Unexpected sounds at New York album launch.
A band playing a CD launch should be among friends and – if those I spoke to were typical – Shusmo had many friends and fellow-musicians at this gig.
The band’s name is Arabic for ‘Whatjermacallit’ and their particular brand of indefinable genre specialises in bridging the chasm between classical Arabic music and groove-laden Western jazz with rock sensibilities.
Shusmo chose Joe’s Pub for the launch of their Mumtastic CD. It’s a small, well-regarded venue touching the outskirts of New York’s Greenwich Village. One guide book lists it in the top five places to spot stars and the ambience has plenty to attract them: laid out mainly for tables, but with a long bar spanning a raised side, the place has made a well-judged, homely balance between intimate and professional.
Shusmo’s casual entrance (the set-up gradually became the start) helped the intimacy. Those of us new to the band wondered how their inter-genre sound was going to work in practice and the opening track only served to excite us about where the evening would head.
What really shaped the sound was the lack of guitar. The five-piece band included two on drums or percussion and another on bass, so all the melodic work was left to clarinet and buzuq (like a lute, but with a longer neck and moveable frets). Being lead instruments, there was a hole where the rhythm guitar or keyboards might be. This lightened up the sound and pulled the pieces away from chords towards melody.
A fusion of eastern and western sounds could mean many things. In practice, this felt like a jazz band, where guitar and woodwind exchange the spotlight, but all their sounds move eastwards. At the centre of the rhythm section, all was very western and solid. Although he played fretless, the bassist rarely ventured on exploratory forays up his neck.
Greek clarinet-player Lefteris Bournias, however, sounded from the outset like he had been born in Palestine and fed microtones for breakfast everyday since. Founder and dextrous soul of the band, Tareq Abboushi – tall, lean, swarthy and pony-tailed – led with speedy arpeggios racing from his buzuq.
The set was a virtual run-through of the CD in order, starting with “Longa Nakreez” and moving on to the extraordinary “The Time it Takes,” which – given that the bandleader is an American Palestinian – sounds remarkably like reinvented old English folk.
Amir ElSaffar (a lauded trumpeter, who has split a bill with Dave Brubeck) replaced the rest of the band for “The Wall,” duetting with Abboushi on a piece that tries to communicate the feelings that a man might have watching a fellow-Palestinian having to feed his family by working on the monstrous wall that separates Israel and Palestine.
As he brought the band back on, Abboushi commented, “This is a party, right?”and stoked the pace back up, giving us more of the delightful genre-free sounds that we had heard in the first half. But it wasn’t until the final track (there was no encore) that the room really did feel like a party.
The only traditional Palestinian song on the album, closing piece “Dal’Ona” was the only one with lyrics and plainly familiar to some of the crowd. That song (and the riff of "Georgina +2") stayed in my head all the way home, as bright and distinct as vapour trails in a clear blue sky. This was a fine night out that made this visitor feel at home in New York.