Barzakh is back

The Arts Center at NYUAD continues to do a good job with its mini-Womad, the Barzakh Festival. There are only five bands and only two days, but whoever is doing the programming has booked some eye- and ear-opening acts. Which is what you want from an arts centre, of course.

The official PR line is that the Barzakh Festival is “a musical meeting place of genre-shattering artists from diverse cultures, whose global-minded music reflects multiple influences and recombinant identities”. That’s a lot to ask of five bands – “recombinant identities”? We’d settle for just having a good time with music based on some very different places – but the line-ups do look good.


Day One (wednesday 28 February) has electric dabke from 47SOUL and cool Lisbon DJing from Batida. 47SOUL is a four-piece which was formed in Amman back in 2013 but is now based in London. They describe themselves as “an electro-mijwez, shamstep, choubi band … On top of the beats that have been bumping in the Middle East for centuries, 47SOUL hypes it up with analogue synthesisers, hypnotic guitar lines, and shattering verses from the four singers. Every show ends in relentless dance and trance from all parties involved”.

‘Shamstep’ is the easiest label for the band, politically-consicous lyrics over music that mixes synths and drum machines with traditional dabke. It’s also the name of the debut EP that the band released in 2015; check it out on Soundcloud. The first full-length album, Balfron Promise, carries a lot of the same energy and confidence, mixing the messages about Palestine and homelessness with good humour – magpie likes Locked Up Shop, a song about “getting a haircut before the riot starts”.

Pedro Coquenão, aka Batida

Batida is the stage alias of Pedro Coquenão, a music (and radio, and video) producer born in Angola and raised in Lisbon. Gilles Peterson likes him: “There’s certain types of music that comes out of Portugal, Lisbon, over the years … All of this is sort of linked together for me by this one producer who goes by the name of Batida. It’s just on another level in terms of how he presents his show, how he approaches his music making, whether he is DJing or performing live, or adding visuals – philosophically, just how he goes about his business”.

Day Two (thursday 1 March) is equally interesting. For a start there’s the collaboration between Dutch post-punk adventurers The Ex and the Ethiopian acoustic band Fendika. The Ex has been around since the late 1970s, evolving over 20 or so albums to incorporate a wide array of influences, often from non-Western and non-rock sources, that has currently produced an intricate, experimental no-wave style.

The Ex and Fendika have worked together over several years, notably on the festival circuit, and they produce great crossover music – The Ex’s spikey rhythms and riffs, a recognisable overlay of traditional instruments like the one-string masinko, the great voice of Fendika’s singer Nardos. Here’s a sample – Addis Hum, a single from the 2015 EP.

Then there’s RAM, a band from Haiti originally created in 1990 by Richard A. Morse (his initials provide the band’s name) with a group of folkloric musicians and dancers in Port-au-Prince. The band’s musical style is mizik rasin (from ‘musique racine’, roots music) and Morse himself describes it as “voudou rock and roots”, so there’s a Haitian and Caribbean musical tradition laced with rock, blues, funk, even a trace of punk and dub.

RAM, fronted by Lunise and Richard Morse

Here’s a taster. The group is big, often a dozen or more members taking the stage – including three drummers and a horn section, with Morse and his wife Lunise taking vocals – so a big noise can be expected.

Not enough bodies? The Al Nuban Folklore Troupe has nearly 20 dancers, singers and instrumentalists. The Nuban is a dance style that traces its roots to Africa and used to a must-have at Emirati celebrations, especially in Dubai, performed beside other traditional dances such as the Ayala, Harbiya, and Haban.

Nuban has some unique features, notably the insistent drumming and hypnotic Afro-Emirati call and response vocals accompanied by the lute-like tanboura and the manjour – an instrument made of sailcloth with goat hooves sewn on to it, traditionally tied around a dancer’s hips to creating a swishing sound as the performer sways to the rhythm and dictates the pace for the dancers.

Nuban is a remarkable one-of-a-kind Emirati tradition that has to be experienced at least once.

The gigs start at 7:30pm at The Arts Center’s Red Theater. Tickets are AED 105 per show, or buy a two-day pass for AED 157.50.

Incidentally, why Barzakh? The Arabic word means ‘separation’ or ‘barrier’. It can be interpreted as the dividing line between the physical and spiritual worlds, but in the Qur’an it’s also used to mean an impassable barrier between fresh and salt water – they may eventually intermingle, but there’s a point at which a river remains distinct from the ocean into which it flows. Barrier? Or junction? You decide.

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