30 years ago it was a Lebanese, who was the first to set standards for the fusion of Arabic tradition and western jazz. One generation after the success of the oud-master Rabih Abou-Khalil, the conditions for teamwork between orient and occident have changed. The bridging of cultures is no longer exotic. Now it has a completely natural exchange. The creative flow unearths an immense palette of musical perspectives, creates completely new homelands in and for music. The bold vanguard in the new qualities of this encounter is the quartet Masaa – and with the poet, composer and singer Rabih Lahoud the focus is once again on a man with his roots in Lebanon.
Quite often in music history the most soaring flights of creativity arise from a coincidental encounter, which was also the case for the German-Arabic constellation of Masaa: in 2010 the trumpeter Marcus Rust plays a big band concert in Schwerin and there he meets Rabih Lahoud, whose name is already known to him through his teacher Markus Stockhausen, who had told him of his new project Eternal Voyage with the native-born Lebanese. Rust is so thrilled by Lahoud’s vocal art that he introduces him to his colleagues Clemens Pötzsch (p) and Demian Kappenstein (perc).
However, artistic work in his mother tongue is still quite new for Lahoud: After having a preference for music of the west for many years and studying classical piano, it wasn’t until he came to distant Germany, that he curiously and cautiously approached his roots. He finds a place of comfort and beauty in the Arabic sound, which frees him from his rules, which grants every word its own power. It is beneficial for the chemistry of this new band that the other three are also seekers. Inspired by a stay in India, Rust is impressed by the direct emotionality of traditional music and brings it together with jazz and improvisation. Pötzsch works with the same conjunction, when he integrates sounds of the east sprouting from his Sorbian heritage into his melodic playing. And also Kappenstein is a traveler, captures his percussion experiences between Taiwan and Turkey, Israel and Germany.
The band fondly calls it “improetry” what happens at the studio when the creative act gains momentum: Sometimes Lahoud improvises his lyrics on the compositions of his colleagues. Vice versa the poetic pictures painted by the verses or merely the sound of the foreign language stimulate the improvisation of the instrumental parts. Out of this “snowball” sampling the highly praised first album “Freedom Dance” accrues. The four musicians have already been awarded the Bremer Jazzpreis [Jazzaward Bremen] for their unorthodox style of orient jazz and have bedazzled audiences on European, Lebanese and even African stages. “Masaa dances the freedom dance as self confidently and unleashed as possible in these times of distrust and hostility between ideologies with great differences,” the magazine Jazzpodium jubilates.
On their new album “Afkar” Masaa fathoms even greater liberties: Their tonal vocabulary has further emancipated itself from jazz and assumes more sensuality and passion. The mergence of dance-like and unbound, of tradition and experiment, has reached a new organic level. Lahoud’s voice appears even more voluminous and expressive, the flow of the improvisatory ideas and thoughts – which is what the Arabic word “afkar” means – in the interplay of the four musicians, leads to thus far unknown shores.
The song cycle begins with heartfelt vocals and inquiring piano interjections, but eventually the opening piece “Aruz” transforms into a hymn-like, almost folkloristic dance with nimbly galloping drums and the mellow sound of the trumpet encompassing the voice. It is these unexpected, surprising transformations that bring the whole album to life: The title song, with its verses filled with thoughtful doubt, vaults itself aloft from lyrical rap to an outcry of the heart and then to inspired, free improvisation of the collective. From a vocal solo that gets under your skin in the song “Hiwar”, an exuberant finale with reminiscences of Balkan odd-meters emerges.
Meditative moments with a sonorous voice and a pensive trumpet capture the listener in “Mira” and “Baladi”, delicate natural poetry with raindrops from the piano pervade the gracefully arranged “Hlam”. Equally impressionistic is the short, haiku-like image of nature in “Reflexion”, where Lahoud ventures into the French language for the first time. In the hypnotically revolving “Layali” a hint of cool jazz with a muted trumpet resides in the dark grooves of the keys.
And there are also the unwieldy, challenging passages: “Beiruti” turns into a dance with the devil, with its powerfully pounding rhythms and soul-shocking vocal lines; an impressive portrait of a changeful and partly bitter town history. “Revolution” represents a bilingual experiment between Arabic and German, a walk into the uncertain and creates more of a radio play and a collage than pure music. But the finale is clearly grounding: In “Dabke”, Masaa celebrates the orient in the captivating virtuosity of the whole quartet.
With their second release Masaa celebrates the implicitness of inter-culture in the midst of Europe – and summons it with the inspiring, deeply stirring creativity of poetry and improvisation.