The name Lekhfa, under which this concert has been promoted as a precursor to this year’s Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, is not, as I initially thought, the name of a band. It is the name of the first album to be released by Egyptian artists Maryam Saleh (Vocals), Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (Oud, Vocals) and Maurice Louca (Keys, Guitar). All three have a history of individual and collaborative achievement behind them, but this is their first creation together, and the result is an album which has drawn critical acclaim; “layers of grit and beauty intertwine in and around the dystopian poems of their contemporary Mido Zoheir” (Gingersounds) to produce “an edgy triumph” (The Guardian).
However, critical acclaim seems not to have been translated into ticket sales and the performance has been re-located from the IWF Substation to the Kazimier Garden, while a day of incessant rain has further dampened expectations. But by mid-evening even Tefnut has decided that we’ve had enough and, the downpour downgraded to drizzle, a steady trickle of people begin to scrunch their way to the bar.
The trio responsible for the album are joined tonight by drummer Khaled Yassine, percussionist Ghassan Bouz and bassist Elie Afif to form a musical quintet fronted by Saleh’s vocals. A gentle percussive beat and Abu Ghazaleh’s bluesy oud serve as the slow-burning introduction to album opener Kont Rayeh, before Saleh’s yearning vocal and Louca’s glockenspiel-like keys float us into a reverie full of promise. By the time they have further set the scene with the western-sounding guitar riff of Nefsis Akliand the more traditional middle eastern patterns of Ayez Awsal, the garden is jammed, a sea of shuffling feet and bobbing heads.
The early promise of Saleh and Ghazaleh’s vocals is fully realised in the beautiful duet of Ekaa Maksour, a sinuously delivered call and response, before things get even dreamier with the exquisite El Shawha Wel Soaar, a spoken word vocal over delicately picked strings. Throughout, Yassine’s drums and Afif’s bass provide the perfect foundation for Bouz’s polyrhythmic percussion, while Louca’s keys add swirling layers to the mix and his slide guitar lines weave effortlessly with Ghazaleh’s oud.
As to the subject matter of the songs there are a couple of introductions that throw a glimmer of light on “far away countries” and the miseries of the contemporary diaspora but, to state the bleedin’ obvious, as always with music presented in a different tongue we are left with intrigue – are they singing about children dying as bombs fall or lovers entwined in fragrant gardens, are we dancing in a state of enlightenment or blissful ignorance? (Unfortunately, I have been unable to unearth a translation of Zoheir’s poetry.)
The songs are kept relatively short and, given the groove the band hit, there is a twinge of regret each time they finish another hypnotic journey, they could definitely keep it going, the continually gyrating crowd are testament to that. There’s a feel-good vibe in the air and it’s a set that sits perfectly in the Kazamier Garden’s pantheon of alternative acts and one that fully deserves further exposure – Oyé next year would be a treat.
Glyn Akroyd / @GlynAkroyd