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Anouar Brahem Trio
Astrakan Café

By Srajan Ebaen
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Anouar Brahem Trio "Astrakan Café"

Compact Disc Compact Disc: ECM 1718 012 159 494-2 Compact Disc


Genre: Middle-Eastern flavored chamber music

  If a café is a place for casual, unplanned meetings with interesting strangers, in a relaxed atmosphere conducive for hanging out in comfort, a temporary oasis and refuge from the busy boulevards teeming with high-powered executives hustling toward the next killer deal like mad ants, then Astrakan Café is very appropriately titled.

With Barbaros Erköse on clarinet and Lassad Hosni on bendir and darbouka, Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem's latest release transports us into such a milieu with minimalist tone poems that whisper of foreign locales, the steppes of Azerbaijan perhaps, a bar in Ashkabad, or a Gipsy gathering around some Karakoum ruins. A high-power band with blasting trumpets would disturb the peace inside a café. It'd obliterate friendly chatting, concentration on a chess game or window gazing. It'd cover up the cozy clatter of coffee mugs and the gurgling of the espresso machine. Consequently, Astrakan Café features loosely woven compositions suffused with empty spaces and silences. The tempi remain moderate, the hand drums used purely for time keeping, to set a pulse and create color. Much melodizing occurs in parallel, between the warm, vibrato-rich timbre of the clarinet's lower registers and the venerable Middle-Eastern lute that Brahem here plays with a - for the instrument -- atypically lyrical touch. It forsakes the more common heavy metal charge - just the right recipe to nurse a cappuccino or sip some spicy Chai and daydream.

Traditionally, one of the most anticipated events in Nomadic life was the arrival of itinerant storytellers that would bring news of faraway places and act as go-betweens for letters and other small tokens of affection. Astrakan Café embodies a similar spirit of story telling, of offering tidbits and morsels in the wordless language of music, not of anything in particular but just like a good storyteller, by fashioning an interesting yarn that temporarily suspends present reality to transport us elsewhere.

While the tracks feature plenty of geographical pointers in their titles, what they're pointing to, aside from a certain exoticness, remains purely imaginary. Sharp stylistic demarcations are faded at best, suggesting more than detailing that musically, we're roaming somewhere out there in the East, tasting dark, bitter and shockingly potent coffee in tiny cups, absinth, cardamom cookies and rosewater-flavored cakes. The aural scenery is muted in flickering half shadows, and the vibe shifts from gentle melancholy to wistful reflection and gay remembrances of dances faded by the passage of time - a bubbling brook with plenty of still ponds rather than a mighty river.

In short, this album could also have been titled "music for a rainy afternoon" and would have captured the pervading spirit just as aptly. As you would expect from an ECM release, when record executives the world over are chasing after the next short-lived wonder, Manfred Eicher concentrates instead on fashioning one superb album after the next, just left off the mainstream, around the bend, past pomp and circumstances where things get quieter and more introspective. Put Astrakan Café on your list then for next time you're staring in desperation at rows upon rows of CDs in your local record emporium. Take a risk and grab something wild that could turn out more or less wonderful, but grab this one, too. Wild it ain't, but it's plenty wonderful for sure, and of the kind that gets even better with each listening.












































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