The Arab Blues
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The Arab Blues

Chicago, Illinois, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2019 | SELF

Chicago, Illinois, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2019
Band World Blues




"World Music Festival"

Egyptian percussionist, DJ, and dancer Karim Nagi is a ubiquitous presence on the Chicago music scene. He performs solo concerts, which include dancing and storytelling; he leads Huzam, a quartet of Arab American musicians who play original compositions in traditional forms; and he plays in the Arab Blues project developed by Rami Gabriel, who’s not just a musician but also a professor of psychology at Columbia College. Gabriel switches between electric guitar, oud, and buzuq, while Nagi accompanies on riqq (a small tambourine-like frame drum), tabla (a goblet-shaped hand drum, often called a “darbuka” in the West), or an unconventional trap kit assembled mainly from traditional instruments (for a bass drum, he sometimes uses a box drum). Like the name says, the Arab Blues seek connections between the Middle Eastern compositional and improvisational canon—called the turath—and the Western traditions of blues and jazz. This isn’t an entirely new approach, and in the duo’s sets you can hear occasional echoes of earlier East-West hybrids, such as Dick Dale’s surf-rock workout on the Eastern Mediterranean folk song “Misirlou” or Rabih Abou-Khalil’s oud fusion classic “Blue Camel.” The Arab Blues’s synthesis is accessible, gritty, and exhilarating, and Nagi is a born performer—he always seems to be having the time of his life onstage. He and Gabriel create a sound that’s sometimes graceful, sometimes bracingly noisy, like a Middle Eastern garage band.
- Noah Berlatsky, Chicago Reader - Chicago Reader

"Concert Review: The Arab Blues at Space"

Memphis, Egypt, is located beside the west side of the Nile which runs for 4,132 miles. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, is located along the Mississippi River, which runs for 2,340 miles. Both extraordinarily vast and storied bodies of water share many attributes. Foremost among them is that they are both the respective lifelines of some of the most venerable civilizations in human history, both ancient and living. The Sphinx and earth mother of the Blues. A flower blossom in the Delta.

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The Arab Blues situate these geographic facts in a hypnotic juxtaposition of musical excellence. 1001 Arabian Nights of 12 Bar Blues. Camels parading down Maxwell Street. BB King Tut. A pair of finger cymbals found in an old cigar box buried in a junk yard.

The instrumental duo Arab Blues played Tuesday night at Evanston’s SPACE to a packed and eager house. On stage, guitarist Rami Gabriel was surrounded with a small arsenal of stringed instruments: oud, buzuq and guitar. Karim Nagi, drummer, sat beside him on his throne, smiling and situated behind a multifaceted percussion rig that included a kick, a rack of drums, an array of cymbals – some as small as a bell – and a handful of tambourines.

The Arab Blues takes the modality and structure of the blues and combines it with the inflection of improvisational jazz, situating it within the context of traditional Lebanese-Egyptian music and instrumentation. The band showcases a striking combination of original compositions and classical Middle Eastern music. Gabriel is from Chicago by way of Lebanon. Nagi is from Boston, by way of Cairo. The two are both widely experienced players and multi-instrumentalists, fixtures of the larger jazz scene in Chicago. They have a full album released, the self-titled Arab Blues, which came out last year. The duo are currently working on a new studio length album at Chicago’s own Reliable Recorders.

The first number was “an original blues.” Gabriel took up his electric guitar and started in with a deep, meditative 12-bar riff. He turned inward to sketch the chords and bend long blue notes right out of the gate. Nagi took up a tambourine and dropped in with a strong stomping beat. The two were off.

What began at a stroll widened gradually into a roaring gulf, as they hooked the thing into a flying gear that bled into dissonance and broke into a pageantry of bright, heavy sound.

The hermetic mixture of these musical elements make for a miraculous sonic blaze. It’s like receiving a smoldering telegram in the ear from a vivid and ancient world. Cinematic and lucid, the variety of compositions in their set throughout the evening made for a lush and wandering portrait of surreality and ingenious spirit.

They did a ripping rendition of the much-loved Ellington staple, Caravan. Pushing the roving standard past the point of its usual territory, they fastened the notes like rags and darts to the side of a dune buggy desert wagon. Bringing it to the crested head of a surf rock wave that sounded like Dick Dale shredding the Nile.

Both Gabriel and Nagi have an extremely cordial and poignant interplay. On the uptemp numbers, Nagi chases down the melodic lines and matches the rapid latitudinal shifts fast-handedly. At nods and flourishes, they move in unison to catch the stops and turn sharp corners at a pin drop. Gabriel even at one point quoting Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk from the center of the whirl.

Gabriel takes the tone to task with a no-frills approach. He has a delightful penchant for getting heavy and letting the music go where it wants to. A number of pieces began acoustically, then lapsed toward a keen acceleration into a full wash of molten sound. Gabriel possesses a matter-of-fact alchemy that he freely doles into coptic jars, calibrated by the weight of intuitive scales and harnessed by the gravity of the traditional instruments at hand. Similarly, Nagi is just as much of a thrill. He leaps out from the side of traditional rhythmic patterns straight away into Amen breaks at hard tempo, then cools it to a fanciful buzz on the membrane of a small hand drum.

Returning for an encore, people stood to dance along the wall in the back and clapped along. A number of the improvisations reached such a frenetic pitch and high throttle that the feeling of true levity within the room was undeniable. At once it felt as if the whole scene could have vanished in a blink. The singularity of the moment arriving at that special point of relativity where the ecstasy of expression is on perfect balance with oblivion. A ritual among ruins. Not bad for a Tuesday night.

As the crowd exited SPACE and dispersed onto the street, the showroom windows of the rug galleries on Chicago Avenue hummed in their honey amber light. The Sherman Purple Line stop rumbled overhead, taking commuters south, back toward the city. What about the Arab Blues? It swirled like a vision in the mind and rang in the ear.

by Patrick Romanowski
March 27th, 2023 - Evanston Round Table




The Arab Blues traces a trajectory between tradition and innovation, we embody the call of tradition and the response of the diaspora. 

The synthesis Rami and Karim create is an auditory expression of not only the power and persistence of tradition but equally the validity of its transformation under the unique cultural conditions we inhabit. 

The basis of our work is the Turath, the canon of classical Arab compositions and improvisational techniques. This rich heritage consists of melodic and rhythmic exposition and instrumental interaction at countless levels of depth. 

We interpret these forms in the context of the sounds of the contemporary North American metropole. In this project, the equally lush traditions of Blues and Jazz in Chicago provide the context of how we approach and assimilate the Turath. 

This marriage of forms is fruitful because of the emotional range of the Blues and the improvisational flexibility and ingenuity of Jazz. 

The Arab Blues was developed by Lebanese-Egyptian oud and guitar player Rami Gabriel through a research fellowship at the Center for Black Music Research, two Illinois Artist grants, and a decade of experience as a jazz and blues musician in Chicago. 

Native Egyptian percussionist Karim Nagi, a 2-time beneficiary of the Doris Duke Building Bridges grant for Muslim Artists, a TEDx speaker, and accomplished teacher completes this duo with his energetic & lyrical rhythms on Riqq, Tublah and alternatively assembled drum-set.

Band Members