Jazz and Arabic pop fuse in Tarab's virtuosic sound

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      From broken furniture to unwanted sexual advances, Craigslist has a reputation for being the site of many unhappy accidents. As a general rule, users vet ads through their spelling and grammar—the more accurate, the greater the chance of legitimacy—and by never trusting posts written out in capitals. Despite those unwritten assumptions, however, multi-instrumentalist Greg Valou opted to take a chance on an intriguing offer.

      “I was recruiting people for an ambient fusion project, and I noticed someone had posted a very charming Craigslist ad,” he tells the Straight, on the line from his Vancouver home. “Clearly, he wasn’t from Canada—there was some weird spelling going on. He had posted something like ‘Lute or oud available,’ but he had written it ‘lut’ and ‘ud’—and it was posted with caps lock on. It was definitely different, and I thought he could be interesting. I emailed him to ask if he could improvise, and had him send a couple of clips of him playing. That’s how Tarab started.”

      The ad, it turned out, was posted by Hazem Matar, an accomplished oud performer who studied classical music with Ghazi Ali, a well-known composer in his native Saudi Arabia. On the strength of those videos, Valou modified his vision for the project to Arabic jazz fusion, imagining a sound based on blending his bass guitar with Matar’s virtuoso playing of the pear-shaped stringed instrument. Joining forces with drummer Curtis Andrews, saxophonist Saul Berson, and flutist Ingrid Valou to complete the lineup, Greg Valou helped shape the band’s unique brand of world music.

      “The core of the group is taking famous songs from Arabic countries—mostly songs that were huge pop tracks from the ’50s to the ’80s,” he says. “It’s basically like playing Elvis covers in terms of recognition and status. When we perform, we tend to have a lot of Arabs attending, and they’re singing along to every single song because they’ve grown up with this stuff, and they’re considered the classic pop tunes. We take those songs as the basis, and then work it into a jazz-rock fusion context, incorporating some western rhythms and instruments like the drum kit, saxophone, and bass guitar. The oud is electric too, so it’s got a more amped sound to it. With those elements, we improvise around the songs.”

      Despite changing his musical direction upon meeting Matar, Valou was no stranger to Arabic pop. Stumbling years earlier across an old record by Omar Khorshid—an Egyptian musician and actor—he was first exposed to the genre through the performer’s psychedelic reimaginings of traditional tracks.

      “Khorshid accompanied some very famous Arabic singers as a guitar player in orchestras,” he says. “In his own time he would do his own instrumental versions of those songs. When I met up with Hazem for the first time and we started playing through some of his repertoire, I was like, ‘Oh, I know this song,’ because I’d learned it from that record.”

      Tarab takes famous songs from Arabic countries—mostly songs that were huge pop tracks from the ’50s to the ’80s—and works them into a jazz-fusion context.

      The band quickly found itself swamped with bookings. As well as performing at the prestigious Vancouver International Jazz Festival and other major events around town, Tarab secured a residency at the high-class Shangri-La Hotel. Despite often being viewed as a niche genre, in Valou’s view, world music is thriving in Vancouver, with plenty of venues excited to showcase the blending of cultures.

      “I’m big on fusing and mixing music, and experimenting and breaking with tradition,” he says. “That’s my thing. I love bringing disparate musical and cultural ideas together and celebrating it. Adding different traditions is great if it’s done respectfully and with some authenticity, because otherwise I think you run the risk of cultural appropriation—which is obviously not good. I think we’ve managed to get that balance in our music by combining Hazem’s experience with our more jazz-focused background.”

      Maintaining those cultural differences, however, comes at a cost. With Matar now spending the majority of his time in Saudi Arabia, Tarab must be selective about which shows it chooses to play, and in recent years has limited its performances to once every 12 months. This year’s show will take place at the Railway Club—a sentimental venue for Valou, as the location’s original incarnation was the site of the group’s very first booking.

      “We’re really looking forward to playing there,” he says. “We’re sharing the night with two female-fronted Iranian bands—the traditional fusion group Keejaa and Persian flamenco singer Farnaz Ohadi. It’s exciting to be back on the stage at the Railway Club, and, in a way, it feels like we’ve come full circle. 

      Tarab plays the Railway Club on Thursday (July 19).