Rabih Abou-Khalil oud
Selim Kusur nay, voice
Glen Velez frame drums
Setrak Sarkissian darabukka
Recorded February 1988 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Nafas is Lebanese oud master and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’s only ECM album, and it is a thing of beauty. Blending Arabic elements with flowing execution, its musicians are not so much in dialogue as they are in communion, sharing the same path to light and immediacy.
Nafas reads like life itself, beginning and ending with Glen Velez on frame drums. Between “Awakening” and “Nadi,” he carves an arousing circle of worldly desires rendered transparent through reflection. It is he who draws us upright into the morning sun, in which Selim Kusur’s gentle nay shines upon our faces through “Window.” Outside, we see that the two have joined forces, a pair of journeyers walking together, planting a tree with every step, so that when the oud blossoms into the present, it cannot help but paint leaves on every curling branch of the past.
This music never flaunts the virtuosity required to produce it, but rather sheds it like a skin to reveal a deeper understanding of its own craft. Take, for instance, “Gaval Dance,” which moves like a cycle within a cycle—from birth into death and back into birth. The nay revives itself in “The Return I.” Wavering, windblown, and forever flying, it is like the first fray of an unraveling, pulling us into the secondary orbit of “The Return II,” where the sounds of nature are the truest pedagogy. Setrak Sarkissian enchants here on the darabukka (clay drum). After Kusur’s sepia-tinted vocals bring the title of “Incantation” into fruition, we get some of the liveliest sounds on the record, which is all the more transportive for its swirling energies. In “Waiting,” we find ourselves drenched in yearning. The oud traces fears and confidences, working like an awl to let in the golden love of “Amal Hayati.” This hope brings us higher on the wings of the title composition, a brief passage into a cloudy embrace.
Albums like this should not be seen as mere token nods in the ECM canon, but rather as selfless parts of a larger flowing whole. Nafas is simply gorgeous music-making that is as intimate as it is all-encompassing, opening like a sky into the heart of something divine.