The two components that bond a Belgian, a Chinese and a Moroccan together are Belgium and the lute. Belgium because the three live and work in this small European country; and the lute because all three adore this instrument. However, the lute is not merely one instrument. It is more or less a family of instruments, all descendants from an original archetype invented in a region now called Iraq. Towards the East, the ancient lute developed into the pipa, the Western varieties became the lute and the theorbo, the bass lute with its giant neck. The north of Africa is home to the oud. All these different variations on the lute as a fretted string instrument have their own distinct sounds and ways of playing.
Philippe Malfeyt, Xian Hua and Abid El Bahri are Luthomania -- a self-explanatory name -- and on the (SA)CD Itinérances, they not only combine and blend the various timbres of their instruments, they do the same with their respective musical backgrounds intact. East meets West meets Maghreb. Only Hua remains faithful to his pipa throughout the recording. His fellow lutheniers pick up different versions of their own lutes whenever appropriate to widen or deepen the sonic scope.
El Bahri and Malfeyt are responsible for all compositions here, allowing plenty of Western and Arabian influences into the mix. Too bad China remains somewhat in the background. The arrangements call for musicians outside the core trio to participate on all but two tracks. These additional instruments are saxophone, cello, harmonica and accordion plus percussion. The combination of lutes, accordion and cello is beautiful and creates just the right amount of melancholia.
All numbers on Itinérances are respectful to the instruments and the cultures they stem from. The recording itself supports this approach, being well balanced without ever getting too loud as CoolEdit clearly shows. The stereo layer of this hybrid SACD portrays a nice setup of the ensemble. The superior mastering is no doubt due to the skills of the engineers at VRT Klara, Belgium's classical radio station and source of a great many recordings.
Itinérances will spin on the top of our stack of favorites for a long time.