Upon receiving my album recommendation- Asfâr by Le Trio Joubran- I knew that I had been presented with a daunting task. Being a relatively uncultured Canadian man, I unfortunately had no frame of reference for evaluating Palestinian folk music. I obviously heard music like it before, but the sources have inevitably been unreliable and intrinsically tied to particular imagery. Often appropriated in media as placeholder soundtrack music, I have not explored the genre in a meaningful way. I was excited to hear it in context, freed from visual associations and abstracted from immediate visual associations.
Of course, a similar issue also emerges from the context of the music- the fact that it is inextricably politicized. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a prevalent and contentious issue for a long time, and the cultural implications presents me, a simple music reviewer, with some potential difficulties. To say that this band is from Palestine would be met with raised eyebrows in a number of circles in the western world, and to make any claims pertaining to the issue would best be left to experts. As it stands, I do not adhere to any dogmatic view and only wish for peace and love for all people, regardless of their nationality. My job right now is merely to evaluate the contents within the proverbial jewel case.
As Fâr was released in 2011 and is the most recent album by Le Trio Joubran, three Palestinian brothers joined by percussionist Youssef Hbeisch and vocalist Dhafer Youssef on a number of tracks. They have won several awards for their soundtrack work and promulgation of Palestinian culture. They split their time between Nazareth, Ramallah and Paris, having recorded Asfâr in the French capital.
The songs are all relatively similar, being in minor keys and the instrumentation being limited to three ouds, percussion and occasional vocals. They are almost all uptempo, but are easily differentiated by their arrangements. As I mentioned, I lack a precise context to determine how this album sits within the genre as a whole, and it is difficult for me to hear the nuances that set the songs apart from one another. Nonetheless, the different permutations of the musical elements, such as sparse percussion/ vocals combinations resolving into oud sections, allow the songs to evolve, continue propelling forward and keep things fresh. Excessive reverb has the potential to turn beautiful music, for lack of a better word, tacky. Thankfully, it is used tastefully and sparingly on the album, emphasizing the beauty of each note and allowing the instruments to breathe.
As little as I wanted to emphasize the social context within which it was created, the emotions of the brothers, the spirit of a nation could be felt pulsing through the pieces. This album was a captivating experience, flawlessly executed and a pure joy to listen to. While not a progressive masterpiece, that is not what its purpose. To assign a numerical value to a piece of art meant to inspire love and hope in a battered nation is to strip it of its significance. The music was not made to capitalize on the novelty of this genre, it is not merely an insincere excursion into the art form for arts sake, with the express purpose of garnering critical acclaim. This music comes from a rich cultural history that, with each note, expresses a unique perspective of the human experience. The only proper way to evaluate such an album would be to acknowledge how it affected me, and I can certainly say that I will be returning to the album again.
I am writing this review in light of the recent attacks on Paris, wherein 89 people were killed at an Eagles Of Death Metal concert. Le Trio Joubran, as I mentioned recorded their album in Paris. In our postmodernist society, many people behave as cynical critics, privileged defenders of irony. It takes a piece like this to remind people of the importance of music on our lives. Music should not be regarded as a valueless pastime, meaningless background noise as we go about our lives. Music is legitimately meaningful cultural expression that should not be evaluated according to the number of sales or a rating out of 10 that it has. As feeling fades and people like myself disjoin themselves from this realization, they will begin once again to view music critically and try and attribute to it a value based on its progressive tendencies. However, we should always keep in mind why we listen to music in the first place.
Life is important and music is a mode of expression that many find offensive or try to suppress. However, music remains one of the only anthropological constants, something that people of all backgrounds can relate to on a primal level. On Asfâr, I hear these men communicating in an unfamiliar musical language, but thankfully we can transcend these barriers and appreciate the beauty no matter who we are or where we come from. The expression of music is universal, and it is of the utmost importance that we appreciate its value and importance.