I don’t know much about World Music; I suspect that average Joe Punter, when asked would mumble something about Africa and/or Paul Simon’s Graceland, and then try to edge away from the questioner in the hope that serious credibility damage had been avoided. To be frank, most of what I’ve heard of World Music comes from the yearly WOMAD festival, held in the UK and screened by the BBC. If I were to be brutally honest, most of it leaves me cold, other than some occasional virtuoso performance, which appeals to the musician in me.
How pleasantly surprised I was, then, to slip Ray Of The Wine into my CD player and bask in its multi-national glow. This is the first (so far as I can deduce) Western release by the artist concerned, who is known by the singular name Reza (Brendan's Note: The US release uses his full name, Reza Derakshani). Reza hails from Tehran, which is not exactly the nationality one would expect to be recording in the USA, but hey, stranger things have happened. Reza has also hooked up with legendary drummer and producer John Densmore. Yes, dear reader, this is the very same John Densmore who banged his wood and plastic to the sound of Jim Morrison’s demons being unleashed upon the world. Reza’s and The Doors’ music are a million miles apart, but just as intense, albeit in very different ways.
With a small ensemble of Western musicians, Ray Of The Wine pours from the CD like the slickest, most enchanting, bittersweet Arabic syrup imaginable. Having worked in the Middle East myself, this conjures up a whole heap of imagery for me; the glory of a desert sunset, market stalls under goatskin sun-shelters, sipping hot, sweet tea…but, I digress.
The album kicks off with Wild Hair, a stunning fusion of delta blues, a Flea-esque bass line and an Arabic stringed instrument called a Tar (played by Reza). The tar plucks out the main theme before Reza’s vocal sidles into the mix. It matters not that this listener doesn’t understand a word; in cases like this (as with, for instance, the formless vocal of Cocteau Twins’ vocalist Liz Fraser), the voice becomes another instrument, rather than the vehicle for a lyrical idea. The underpinning organ playing serves to root the whole piece in two continents perfectly. Densmore’s playing on the offbeat adds an excellently syncopated floor to the track. Wonderful.
Title track Ray Of The Wine continues the theme, although it coasts much more through jazz country, with the upright bass and percussion gliding along with a subtle, but insistent, ride cymbal. Jazz piano interjections truly put the idea of a modern jazz trio into the mind until the arrival of Reza on tar again. In the broad swathe of genres to be found in Chez Lawton, I’m a big jazz fan, and if anyone had told me that any Arabic influence could lift a jazz piece beyond the fringe, I’d have laughed at him. How wrong I’d have been. Again, Reza’s voice floats like some ghostly Iranian spirit on a hot evening breeze. Arabic folk meets Chick Corea? You bet.
Zhaleh betrays Densmore’s Doors connections, but, hey, who can blame the guy? From the start, with drums, acoustic bass and didgeridoo playing (I kid you not), the opportunity for Jim Morrison’s baleful vocal is there, staring back from the mix like some hopeful, expectant, strung-out refugee. Keyboards in the form of strings weave in and out of the sonic landscape before Reza enters the fray with an instrument called a Kamanche, which is a bowed item from the violin family. Reza’s vocal is overlaid to this rather hypnotic instrumental layer cake and cements the whole track into a seriously dark groove.
Track four finds us deep into Iranian international waters. I’m Back is, perhaps, the closest of all of the cuts here to pure Iranian folk. Reza’s vocal is, for the first minute of this two and a half minute track, out on its own with Densmore’s delicate drumming and other percussion. Then, a minimalist sitar joins them. This song could so easily have been slipped into the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now, were it not for the huge time difference between the creation of each.
In one album, I’ve learned more about ethnic Middle Eastern instruments than I have for the last ten years. Masnavi features an Arabic reed instrument (played by the multi-talented Reza) called a ney, which produces that classic, rich flute sound so oft associated with any pastiche of Middle Eastern music. Leading the first few minutes solo, Densmore sneaks some delicate, ambient percussion into the mix before filtering in a shuffling drumbeat and adding acoustic bass yet again. Synth pads hover like giant insects as Reza’s ney playing and vocals twist, turn and gyrate like the monologue from some unearthly narrator. Who cares what the story is when the scenery is so stunning?
Heart Of Fire is a duet between Densmore and Reza, the former on Cajon (a type of drum) and the latter again on tar. Expect to hear this on a million travel documentaries, folks. Hey You The Painter and How Would I Know, although bearing titles like songs from a respectable Indie outfit, carry on in the same vein as the rest of the album. Painter, again, has that Doors’ feel, mainly due to Densmore’s 7/4 time signature and is a cursory nod (I think…I’ve been wrong before) to Reza’s other talent. The sleeve of Ray Of The Wine is a collage of watercolours by the man himself. If you read this, Reza, remember that there is such a thing as too much talent, you know.
So – would I recommend this album?
Yes, in a heartbeat. In fact, that’s just what this rather beautiful collection of auditory paintings effects…the pulse slows, the brain slides gently down into the theta level, where meditation is at its most effective, but the heart is coaxed into a slow-motion leap of joy. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll admit, and fans of The Doors should not expect Crawling’ Kingsnake, by any means. But what is on offer here is a startling blend of two wildly contrasting and, it must be said, clashing cultures.
The romantic in me likes to think of this as common ground for the West-Middle East camps to meet. Neither fish nor fowl, it serves to show that maybe we can, no matter from which side of the so called "Axis Of Evil" one hails from, find something to embrace from each viewpoint, if only musically. It has to start somewhere; I can only salute John Densmore for his vision in becoming involved in this project and lending his weight, influence and talent to it.
This album is definitely my personal springboard to seeing what else is out there under the vague banner of "World Music". If I find only one more example which is even half as good as Ray Of The Wine, it will have been a worthwhile search.