Born in Lebanon and currently based in Amsterdam, music is just part of Raed Yassin’s wider engagement with art; the guy has also done video and visual art, curated exhibits, blogged about comics and helped squire Omar Souleyman around the non-Syrian world. Thus, his discography is a bit patchy; a couple duos with American bass clarinetist Gene Coleman and Swiss multi-instrumentalist Paed Conca, both playing double bass, and one astounding track playing cassettes on percussionist Michael Zerang’s Cedarhead. I characterized his work on Cedarhead to that of a hip hop turntablist and whaddayaknow — turntables are his main instruments on the impishly titled The New Album.
Hip hop, however, is not on the agenda. Yassin works with old Arabic pop records, which makes a mockery of the album’s title. The cover illustration says a lot about what he does with them. It’s an assortment of images of alluring Middle Eastern sirens that have been cut into strips and interspersed with shards of a similarly sliced image of Yassin. There’s pop culture out there that we in the West don’t know much about, and it’s ripe for examination, re-evaluation and consideration as an expression of identity. The popping, crackly records that Yassin manipulates, much like he does those images, is very much a thing of the past; cassettes and CDs long ago eclipsed LPs in the Middle East, and the vinyl renaissance hasn’t made it back there yet. The sounds scratched into them are from another time, a time before civil wars and foreign invasions turned Lebanon from a hot vacation destination into a hotspot of global conflict.
At his least, Yassin is a nimble manipulator of sonic material; in just 33 seconds “Fairuz’s Kiss” skips repeatedly between the sounds of a cackling child, a female choir, some guy hollering and an orchestral flourish. It’s like a bombardment of someone else’s memories, intriguing but confusing and quite hard to decode. On “The Deaf Oud,” the album’s longest track at over nine minutes, the manipulation coheres into a bravura performance. He isolates bits from old folkloric recordings, turning one snipped oud figure into a bass line as stark and baleful as anything on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and wreathing it in yearning flute melodies. A singer keeps trying to break in, but Yassin never lets him get past the first word. It’s left to another oudist to break free, galloping along to the audible delight of a recorded audience. After they’re done cheering the bass sounds one more time, then suddenly cuts out. Is he trying to represent a lost cultural era, or to make something new from its ruins? Or maybe to show how music can cut through when words get stopped?
Whatever the intent, you feel different when it’s done.