May 23, 2024

Omar Rahbany – Passport is a journey into a grand big band jazz / Middle Eastern fusion

10th March 2017

I hear some unusual things down in the reviewing cellar of Vanguard House and this is one of the strange delights that keep me excited for new music and willing to remain chained to the damp and rat-infested walls of the editor’s palace.

Opening on a proper overture, something belonging to the hybrid opera / musical theatre/ jazz dreams of Leonard Bernstein; this album starts out just right, with a touch of Candide meets On The Town meets West Side Story, flavoured with middle-eastern horns. A touch of rain sound effects and we have ‘Umbrella’ – a sound picture of a lonely soggy stroll in the city with a melancholy female voice in Arabic and plucked strings. Programmusik sees disco meet funk meet jazz brass and so the album flows, organically through to the Egyptian-sounding semi-chants in Ankaria, reminiscent of the sounds of a radio in a souk, brought to life by a chorus stepping round a corner with an orchestra. Like I said – musical theatre. It’s fun.

Omar Rahbany is twenty-seven and Lebanese. Somehow he has brought 180 people into this album, whether singing, soloing or in orchestras and created a remarkable fusion of world music, jazz, musical theatre and the light classics. It’s a very personal vision and quite unlike anything I’ve heard before. This isn’t someone borrowing a set of colours to add to their genre – it is someone with a love for music of the world and a home in multiple camps, bringing them together, none subordinate to the other. So we have moments of French film soundtrack, colours of big-band jazz, Arabic tonalities, Lebanese heartbreaker songs, Mediterranean tap-tap beats and Syrian interwoven clap-beats, all fused in this big-band theatrical environment. Perhaps it is to be expected; the region being a melting pot of cultures over the last couple of millennia. A jazzy bass burbles along and piano keys flutter decoratively above a swinging beat. A thin reedy horn floats over the proceedings. An electric guitar solos over the backing.

Coming from a family of nationally-important composers and musicians, Omar has a sense of importance and fuses orchestral intricacies with more modern ideas, like soul vocals, snippets of news radio broadcasts and, perhaps inevitably for an album based in Beirut, sounds of rocket-fire. Omar says: “The melting pot of cultures I grew up in, the double-edged sword that shaped me as a person, the confusion, the creativity, the struggle itself is my identity. I am a citizen of planet Earth and my nationality is that of a human being. This is my Passport”.  Hence his ability to drop in an Argentinian Tango, full of duende and tension but played on middle-eastern-sounding strings.

Themes recur and intertwine, with snapping intersections and tunes that follow winding paths, much like the soundtrack to a long and involved title credits scene in a movie. Sweet ballads like the almost ‘Up Up And Away’ of Mouwachahat arrive and tinkling keys and jazz drums sweep them away into a syncopated jam. One moment it is Michel Legrand, the next it has a touch of the Neil Cowley Trio.

Meet the music of a fevered ‘what-if-Bernstein-had-been-born-in-Lebanon’ dream. The dream you should have had but never did.

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