The scene at Jordanian band Autostrad’s performance at the Al-Geneina Theatre was of laidback celebration accompanied by a sense of wanting.
The band’s first performance outside Jordan had almost all the elements required of a good rock concert: Cairo’s night skyline, a warm summer night, and a talented, fun, well-rehearsed and technically sound band. And they looked the part; the lead singer fashioned an exaggerated moustache plucked straight out of an American Western, and dark shades, sported by half the band members, exuding a vibe of uniform cool.
The band members are adept professionals: trained musicians with precise timing, tight harmonies and an expert knowledge of their instruments. Al-Rousan, the lead vocalist, lead guitarist and lyricist of the group, has a MA in musicology while the keyboardist, Wisam, and saxophonist, Bashar, both have studied music.
Yet they seemed to occupy a separate space from the audience, hardly communicated with each other. Every so often someone in the crowd would cheer for the band out loud, but the shouts of praise failed to unite the crowd and entertainers. When two audience members braved a dance in front of the stage, they were politely but promptly told to return to their seats.
To our relief, halfway through the set, during the rock sing-a-long number “Ya Salam, Autostrad finally livened up. The music gained momentum and the audience followed. Al-Rousan introduced the band and, however briefly, rhythmic clapping and tapping ensued. Still, I was hoping to hear a break away from the fixed structures, an enthusiastic show of spontaneity, which failed to occur and made the performance polished but predictable.
Autostrad changes genres from song to song: the set list covered mainstream pop, reggae, AC/DC-style rock, classic Pink Floyd-like rock, country-western and more. The saxophonist added an element of lounge jazz to the mix. And the funk organ and guitar, underlying the entire performance, were reminiscent of 1970s’ TV cop shows.
Although they claim to inject something original into the Arab music scene, the result is more an imitation of Western styles than an invention of form; an impressive showcase of the history of rock.
It was the band’s rock and blues style ballads that most successfully communicated with the audience, while stressing the fact that Autostrad’s strength relies heavily on the humor of Yazan’s lyrics, his large, expressive voice and his conversational style of singing.
An example of his playful poetry can be found on “Eyat fil Mattar (Crying at the Airport). Although the rhyme is lost in translation, but the basic meaning is, “Crying at the airport, normal/ Everything in the airport, normal/ Even a girl wearing a boy’s clothes is normal/But what’s not normal/ Is to see you in the car with Shadi.
Al-Rousan’s thoughts on his music were a little confusing and disappointing. Whilst wishing to bring something new to the people, he also refers to music as a “finished science, a strange and pessimistic choice of words for a growing artist.
Al-Rousan aims to uplift people through song, which he seems to carry out with a good degree of success. But his ambitions also run into the business of music, comparing the band to a company. Autostrad, for the time being, are on board.
In a nutshell, Al-Rousan and Autostrad were well-worth my time and money. I left the concert feeling good. Al-Rousan’s teasing lyrics had left an impression on me and the music; although not quite memorable, it did seem to make the audience happy.
The band members themselves admitted to being uncomfortable with the venue. The You Tube clips I had watched before the gig showed the group more buoyantly and animated than the concert reflected. Al-Rousan humored the audience, and the band carelessly ad-libbed and jumped around. More at home in a dark, smoky club, perhaps they will find their groove in the cozier settings of the Cairo Jazz Club or After Eight, where they are scheduled to play on May 5 and 6 respectively.
For more information on Yazan Al Rousan and Autostrad, visit their My Space profile (http://www.myspace.com/autostrad). Yazan Al Rousan’s CD Telfizion (2007) can be found in local record shops and his new material with Autostrad can be heard on http://www.last.fm/music/Autostrad.