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The Astounding Oud of Anouar Brahem

by John Bloner, Jr.

Certain things come into our lives and we are transformed by them.  "When I was 15, I listened to a record by [jazz pianist] Keith Jarrett," comments Tunisian musician Anouar Brahem. "It was a big shock for me, in a positive way."  Brahem could not know at that young age that he was tuning in to his future.

Less than 20 years later, Brahem would find himself making records for the same German label, ECM, which distributed the music of Jarrett and many other jazz, classical and world music artists. It was a marriage well-met; the tonal qualities found on many ECM recordings tend "to hover like a Scandinavian winter night," writes NY Times' Mike Zwerin, "motionless like a Zen master meditating." Brahem's music is like taking a long, deep breath and reveling in the slow exhalation.

On the day I turned 45, I stumbled upon the sounds pouring from Anouar Brahem's oud--a large, lute-like instrument--and they resonated in my chest. The oud's cavernous, dark tone evokes not only his homeland of Tunisia in northern Africa, but also Spain, France and Turkey, with elements of jazz in the mixture.

In describing Brahem's 2009 record, The Astounding Eyes of Rita, Daniel Garrett says that the music is "often quiet and tender, and the rhythms are Eastern, and compelling for a sound that could support contemplation or dance."

While two of Brahem's records that preceded "The Astounding Eyes of Rita"--2001's "Le Pas Du Chat Noir" and 2006's "Le Voyage de Sahar"--moved languorously like a summertime stroll along a sidewalk in Paris, the 2009 recording, to my ears, translates its sounds into the scent of jasmine, the signature flower of Tunisia, and to the taste of couscous from among his country's culinary delights.

Brahem's music is one of whispers. You need to lean into it. It's typically introspective; even at its most exuberant, a reverent radiance prevails.  At times, it offers the flavor of flamenco or the tension of an Andalusian bullfight.

A 2011 film, "Sounds and Silence," showcases Brahem and several other ECM artists, under the guidance of German record producer and founder of ECM, Manfred Eicher (as seen around the 0:50 mark).

The title of the record, "The Astounding Eyes of Rita", refers to several poems by the late Palestinian author Mahmoud Darwish, each of them featuring a woman named "Rita", an Israeli Jew, who was once his love.

And whoever knows Rita
Kneels and prays
To the divinity in those honey-colored eyes
And I kissed Rita
When she was young
And how my arm covered the loveliest of braids.

When I listen to Brahem, I fall into a meditative state and journey to a place I've never been, except through the knowing of my soul. I rest on a Mediterranean shore and watch the play of light upon the water.

I listen for music carried over the Mediterranean from Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey and dream of the protean eyes of Rita, whom Darwish wrote had "eyes like the sea."

The dark resonance of the oud anchors me.

"The album is like a sad rhapsody, full of shadowy mirages and blue echoes" Andy Morgan, Songlines

On "The Astounding Eyes of Rita", Brahem is joined by Klaus Gesing, bass clarinet; Bjorn Meyer, bass; and Khaled Yassine, darbouka and bendir.  The quartet may be heard in the video, "Scent: The Unseen Dimension", in which the lead-off track, "The Lover of Beruit", is mixed with a poem, "In The Presence of Absence", to evoke a sense of smell through the use of images, words and music.

A repeating four-note, kalimba-like sound welcomes the viewer to the video's world; those simple notes also stand in for sounds of rain water falling from a spout on a Parisian street, the clatter of suitcase wheels on cobblestone and the shimmer of lights on the Eiffel Tower.  

It's been nearly a dozen years since the oud of Anouar Brahem found my ears. Since that time, I have listened to many of his recordings over and over again, drawing me to center on days when I've felt fragmented.  I cannot make my way through very many days without lending an ear to his music.

So much of the world's poetry, past and present, seems to be woven into his sounds. "The Lover of Beruit", heard in the video above, evokes e.e. cummings' line, "the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses."  The song below, called "Stopover at Djibouti", recalls the mystic poet Rumi, at least to my senses.

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
(translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A.J. Arberry and Reynold Nicholson)

Learn more about Anouar Brahem at his website: Click HERE to visit it.