Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

NYUAD’s Barzakh Festival: eclectic line-up is a rare treat for world-music fans

Free-to-attend Barzakh Festival is the UAE's widest celebration of global sounds since Womad Abu Dhabi shut up shop in 2010.
Ukranian folk band DakhaBrakha. Photo by FilmMagic / FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival
Ukranian folk band DakhaBrakha. Photo by FilmMagic / FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival

Mixing Gnawa grooves, desert blues, Cambodian psych-rock, Ukrainian folk-punk and Brooklyn bhangra-jazz, New York University Abu Dhabi’s free two-day Barzakh Festival is the widest celebration of global sounds in the UAE since Womad Abu Dhabi shut shop in 2010. Each act will play for about an hour. Here is the lowdown on what to expect.

Thursday (from 7.30pm)

Noura Mint Seymali

Noura Mint Seymali, the Republic of Mauritania’s best-known musical export, drinks deeply from the musical traditions she was born into. An early master of the ardin – a nine-stringed harp for women – by the age of 13 she was composing for, and backing, her famous stepmother, Dimi Mint Abba, “the diva of the desert”.

After years of playing at local weddings, Seymali reached an international audience by electrifying her griot roots, pairing traditional musical storytelling with a rock rhythm section. The secret weapon, however, is her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, who employs a modified electric guitar to play quarter-tones and serves up snaking, snarling desert blues lead lines that are a graceful foil to his wife’s words.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa

Hypnotic West African rhythms and euphoric rock spectacle collide in the work of Aziz Sahmaoui. Best known as a founding member of flagship world-music group Orchestre National de Barbès, alongside Cheb Mami, Sahmaoui was later invited on the road as part of influential jazz-fusion pianist Joe Zawinul’s Syndicate, playing with the former Miles Davis’s sideman until his death in 2007.

Drawing deeply from both experiences, the Moroccan maestro has since 2010 led his University of Gnawa solo project, which pits Sahmaoui’s guembri (a traditional three-stringed bass lute) and soaring, imploring voice against western instrumentation – guitar, keys, electric bass and a full drum kit – to create trance-like, yet poetic, Maghreb grooves.

Friday (from 6pm)

Red Baraat

A welcome late addition to the bill, eight-piece party starters Red Baraat combine modern driving bhangra beats with jazzy horn stabs to wonderfully infectious effect.

This cross-pollinated project was, perhaps, inevitably born in Brooklyn. The centrepiece is Sunny Jain slamming the dhol – an Indian double-headed, shoulder-slung drum that lends bhangra its frenetic heartbeat – leading a three-piece percussion section.

Five horn players spurt overlapping, New Orleans-esque lines – occasionally pausing for a brief rap or refrain. The band’s latest album, due for release in March, adds guitar to the mix.


Global festival favourites DakhaBrakha have won the global hipster vote by taking the folk songs of their native Ukraine, and riotously turbocharging them with a punk aesthetic.

It is no cheap appropriation. Performing primarily on acoustic instruments – accordion, cello, woodwind, percussion – the quartet’s raw energy is all in the performance, with wailing vocal choruses criss-crossing festive, rural folk rhythms. Originally a live-theatre music crew, DakhaBrakha turn the kook factor up to 11, performing in white wedding dresses, bold beads and towering Cossack hats.


Updated: February 15, 2017 04:00 AM

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