Album review: Arabic collective Alif find their groove with well-crafted songs

Arabic collective Alif have released their debut. It is a fluid yet musically and lyrically diverse album recorded in Cairo and Beirut that also draws on the poetry of Sargon Boulus.

Formed by Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami,right, in 2012, Alif also features, from left, Palestinian Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Bashar Farran and Khaled Yassine of Lebanon, and Maurice Louca of Egypt. Courtesy Tanya Traboulsi
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Arabic-rock fusion can be a catch-all and confused genre, including a whole array of performers who are either making clichéd pop music or are clearly mislabelled. The latter is true of the multi-national band Alif, who have just released their debut album Aynama-Rtama (Arabic for Wherever It Falls).

The eight-track work is not Arabic-rock fusion, nor is it “post-modern”, nor “an experimental album”; it is simply good music, formed by well-crafted songs.

The album is also enticingly dynamic, with multiple layers that allow the listener to experience the sonic evolution of the band.

Formed by renowned Iraqi oud player, Khyam Allami, in 2012; Alif has developed from a band with good ideas, to a collective of musicians who are finding their groove in writing great songs.

This is no surprise due to the calibre of the individual components that make up this band, with Khyam on oud, leading many of the initial ideas that were later co-composed by Alif’s early and lasting members: Maurice Louca, an Egyptian composer and producer driving the keys and electronic textures; Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, a Palestinian musician known mainly for his multiple talents on the buzuq, oud, vocals, and music platform Eka3.

After a few rotations, Lebanese bassist, Bashar Farran, and Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine joined the band later that year, and swiftly contributed by driving the rhythm section.

Each member comes from a wildly diverse musical background, be it Louca who is known for his electronic compositions, Bashar who has played bass with everyone from Haifa Wehbe to most of Beirut’s underground scene, and Yassine who contributes music to dance-theatre and flamenco pieces.

The album, recorded in 2014 between Cairo and Beirut, was a patch-worked process, due to the scattered locations of the musicians. This might be the aspect that provides its layers of wonderful character.

It traverses through the bands early iterations, set mostly to modern Arabic poetry by Sargon Boulus (Iraqi, 1944 to 2007), Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian, 1942 to 2008), and Faiha Abdulhadi (Palestinian, 1951); it is really the last three tracks where we hear it all come together.

The album opens up with Hulako (Hulago), featuring a poem by Boulus.

According to the band, it is the first time the poet’s work has been set to music, and it is also here that we find the source of the album’s title: “a sword untiring, its shadow, wherever it falls, begets a cloud of hungry vultures that circle the houses, where refugees see me in their nightmares among the ruins”.

The track, composted mostly by Khyam, was made in early 2012, and it’s a big bang of an opener driven by the oud and buzuq, later processed by Louca to give them a more fuzzed out or reverbed quality. From the opening note, the track is tense, frenzied and pushed along powerfully by Abu Ghazaleh’s speech-style of singing.

The follow up track, Dars Min Kama Sutra (A Lesson from Kama Sutra), was also originally based off the ideas of Khyam with contributions from Abu Ghazaleh and Louca.

The music is set to a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, which unfolds masterfully against the music with lyrics like: “Talk to her, like a flute to an anxious violin string, like two witnesses to the schemes of some tomorrow, and wait for her.”

This track allows us to look further into the creativity of Louca and his electronic textures and layers – his ability to process the instruments to subtly progress their sounds is always an intriguing experience of musical exploration.

The main riff behind the song was first laid out by Khyam on oud, to which Louca added a reverb effect that creates a charming interplay with the sultry synth-line and the acoustic, albeit processed drum loops that drive the rhythm section.

By the time we hit the third song, Al Juththa (The Corpse), we can really feel the band evolving to portray their diversity in a softer, more melancholic, sound.

The music is set to another poem by Boulus, which is introduced masterfully by the arpeggio notes in the intro and the ominous oud, nuanced percussions and electronic textures that transform the sound into something far more updated and unconventional.

This track is a great example of the mechanism of collective writing the band works through; it was a song created through a simple idea, only to evolve masterfully by each member’s input.

The album is fluid, amorphous and seems to take flight as it progresses from track to track. For some people it might take a listen or two through the whole album to really be hooked by it – there are no catchy pop moments in this body of work – but it’s certainly accessible as much of the album is rooted in modern poetry and lyrics and contemporary textures sonically.

By the fifth track, Al-Khutba Al-Akhira (The Last Declamation), we hear Khaled asserting his presence on the album with a percussive intro expressed through a multitude of instruments (duf, riq, tar, drum kit).

The track is something of a juncture for where the band came from, and the spectrum of sonic possibilities that lay ahead. This is largely due to the addition of Khaled and Bashar whose drum and bass contribution have successfully overhauled the rhythm section.

We can finally start to hear some real harmonies, and this is mostly thanks to Bashar’s bassline, which acts like glue between the instruments.

Now for the really exciting moment. If Al Khutba Al-Akhira is the crossroads, then Yalla Tnam (Lullaby) is an indication of the deviated path the band has chosen, which is largely driven by the new rhythm section and Abu Ghazaleh personalising Alif's content by writing original lyrics.

This is also where the album becomes more accessible due to the switch between classical Arabic, in the first five tracks, and colloquial, in the latter three tracks on the album.

In the case of Yalla Tnam, the song is unlike anything I've heard before with its polyrhythms, and the seductively sliding string sound made up by both Bashar on bass, and Louca's synth-line.

They emphasise the narrative of someone trying to fall asleep. Meanwhile the percussions and distressed lyrics let us know that insomnia is the more likely outcome for the song’s protagonist.

In the final tracks, Watti Es-Sawt (Keep It Down) and Eish Jabkum Hon? (What Brings You Here?), the band's sound and identity come out in full force. This is also largely due to Abu Ghazaleh's surrealist lyrics.

In Watti Es-Sawt, the lyrics have the feel of Alexandria's Corniche, but in fact could be anywhere, with lines like: "Fish, he said, tastes better from that sea, and goats over there don't ever die. They have tomatoes in the desert, he said, and it rains fruits from the sky."

By the time the album concludes with Eish Jabkum Hon? (What Brings You Here?), the listener might feel as though they have travelled to many different places in time throughout the Arab region.

The songs in their lyrical diversity (sex, death, war, surrealism) feel more like collective moments that are in a way, similar to the harmony found in watching a flock of birds flittering and fluttering, dipping with and against the wind with purpose, beauty and agility. Only to land, wherever they fall.

Maha El Nabawi is a journalist based in Cairo.