A subtle musical provocateur, Tunisia’s Anouar Brahem approaches the oud with guitar flourishes and Western accents, blurring the instrument’s ancestry sonically in the name of a new globally influenced style. His two most recent recordings on ECM, beautiful both, find him navigating the sublime and the serene in a wonderfully soothing setting; his nearly two hours of music making at the Skirball revealed his music’s distinctiveness and its limits.
Brahem, backed by clarinet and hand drums, plays gently flowing music with little Middle Eastern flair — his melodies and fleet solos touch on Spanish flamenco and bolero, British folk rock and even the swing offshoot of guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1950s when he substituted the clarinet for the violin as a second instrument. It’s all very pleasant yet the similarities of the melodic structures force listeners to hunt for something distinct within an individual tune; often, those distinctions are not there.
Like the music of the Gipsy Kings and the organic fusionists Oregon, Brahem’s tunes are often an amalgamation of styles he has tested in the 20 years since he studied in Paris. The oud is surprisingly adaptable in his hands and he has, in effect, created his own vision of world music — far larger than that of the Kings. Compositions provide a launching pad for his facility with lyrical and elegant playing, yet this music has no homeland.
That homelessness prevents the music from ever taking root or eliciting honest emotional responses. Some tunes, especially the ones when the oud and clarinet work almost in tandem, have a trance-inducing effect, but there’s never a squeal of joy or a moan of doom or even the thought of dancing.
The drum’s role is mainly as an accent, though toward the end of the evening, Lassad Hosni did use beats as a rhythmic propeller for Brahem’s soloing.
Barbaros Erkose plays his clarinet consistently with restraint. There were times when he could have gone off into some Coltrane madness and pushed the playing into the outer reaches, but this music, in the interest of staying pleasant, isn’t allowed to drift too far from its core.