I’m not comfortably familiar with Middle Eastern music, but I know a good musician when I hear one, and Riad Abdel-Gawad certainly fits that bill.
On his second album, the Egyptian-born composer-performer (a Harvard graduate with a PhD in musical composition) showcases his exemplary violin (kamanga) playing in exotic Middle Eastern tuning and scales. Abdel-Gawad is a master of both his instrument and the music he produces with it. He plies his trade with unfaltering, steady, and confident note-precision virtuosity. The music is equally challenging and kinetic, with constantly changing time signatures, tempos, melodies, motifs, and riffs, all within the same song.
Abdel-Gawad has a great band of musicians backing him up: Mohamed Foda (Fouda) on nay (bamboo flute), Saber Abdel-Sattar on qānūn (plucked dulcimer), Yousri Abdel-Maqsoud on bongos, duff, and riqq (tambourine), and Hesham Makarem on the oud (lute). Although Abdel-Gawad is the lead composer and performer, he functions simultaneously as bandleader, soloist, and ensemble player. Through it all, Abdel-Gawad’s fellow musicians stay with him every step of the way, never missing a beat. This is one of the tightest, well-coordinated musical units I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.
The recording quality and presentation of the music is top-notch, as well. The sound is so intimate and well-defined that it feels as if you’re right next to the bandstand. The packaging material is also exquisite, with beautiful art on the cover and in the CD holder, and a glossy sixteen-panel foldout featuring vivid color photography of the artist and his violin amidst Egyptian landmarks, as well as detailed descriptions of the meanings, inspirations, and intentions behind the music.
All around, this is an exceptional offering from a dedicated and innovative artist. If you’re looking for a great introduction to Middle Eastern music, this is definitely a wonderful place to start.