ARK 21 Records
Make no mistake: There’s a whole lot of fusion going on in the music of Simon Shaheen & Qantara. What you hear on their album Blue Flame is a blithe and unabashed juxtaposition of various world-musical cultures. Shaheen views the project less as a crossover composite than as an idealistic bridge between cultures.
Blue Flame’s diversity comes at you from the opening title track, in which the Arabic roots of the accomplished Palestinian Shaheen’s oud interlaces with Latin-American rhythmic qualities and the jazz hues of saxist Billy Drews. Qantara’s musicians weave the beautiful sonic quilt: a non-Arabic percussion stronghold comes from Jamie Haddad and Lorenzo Martinez in concert with Arabic percussionist Steve Sheehan, while guitarist Adam Rogers shows a cherished versatility on acoustic and electric instruments.
A certain Sting connection rings true here, as Ark 21 is a label partly run by the retired Police-man, so it’s no big surprise to find a cover version of the old Police tune "Tea in the Sahara," with Shaheen playing the melody sweetly on violin against a rumbling 6/8 pulse. But some of the finest moments here veer closer to home, like "Bosphorus Scenes Under the Moonlight," written by oud master Cinucen Tanrikorur, and the intriguing "Fantasie for Oud and String Quartet," whose angular rhythms sometimes suggest tango.
For most of the album, the production qualities, like the playing, are polished, almost to a fault. We might miss a bit of rawness in the fabric, but the sum effect is enjoyable enough, and validates the inherent meaning of Qantara, which is Arabic for "arch."