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Sounds of Palestine – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Performers: Mohamed Najem & Friends

Performers: Nai Barghouti and band

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Howard Assembly Room continues to punch above its size in its programming, with this inspiring concert, billed rather less accurately as Palestine Jazz in the printed programme, the latest to impress. Sounds of Palestine proved inspiring for two reasons: the quality of the music, of course, but also the demonstration that this troubled country is neither isolated nor isolationist.

Apparently, Palestine is enjoying something of a cultural renaissance and the quality of the performance bore that out, though few of the musicians are permanently resident in Palestine. The evening consisted of one-hour sets by two different groups, both groups reaching out from Palestinian music to embrace other styles, notably jazz. 

Clarinettist Mohamed Najem made the point clearly in the programme: “Our work blends three distinct musical traditions: Arabic music, jazz and classical music.” He now lives in France and his “Friends” are three excellent French jazz musicians. Floor No. 4, the title track of his first CD, began with an extended clarinet cadenza, decidedly Arabic in style, then the other musicians set up a lyrical melody, momentarily reminiscent of the Modern Jazz Quartet, especially Clement Prioul’s piano solo, before Baptiste Castet’s drums – always crisp and incisive – built to an exciting climax.

A similar eclectic mix of styles prevailed on If You Want, Thomas Julienne’s bowed bass hinting at a Bach cello suite, followed by a clarinet interlude that ended in free jazz squawks before settling to a witty and urgent finale. From Bethlehem to Angers, in a sort of modified waltz time, expressed clearly Najem’s affection for both his real homeland and his adoptive homeland.

Najem’s music was often repetitive, but in a positive way, with rhythmic patterns and snatches of melody working themselves into the audience’s consciousness, the variety often coming in dynamic contrasts. A fine clarinettist with a beautiful tone, he saved his virtuoso showpiece for the final number, with a stunning cadenza drawing on quotations from classical pieces.

Nai Barghouti’s set was, initially at least, rather more overtly political, with an English language song about the sufferings of her people coming out rather too much like a pop anthem, but her performance, backed by an intense and alert seven-piece band, was never less than striking. Perhaps the only disappointment was that her flute playing was neglected in favour of her singing: she was Principal Flute with the Palestine Youth Orchestra and at the Howard, she played beautifully, but too briefly.

But her singing more than compensated, compellingly authentic (at least to Western ears) with songs in classical Arabic style, gradually transforming these wordless chants into a sort of scat singing, or even unexpectedly moving confidently into the territory of Western standards with “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise”, arranged and smartly accompanied by Nigerian/Dutch bass guitarist Azubike Onwuka.

Nai’s band, powerfully putting over the sometimes complicated patterns of her songs, had a strong Dutch connection, including an Amsterdam-based Korean pianist and a Surinamese percussionist. Both percussionists were outstanding, but the joyful heart of the band was a pep section of three Palestinians: Charlie Rishmawi on oud, Khalil Khoury on qanun and Ayham Jalal on clarinet.

Touring nationwide | Image: Tom Valentine

Performers: Mohamed Najem & Friends Performers: Nai Barghouti and band Reviewer: Ron Simpson The Howard Assembly Room continues to punch above its size in its programming, with this inspiring concert, billed rather less accurately as Palestine Jazz in the printed programme, the latest to impress. Sounds of Palestine proved inspiring for two reasons: the quality of the music, of course, but also the demonstration that this troubled country is neither isolated nor isolationist. Apparently, Palestine is enjoying something of a cultural renaissance and the quality of the performance bore that out, though few of the musicians are permanently resident in…

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