Vieux Farka Toure

Attab Haddad Quartet

From Baghdad to Seville - Exploring the Flamenco Trail

Wednesday 2nd October 2019, 7.30pm

The HUBS, 6 Paternoster Row, Sheffield

Words by Celia Mather 
Pictures by Flynn Hudson Dean
Our thanks to both of them.
It was so good to have TalkingGigs back again after a short interlude. The evening started with founder Charles Ritchie, who had organised more than 30 acts over the past five years, handing the baton over to former TG volunteer and new promoter of TalkingGigs2, Alistair Dempster. The sell-out audience whole-heartedly joined Alistair in thanking Charles for coming up with the most fantastic initiative for those of us who are fascinated by music and its cultural/historical background across the world.

Then onto the stage came our guest band for the night, the Attab Haddad Quartet including flamenco guitarist Ramon Ruiz plus singer/dancer Anita la Maltesa. Each one is a most accomplished musician and together they took us on a delightful journey 'From Baghdad to Seville', and indeed beyond. As in the TG format, in the first half of the evening they were interviewed as well as playing.

Attab, who plays the Oud and comes from Iraqi heritage, started by talking about the long history of movement of people between the Middle East and southern Spain, and how this influenced the sounds and sights of flamenco as we know it today. Much of Spain was an Islamic caliphate from the 8th-17th centuries. He mentioned in particular a "phenomenal Oud player" called Zyriab who travelled from Bagdad to Cordoba in the 11th century and who is revered by flamenco guitarists to this day. "Culturally, as a person of Arab background, I see many things in Spain that I relate to", he said. Later, in answer to a question from the audience, Ramon added that Gypsies also played a big part, after moving from India, via the Middle East and North Africa, to settle in Spain, although it is not true that they invented flamenco as some like to claim. Flamenco's home, Andalucia in southern Spain, was a huge melting pot, including also not only Arab and Gypsy but also Jewish and Christian influences.

To illustrate the musical connections, Attab and Ramon showed how the bridging mode in flamenco resonates with Arabic music, with Ramon playing a flamenco example on his guitar and then Attab something similar on his oud, and the two blending beautifully. The oud is "definitely the grandfather" of the guitar, Attab said. It came back with the Crusaders and became the lute. In fact, the word 'lute' comes from 'la oud', he added.

Flamenco has highly intricate rhythms and, to show, this Ramon spontaneously played, putting Anita on the spot to join in, which she did with great vim and quite a few 'olés!'. As she got up to dance, she showed the nails in the heels of her shoes which give extra sharpness to the stamps. With the music coming up to a crescendo, her stamping and clapping got louder and faster, to which she added hand twirls which echo those of many Middle East and South Asian dance styles. She later said that in flamenco, dancing, clapping and singing came first, with the guitar accompaniment later, though there is no written history to prove this. The dancing is always spontaneous, differing every time even to the same music, she added.

They explained that there are basically two main flamenco rhythms ('compas'): one is in 12/8 (with the emphasis usually on beats 12, 3, 6, 8 and 10), and the other in 4/4. They mentioned the tango as particularly interesting because it is very similar to a rhythm in the Middle East, and again they played an example to show us.

But Attab definitely isn't 'old school' when it comes to music. He has collaborated with many musicians in many genres, including a few years ago on an album with Cerys Matthews. Born in the UK, he said, "I play what interests me. I've no attachment to any particular tradition. I don't believe you have to play just one way with a traditional instrument: they are very versatile". Later asked by an audience member how this is perceived in Spain, he joked that it's mostly the tourists who don't like it as they want the 'pure' sound, adding that it is also common in the Middle East for people to think the oud should be kept 'traditional'. "But I think there is room for innovation", he said. In fact, the quartet's next gig would be at the London Jazz Festival.

As the band played for the end of the first half, we heard what he meant by this. From the superb blending of him on oud and Ramon on guitar, along with sharp rhythms from Antonio Romero on a darbuka drum, Anita's clapping, and Matt Ridley on double bass, we got a fine mix of both traditional and contemporary.

The second half really took us on that journey from Baghdad to Seville (and now to Sheffield!). It started with Attab playing solo a number in traditional style, although recently composed by one of his teachers, a Turkish Ud master, Yurdal Tokcan. Then bass and percussion joined him on 'Oh Georgina', a track from the band's CD 'Days Distinctive'. This is one of Attab's many compositions and is based on an Iraqi rhythm called 'jurgina'. It included Matt on bass in a stunning solo.

Now we moved on to Spain, a flamenco number called ‘La Tarara', set to a well-known Spanish folk tune and with words by famous poet Federico Garcia Lorca, arranged by Attab and Ramon, who have been collaborating for some 15 years. Anita came back on stage, now dressed in full flamenco style including a multi-frilled skirt to swirl around. She started with quiet claps and finger-snapping but then built up by singing with a strong, emotive voice. Once again we moved beyond the traditional, with another great bass solo, to warm applause.

The next number took us even further into the complications of flamenco rhythms, starting with Ramon beating on his guitar, then joined by Antonio on box drum and, as Ramon moved over to plucking and Attab clapped, we heard those pauses in the rhythm that they had told us about. Anita's 'olés' moved into her singing and on to stamping, thigh slapping, hand swirling, and skirt swishing, all with full drama, which led to whoops of appreciation and huge applause from the audience. As she lifted up her skirt, we could see just how complicated her feet movements were.

Now we had a full blend: an Iraqi folk song rearranged as a flamenco, with Attab leading and the others largely in percussive/bass mode. Attab explained that the original rhythm would have been 10:8, but now it was more of a 'rumba'. This was followed by a 'seguiriya', which is an old form of flamenco, actually a lament.

The set finished with another of Attab's compositions 'Aire Del Oud', starting with Ramon's guitar and then to Attab's oud, and then again their interweaving along with percussion, gradually picking up in intensity of both sound and rhythm. Anita got out her castanets to accompany her stamps, head flicks and yet more skirt throwing, with all the musicians as well as audience watching her intently. There could only be yet more warm applause, and of course demand for an encore.

The final piece, also written by Attab, was 'Longa-esque'. It again started with the oud, with the flamenco guitar gradually taking over, and then the bass, ending with a very, very sharp percussion solo. Olé indeed! There were plenty of smiles among the audience as they left.