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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Merit Ariane STEPHANOS
The River
Ya Ghusna Naqa (Mwashshah) [3:11]
Ya Zahratan fi Khayali [4.42]
Nami Nami [5:51]
Shams e Shammusa [5:38]
Der Fluss (The River) [6:05]
Oudak Rannan [4:08]
Sihtou Wajdan (Mwashshah) [5:15]
Adio Querida/Ya Lor [5:52]
The Moon [8:03]
Merit Ariane Stephanos (voice); Abdul Salam Kheir (oud, voice); Louai Alhenawi (nay); Gamal 'el Kurdi' Awad (accordion); Emile Bassili (violin); Stuart Hall (guitar); Meg Hamilton (violin); Alcyona Mick (piano); Milos Milivojevic (accordion); Haitham el Souba’i (percussion)
rec. 2013, Westbourne Rehearsal Studios, London

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing a very special concert in the glorious setting of the Great Hall, Dartington, for our sister website Seen and Heard International. The event was part of the Open Arms week held in support of asylum-seekers and refugees in South Devon. In essence the programme was a fascinating mix of music from Western and Arab culture, performed by a local professional string ensemble, augmented by some visiting performers specialising in the latter genre. As it’s getting more and more the norm for artists to have a selection of their own CDs available at the door after the event, I asked whether this would be the case on this occasion. Unfortunately this was the first time the artists had performed together so nothing, as such, was available. However, the afternoon’s main performer – vocalist Merit Ariane Stephanos – was able to share that she had herself produced a CD herself in 2013 – The River – which, she assured me, would be more than a fair approximation to what I, and the rest of the audience, had so much enjoyed hearing, that Sunday afternoon – and was thus delighted to send me a copy.

The CD pays homage to Stephanos’s Egyptian heritage – she is, in fact, of German/Egyptian extraction, now based in London – and the traditions of Arabic music. Moreover it appears as a musical dialogue between her European and Middle Eastern cultural roots. The nine songs recorded feature a wide stylistic range, from classical, Andalusian, Mwashshaw, popular music and folk songs, as well as original compositions, accompanied by some ten performers on a variety of conventional and ethnic instruments.

‘Ya Ghusna Naqa’ gets things off to great start – full of all the sounds and rhythms you’d expect to hear emanating from any Kasbah on a warm, scented evening. Its pulsating rhythms and traditional use of voice and instruments provide a perfect ‘falafel’ CD opener, and involve the listener from start to finish. But at no time – neither on the CD as a whole – is there any feeling that this is still Western fare, to which some Arab seasoning has been added for effect. This track, and Track 7 (‘Sihtou Wajdan’), are examples of the ‘Muwashshah’ – an Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre.

‘Ya Zahratan fi Khayali’ is a real contrast, with its accordion opening, that soon transforms into a lilting tango, to which the percussion gives just enough lift. The song itself is simply constructed, with sections in the minor and major alternating, and a short instrumental break around the mid-point. Stephanos projects exactly the right vocal timbre here, with her subtle pitch inflections adding greatly to the mix. ‘Nami Nami’ opens most evocatively, where the distinctive sound of the end-blown nay (or ney) flute, improvised vocal and instrumental lines over a drone accompaniment might so easily conjure up the expanse and solitude of a vast sandy desert at night. A slow rhythmic beat ensues, still over the drone, as Stephanos delivers this extremely haunting traditional Arabic lullaby, finishing as it started, perhaps suggesting that the infant has now been successfully lulled to sleep.

‘Shams e Shammusa’ opens with an improvised solo from the accordion, with drums soon joining in, along with other melody instrument in characteristic unison doubling, just before the voice enters. The bright and cheerful nature of the text (all suitably translated into English for non-Arabic speakers) finds a real parallel in the bright spirit of the arrangement, enhanced by some vocal harmonies, and the addition of more solo voices to complement Stephanos’s lead. On this occasion the music gently fades away into nothing.

‘Der Fluss’ (The River) is the CD’s title track, and is cast as a musical conversation between Stephanos’s Egyptian and German halves, where the German part is a musical translation of the Arabic, substituting the lingering and ornamented Arabic melodies with Teutonic three-part harmonies. No instruments are involved here, but some electronically-layered voice parts are incorporated into the texture, with spatial stereo effects greatly adding to the overall mystery of Stephanos’s own beguiling musical setting of the ancient text. The later interjection of short ‘Sprechstimme’ sections – in German (female voice) and Arabic (male voice) – enhances the eerily-captivating effect even more.

‘Oudak Rannan’ springs into life the moment you press ‘play’, with a short introduction before the voice (initially one, and then in chorus) enters. The text is addressed to the lute-player, encouraging him to play louder, rather than quieter, saying: ‘The night is not for sleeping; it is for enjoying!’ – something the music more than hints at, with its heavily-inflected melodies. Interestingly, whereas most pieces on the CD either come to a recognisable formal stop, or simply fade away, this track is guaranteed to catch out any but the more seasoned listener, with its abrupt cut off. ‘Sihtou Wajdan’ opens with an extended violin improvisation which almost ‘speaks’ to the listener – such is the use of indigenous playing techniques that mimic the production of the human voice. The improvisation leads into the customary dance set, where doubling at the unison, and at the octave, both between instruments and voice, make telling contributions to the authenticity of the texture.

‘Adio Querida/Ya Lor’ is a traditional Sephardic love-song, and begins with a plaintive guitar melody over a sustained accordion accompaniment. When the voice enters, the piano is also added as part of the backing, shortly before a quasi-bolero rhythm kicks in, providing an appropriate accompaniment to this melancholy melody, with its decidedly Spanish, rather than specifically Arabic origins. For Spanish speakers, the title is shown incorrectly as ‘Qerida’, but the required missing ‘u’ after the initial ‘q’ is corrected on the website.

The final track, and the longest on the CD – ‘The Moon’ – was written by composer, director, and photographer Morag Galloway, who lives in York, UK, who was specially commissioned by the performers to write something for inclusion on the CD, By way of brief explanation, Galloway uses a ‘maqam’ – an Arabic melodic mode (or scale), and bases the structure of the piece on the stages of the moon over a whole month. From the very outset, we are in a different sound-stage altogether, with the mainly discordant piano chords (Galloway’s ‘constantly moving moon’) providing the backing to Stephanos’s voice, assisted by some additional ethereal sounds and effects from the strings, and some effective stereo panning from the piano as the piece unfolds. Whereas all the other tracks readily make an immediate assault and appeal on the senses, with their easily-suggestible visual associations, this final track needs, perhaps, a few playings before its full impact and message might be truly appreciated.

The recording is excellent, and even if the printing on the sleeve, and the accompanying insert, is not always that easy to decipher, a larger-scale version is available at Stephanos’s website.

Philip R Buttall



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