Though a graduate of Dublin's Newpark Music Centre in jazz performance, Ruba Shamshoum's delightful debut CD doesn't fall neatly into any particular category. What does these days? The Palestinian-born, Dublin-based singer infuses elements of jazz with her Middle Eastern roots on these nine originals, ably backed by some of the country's finest musicians, who straddle the fields of contemporary jazz, folk and improvised music. A little of all these strands percolate through the compositions. Shamshoum delivers most of the songs in Arabic, a language whose innate musicality seems tailor-made for the poetic sensibility of these songs of love, kinship and soul-searching. No Arabic vocal diva, Shamshoum stylishly sidesteps stereotypes and instead maps out a highly contemporary and personal course.
Shamshoum's voice is a thing of beauty, the seduction immediate from the first notes of "Randomness of Beauty Spots." Not just a pretty voice, much of her vocal appeal lies in the subtle shifts of weight in her phrasing and the flow of sounds that imbue the songs with their emotional ambiance. Her accompanists are significant partners in the process. Aleka Potinga
's cello and Matthew Jacobson
's hand percussion lend Arabic textures to this opening track, while Orlando Molina
's guitar and Barry Rycraft
's deft double bass rhythms are more jazz oriented. Against this hybrid soundscape Shamshoum glides between gently undulating narrative, punchy rhythmic mantras and high-pitched wordless flight, culminating in a powerful finale. It's an impressive opener that stays with you.
Brushes, bass and painterly guitar accompany Shamshoum's layered vocals on the caressing slower number "Hana," with Matthew Berrill
's softly lilting clarinet coloring the spaces. Sparer still the arrangement on "Carousel of Love," with acoustic guitar the sole foil to Shamshoum, who flits between solo and harmonically layerd vocals. Lyrically, love provides the grist to Shamshoum's mill, her tales sometimes simple, as on the breezy, bass-driven "Lalya," or hauntingly poetic, notably on "La Yayl La Trooh," where her verse evokes the lyricism of the Arabic romantic poets: 'white of jasmine and gardenias too/red of poppies and pomegranates/green, pure of cactus and fig/a paradise full of song/black/never once does the night last.'
Or this from the sunny "Fuqaati," where cello, guitar and voice entwine over the gentle swing of brushes and bass: 'Across the mountains/across the sea/take me in your skies/let the wind sew your path.'
There's poetry of a different kind on "Genesis of the Bubble," where Shashoum's spoken-word recital is backed by abstract, edgy collective improvisation from Potinga, Molina and Jacobson that's evocative, at least in mood, of the Grateful Dead
's "Dark Star." Irresistible, the rhythmically cantering "Burkan," with pianist Jay Wilson
adding another texture; Molina's sinuous electric guitar improvisation and Potinga's infectious cello motif are both memorable but its Shamshoum's powerful vocal that most captivates here. Intimacy is the key on "Ya Layl La Trooh," a slow-waltzing anthem given the small jazz ensemble treatment, with Berrill's clarinet dovetailing with Shamshoum's to gorgeous effect.
With her beguiling debutwhich should win some converts to the beauty of the Arabic languageShamshoum blurs the lines between what might be considered radio-friendly fare, smouldering balladry and more progressive ventures. It's the accomplished work of an emerging talentone that could go far.