The Trio Joubran are perhaps Palestine’s best-known exponents of the oud, a traditional Arabic stringed instrument. Three brothers from a family of musicians and instrument-makers from Nazareth, the Joubrans celebrated their tenth anniversary playing together by releasing a luxurious box set, functionally titled The First Ten Years, featuring both back catalog and new material.
Of the existing albums included in the set, Randana is the first. Earlier works by oldest brother Samir, and by Samir and Wissam working together are available, but are hard to find. And although they show the promise which has been fulfilled by the Trio, they lack the high-quality production which gives the joint albums their lush, intense sound.
Both the Trio’s recorded work and their live performances have blossomed as the brothers have melded their sounds and musical personalities together. Their stage act is given humanity by the interplay between them — often “duelling” and conversing with their instruments — and by the affectionate teasing of Samir and “little brother” Adnan, the last to be “allowed” to play alongside his siblings. This sense of complementary personalities and styles results in musical creations which blend innovation with traditional virtuosity.
Each of the Trio’s albums has its own character. Randana (2005) is perhaps the most conventional of the three, as oud-based Arabic music goes. A full-length album, it comprises just five long, contemplative, often sparse tracks, four of them by the Joubrans. A fifth, Ahwak, the only one with lyrics, is by the great Egyptian composer Muhammad Abdel Wahab and songwriter Hussain al-Sayyid, and was originally made famous by “the Nightingale,” Abdel Halim Hafez.
The second album, Majaz (Metaphor, 2007) is dense and imposing. It builds up through the dramatic, slow burn of Masar and the slow, almost ritualistic contemplation of Roubbama (Perhaps) and Laytana. The title track and Shajan follow with a deep, throbbing intensity which is underpinned by the subtle, innovative percussion of Haifa-born Youssef Hbeisch.
The almost unbearable texture of these tracks is lightened by solo pieces from each brother, interspersed between the main pieces. Despite this, Majaz has a coherence and sense of overall purpose which is a reminder of why, in this age of downloads, some music is meant to be listened to as a complete album.
The third, Asfar (Voyages, 2011), is a darker, more assertive, more challenging album. In addition to the Trio’s ouds and Hbeisch’s percussion, Tunisian vocalist Dhafer Youssef also appears on two tracks. Conventional songs appear once each on the Trio’s first two albums, but on Asfar Youssef acts more as another instrument, adding a haunting quality to compositions such as Zawaj al-Yamam.
Publicity for Asfar on its release said that the Trio’s discovery of “other cultures cost them a lot of struggles as well as many joys.” Brooding and introspective, yet assertive, Asfar is discernibly the result of those inner conflicts.
Along with these three albums, the box set includes two more CDs and a DVD featuring live footage of the Trio in various settings. Of the two CDs, À l’Ombre des Mots (In the Shadow of Words), is a collection of the Trio’s music — much of it already found on the other albums — interspersed with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, read by the poet himself. The music was recorded live at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, at a concert to commemorate Darwish’s death in 2008. It’s beautiful, but perhaps of limited appeal to those who don’t understand Arabic.
The second is the Trio Joubran’s soundtrack to the French film Le Dernier Vol (The Last Flight), a love story set against the violence of French colonialism in the Sahara in the 1930s. This is fairly obviously a film soundtrack and has all of the tropes that come with the territory — one can almost picture the edge-of-seat chases, love scenes or desert landscapes for which each short, dramatic piece has been composed. It’s probably not a regular one for most turntables, but is enjoyable for all that.
There are also the kinds of knick-knacks beloved of fans — an insert listing the contents of the set which, if bought directly from their website, is signed by all three brothers, and a series of dramatic black-and-white photos of Joubrans and Hbeisch performing. At $63 the box set is not cheap. For fans of the Trio Joubran who already have some or all of their albums, this would be a lavish buy. On the other hand, for three albums plus additional material it’s actually quite a good deal — the albums alone, bought individually, would cost substantially more — so for those looking to acquire the brothers’ back catalog in one fell swoop it’s not a bad bet. And the music is, of course, wonderful.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.