CD review
Fil Waha by Helm

Reviewed by Yasmela

In the age of improvised Middle Eastern-ish Tribal Enigma and heavily orchestrated Egyptian style music, it is absolutely wonderful to have an entire CD of traditional music played on acoustic instruments. F'il Waha - At the Oasis, Music of the Hahbi'ru Vol. 2 is Helm's newest offering and what a delight it is! Expertly engineered with a wonderful selection of songs from the Islamic world, F'il Waha blends traditional and original compositions to give us an exciting CD of music that is guaranteed to make you get up and dance. But aside from dancing, F'il Waha is just a pleasure to hear. From raucous funky tribal tunes to lovely complex rhythms from southern Persia, there is something for everyone on this CD.

Helm is an eclectic group of master musicians that have been around the dance scene since the early years. Mark Bell, the group's founder, started playing in 1972, his first gig with Jamila Salimpour's Bal Anat. He worked the North Beach clubs (the Casbah and Bagdad), traveled in the Middle East and North Africa and played in the top Persian clubs in LA. In 1986 he returned to Northern California and started playing with Hahbi'ru shortly thereafter. His drumming provides a solid, spirited backbone to the playful and soulful instrumentation of his wife Elisabeth, who plays Arabic woodwinds, writes original songs and does most of the arranging. Frank Aviles, a veteran of the music scene since the 70's, has recorded with Light Rain on Arabic tabla and plays salsa, Afro-Cuban/Latino music on the congas. Laurie Eisler studied in Egypt and plays the qanun like an angel. Hector Bezanis, another music scene veteran, is best known for playing guida-Bulgarian bagpipes, plays the tupan, all kinds of woodwinds and adds a sage's knowledge of "how instruments work." This is Helm's third musical offering, soon to be followed by a CD which is a compilation of Fat Chance Belly Dance's Music for Tribal Basics and most of their first recording, Music of the Hahbi'ru.

Aside from a couple of songs that were on the first recording, a cassette that is being phased out, the rest of the songs on this CD have never been recorded by Helm. Even the recycled tunes have been reworked and, of course, the recording quality makes them sound brand new. One of my favorite selections from F'il Waha is Jamilo, sung by Paula Oxman, Rayna and Elisabeth Bell. I remember Jamilo from the early days when John and his first dance partner Farideh performed it with Baba Ganoush and later Kos Kados. It is a traditional Yemeni coffee grinding song and has that typical Gulf bounce. The title song, F'il Waha, a mesmerizing tour d'force is followed by the haunting and magical Huriyah. From the rolling rhythms of the zarb to the wailing of the zurna, F'il Waha evokes the travels of wandering caravans across the musical landscape. The CD ends with some dynamite drumming, totally suitable for showcasing your best moves. It's hard to sit still.

All in all this is a lovely CD that fills the empty niche for well recorded traditional tribal style music. It is an antidote to over electrification and synthetic excess, showcasing the expertise and beauty of acoustic musicians with a modern flair. Every single tune is danceable. The whole CD is a listening pleasure and I for one look forward eagerly to more music from Helm. BRAVO!

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