Jaafar | 11.14.03 | ArtsCenter | Carrboro, NC

Jaafar is a North Carolina collective bridging the gap between Eastern and Western cultures. With a rotating cast of characters, including distinct acoustic and electric incarnations, fans are never quite sure which version of the band will emerge but the sound and philosophy always remains. Bandleader and acoustic bass guitarist Troy Cole formed the group in 2002 after traveling extensively in Egypt, where he absorbed a deep sense of music's inherent spiritual power. Jaafar seeks to explore both the driving thump of Western rock as well as the intangible aesthetics embodied in the Eastern traditions. Indeed, they often call their sound "Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Jimi Hendrix in Egypt." Their ArtsCenter appearance in Carrboro, NC was even more special and emotional as the entire show was a memorial for Troy's wife Susan Porucznik Cole, who passed away unexpectedly in August.

The band is full of veteran world musicians playing a variety of instruments. Guhl plays the electric guitar, oud, khanjera and saaz, while Vishnu Gangadharan flies across the fingerboards of his electric and acoustic pianos. Naji Hilal, originally from Lebanon, handles the oud, ney, viola and flamenco guitar. Antonio Arce twirls and rolls across the drum set, and Soner Cicek, originally from Turkey, adds percussive pulses through his darbuka and saaz. Special guest Sandy Blocker also joined the band on additional African percussion. Performances usually focus on either the acoustic or electric side of the band, but this show was a rare occasion featuring both sides of Troy's musical brain, with the first set acoustic and the second set electric.

The acoustic first set opened with the biting melody and percussive thump of "Hakim," a composition based on a modern Egyptian pop song. They continued with the funkified bass, furious flamenco guitar, and jazz-inflected piano melodicism of "Al Malik Al Maluk," which translates to "The Kingdom of His Kingdom" and is based on "The Happy Sheik" by Rabih Abou Khalil. Troy's bass solo effortlessly touched on various musical traditions at once, spanning the world from raga to rock. They followed with the West African-influenced "Ifrica," whose crushing melody and delicate interplays featured the band soaring over a bed of rhythm and groove. The tasty bass excursions paved the way for the various string explorations as the song unraveled.

Jaafar isn't afraid to explore the dark spaces in the music, bending and twisting the melodies until each last possibility has oozed out. Although the music always serves as positive inspiration, the deeper emotions and scarier places are also searched out and traversed. The set rolled on with a very non-traditional, improv-heavy version of the traditional folk song "Shashkin." A rendition of Egyptian composer Riad Al-Sunbati's "Longa Riaad" followed, along with the slaphappy bounce of "Kheli Belik" and the off-tempo attack of "Infinite Search." They closed out the first set with "Hero With a Thousand Faces," the various percussion instruments conspiring to inspire and perspire each other in a tidal wave of rhythmic sounds.

Switching over to electric instruments for the second set, Jaafar tore straight back into the niche, opening with Jonas Hellborg's "Death That Sleeps in Them." The atmospheric opening offered a hidden sense of complacency, but soon the jazz mayhem crept in, and the song exploded in a burst of fusion frenzy. Electric guitar held down the groove as the band chugged on mercilessly, pounding through chunky chord changes and driving drum rolls. "Akasha" was up next, its title stemming from an ancient Indian tradition in which the universe reveals itself through motion and space. The space is called "Akasha," and the song reveals and propels itself through electric keyboards coasting over guitars and a pulsing beat.

The frenetic bass runs and guitar interpolations of "Al Baqarah" came next as the band settled into a catchy funk-pop groove. This lead into "No Questions Asked," written by fellow North Carolinian Paul Hunneman from Orchestra 8. Bass and percussion built the structure of "Heya Heya" as the rest of the band fell in behind them. Originally written as a tribute to legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus, it morphed along the way into an Egyptian swing whose title means "the same as." Jaafar grabs their jazzy roots for this number, jumping and pumping until stopping on a dime and suddenly remembering they're a world-music-fusion band instead. The ending section changes yet again, evolving into a Turkish song called "Laaz in 7."

The beautiful bass opening to "Divine Duality" cascaded over the crowd as the keyboards floated in a succulent enmeshing of notes. The band then eased into an electrified return to the show-opening "Hakim." A re-worked version of "Meeting of the Spirits" by John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra came next, complete with Guhl's electric guitar eruptions. It takes no small amount of courage to cover Mahavishnu. It's kind of like covering Frank Zappa – it's not really for the faint of heart or easily discouraged. Mahavishnu's relentless rhythms and unreal guitar extrapolations were well represented as Jaafar screamed and kicked their way through the changes.

The energy lightened as the band glided into the gorgeous melody and delicious tones of the plaintive "For You: Sunday Night," a song Troy also played at the funeral service for his wife Susan in August. Jaafar has always sought a spiritual path, and by bringing this music into his darkest hour, an attempt was made to reconcile human tragedy with a spiritual message. If music truly holds a healing power, a worldly wisdom, an inspirational light, then perhaps it shines brightest in the darkest times. The set closed with "39 Lashes" from the play Jesus Christ Superstar, with Blaise Kielor, owner of Carrboro's Music Explorium, joining the band on violin. Even in a play known for great songs this is a standout piece, sounding in this instrumental context like a centuries-old Arabic number. The percussionists tumbled across their instruments as Troy held down the sticky subtones. The band returned for the encore and slid into "Lotus Feet," also by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This song, however, represents the other side of McLaughlin's fertile mind. Rather than gargantuan guitar escapades, we find the band in a pastoral mood, coaxing the notes from their instruments with subtle finesse.

The packed crowd applauded heartily as the show wrapped to a close. Jaafar had once again spanned the entire planet in search of their own brand of spiritual expression, sharing all their joyous results along the way. Sound samples and tour dates are available at www.jaafarmusic.com. Come see what the rest of the world sounds like.

Paul Kerr
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 1/13/04]

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