Suleiman Sabbah Alzalabih/Mohsen

Camp Suleiman Sabbah, Wadi Rum, Jordan - 7 October 2009


"The rebab was made from a recycled cigar box"

Suleiman Sabbah Alzalabih plays the rebab My wife and I recently went on holiday to Jordan (a spectacular country and thoroughly recommended as a destination) and although my musical antennae are always scouring for any gig going opportunity, I didn't expect much in the way of experimental electronica during the trip. Sure enough, though there is a growing trance scene in the capital Amman, we didn't find any. However, we were fortunate enough to have planned a couple of days in the Wadi Rum desert, made famous by Lawrence of Arabia's exploits, and David Lean's epic film about Lawrence. This included an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent camp in the desert. What I hadn't realised was that this evening was to feature traditional Bedouin music.

Beyond what I read in guide books before traveling, I knew little of Bedouin culture and nothing about their music. However, I'd quickly picked up on the music as it was easy to hear wherever we went, and is especially popular with taxi drivers and their cassette players. Like most such indiginous music, this was firmly rooted in folk culture, often a single instrument and a voice, with improvised poetry at the heart of the lyrics. The two most prevalent instruments are the lute-like Oud and the one-stringed, fretless rebab played with a small bow. I don't have any pre-disposition to world music generally, although I do have a soft spot for the Japanese shamisen, some Enka music and the Kodo drummers. So I'm always willing to be open-minded, but even with the best will, a lot of world music just doesn't click with me.

Mohsen plays the oudBedouin music on the other hand did pretty quickly. Whether it was instrumental, one voice and a rebab or Oud, or the chanting of multiple voices on top of some instrumentation - all the variants I listened to I liked. So, by the time we sat down in the communal tent in the middle of the beautiful and otherwise silent Wadi Rum desert, not only were my ears attuned to the general style but I was very receptive. The evening's musical entertainment was focused on two musicians and a group of young Bedouin who help around the camp who double up as dancers. Suleiman Sabbah Alzalabih was the owner of the camp and, like most present, has lived in the desert since being born there. Yuko and I were the first to enter the main tent followed shortly by Suleiman who sat down with us on the matted floor, served us small glasses of the delicious, sweet black tea prevalent in Jordan, and began informally playing a home-made rebab, the body of which was a recycled cigar box. The romantic, idlyllic setting may have played a part in one's perception, but unlikely though it may sound from such a description, this was immediately arresting and affecting. Suleiman began slow chanting/singing on top of the bowed rebab, the combination of the two the very essence of how you imagine the soundtrack to such an exotic location would be.

Joined by other guests, then joined by Mohsen who brought his Oud with him. We could have been sitting there several hundred years ago and it wouldn't have been any different. Though the atmosphere was rudely interrupted briefly when Mohsen had to step outside to take a call on his hitherto concealed mobile phone! The tempo and mood shifted from the reflective and quiet of earlier to more up tempo, fun and interactive as the young Bedouin soon got us up dancing and clapping in time as best we could. What began with reverence ended with unbridled fun. 8/10

Rob Dyer


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