TootArd – Laissez Passer
Glitterbeat – 10 November 2017
I’ve never been to the Middle East but for as long as I can remember the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been an open wound. I’ll leave it at that for the purpose of this review, but I don’t think it’s radical to say life in Palestine must be very challenging. TootArd are a band from the village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. The area, originally Syrian territory, has been part of Israel since 1967, but the inhabitants don’t have Israeli citizenship. Instead of a passport, they have a ‘laissez-passer’, or ‘let him pass’. They are officially stateless, or ‘undefined’.
It’s hardly surprising that TootArd’s unique situation has shaped their music as it has their lives. In a place like the Golan Heights “politics” is not a dirty word or an annoying pastime for hermits glued to computers and phones, it’s simply a fact of life.
The good news is that Laissez Passer, their second album, is an uplifting, eclectic, funky, highly danceable party of a record. TootArd have combined their various influences –tuareg, West-African, Arabic music and reggae into a unique trademark sound. The lyrics deal with their geopolitical situation in both a matter-of-fact way and a whimsical, romantic, even poetic fashion. A common metaphor is that of a bird, signifying freedom from oppression, the band members’ individual journeys to various parts of Europe, and presumably, their restless quest to combine different styles of music into something all their own.
The closest parallel I can think of musically is Bombino, the Tuareg electric guitarist whose blues-influenced music was brought to a Western audience by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. A sense of longing, the wide open spaces of the desert and the mountains, and an infectious optimism are all characteristics of this record.
Opener “Laissez Passer” bursts out of the speakers with a driving electro-acoustic beat that suggests an Arabian dance club as much as a party in the middle of the desert. Hasan Nakhleh‘s guitar playing shows how blues and Hendrix-inspired playing can blend perfectly with North African and Arabic melodic sensibilities. ‘I do not exist on the ID card, a string and a piece of wood are my gunpowder’.
‘A’sfur’ showcases the band’s reggae influences, artfully blending Jamaican rhythms with the Middle East. ‘Nasma Jabalyia’ is a wistful, melancholy tune with echo-d guitar lines slowly circling over a sparse beat.
‘Oya Marhaba’ is one of the catchiest tunes on this album, once again showing the band’s reggae influences as they lay down a deft Jamaican groove over which saxophone and guitar together play snakey melodies that make you think of ancient times and distant places. I dare you not to at least hum along and tap your feet to this crossover hit in the making. The lyrics are simple and effective: a joyous greeting to the travellers, weirdos and artists from the world.
‘Baysati blues’ is an instrumental with a wicked belly dance beat and triumphantly raunchy guitars laying down intricate Arabic melodies reminiscent of Egypt’s great guitarist Omar Khorshid. ‘Syrian Blues’ completes the circle by connecting the blues with Middle Eastern desert music. The title is a nod to the old homeland. With interlocking guitar and oud lines over a sombre snare beat, the song veers slightly into jam band territory in the middle before returning to its majestic, achingly beautiful desert blues vibe.
Laissez Passer is an excellent, beautifully eclectic blend of music from all over the Middle East from a part of the world most of us only know as a troubled, tormented region. Laissez-Passer shows that even or perhaps especially, the direst of circumstances can produce inspiring and uplifting music that will open up your mind and make you move your feet.
TootArd have also just been confirmed for Celtic Connections (3 February 2018, at Drygate Brewery, 85 Drygate, Glasgow G4 0UT, details here), with more shows due to be announced soon.
Laissez Passer is out now on Glitterbeat. Order via Amazon.
Photo credit: Hamody Gannam