Arab-Jazz Merger of Guitarist Michel Sajrawy Dances on "Arabop"


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Palestinian guitarist Michel Sajrawy was shredding in a Nazareth basement with his buddies when he found the answer: a guitar technique that let him play both Arab and Western melodies with perfect flexibility.

“Suddenly I came up with a maqam-based solo, in the middle of a rock song,” Sajrawy recalls. “My musician friends were fighting me, shouting, ‘It’s maqam! You should play traditional rock!’ I have a unique way that makes me produce these sounds on ordinary guitar, with total freedom to play everything from maqamat to bebop lines.”

After years of refining his approach on stage and in the studio, including on two well-received albums (Yathrib and Writings on the Wall), Sajrawy has brought his explorations to thoughtful fruition on Arabop, a series of polished tunes that organically unite the modes and forms of Arab music from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, and the high-energy creativity of bebop. Whether rethinking Arab classics (the spitfire “Longa Farah Faza”) or crafting originals that move fluidly between jazz and Arab idiom (“Arabop”), Sajrawy’s focus, drive, and innovative touch show how in the right hands, east and west do more than meet; they merge.

“I want to have my own style and flavor,” Sajrawy notes. “I don’t want to sound like another musician. I want to reflect the culture of the region I live in.”

As a Palestinian Christian with an Israeli passport and a British conservatory education, Sajrawy finds that uniting disparate cultural and sonic worlds comes second nature. Yet to find the right way to express this intersection — where Pat Martino meets the chanting of the Koran, say — took extensive practice.

Instead of using a fretless guitar or adding additional quarter-tone frets, Sajrawy found he could express the maqamat modes, rich with evocative gradations in tone and tuning, on a regular old guitar. Additional frets, especially high on the neck, hamstrung him, and he found the sound of a fretless did not have the right feel.

“How can you make these tones on a fretted instruments? I didn’t find solution in changing the strings. I’m playing a standard guitar, but I’m free to play the maqam on the inside position, which is narrow,” he explains. “How can you put your finger there, if you add more frets? It’s not practical. You’re limited. You can’t fuse things.”

Sajrawy figured out how to bend notes and play modes in complex ways without altering his instrument, for Arabop, the well-loved Stratocaster he had played since his teen years. The focus on techniqu e over modifications allows the guitarist to shift smoothly between scales, approaches, and idioms. And Sajrawy has many at his disposal, in addition to jazz and rock, from folk sounds from Syria to klezmer-inflected moments.

The darbuka-powered “Tojann” dances with gritty, modal play; Sajrawy’s guitar finds both precision and expressiveness, over side jazz lines and passionate drumming. “Syncretic Beliefs” harnesses melodies inspired by Koran recitations, and free and evocative percussion and upright bass, to complement Sajrawy’s rippling, quicksilver guitar. Arabop moves from driving to drone-rich, from lush to lyrical.

Recruiting an ensemble of similarly broad-minded musicians from the Northern Israeli scene (Nazareth is a cultural hub for the region) while drawing on his extensive international performance experience, Sajrawy feels integrating sounds and welcoming listeners from both East and West is key to his a rtistic vision.

“I practice jazz improvisation, dig into the history and practice of both worlds, East and West” reflects Sajrawy. “My passion is in both places. I really love the music of my culture, and I really love jazz. I feel both in my blood. I don’t want to stop, to choose.”

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