This record reminds me of a winter afternoon in Tashkent. Like all grand Soviet-built cities, modern Tashkent (there has been a urban community living around the place for many many centuries) is designed to a familiar and similar urban plan. Yes, there are the heavily constructed concrete buildings that impose themselves on the all sides. And there are the broad boulevards and streets that make it easy for tanks to roll into place when deemed necessary.
But one of the most pleasant aspects of Central Asian (perhaps most former Soviet) cities is the amount of space given over to parks and green walking areas. Near the gravitational center of the city you’ll find massive open spaces planted with lots of shade and fruit trees. In summer kids tumble on the grass and splash in the fountain if its working. Couples sit on a blanket eating melons and apricots and roasting goat meat kebabs. In winter skaters are on the ice and babuskhas sell hot chestnuts. Tashkent doesn’t often get snow so on sunny winter days little lean-tos of plastic sheeting pop up as impromptu karaoke stalls along the wide concrete paths that criss-cross the garden.
I visited Tashkent regularly as a transit point to Europe or Asia. And one particular visit stands out in my mind with vivid clarity. It was a mid-winter afternoon. The sky was clear and coloured pale blue. The sun was bright but not very strong. You felt the nip of cold on your knuckles all the time. My wife and had time to kill. We found a park, named after Timur Lang (Tamerlane), I think. Though it was a nice day, the place seemed almost entirely deserted. We ambled around the walkways, looking for nothing in particular in no particular hurry.
The karoke stalls were abandoned. They would be full in a few hours though, as Tashkentis seemed to believe singing was especially fun after dark. A feeling of general emptiness had settled on the garden. Nothing moved very quickly, if at all. Even the branches were empty of leaves. Once in a while a stiff branch scraped up against another and a whispered crack sounded. There was no music playing and I don’t recall hearing the whoosh of the traffic.
For those moments we walked as if in a bubble. Just the quiet shuffle of our feet and breathing kept us company. It was a gorgeous time and something not quite of this world.
When I hear Anouar Brahem’s record Astrakan Cafe I’m immediately taken back to that silent Central Asian walk. With his oud and the clarinet and drum of his Turkish friends, he recreates that time and place. This is the mysterious allure of music. Sounds replicate and recreate visions and sensations. The record is inspired, of course, by the sounds and cultural atmosphere of Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus’. Regions of the world where people are in no rush to finish up at the cafe and where dances can combust suddenly into existence on the echo of distant music.
Like all of Brahem’s music this is moody, evocative and dynamic stuff. As cigarette smoke, it sways this way and loops in around itself, never tracing the exact pattern twice but always hanging within reach. The oud, more than any other instrument, is able to touch those mellow tones that define those places off the beaten track on an off day. The strings vibrate like honey when plucked and seem to weep real tears.
I only wish I could be sitting in a cafe in Mozdok sipping a muddy coffee as I listened again and again to his music.
01 Aube Rouge À Grozny
02 Astrakan Café (1)
03 The Mozdok’s Train
04 Blue Jewels
05 Nihawend Lunga
08 Parfum De Gitane
12 Dar Es Salam
13 Hijaz Pechref
14 Astrakan Café (2)