Concert Review: Zikrayat, An Immersion In The Traditions of Arabic Music

Date: January 10, 2016
Venue: Drom (NY)

Review by Dawoud Kringle

Zikrayat, the Arab music and dance ensemble offered their first performance of 2016 at Drom, NYC. Led by violinist / composer / teacher Sami Abu Shumays, Zikrayat (the Arabic word for “memories”) presents the classical music and the dance traditions of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the greater Arab World. They also perform rare music from the “golden age” of Egyptian musical cinema (1940’s-60’s), traditional and standard pieces, and original compositions in these styles.

The sound at Drom on this night was quiet, by “club” standards. Zikrayat had no need to overwhelm the listener. They knew, not thought but knew, the music was beautiful on its own terms. There was no need or urge to prove anything. The set began with a varied exploration of the traditions to which Zikrayat is devoted.

Shumays’ violin and vocals led the music with a quiet authority. He has chops, but clearly felt no need to flaunt them. His concern was with the beauty and poetic content of the music. Although, from time to time during the performance, he would play or sing something that left absolutely no question in anyone’s mind that here was a master of his art. Then there was the qanan player, Zafer Tawil. The qanan, a fiendishly difficult instrument, was handled like a diamond cutter handles a gem. He wove his way through the maqams with subtlety and finesse. The oud player, Brian Prunka, was a master of the subtle understatement. He held a mostly supporting role in the music. The bassist John Murchison and two percussionists, Rami ElAasser and Nezih Antakli, worked flawlessly together. Here again, while chops were quite evident, they had no need to flaunt this.

At one point, a dancer named Aasiyah was introduced. The first song she danced to was from a classic Egyptian film wherein the dancer got into a fight during the dance. Aasiyah’s performance was clearly a means of poetic communication and storytelling, and worked seamlessly in concert with the music. There was nothing sexual or risqué about the performance, putting to rest ugly and ignorant stereotypes the western mind has been led to expect.

This was followed by a set of songs on rast maqam. Here, the music picked itself up to a livelier tempo. The band abruptly stopped and the qanan took a beautiful unaccompanied solo. Then Shumay eased into this display with a compliment of vocals. The band rejoined them and the liquid, perfumed rhythms propelled the band to a new destination.

The set was concluded with Aasiyah joining the band once again. She appeared, leading the audience in a rhythmic clap. Her dance was more animated and demonstrative than before. The music was more energetic with the band played for dear life, and the audience was stirred to a feverish pitch. They did one last song; a dumbek solo and dance. Aasiyah made liberal use of the type of isolated body movements often found in Egyptian belly dance.