Review: ‘Anatolian Alchemy’

Anatolian Alchemy, the most recent release from Amsterdam-based quartet Arifa (appearing in Oxford on 19th November), is not the first East-meets-West crossover album I’ve been asked to review in recent months (that title falling to Gypsy Hills’ Our Routes, which launched back in September). Perhaps this is more evidence that there’s something of a new scene developing in Western Europe which successfully hybridises musical traditions from east of the Adriatic – disseminated by migrant and diaspora communities, and via film soundtracks and the awesome globalising power of online music distribution – with North Atlantic jazz, rock and pop genres in an innovative yet unforced way.

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However, while both equally excellent, the two albums couldn’t be more different. Opening with a crystalline, coolly dissonant piano flourish from Franz von Chossy, the first track – ‘Maktub’ – features a rhapsodic free improvisation for clarinet (Alex Simu) and plucked piano strings, leading into Brubeck-esque irregular metres which then yield to an extended extemporisation by Mehmet Polat on oud. (In their current line-up, oud has been replaced by tarhu. This instrument, invented by Australian craftsman Peter Biffin in the 1980s, seems as if it could have been tailor-made for Arifa: taking inspiration from the traditional Turkish Tanbura and the various varieties of spike fiddles found all the way from Anatolia through the Caucasus and Central Asia to China, and blending it with contemporary Western design and aesthetics, its creator intends for it to be equally playable bowed or plucked, and to be equally at home in either Western or Eastern tonalities and styles of playing.)

This seamless blend of East and West continues into the next track, ‘Kids Play’, except that here the roles of harmony and rhythm are reversed: it’s a quirky blend of American-style minimalism (oscillating bare-fifths in the piano, accompanied by brushed cymbals, and occasionally hinting at echoes of Philip Glass) with Balkan 7/8 dance rhythms. On paper, it’s difficult to talk about these juxtapositions without them sounding somewhat awkward and forced: however, Arifa manage to pull them off to great, yet subtle, effect.

The dreamy, almost trance-like quality of the album is helped along by live laptop samples provided by clarinettist Alex Simu, which create a strong sense of suspended time as well as allowing the texture to become far richer and more complex than could be achieved by four instrumentalists alone: this particularly comes to the fore in track 5, ‘Red Ink’. While the contributions of all four players are individually (and equally) stunning, the masterful interweave of lines and fragments into a whole more than the sum of its parts means that there are only very rare moments where attention is drawn to instrumental virtuosity. One such exception is the title track, ‘Anatolian Alchemy’ (ironically the composition with the least obviously detectable Eastern elements), which slowly builds over the course of five minutes to an understated yet dazzling piece of semiquaver passagework for piano, before handing over to a triumphantly wailing (yet coolly controlled) coda for clarinet.

This excellently-produced album is a masterpiece of postmodern, post-global cool: it’s an aesthetic which could so easily turn into blandly chilled-out lounge music, but Arifa’s artistic sophistication, technical mastery, and fascinating blend of backgrounds and influences make it highly recommended listening.

O. Hubbard

For more information about Arifa, please visit their website, or you can book tickets for their Oxford appearance at Trinity College Chapel on the 19th November (hosted by Oxford World Music Societyhere. They are also performing as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival on 18th November at the Southbank Centre.

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