Eastern States, Tunisian Oud: The Astounding Eyes of Rita by Anouar Brahem

By Daniel Garrett

Anouar Brahem, The Astounding Eyes of Rita
Produced by Manfred Eicher
ECM, 2009

The oud is a lute, a traditional instrument in the music of Tunisia, a music featuring significant woodwind instruments and lutes in an ancient land, below the Mediterranean with Algeria to its west and Libya to its east in northern Africa; and the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, considered a master of classical and innovative music, collaborates with Klaus Gesing, a German bass clarinetist, Bjorn Meyer, a Swedish bassist, and Khaled Yassine, a Lebanese drummer, a darbouka player, for The Astounding Eyes of Rita, an album of eight elegant and mellow Brahem compositions, dedicated to the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.  Anouar Brahem, who studied with the respected oud player Ali Sriti, has spoken of his attraction to both eastern and western music traditions; indeed, rather than attraction, he used the word need, suggesting how personal, how profound, his disciplines have become.  The mood on The Astounding Eyes of Rita is often quiet and tender, and the rhythms are eastern, and compelling, for a sound that could support contemplation or dance.  The instrumental rhythm (large slow notes followed by small fast ones) has its own dramatic variation.  A fascinating mystery is created with the variation of rhythms, tempos, and moods.  One hears movement and can imagine a peopled scene in “Stopover at Djibouti.”  Sensuality can be—and possibly must be—perpetually renewed, consciously or unconsciously, thanks to the constrictions of climate and culture, with incidental pleasures being tantalizing, and uniquely satisfying.

The south of Tunisia is hot and dry, and the north balmier; and music, literature, and theater have been significant arts in the country, an old Berber country, once part of the empire of Carthage that warred with and lost to Rome, and later was overtaken by Islamic Arabs, whose language and literature became its own; and for a time the country was a French colony.  Anouar Brahem’s title composition, “The Astounding Eyes of Rita,” inspired by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, has an expansive sound; and rather than love, or a particular image, one hears the piece and thinks of human existence, of a state of possibility.  That can be little surprise in the music of someone, Anouar Brahem, who values freedom and improvisation.  His collaborators—Gesing, Meyer, and Yassine—have been interested in the music of Cuba, East Europe, Persia, Sweden, and the United States, classical, modern, and folk; and, after recording music with Brahem, they traveled with Brahem to Tunisia, where they performed.  Their recorded sound has no flaw I can hear.  In the album’s title piece “The Astounding Eyes of Rita,” an instrumental wail rivals a saxophone.  (Brahem particularly likes the sound of clarinet with oud.)  In another song, a delicate rhythm is matched with a louder counter-rhythm and what sounds like someone humming; and the melody line seems broad and long; and some of the work is somber and meditative.  Frequently, beauty seems grasped from something eternal.  In “Galilee Mon Amour” one does think of time; and something contemporary—a smoky groove—emerges.  Energies and rhythms rise and fall throughout the album, suggesting a balance of spiritual states.

DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth