Anouar Brahem Trio: Astrakan café (ECM 1718)

Astrakan café

Anouar Brahem
Astrakan café

Anouar Brahem oud
Barbaros Erköse clarinet
Lassad Hosni bendir, darbouka
Recorded June 1999, Monastery of St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem has singlehandedly rewritten the history of his instrument, elevating its status to self-contained orchestra. Like a film director whose camera is a third eye, he paints in moving images—no coincidence, given that much of his music is written for screen and stage. His virtuosity is the pulsing stuff of life and therein lies the power of his music, itself a language beyond the grasp of this meager orthography. Astrakan Café is among his best records, for the solemnity of its nourishment is as attuned to the ether as the two musicians who aid in Brahem’s quest to describe its taste. Turkish clarinetist Barbaros Erköse returns after his invaluable contributions to Conte de l’incroyable amour, intense as ever in the spine-tingling depth of his song. Percussionist and longtime Brahem collaborator Lassad Hosni brings likeminded expertise to the table, adding just the right dash of spice to every tune.

Of those tunes we receive a lavish tale, each chapter a depth-sounding such as only Brahem can elucidate. As a meeting place, the titular café lends itself to intimate conversations and a feeling of community across borders. It introduces us to the protagonists of an epic, cohesive narrative. Erköse’s opening gambit in “Aube rouge à Grozny” cuts straight to the marrow, his notes captured at the height of their emotional density. If this is the defining of a door, the title track is the opening of it. Brahem’s plectrum takes its first dance steps into the morning, the streets fresh with vendor smoke and tourist chatter. Beyond them is “The Mozdok’s Train,” in which the trio comes together in the spirit of travel, not as outsiders but as those whose home is wherever they happen to be: disciples to no one but the steps they have yet to take. Brahem chooses his words carefully. He rallies heroes and villains, spirits and the lowly, in a single breath and submits them to his verbal employ. Little do the passengers know that in the next car over, wedged between a folded shirt and a thumb-printed map, is a box of “Blue Jewels.” Brahem sets the stage as Erköse inlays the clasp that keeps those secrets locked. Hosni jacks up the train’s speed. His are the fingers drumming on the stretched leather of a many-stickered suitcase, the conductor’s practiced hand on burnished controls. A memory assails this assailant, a vision of love long buried until now. It awakens in him the will to change in “Nihawend Lunga,” which moves at a clip so untouchable that its eyes bleed silk, a spider’s web for the prey of “Ashkabad.” Erköse flings cries backward and sideways, writhing in the vision of a life he could have had. And just before the train drowns in the darkness of a tunnel, he jumps from an open door and into the mirage of “Halfaouine.” He awakens to the themes of a passing caravan and clutches his prize even as the “Parfum de Gitane” seeks him out like a desert oasis. He listens to the elder sharing tales in “Khotan,” a solo track from Brahem. Youth returns in “Karakoum” as if time has reversed. This lifts his spirit to the realm of “Astara.” Here feet tread lightly but surely, using mountains as stepping-stones to walk across distant suns. Erköse’s haunting monologue, rendered in hourglass shape, inspires a measured line of flight through the alleys of “Dar es Salaam,” across the waters of “Hija pechref,” and back to the album’s title scene, sipping at the bitter fruits of the earth until these fantasies become apparent to us, ephemeral like the swirl of cream that pales into sepia drink.

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