Toufic Farroukh s latest album, Tootya, serves up unusual musical delicacies
BEIRUT: Jazz saxophonist Toufic Farroukh s latest effort is called Tootya, and to those in the know, his album title will surely elicit a smile. Tootya, or sea urchin, refers to the Lebanese seafood delicacy that is fished out from between the crevices of coastal rocks at certain times of summer and cracked open at the table to be swallowed raw. The prized insides of the sea urchin are bright-fuchsia colored with the slimy texture of otherworldly goop. In other words, it s an acquired taste.
Ostensibly, sea urchins have nothing to do with the 12 tracks on Tootya, but one may imagine that Farroukh s lively oriental jazz compositions express an implicit love for the Lebanese seaside with its unusual urchin delights. And as legend has it, the sea urchin is both a powerful aphrodisiac and a potential poison. Slurp up the wrong sea urchin and it could kill you.
Appropriately, Tootya offers a potentially pleasing and potentially painful diversity of musical genres. There s no telling where Farroukh s singular sensibilities may take us. He concocts an unusual blend of jazz, electronica, drum n bass, pop and Arabic tarab. There s even a rap performed by Moe Hamzeh of Lebanese rock band the Kordz.
I take on different influences, and I nourish myself through perceptions of my surroundings, explains Farroukh in an email interview. His surroundings shift between Paris and Beirut, and while anchored in the cultural stability of Europe, Farroukh remains perpetually inspired by the melodies and rhythms of a sometimes distant homeland.
The reality of it is hard. We try to keep things alive in Beirut, and we try to bring in elements of our utopian fantasies into everyday life. Music is the pretext for this. We try to open doors for ourselves and for others, but I think we need to find a collective consciousness, he says.
Farroukh s efforts to enliven the local music scene include film scores for Ghassan Salhab s Terra Incognita and Michel Kammoun s Falafel, playing saxophone for Ziad Rahbani and Fairouz and recording several individual albums, including Little Secrets in 1998 and Drab Zeen in 2002.
Tootya is yet another collective endeavor including the varied talents of artists like Rima Khcheich, Charbel Rouhana, Jeanne Added, Ibrahim Maalouf, Bruno Caviglia and Malik Mezzadri (aka Magic Malik).
Working with musicians in both Paris and Beirut is essential to my art, Farroukh insists. It s a complementary process.
He is also quick to emphasize that such a diversity of collaborators is no mere gimmick, asserting that his albums are far from theories and concepts – far from strange and artificial mixtures … It s not about a mixture. It s about establishing and provoking an encounter. Nothing is deliberate. I would like the music to feel refreshed and regenerated with a lightness of spirit. It s essential that the pieces have feeling – that they have a soul, he says.
Elhob opens the album, immediately conjuring up the kind of soulful feeling Farroukh advocates. The track begins with an electronic rumble and the percussive echoes of a sparse beat. Guest vocalist Rima Khcheich sings a melancholy melody bemoaning the perplexities of al-hob (love) as the oud gently accompanies.
It seems almost like an electronic chill-out tune until a bright chorus shakes up the downbeat verse, introducing the sweep of an oriental string section alongside the ebullient drumming that is a hallmark of contemporary Arabic dance music. At this point, the song settles into the pleasantly accessible mode of a typical pop tune – until an unhinged electric guitar solo disrupts the groove yet again.
Tootya is full of such artful surprises. Tracks such as Hanina, Cendres, Scarecrow and Peacock and Long Distance Call (LCD) are inventive and engaging. Farroukh combines traditional percussion patterns beaten out by hand with programmed electronic beats. He melds improvisatory jazz solos with oriental string refrains and twists initially catchy melodies into adventurous riffs. This is music you can stroll into at any point. Each track streams into the next, resulting in a pleasant atmosphere of ebbing and flowing textures and tone colors.
Farroukh s strongest compositions successfully balance impressive melodies with highly dynamic sonic textures that serve to envelop the listener in a world of vibrant eclecticism.
Hanina reinterprets a traditional Algerian melody, adding dramatic weight to Khcheich s singing with echoing piano chords, a harmonically unpredictable string section, plaintive ney solos and charming accordion interludes. The balance between instruments, electronic beats and vocal melody is well struck, with no single element disrupting the overriding tone and structural development of the piece.
In equally appealing tracks such as Cendres and Scarecrow and Peacock, a more experimental structure dominates. Cendres features a silky soprano saxophone solo by Farroukh, while Scarecrow and Peacock foregrounds the virtuosic syncopations of Magic Malik s flute. Both tracks are dominated by richly elaborated improvisations and layered sonic textures rather than distinctive melodies. In some way, they could be described as moody background music to be played in a trendy pub or nightclub, but if you listen a little more closely, both tracks offer many attention-grabbing moments laden with lyricism.
Other tracks are not so successful. Farroukh s penchant for busy eclecticism does sometimes get the better of his compositions on Tootya.
Ya Nassim Alrouh is pleasant but ultimately tedious, with its hackneyed dance beat and aimless switching from one set of instrumental sounds to another. Radio City tends to be equally aimless, albeit more difficult to stomach. Its techno club beats and shimmering sci-fi sonorities register more like hokey approximations of electronic hipness than innovative sound design.
Less aggravating but much too plain are songs such as Destins et Desires and Ya Habibi. The former features the smooth vocals of French singer Jeanne Added and is essentially a predictable exercise in lounge-style cool, while the latter borders on the banality of a radio-friendly but highly forgettable Arabic pop song.
Despite its weak moments, Tootya is certainly worthy of several listens, if only to appreciate the shifting dynamics of Farroukh s many musical experiments. And rather than judge Farroukh s success in capturing the essence of one musical genre or another, it is more gratifying to simply appreciate his artistically adventurous spirit.
If Farroukh acknowledges a background in jazz, it is to indicate that jazz musicians attempt to strike a balance between high art and popular tastes.
Jazz musicians seek out a demanding sound but they dedicate their music to the public, and paradoxically, the fact that this kind of music interests a limited audience gives us musicians even more liberty. It allows us to explore without commercial constraints, he says.
On Tootya, he thus affords himself the fruitful mission of experimenting with popular styles in order to experience a true freedom of expression, and like most so-called fusion artists creating so-called world music, Farroukh rejects the constraints of labels. He insists: I am simply a musician without any distinctions.
Toufic Farroukh s Tootya is out now on Chill Island Records. For more information, please check out www.touficfarroukh.com