Warning! . . .
I'm frontloading this review with a perspective that is idiosyncratic, heavy-handed, and probably unsustainable. Nevertheless, I proceed, not without trepidation.
A little background. I am a historic orthodox Christian. I stake out this ground because I believe Christianity is true. That is, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was who he claimed to be, the Messiah of God, the one sent to fulfill the covenant promises of his God, YHWH, to Israel, and, consequently, to all of humankind.
My mentors in this are N. T. Wright, Ben Meyer, and Ed Sanders (the latter somewhat unwittingly). Secondary sources include Bernard Lonergan, Jean-Luc Marion, and Rene Girard. Whether or not one affirms this approach, this is a position sustainable at the highest levels of intellectual integrity and inquiry.
What on earth and in heaven (if you are not a died-in-the-wool atheist), you might ask, bearing does such a perspective have on a popular world-jazz disc such as the one under consideration?
You see, ever since the founding of Israel, world attention has been focused on Islam, the events of 9/11 simply serving to magnify the scope and stakes involved in the struggle between the West and the world of the Prophet.
Some more context. A brilliant expatriate Arab, Fouad Ajami, resident scholar at Johns Hopkins University, frequent commentator on network American television re things Islamic, has written a luminous book, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, succinctly summarizing the Islamic dilemma as it relates to the religion of the Prophet at the dawning of the third millennium. His thesis is rather simple: the efforts of liberal democratic Arabs to create an Islam that was conversant with and open to the insights of Western liberal democracy ended in failure.
But must it remain so? Is there not a way in which Islam can drag itself into the 21st century, become a dialogic partner in the great issues separating East and West--namely, questions regarding origins, societal organization, and religious truth?
And that's where this remarkable, nay, transcendent, disc comes in. What we have here (along with, to a lesser extent, Tabla Beat Science and other East/West amalgams) is nothing less that a grass-roots effort to drag the religion of the Prophet into the present.
Does it work? Yes, spectacularly--at least, from a purely musical standpoint (the religious issues I leave to the scholars). What we have here is luminous oud-playing mapped onto some kind of glorious ambient-jazz-totally-hip-yet-sans-fawning aesthetic: the sly electronics of Eivind Aarset, the too-cool pianisms and electronic effects of that bold pioneer, Bugge Wesseltoft, the mesmeric bansuri flute of Ronu Majumdar, the healing(?) percussion and programming of Rune Arensen, the "additional production" of Steve Arguelles. Combine that with what to me is the defining oud style of all contemporary players (it sounds as if Dhafer employs a gut-string rather than metal-string approach, lending a marvelously earthy and organic sound to his instrument), plus a spellbinding vocal approach, and you have the makings of an authentic musical marriage of East and West.
What distinguishes this disc from any other I've heard is its ability to remain true to its Arabic roots (see the quotation from the artist on the jewel box notes: "The last breath I take will still be in Arabic") while authentically encountering Western musics in an open-minded fashion.
Could this possibly be a template for future East/West reconcillation? Could this type of approach provide the basis for a lasting rapprochement between the Arabic world and Christendom? I don't know. What I do know is that that this disc transcends politics, religion, and society with its beauty, soul, and generosity.
In any case, if you have the slightest interest in the grave issues facing East and West, as well as even the faintest glimmering of curiosity about what's happening in progressive Arabic musical circles, you will want to rush out an procure a copy of the transcendent disc.