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Yazz Ahmed with Emel and Rabih Abou-Khalil at Barbican Hall

Yazz Ahmed with Emel and Rabih Abou-Khalil at Barbican Hall

Courtesy Mark Allan / Barbican


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When Abou-Khalil gets the bit between his teeth he brings as much feral danger as guitarist Jimmy Page cranked out in his amped-up pomp with Led Zeppelin, but without the macho posturing.
Yazz Ahmed With Emel And Rabih Abou-Khalil
Barbican Hall
13 December, 2022

The intersection of jazz and classical Arabic music, both of which have improvisation and rhythm at their core, has long been fertile ground for exploration. Tonight's concert featured two adepts in the field, the British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and the Lebanese oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil. Since her first album in 2011, Ahmed has blended jazz with Arabic music, with the accent on jazz, while Abou-Khalil, who Ahmed cites as an important influence, has been doing so since the late 1980s, with the accent on Arabic music.

The two players and their bands performed separately and then in combination and were a perfect joy from start to finish. Ahmed, who switched between trumpet and flugelhorn, employing her customary range of effects pedals, took the stage first, leading a virtuosic lineup completed by Ralph Wylde on vibraphone, Dave Mannington on electric bass and Martin France on drums. All are well versed in Ahmed's music and inhabit Arabic rhythms and scales almost as if they had been born into them. Wyld played on Ahmed's third album, Polyhymnia (Ropeadope, 2019), Mannington and France on her second, La Saboteuse (Naim, 2017).

The quartet unveiled two newly composed, high-voltage pieces: "Dawn Patrol" and "A Shoal Of Souls." Ahmed explained that both reference the sea, though in contrasting ways. One was inspired by surfing and evoked exhilaration and good times. The other commemorates those people who have recently lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats, fleeing persecution, poverty and war in Africa and the Levant. It bristled with controlled fury.

Ahmed was followed by Abou-Khalil with violinist Mateusz Smoczynski and frame and kit drummer Jarrod Cagwin , who has played on almost all of the oudist's albums since 2001. Though unplugged, the trio can be extraordinarily powerful. When Abou-Khalil really gets the bit between his teeth he brings as much feral danger as guitarist Jimmy Page cranked out in his amped-up pomp with Led Zeppelin, but without the macho posturing. He can be prettily lyrical, too, as he was on the second of the three pieces the group played, "Tu Me Quittes Si." Abou-Khalil has a terrific dry wit. He said he wrote the piece for "a very special woman" and that the title translates as "If you should leave me... I will have to find another." His absurdist story about how Cagwin, "an American spy," joined an Arabic band was laugh-out-loud funny. As an onstage humourist, Abou-Khalil brings to mind the great Hugh Masekela.

Ahmed and her group returned to the stage to join Abou-Khalil's trio to close out the first set. They played two pieces: "The Happy Sheik" (pun intended) from Abou-Khalil's Odd Times (Enja, 1997), an album Ahmed has named as a particular inspiration, and her own "The Lost Pearl" from La Saboteuse. A wild drum and percussion duet between Cagwin and France sticks in the mind. Altogether, the two bands' collaboration was edge-of-your-seat thrilling and if a joint album is a not being planned, it ought to be. (In the meantime, Ahmed is said to be working on an album based on traditional Bahraini folk forms).

The second half of the concert was fronted by the Tunisian tekno-pop singer Emel, one of the voices of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. She was accompanied by Mathieu Poterie on keys, Avishai Rozen on synth drums and the London-based ten-piece string ensemble, Urban Soul Orchestra. Ahmed and her band joined them for the closing tune. It was a curious piece of programming, for Emel's music has nothing to do with jazz, little to do with improvisation, and favours repetitive steam-hammer beats. A highly theatrical performer, she is rather like a North African version of Diamanda Galás, all high decibels and extravagantly dramatic gestures.

Introducing Emel, Ahmed described her as "brave" and that she certainly is. Her high-profile campaigning for women's rights and secular democracy, and participation in films such as Neither Allah, Nor Master!, requires real courage and has brought her into conflict with bigots and misogynists throughout North Africa (and beyond). For an Arab to choose to work with an Israeli-born drummer is another outrage in the eyes of Islamist zealots. Even if one does not enjoy her music, Emel can be applauded for these things.

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