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Tarhana: Nomads in music

Tarhana is the Balkan name for a thick, white soup made from fermented dairy. But Tarhana the band is a feast for the ears rather than the mouth. Fusing musical traditions of the Balkans and Near East with Western Jazz and electronic effects, the band brought a spectacular end to the second day of the Cairo Jazz Festival at El-Sawy Culture Wheel.

But what on Earth were they singing about?

The Amsterdam-based group of six boasts a medley of nationalities, with a Belgium drummer, an Icelandic bassist, a Romanian sax and clarinet player, a Turkish-Dutch percussionist, a German keyboardist, and finally, a Turkish vocalist.

Ozhan Acikbas, the group’s vocalist and saz player–saz being a Turkish version of the oud–reverberated soulful Sufi chants against a backdrop of ambient soundscape at the performance’s onset, later singing in what could be labeled close to Turkish pop.

But would a language barrier stand in the way of this talented group’s ability to emotionally connect with the audience? Two tracks in, when half the standing spectators were compelled to start dancing along, the answer seemed to be a clear no.

Tarhana is unique in this respect. Though rooted in delivering technically demanding, skill-driven music, with intermittent lightening-speed solos, and at times baffling orchestrations of complex melodies, they never fall victim to what many such bands are prone to: an impressed, yet bored audience.

“The audience was very warm and responsive,” said clarinet and saxophone player Alex Simu to Al-Masry Al-Youm. “We were thrilled to play in front of them, and the setting by the Nile was fantastic."

The group’s melding of Sufi-inspired vocals with pulsating dance rhythms, all while based on traditional wind, string and percussion instruments, provided a refreshing novelty to Egypt’s music scene.

In the second half of their performance, Tarhana played what was probably their most memorable song, one with roots in the Balkans and Near East that sounded like fast-forwarded salsa with a heavy percussion core. At first, the rapid tempo stifled the dancing audience, but soon enough, gangs of youth were attempting the notorious “Borat dance” popularized in the UK-produced Kazak-parody film Borat. They happily and ridiculously kept pace with the swift and erratic melody.

What really won spectators over was a brief speech by saxophonist Simu. He said that wherever they tour internationally, people always ask them to confirm that they are from Amsterdam.

“Then they always ask us, ‘Do you have the stuff?’” he said to an incredulous audience, clearly referring to marijuana. “Of course we have some stuff,” he added with a mischievous grin, “We always have some stuff with us.”

“It’s about this big,” he finally said, holding his index fingers far enough apart to suggest a sizable joint, eliciting nervous laughter from a now confused audience. Then, illumination: “And it’s gonna get you real high if you put it in your CD player.”

It worked. "We weren’t sure if people listened much to CDs in Egypt," Simu later told Al-Masry Al-Youm, "but we sold quite a few in the end."

All in all, Tarhana gave a spectacular performance, boosted by decent sound quality that did not hamper the often beautifully explosive performance, particularly on the clarinet and drums.

Yet there was still disappointment, here embodied by poor audience turnout. Many of the few dozen seats available remained unoccupied throughout the performance, and the larger standing area was loosely half-filled. At times there was a vague sense of embarrassment that a band of this quality shared its talent with so few.

Tarhana was founded in 2005 by its percussionist Sjahin During. Since then, the group has performed in five continents and over 14 countries.

You can catch Tarhana in their final performance in Egypt at Boss Bar today, Sunday 14 March.

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