Ten years ago, I was in Nazareth (the city that is, not the rock group), and found myself with a group of people (my colleagues from London plus our hosts in Nazareth) in a very plush, spacious and comfortable bar in the centre of the city. I remember thinking how, if this bar were in London, with its sumptuous hand-woven rugs, stylish fabrics and attractive friendly staff, it would be packed with fashionable young things all crammed increasingly close to one another and cackling like so many demented penguins on a rapidly diminishing iceberg. There would be no free seating and precious little standing room.
But these, alas, were troubled times in Nazareth and few people were out in the evenings. This meant for us, though, that there was room to sit comfortably and talk. During our conversation, I became aware of the music that was being played over the bar’s sound system. It seemed to be a recording of some sort of traditional Arabic or Middle Eastern group. I couldn’t pay it that much attention because of the ongoing conversation. After a while, though, the music grabbed my attention. A particular phrase caught my ear and I realised that this traditional group was playing a tune that I knew very well. So intrigued was I, that I had to raise it with my fellow drinkers.
“This is Caravan” I said, but was answered only with blank stares.
“Caravan?” I persevered, waving my hand to indicate that I was referring to the melody floating around us. “The Duke Ellington number?” More blank stares, shaking heads and polite smiles. I wanted to go on and explain that I was intrigued by hearing a western jazz standard that was written in a cod-oriental vein as a piece of ersatz desert music, and associated mostly with one of the greatest ever American musicians, which seemed to have been “reclaimed” (re-patriated in a sense) by a group who were playing it on traditional Middle Eastern instruments. I realised, though, that no-one was that interested. At this point the bar owner (who happened to be friends with one of our hosts) came over. A short discussion in Arabic took place. The owner smiled and nodded at me, which I took to mean that he had been informed that I had expressed an interest in the music.
Later that evening, we had moved on to another bar in central Nazareth. We were sitting talking, and I was moderately sozzled, when the door opened and one of the barmen from the previous establishment wandered in, spotted me, came over, and handed me a naked CD. It seems that, knowing that I enjoyed the music, they had burnt me a copy. I was very touched by this, as you can imagine. Now this was something else that wouldn’t happen in London, though I should admit that I’ve never put it to the test. The last time that I was in a pub and heard music that interested me was … well, in truth I don’t remember. In all likelihood it has never happened.
Back in London, I was able, thanks to the Internet, to solve the Mystery of the Middle Eastern Caravan. The kind donor of the CD had written on it a few words in Arabic script and, in English, “Roots and Sprouts”. Now Roots & Sprouts is a 1990 release by Rabih Abou-Khalil (it was his name rendered in Arabic script on the disc).
Rabih Abou-Khalil is a composer and instrumentalist. He plays flute and the oud, though he is now primarily associated with the latter instrument. He was born in Lebanon but has lived, for most of his adult life, in Germany and France. As an exponent of the oud, there is clearly something of the traditional, Middle Eastern sound to his music (indeed Roots & Sprouts, a relatively early release, features mostly traditional instruments in the arrangements) but Abou-Khalil is so much more. On his 2001 album The Cactus of Knowledge, for example, he assembled a sizeable band that includes trumpets, saxophones, euphonium, tuba and clarinet, cello and a range of percussion (this, of course, several years before English folk experts Spiers and Boden, pulled together folk and jazz instrumentalists to create Bellowhead, a band that is having great success here in the UK at the moment). He has also worked with smaller improvising groups (one line-up including the harmonica virtuoso, Howard Levy) and has composed and arranged for string quartet and small orchestra. And, as for the music, well there are traditional elements (Middle Eastern, Turkish, Eastern European) and there are jazz elements and there are elements of Western classical music. With Rabih Abou-Khalil one hesitates to use that horrible word “fusion” because he doesn’t seem to want to fuse this one thing with that other thing and add a touch of something else for good measure. Rather, his musical world is one that seems loath to leave anything out. In this way he produces music that is highly original, expressive and usually great fun.
Caravan is a rare example of Abou-Khalil performing music composed by someone else. It is a delightful tune, written in the mid-1930s by Juan Tizol, a trombonist and composer who worked for much of his career with Duke Ellington. As I said, it is a piece of cod-oriental music, achieving its sneaky snake-charming effect by avoiding resolutely the tonic until the final note, finding its way there in the most seductively chromatic, serpentine manner.
I found this clip on youtube, of the Ellington band from 1952. Those more knowledgeable than me will I hope correct me if I’m wrong, but that has to be Cootie Williams on trumpet near the beginning, and I’m pretty certain that the trombonist here is the composer, Juan Tizol, himself. It is, exact line-up aside, quite magnificent:
This is Rabih Abou-Khalil’s version. He misses out the tonic-major section, but he and his fellow-instrumentalists clearly relish Tizol’s melody. To my ears at least, the percussion has suggestions of Indian classical music about it. Yet another thing that Rabih was disinclined to leave out.
To give a taste at least of the remarkable breadth of Rabih Abou-Khalil’s music, here is Ma Muse M’amuse featuring the Cactus of Knowledge band. Thrilling stuff, and unlike the two versions of Caravan linked to, even includes a (short) drum solo.
Added 17 March:
A friend tells me that the trumpeter in the Ellington clip is unlikely to be Cootie Williams since he was not part of the Ellington band in 1952. He suggests that instead the trumpeter is probably Clark Terry or Ray Nance.