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Patchwork Music presents:

Syriana

Photo by York Tillye

 

rLive line-up:
Bernard O'Neill: double bass, backing vocals
Dubulah: guitars
Mounir Baziz aka Moon: electric violin, mandol
Nizar Al-Issa: oud, vocals
Iba Abu Khalaf: darbuka, backing vocals
+ visuals by Nico Piazza

 

London Show and Album Launch

 

Islington Assembly Hall

 

October 2, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

There is no better way to spend a rain-soaked Saturday night than in the company of Syriana, whose majestic, sweeping multi-cultural music, inspired by Syria and the lingering frost of the cold war and named for the slang word of the fabled ‘axis of evil’, is at once evocative and compelling. So much so that I instantly forgot the dampness of my boots and was transported to sunnier climes rife with towering sand dunes, colourful market-places and endless intrigue.

This adventuresome project, as Syriana call themselves, consists of guitarist Nick “Dubulah” Page, Irish double bass player Bernard O’Neil, Palestinian/Jordanian oud virtuoso/singer Nazir Al Issa, Algerian violinist Mounir ‘Moon’ Baziz and Palestinian percussionist Iba Abu Khalaf. O’ Neill does most of the speaking between numbers onstage and I may have been one of the few people who understood his joking reference to silent, ever-smiling Page as a ‘quahog’ in a shiny suit’, quahog’s being New England clams. Dubulah, as British/Greek Page has dubbed himself, often gestured comically to O’Neill on the opposite side of the stage following an intricate guitar passage, as if to say, ‘wasn’t that something,’ generating chuckles from the rapt crowd. Dubulah also plays with the engaging band Dub Colossus who will be appearing at Bloomsbury Ballroom on November 20th, but that’s just one more of the many leaves in Page’s multi-tasking repertoire of musical projects. O’Neill is likewise, diverse in the extreme and equally occupied.

As O’Neill pointed out, this was the first time he’d played a concert at Islington Assembly Hall for thirty-seven years, which goes a long way towards explaining the nearly palpable residue of former variety days in the hall, built in 1929 and restored to coincide with its eightieth anniversary. Though the 400 seat hall may have good acoustics, it was not, as O’Neill pointed out, designed for bands who coordinate projections with their performances, as Syriana does, courtesy of the artistry of Italian film-maker Nico Piazza. O’Neill’s revelations may have hinted at earlier frustrations, but there were no glitches in evidence during Syriana’s set, during the course of which Piazza’s artfully compiled footage flawlessly synched in conjunction with their diverse musical mix, the two converging to form a rich sensory musical/visual tapestry.

Syriana’s instantly involving set got off to an atmospheric start with ‘Saalam’ a compulsive track which, though not on my CD of the album, may well be a bonus number from the vinyl edition of the release this concert celebrated - The Road to Damascus. Sublimely sweeping instrumental ‘Galatian Bridge at Dawn’ followed, with superb oud playing from Nizar Al Issa drifting over the top of a lush mix which included a backing track by the Pan Arab Strings of Damascus. Oud and strings drew together for a tantalizing close in tandem with the gold-tinged desert sunrise unfurling on a large screen at the back of the stage. Italian film-maker Nico Piazza designed imaginative filmic pieces for Syriana’s Damascus numbers and has made an excellent job of capturing their senses of irony and reverence for their sources of inspiration. The excellent but unassuming hand-drumming by Iba Abu Khalaf in playful,  cinematically inspired ‘The Templehof File’ almost made me take a stab at belly-dancing, it’s that stimulating in a secret agent kind of way, though the planes flying in formation on the screen behind Syriana may have been enough to stop me in my water-logged tracks. Again, the Pan Arab Strings lent support, providing a lush backdrop for the live musicians to play against. ‘Black Zil’ suggested spies darting down Syrian alleyways, to a relentless beat, as O’Neill got down on his big bass, ditto Mounir ‘Moon’ Baziz on his nearly body-less violin, as neon, rain-dotted streaks and smudges flowed along behind. ‘Gharibb’ aka ‘Stranger’ with its chant singing, offered a perfect opportunity for Nazir Al Issa to demonstrate his considerable vocal skills. Al Issa’s vocal delivery is so expressive and passionate, it equals if not overshadows the album’s singing of the song by Syrian singer, Lubana Al Quntar. Greatly effective, slow moving footage of faces of people, in the market-place, shops and streets of Damascus rolled, while members of the band sang resounding choruses of ‘ah, ah, ah, ah’ much more effectively than they sounds in writing, comprising the majestic, percussion peppered The Road to Damascus with Dubulah, O’Neill, and violinist Moon wringing soulfulness out of each and every note they played.  Desert and densely populated streets, heat and coolness, all rolled into one evocative caravan like bundle, with the broadly brushed strokes of the Pan Arab Strings for added colour. One of the highlights of this superb set was ‘Al Araby’, as emotively sung by Al Issa as though he was speaking to every person in the audience personally, with great heart and feeling, about something of utmost importance to him, and hopefully us. I for one was persuaded, as his performance, again, one replacing the album vocals of Lubana Al Quintar, was totally captivating as he sang before a shifting kaleidoscope of orange, rose and cream hues. Tongues were back firmly in cheeks on instrumental, espionage tinged ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ with its ‘60’s secret agent influences. It’s a number indicative of Syriana – mysterious, ironic, compelling and intentionally larger than life, though as was often the case, Piazza’s accompanying film managed to shed light on the truth behind the façade with its intermittent proclamations about ‘American rules.’ O’Neill stated prior to the piece that they were surprised by the film-makers use of what was considered scant material in the form of photos captured by the band on a trip to Berlin. Much was made of Dubulah’s desire to play a Greek number by fellow musician Bernard O’Neill, who smilingly proclaimed it a ‘bone of contention’ as the audience cried out their agreement with the idea. ‘Greek 7/8’ followed, and a rousing, rapid fire number it was too.  It was Nazir Al Issa’s chance to speak before the final offering, ‘Tal El Al’ and he said he’d written the piece ten years before, after which, his oud and Khalaf’s drumming brought it blazingly to life. It was a reminder of what great composers can be found in Syriana, and how wonderfully their varied cultural backgrounds and influences all work together.

If you still haven’t connected with Syriana despite repeated glowing recommendations following their stunning performances at WOMAD at the Tower of London Festival last year, WOMAD Charlton Park this summer and their fantastically compulsive debut CD/vinyl (vinyl with three bonus tracks) then I’d say it’s high time you got onto The Road to Damascus.

 

Audio samples with visuals by Nico Piazza:
“The Road To Damascus": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goi71ZJNpa8
"Gharibb (Stranger)": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esChJ856o5kw
The Road to Damascus on Real World Records
Buy CD, album or download here: http://realworldrecords.com/catalogue/the-road-to-damascus

Islington Assembly Hall
Upper Street, London N1 2UD

 

 

 

 

Audio samples with visuals by Nico Piazza:
“The Road To Damascus

": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goi71ZJNpa8
"Gharibb (Stranger)

": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esChJ856o5kw

The Road to Damascus on Real World Records

re: http://realworldrecords.com/catalogue/the-road-to-damascus

Islington Assembly Hall
Upper Street, London N1 2UD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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