningen, Holland, in 2005 – the year prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed, which led to years of renewed instability in Lebanon.

Studying in Holland for four years, he perfected not only his technique, but also his style. He also discovered the cultural traditions from Africa and South America.

“The greatest jazz musicians in history are so humble, free and open to new experiences and learning possibilities,” explains Yamani, “and therefore they always grow collectively because that’s how jazz was born. Jazz is unconditional and true – jazz musicians regard music as an essentially enjoyable, ego-free social activity. Absorbing this changes so much the way a musician sees the world and unlocks the healing powers of music.”

In 2010, Yamani began recording his own compositions and entering competitions – and won the Thelonious Monk Award.

He relocated to New York in 2011 and began to perform in the city’s famed venues – Iridium Smoke, Lenox Lounge, Smalls.

“I have always experienced NYC through my headphones back in Beirut,” he says.

“Hearing all those live recordings where you hear whispers, claps, dishes and glasses always gave me this good feeling of a New York jazz club. Those sounds were so much part of the intimate experience of listening. Finally being in NYC got me inside those clubs and hearing those sounds from within and three years after moving to NYC, I still get this rush when I enter the club.”

Hancock, Yamani’s idol, introduced the musician at the opening concert of the UN International Jazz Day in April 2012. There, the pianist performed John Coltrane’s India with Wayne Shorter and Zakir Hussein. Yamani had been selected for the evening after winning the Thelonious Monk competition for his composition Sama’i Yamani, a jazz adaptation of an Arabic classic.

Throughout these turns and twists, these explorations, struggles and victories, Yamani has come closer to what he has always tried to grasp: rhythm.

“Jazz represents, in my opinion, freedom and spiritual union,” he says. “It is one of the most sophisticated and highest forms of musical expression because it is rooted in rhythm and improvisation. Jazz is elegant and rural, complex and simple, African and non-African and it is like any real art, transcendent of all common human notions of unlikeness such as gender, race, religion and ethnicity.”

As for the turmoil in the region and the future for its youth, Yamani insists that culture plays a major role in provoking societal shifts.

“I am hopeful,” he says. “What’s going on in our part of the world is absurd and sad. You cope and accept and then try to create – and that’s when balance comes back again.”

For Yamani, art inspires and brings forward new ideas.

“This is where art plays the biggest role in our societies,” he says. “Without art, there will be no balance – it grows regardless of positive and negative movements. Art exemplifies suffering as much as it exemplifies blissfulness; art is the creative consciousness of societies through which new eras are shaped.

• Tarak Yamani will be playing songs from Lisan el Tarab at Jazz@PizzaExpress in Dubai this evening

Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.

Published: August 28, 2014 04:00 AM


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