By Maurice Chammah
Last Sunday the Jordanian jazz bassist Yacoub Abu Ghosh led his band through a set at the Cairo Jazz Club, a seemingly required stop on any local tour. Despite the holiday, the dark, smoky room had nearly reached capacity when the band, which includes two drummers, and a second bassist, took the stage. Abu Ghosh himself plays a six-string bass and shares lead duties with a guitarist and oudist. His percussionist plays two congas, as well as two Arabic tablas set up to look like congas.
Abu Ghosh’s love for the legacy of American jazz is obvious before he plays a note. In every public appearance, he dons a fedora hat, chain smokes cigarettes, and wears the untucked collared shirt common in the American jazz scene. References to John Coltrane and Miles Davis pepper his interviews.
The music, however, is unabashedly psychedelic, reminiscent of American bands, considered culturally immortal by many around the world, including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.
The band began its set with a spacey, tentative groove over which the oud player teased out a fuzzy, bluesy solo. After a dramatic cymbal roll, the band broke into a faster rhythm, a break-beat that might feel at home in hip hop or funk.
Abu Ghosh took his first solo. Like a performer of traditional Arabic music, he occasionally looked around and made eye contact with members of the audience. He has incredible facility on the bass guitar, playing the upper regions of the neck and feeding the whole sound through an array of pedals that give it the underwater tone of 1960’s rock — Jimi Hendrix’s guitar dipped in molasses.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, traditional Arabic music had a brief love affair with American popular music of the same period. Om Kolthoum enlisted guitar player Omar Khorshid, who put his instrument through the same effects favored by psychedelic rockers in the US. Pick the right recording of Abdel Halim’s classic song “Kariat Al-Finjan,” and the organ will recall The Doors and the soundtrack to the American film “Apocalypse Now.”
Listening to Abu Ghosh’s new album, “As Blue as the Rivers of Amman” and to his live renditions, I realized that American rock and jazz are not the only wells he’s drawing from. The psychedelia of an earlier generation of Arabic music, often referred to as Al-Jeel, has made its way into the traditions of shaabi’ or baladi music in Egypt and Jordan, and eventually back up to Western-gazing performers like Abu Ghosh. As often as you might hear Led Zeppelin coming from the bedroom of an Egyptian or Jordanian teen today, you also hear the blurry haze of distortion in the music of an Ammani or Cairene wedding.
In an interview with JO magazine, Abu Ghosh explained that this tangle of influence reflects his sense of Amman, where he is from.
“It’s a mesh. It’s a melting pot — whether through the peoples that live here who came from many different areas, or through the world itself becoming smaller and smaller, with influences coming from all over the place,” he says. “I don’t think foreign influences will erase, in any way, the roots of the people who live here. But they’ll fuse with them and create something new.”
Yacoub Abu Ghosh is performing on Friday, November 11, at Sawy Culture Wheel’s Wisdom Hall, 9:30 pm. Tel: (02) 2736 8881.