MwSOUL by Aliaksander Bialiauski
Benali’s MwSOUL Project
“A review by Aliaksander Bialiauski, PhD Associate Professor Department of Source Studies ” Faculty of History Belarusian State University
« This is not conventional jazz nor it is everybody’s Arab music. »
« … A masterpiece of the new Arab European art, a showing of heights we can reach together. »
A vivid daughter of wind, flying mostly under radar on the European music scene since the beginning of new Millennium, Ghalia Benali was always representing in her oeuvre the very essence of jazz: freedom, improvisation and constant willingness to change, never resting on any kind of one-style laurels since her CD “Wild Harissa” captured the hearts of many world music fans by storm in 2001.
None of her following albums looked like the other, renouncing the very obvious commercial gain of self-iteration, an approach as rare as unicorn in today’s world obsessed by immediate success.
On the ever-changing course of her music travels, Ghalia has already had some brief encounters with the generic jazz, namely guest appearances on stage with the Belgian band “Mâäk Spirit” in late 1990s, on the CDs of bassist Nicolas Thys “In My Tree” (2003), Italian guitarist Giacomo Lariccia’s “Spellbound” (2008), Nicola Conte’s “Love & Revolution” (2011) and meanwhile making her own Haunting version of Billie Holiday’s classic “Ghost of Yesterday” for concert project “Layla & Majnun” (2006), audaciously inserting the Arab lyrics into it.
But now, typically just months after issuing a disc of collaboration with Medieval European music band “Zefiro Torna”, Ghalia Benali has revealed to the public in Paris and various Belgian cities her own blend of jazz, supported by new incarnation of “Mâäk”, the album “MwSOUL”.
The title Arabic word means “connection”, and there it is indeed, a connection with the free spirit of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Salah Ragab, connection with roots in her native Tunisia, with an ancient soul of Egypt, the country that gave her so much deserved embrace of the people’s love, and with multicultural Europe where she lives now.
Amid all those aforementioned perennial changes one thing stays constant with Ghalia, and that is the heart of her music.
The fans of her previous programs will easily recognize that big heart in the new project as well. Somehow that absolutely irresistible charm of the singer, looking so extravert on stage, transforms into deep introversible sound when (if) you can close your eyes, or listen to her music on player.
With years Ghalia’s voice develops to be stronger and stronger, and this coming CD should show no exception, and a dedicated listener will once again be involved into a personal battle between heaven and hell, angels and demons, once soaring on the singer’s voice easy and high on such songs as “Antidote” and “MwSOUL”, and then falling into low dark spheres full of sortilege, on “The Fortune Teller” … and back again, guided by the singer’s motto “Don’t listen to me, listen to yourself!”.
The big difference is that this time the voice is backed by the deep breath of the brass band. The addition of horns evokes me to the feeling of the ancient Greek mysteries, even though there’s no aulos and formally this music has little to do with the Peloponnesus’ traditions.
For the newcomers, i’ll try to describe it “sed contra”: this is not conventional jazz nor it is everybody’s Arab music.
The four-pieces brass combo sounds such rich and thick as if there are at least twice as many members showing the ability to improvise such freely and sprightly that can recall the spirit of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (check “Bonding”), and by no means restrained to just color accompaniment role to the singer, oud duo (Moufadhel Adhoum is on oud) what one would expect. Instead, all the musicians appear to be in perennial conversation, sometimes even competition, especially impressive are the interactions of Ghalia Benali with the trumpet(s) virtuoso Laurent Blondiau and tuba master Michel Massot. Still with all that, this music is not a jam meeting of Eastern and Western ensembles: in all of the songs the whole group performs like all of its parts were born together. And that’s not occasionally, similarly to Ghalia’s another important album “Romeo & Leila”, this project was polished for years of concerts and multiple record takes, since 2013, before finally going to print.
As much as the band will surprise anybody expecting to meet “the Diva and her Orchestra”, so will the Diva herself. She doesn’t go for sweet high notes one often expects from a female singer as a sign of quality, mostly preferring to operate in lower registers, her voice has a smoky tinge, in some moments moving down to raucous sensual murmur, but usually it’s clear and strong, showing plenty of technical ability, even to reach the barriers of overtone throat singing.
The songs’ lyrics are mostly written by contemporary young Arab poets, with Sufi connotations, their rhythmic structure isn’t easy to catch for European ear, so my advice would be just to follow the voice and the instruments, here’s again an experience of the “new thing”* can be helpful, and wait for a surprising change of language down the way!
The mood of the music is festive and shamanic, with a bit of nostalgic feel, often changing a number of times on the same song. My personal favorite is “Antidote”, destined to be a big hit by its crystal lyricism, an eloquent and simple melodic line, rightly comparable to any famous jazz standard.
Summing up, it’s an undoubtedly unique project of contemporary independent music, based on taking free improvisational approach to the interpretation of nowaday’s Arabic lyrics, which may or may not gain a wide popularity, that depends on non-musical circumstances today way too much, but it must stay for years to come as a masterpiece of the new Arab European art, a showing of heights we can reach together.
*a name for what we call now “free jazz commonly used in 1960s
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