Nizar Rohana’s fresh new flow

Nizar Rohana

Mohamed Badarne

Furat by Nizar Rohana Trio

Palestinian oud artist Nizar Rohana’s second album Furat (Euphrates) offers both a fresh, engaging take on his well-known instrument and a wide-open view of the Middle East which challenges the dark-days realpolitiks of the region.

Hailing from the village of Isfiya, near the historic Palestinian city of Haifa in present-day Israel, Rohana’s parents played oud and percussion at community events. The young Rohana began playing the oud at age 13 and went on to study in Jerusalem and, more recently, in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Alongside composing, performing and musicological research (focusing on the Egyptian composer Mohammed al-Qasabji), Rohana also taught the oud at the Edward Said National Conservatory in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem for seven years.

Amongst his creative influences and inspirations, Rohana names Bach, Chopin and Brahms alongside famous Ottoman-era Turkish musicians Tanburi Cemil Bey and Kemani Tatyos Efendi, and Arab stars al-Qasabji and Mohammad Abdel Wahab.

This diversity shows in the trio assembled by Rohana — comprising also Lebanese percussionist Wassim Halal and Hungarian double-bassist Mátyás Szandai.

Halal’s other work includes experimental ambient drone performances, while Szandai is influenced by the jazz sounds which his instrument often underpins.

The result is a spare, deceptively simple-sounding album which eschews the more stereotypically “oriental,” world music feel of Rohana’s first CD, Sard (Narration) and the lush, sweeping style of works by fellow Palestinian oud virtuosos The Trio Joubran or Simon Shaheen.

Mighty rivers

The album’s mix focuses the listener’s attention primarily on Rohana’s oud; Szandai’s bass provides texture and dialogue with the oud as well as a deep, subtle underpinning to the whole, while Halal’s percussion brings in flashes and sharp points which highlight the oud’s twists and turns.

Despite the historical role and image of the oud, this is not traditional Palestinian music. Like Samir Joubran, Rohana is very clear that he composes music influenced by his Palestinian heritage but also drawing from a wide range of other sources to create something emphatically individual.

In the case of Furat, Rohana also makes a statement about the histories and landscapes of his native Middle East, particularly its mighty rivers. Most of the song titles refer to sites along the Euphrates but, Rohana insists, this was a response to the sense of flow and drive he felt in the album, not an inspiration for writing the tracks to fit a riverine aesthetic.

The opening track, “Madar Hijaz” (An Orbit in Hijaz), uses the classical maqam modes and positions the listener in the Arabian peninsula, while the second track, “Furat” (Euphrates), moves on to Iraq and Syria, the cradles of civilization.

“Mayadin” then pays tribute to the Syrian city of the same name, while the closing piece of the album, “Jurjina Bayati,” is centered on the jurjina rhythm which originates in Iraqi popular and folk music.

“Safsaf Abyad” (White Willow), meanwhile, is evocative of the trees growing along the quieter stretches of the mighty Euphrates, while the title to “Dalya” harks back to the 6,000-year-old Syrian city, now known at al-Quriyah, whose ruins lie beside the river.

The choice of names emphasizes the essential coherence of the album, in which the seven tracks progress naturally, working very much as a whole.

Breadth and diversity

Alongside these diverse but quintessentially Arab references, Rohana also extends into the Ottoman Turkish repertoire, with the track “Sama‘i Muhayyar,” composed by Rohana’s hero Tanburi Cemil Bey. The inclusion of this piece, dating back to a time when the political contours of the Middle East were very different, emphasizes the breadth and inclusivity of Rohana’s artistic vision.

As such, the wider cultural vision Rohana highlights is one of openness and diversity. This builds on the perspectives of much of his earlier work. These range from recordings with Duo Esperanto, which brought together Palestinian and Lebanese music with Sephardic Jewish traditions to underscore a common Mediterranean sensibility, to his participation in the soundtrack to Around the Old World Sea, a Dutch TV series following the 1905 journey of politician Abraham Kuyper from the Balkans to Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and Southern Europe.

Overall, Furat is not, perhaps, as immediately accessible an album as some of the better-known names of Palestinian oud music. But, like the fruitful collaboration between oud player Ahmad al-Khatib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisch, the Nizar Rohana Trio and Furat are a reminder Palestinian artists are recording beautiful, innovative, contemporary oud compositions too.

Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.