|Today's double album is the outcome of a fortuitous crossing of paths, of Middle Eastern cultural icon Wadih El Safi and May Audio's audiophile ambassador Nizar Akhrass. With over 3000 songs under his peaceful banner, El Safi is the most influential singer/composer of his country and often called "The Voice of Lebanon". Classically trained at the Beirut National Conservatory of Music, El Safi first entered widespread national awareness when victoriously exiting a vocal competition sponsored by the Lebanese Broadcasting Network which telegraphed his winsome vocal exploits into any household outfitted with even a modest radio. During his subsequent rise to fame, El Safi drew heavily upon both his rural upbringing in the Shouf Valley village of Niha and his love of the traditional melodies, to blend those roots with a more urban idiom and in the process become nearly single-handedly responsible for the modernization of Lebanese folk music.
Performing this new style throughout festivals, plays and concerts in the Middle East, El Safi's elastic tenor and celebratory motherland lyrics soon commanded tears of Tarab joy with ecstatic regional and emigrants listeners abroad, especially when singing about the beauty of his country which enjoys special significance with Asia Minor audiences. What makes the album under consideration such a rare treat for Western listeners? The audiophile production values which Nizar Akhrass and $50,000 of his personal funds brought to this live occasion with its jubilant audience.
As holds true for countless older-generation musical giants in the Arab and Indian worlds, their recorded legacy often lacked the support of sophisticated modern production values to do justice to their refined artistic mastery. Many world music lovers with audiophile sensibilities are thus condemned to enjoying such treasured musical deities under questionable aural circumstances. May Audio deserves special recognition for capturing this inspired Middle Eastern concert on Canadian soil with cutting-edge recording equipment, to gift us with that rare best-of-both-worlds occurrence when musical and sonic glories comingle into a lasting testament of true merit.
With small-scale violins, oud, piano, hand-percussion, typical question-and-answer chorus accompaniment -- and the occasional hand claps of an inspired audience -- center stage of this album clearly belongs to the master's velvety tenor whose dynamic fluctuations and peak capabilities could readily overload a carelessly placed mike or max out an improperly set gain fader in the hands of a less astute recording team. Uniquely capable of executing the undulating serpentine quarter-tone embellishments of Middle-Eastern vocal music, El Safi navigates a huge palette of tonal nuance. From quasi-talk commentary and dreamily contained melismatic meditations, similar to introductorily explorative Indian Alap, to Andalusian-style Mawal motifs and intense emotional climaxes -- during which the physical instrument of the human throat becomes pure conduit to channel something far larger and upon which and without fail, the audience reacts audibly as though charged by electricity -- the overriding sense of the sixteen numbers recorded is one of joy and benediction dancing gently upon hip-swaying rhythms.
What communicates powerfully as well is El Safi's equivalency to the actor's actor Gene Hackman - a singer's singer whose consummate mastery of the craft overshadows the personality. This often leads lesser artists to greater commercial success, selling image and marketability over native talent. That's especially common when such talent is focused on traditional folklore which the younger generation refuses to tolerate unless spiked with Pop hooks and gussied up with electronica. This album thus succeeds on a multitude of levels, not the least of which is utter refusal to stoop to that level. Spinning it is to enter a different time and psychological milieu, to partake of what Indian tradition call Darshan, the beneficial sphere of presence and gospel/gossip as radiated and shared by a spiritual realizer.
Should you find yourself as enthralled with this album as your scribe, also earmark Emil Zrihan's Ashkelon [Piranha 1260], cantor of the Israeli synagogue in Ashkelon and another dead ringer for the well-recorded Middle-Eastern section of your world music library.