Thursday, September 2, 2010

Zahar with Hassan Hakmoun: Bania

Embedding has been disabled: Find the video here.

The instrument is the sintir (known also by other names), a kind of three-stringed lute kissing cousin to the banjo. (Traditional construction included a hollowed log covered with camel skin membrane and goat gut strings.) The sintir is native to the music known as Gnawa. Gnawa, as in Hassan Hakmoun's homeland of Morrocco, is a music born of African and Arabic traditions. Despite the instrument's rustic appearance it produces a sound that's remarkably funky and seems to find a nice intimacy with electric guitar (Hahn Rowe, ex- of Hugo Largo) and trap drums played full-stick. Zahar's sound is as much rock and roll as it is anything East of our Atlantic coast, a condition likely grown out of Hakmoun's residence in New York City (later, relocating to Los Angeles) and his discovery by Peter Gabriel. Hakmoun would later play with Don Cherry, Peter Gabriel, Woodstock '94, and Paula Cole (she of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" fame) as well as become her husband (now divorced).

I saw Zahar live in 1991 in Central Park.
At the time, Zahar was a part of New York's fertile downtown jazz and improv music scene (the Knitting Factory at its center), a scene with arms long enough to nurture exotic sounds from the likes of Hakmoun. Unfortunately, like any "underground" sub-culture whose natural tribe is the fanatic, there just wasn't enough of them to support Zahar's particular hybrid. The band's lifespan proved to be brief, failing to make it even into a recording studio. Though Hakmoun continues to perform today, the complete history of Zahar appears to be contained in the video above.

This performance is from the TV show Night Music. If anyone remembers, it was a musical showcase that occasionally gave unlikely artists such as Zahar a television venue. But alas, Night Music was only to last for two seasons, from 1988 to 1990, and artists like Zahar were sadly far more the exception than the norm. A
vintage-ly resplendent David Sanborn provides the introduction. (Original cohost Jools Holland would soon find greater success hosting the long running music show "Later..." in Britain.) This particular episode also included Miles Davis and Hank Ballard (of Thee Midnighters).

Integral to the city's downtown music scene were the independent record shops. Of course, they're all dead as Dada now. Even fanatics have gone the way of downloading it seems. Bleeker Bob's, of which no less than David Bowie was a customer, was probably the best known. (In an interview Bowie claimed that the titular Bob would throw on his Please Mr. Gravedigger every time he entered the store. If you've heard Gravedigger you'll understand Bowie's humiliation.)

A few neighborhoods away from my East Village apartment was my favorite music joint,
Lunch For Your Ears. The store's owner/fanatic-in-residence was Emanuel "Manny" Maris. If memory serves, Manny was as overbearingly tall, boyishly slim, and bespectacled as you'd expect a music geek to be. Perhaps it was his overbearing height that gave him the confidence to chide customers to influence their buying habits. (I'd be surprised if Manny wasn't at least a part of the inspiration for Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.) Once, I'd inquired about a disc by avante jazz singer Annette Peacock he was playing. Turned out Manny was a Peacock evangelist. I was intrigued with what I heard but the price on the imported disc was over $25. This was unfortunately way more than my emaciated music budget could allow. Instead, I decided to buy the more reasonably priced Easter from Patti Smith. Manny reacted as if he saw my musical road to Damascus moment about to be perverted by the mainstream Whore of Babylon. In his fight to hold onto a new convert, he made an impassioned plea. And like any true zealot fighting to save a wretched soul, his sermon was laced with more than a little snobbish sanctimony and righteous arrogance (though with a trice more charm than High Fidelity's Jack Black). But, I held my resolve. I walked my budget bin purchase to the register, though, not without a few pangs of guilt. Similar to the pangs I get as I close the door on a Jehovah's Witness. (Damn their sincerity!)

It reminded me of something my dad said once: If you don't want to know what I think then don't tell me about it. Because, of course, for the compulsive opinionator one can't follow without the other. That was my dad. And Manny.

Bless 'em both.

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