The winds of Arabia

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Last night Zanzibar’s decades-old Culture Musical Club made its Chicago debut at the Pritzker Pavilion, and their music was every bit as majestic and graceful live as on their recordings--especially the taraab tunes that opened their set. The group is deeply rooted in Arabic classical music, and a combination of violins, accordion, and qanun sketched out the gorgeous, patiently unfolding melodies. But the airy rhythms, played by a pair of hand percussionists, and the loose, soulful vocals—delivered by a pair of female lead singers and one of the male violinists—revealed the distance between taraab and its Middle Eastern sources.

Culture Musical Club usually gives open-air performances back in Stone Town, the home of the social club where the ensemble gathers, so it was fitting that it performed under the stars here. A rapid drop in temperature seemed to drive away most of the crowd during the first two numbers, which was too bad. During the last part of the concert the group shifted to a different configuration—all percussion with just two violins—and played a few pieces in the kidumbak style--a much more beat-oriented dance form that featured some impressive posterior moves from two of the female singers. With so many touring musicians giving dutiful performances and behaving like it’s just another gig, it was charming to see the undeniable excitement and joy on the faces of the musicians, who seemed thrilled to be onstage. Given the distance the musicians traveled, and the expense of such an undertaking, it seems unlikely that Chicagoans will get another opportunity to hear this fantastic group again any time soon once the festival is over. They perform again tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art and tomorrow evening in Hamilton Park.

British singer Natacha Atlas, whose father is of Egyptian descent, opened the concert with an acoustic ensemble--a marked contrast from her recordings, which usually feature jacked-up electronic beats driving Arabic pop songs. Her vocals remained astonishing, tracing serpentine melodies with fluid grace and accenting certain passages with intensely fluttering melisma. But her ensemble—three New York-based string players who were hired for the tour, a dumbek player, accordionist Gamal Awad (who spent years working with Lebanese superstar Fairuz), an acoustic bassist, and a pianist—too often treated the music with a snoozy politesse that stripped it of its rhythmic propulsion and harmonic depth.

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