On an unseasonably warm winter night, Lebanese-born flute virtuoso Bassam Saba took the stage at The Sullivan Room backed by a classical quartet, performing music that seemed unsuited to this kind of venue (one audience member quipped that this kind of music would be better appreciated in a concert hall). The musician himself seemed unfazed, and went on playing his classically-inspired Middle Eastern music, showcasing a collection of very soothing melodies – his ensemble, which included cello, bass, violin and percussion provided the perfect backdrop for his free improvisation. Unfortunately, many in the audience took the opportunity to socialize in the back of the room, and missed out on the beautiful music that those of us closer to the stage were so absorbed by.
Hassan Hakmoun came up next with his santir, a three-stringed lute-like instrument with a very peculiar tuning (in his words: “A, E and low E”)and the backing of four musicians. With his usual outburst of energy, he played the music that his fans are familiar with: a mix of Western-influenced African music with a rock edge. Halfway through the set, the two percussionists performed a solo which got the crowd quite riled up. Hakmoun's band sounded very tight and well rehearsed, getting a thumbs-up from the fans as his short set wound up.
Closing the night was Algerian-born Cheb I Sabbah, a DJ who showcased material from his upcoming CD of Indian-inspired music, Devotion (Six Degrees). An oud player started things out with a beautiful solo played amid a display of very colorful lights, which created the ideal momentum for the DJ's musical proposal for the evening. Shortly after, Riffat Sultana returned to the stage for a rendition of “Qalanderi,” an upbeat tune from the new disc that fits any dance party thanks to its bass and drums backbeat.
There seemed to be some minor technical problems early on-Sabbah left the stage twice to confer with the sound technicians–but after the third song things seemed to have been resolved, and then the concert went on without a glitch.
The biggest impression one gets from Sabbah is his ability to blend live musicians with his electronic sounds – on stage, you barely notice that the beats and much of the sonic texture are provided by a machine. The musicians playing with him sounded comfortable with this kind of setting, and the audience responded as expected – moving to the music and simply enjoying themselves – which is pretty much the point.