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Rabih Abou Khalil and Penelope X at the Bitola World Music Festival 2013

Nenad Georgievski By

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Rabih Abou Khalil/Penelope X
Bitola World Music Festival
NU Centar za Kultura
Bitola, Macedonia
November 9, 2013

Bitola, one of the most beautiful cities in southeastern Europe, is a place that ignites the imagination immediately. With its tasteful and stylish architecture reflected in multicolored facades and European honorary consulates, it displays the city's rich history that stretches back into ancient times. The city blossomed most during the rule of the Ottoman empire when its importance as an administrative and military center (known then as Monastir) also contributed greatly to its rich and diverse multicultural heritage. It was a city where the father of modern-day Turkey and victor of the famed 1905 battle of Gallipoli, Kemal Attaturk, got his military education, as well as the city where the Manaki brothers in 1905 opened the first film studio and introduced the film camera in the whole of the Balkan region—and hence the city that now holds an Manaki Brothers Festival Festival.

The experience of visiting the city cannot be complete without enjoying a cup of coffee and repartee at the famed Širok Sokak (or Broadway) street as people promenade by, soaking up the last rays of the autumn sun. And recently it is the city which has begun organizing a world music festival that regularly brings both domestic and foreign musicians with music that sits on the brink between world traditions and jazz or electronica. This year the festival welcomed two stylistically opposed acts, Penelope X and oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil and his Mediterranean Quintet.

Penelope X is a project that sees the three stars of Bitola's own band Foltin joining hands with producer, composer and pianist Nikola Kodjabashia, drummer extraordinaire Goce Stevkovski, and a newcomer, keyboardist Džijan Emin. Although the band's album Penelope X (Filter, 2011) has been performed on several occasions throughout the world since it was released, this project has just had its first premiere in Bitola. Foltin's warm, melodic and playful music was brought together with pop, jazz, improv and electronica alongside Stevkovski's propulsive beats, Kodjabashia's delicate piano and strategies, and Džijan's keyboards and vocals.

From the moment the band took to the stage behind its instruments, it was on a mission to make the audience move their feet. But rather than starting with better known songs from their debut album, the band began the show with brand new ones (still unrecorded) such as "Director's Cut" and "Miro," which were then followed by "Dawn of the Rose-Red Fingers," "Penelope X," the playful "Kouros," and "Cinderella Man," the gentle and beautiful "To Whom do You Belong Now?," and ended with another premiere song, "Director's Haircut." With all the gear, the setting gave the impression of a sci-fi punk disco- -glittery and colorful. But it was the spirit that the group maintained with its shambolically enthusiastic presentation that kept the heart beating at the center of it.

This project has evolved a lot since its beginnings and has seen expansion by introducing new songs on the live set, and will expand into a brand new musical project or a musical that will have its premiere soon. Apart from several technical glitches and distractions, this band of merry men put on a beautiful, and at moments, funny show that easily bridged the divide between the cute, poppy side with the darker, electronica-friendly side. After the booming finale, the band trooped on to give a pleased theatrical bow.

The second part of the evening introduced the Lebanese oud master Rabih Abou Khalil and his Mediterranean Quintet. Khalil's music is a busy intersection where he and his international quintet explored the fertile ground between Arabic and Western sounds. For the next hour and half he led the audience on a globe-trotting musical tour that encompassed sounds from the Middle East mixed with the sounds of jazz improvisation. Khalil's partners were from all over the globe: American native but resident of Istanbul, Jarrod Cagwin on drums and percussion, Frenchman Michel Godard on tuba and bass guitar, Italian Luciano Biondini on accordion, and Sardinian Gavino Murgia on voice and saxophone.

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