ECM, 1792 440 016 373-2, 2002
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For the last 12 years, expatriate singer/composer/oudist Dhafer Youssef has made Vienna/Austria his home. He performs a brazenly unique brand of eclectic neo-Sufi fusion fare to enchant sophisticated audiences in France, Germany, Switzerland as well as in his native Tunisia where he began singing in the Islamic style at the age of 5.

Beyond today's year 2000 and 2001 releases, Dhafer recorded two prior CDs as early as 1993 and 1996 which he performed with his own ensembles. He's also played with Mongolian vocal shaman Sainkho Namchylak, Christian Muthspiel, Jamey Haddad, Iva Bittova and Tom Cora. Last year, bassist/producer Bill Laswell invited Youssef to participate in the World Festival of Sacred Music in Hiroshima, Japan, May 2001.

On Malak, the 35-year old lyrical oud master surrounds himself with truly first-rate Euro-scene improv cats, all of whom have heavily participated in WorldFusion projects in the past.

On trumpet and flügelhorn, there's Markus Stockhausen; on acoustic and synth guitar, Nguyên Lê; on double bass, French Renaud Garcia-Fons last heard on Kudsi Erguner's WaterLily-label flavored Taj Mahal project; on bansuri bamboo flute, Deepak Ram; on violin, Romanian freestyle sensation Zoltan Lantos who spent years in India absorbing Karnatik and raga-based styles; Jatinder Thakur on tabla and dolak; Carlo Rizzo on tambourine; Achim Tang on bass; and Patrice Heral on drums and percussion.

Youssef's mystical Sufi connection and its native tie-in with the Arabian and Indian music styles of Taqsim and Alap creates in his music vast spaces of relatively unstructured improvisations that hand off between whatever musicians participate on any given track.

The opener "Tarannoum" is a minimalist duet between Garcia-Fons -- on that huge five-string bass of his -- and Dhafer who engages in some of the most impassioned, hair-raising vocalizing this side of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Youssef's breath control and lung capacity are marvels to behold. His full-throttled climb into the top register of his voice causes goose bumps and subliminal expectations that something's surely bound to give out soon - which, of course, just proves to be limited imagination and faith on the part of the listener.

The following "Iman", dedicated to the mystical writer Adonis, introduces the cool, Jazz-tinged timbre of the flügelhorn, Achim Tang's limping bass lines and Lê's tastefully wailing e-guitar while Heral shifts between subtle accompaniment and violent outbursts on his drumkit, all held together by Dhafer's fluid prophet-in-the-wilderness vocal admonitions.

"Eklil" and "A kind of love" are further duo workouts. They marry the shifty rhythmic patterns of the Indian tabla with Youssef's oud before Stockhausen's plaintive trumpet, in unison and like wild vine, twines around Dhafer's voice. Then the oud picks up the odd-metered theme again to anchor the trumpet's serpentine sidelines.

"Jito & Tato" is an uptempo ensemble number that intermingles a sprightly bass line above asymmetrical percussion and tabla beats with virtuoso bansuri staccatos and Zoltan's L. Shankar-reminiscent modal/Jazz violin riffs. Those drift off into fractal flageolet dreams before the rhythm machine resumes the groove and Deepak Ram's tongue engages in some seriously frantic fellatio over his flute's air hole.

From Nguyên Lê's pitch-bending, string-sliding guitar imitations of Middle-Eastern tonal elasticity to Patrice Heral's Flamenco cajon compas; from eerie guitar synth washes that create moody swirls of colors for Free-Jazz based instrumental explorations by Stockhausen; from Garcia-Fons' percussive spiccato bow work to Lantos' ghostly overtone glissandi and Heral's talking-drum type trance percussion interludes; and Dhafer Youssef's unhinged vocal journeys into inner space -- more ferocious and vital than Omar Faruk Tekbilek's otherworldly Sufi singing -- Malak plainly eludes neat categorization.

Let's then summarize it as state-of-the-art fusion between Islamic styles of India/Arabia and Free-Jazz for which, in this iteration, there does not seem to be a ready precedent. The crowning touch of the individual artistic contributions on Malak is Dhafer Youssef's intense singing. It's of the sort not easily forgotten.

The team of Electric Sufi then retains Stockhausen and Ram but sees Wolfgang Muthspiel on guitars, Dieter Ilg on acoustic bass, Doug Wimbish on electronic bass, Mino Cinelu and Will Calhoun on drums and percussion while Rodericke Packe provides ambient atmospherics.

Sufi continues seamlessly where Malak left off. It's the telling of the next chapter in this -- ongoing? -- saga. But it craftily avoids the rerun feel of many albums that follow a bull's eye effort with a formulaic recycling for a merely minorly modified carbon copy that's hoped to sell on the strength of the predecessor.

Malak simply didn't exhaust what Youssef had to say. If you like one album, you're bound to want the other - just to find out how the story unfolds. On balance, Sufi concentrates perhaps a bit more on Dhafer's instrumental chops that, like Anouar Brahem's, lean toward the lyrical rather than jackhammer heavy-metal pyrotechnics. It also slyly introduces certain ambient, Electronica and Techno effects that only further enhance the "Now Factor" of this vibrant new music.

For lovers of modern oud and fans of cutting-edge contemporary, beyond-classification fare with a strong improvisational bend and distinct Middle and Far-Eastern colors, both Malak and Electric Sufi get my highest recommendation. But they do require listeners prepared to cross boundaries and abdicate predigested, homogenized and sterilized -- so-called -- musical calories. This stuff's far more serious, creative and challenging than that!