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LIVE: Sarāb – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 28/05/2024

With their huge sense of creative adventure and fusion of a wide range of musical styles, the French group Sarāb certainly embody much of the spirit of the Howard Assembly Room, a live performance venue that also embraces diversity and is built upon a principle of innovation.

One of the leading acts on the Parisienne music scene, Sarāb merge together rock, contemporary jazz, and traditional Arabic sounds. Formed in 2018 following a chance meeting between Franco-Syrian singer Climène Zarkan and French guitarist Baptiste Ferrandis, this month sees the collective making their UK debut. Leeds is the fourth and final date of this leg of a tour that has also visited North Africa and Europe, and tonight’s concert forms part of the prestigious Leeds Jazz Festival in what is this country’s second city of jazz.

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Climène Zarkan and Baptiste Ferrandis are joined on stage tonight by Timothee Robert (e-bass), Robinson Khoury (trombone), and Paul Bern (drums), the quintet opening the first half of their set with a couple of love songs – ‘Enta’ and ‘Yally shaghalt al bal’ – which immediately illustrate the abstract alchemy of their sound. It is a sound that meets at a cultural crossroads. It may well be impressionistic by design, but given Ferrandis’s flamboyant fretwork – a Gallic Eddie Van Halen, if you will – and Khoury’s majestic trombone it becomes so wonderfully heavy by nature.

‘Chorale’, where Zarkan and Ferrandis’s voices dovetail together quite beautifully, is a poignant message for peace and freedom, concepts and realities that have become so far removed for so many people in the world today. Sarāb’s commitment to, and promotion of peace and social justice is unwavering. As the first half of this powerful performance draws to a close Climène Zarkan invites the audience to join her in a minute’s silence in memory of the dozens of displaced people who were killed two days ago in Rafah by Israeli forces. It is an impeccably observed 60 seconds.

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Despite an intermission, Robinson Khoury’s mournful trombone solo seamlessly heralds the introduction to ‘Queen Rast’ and the start of the second half of the concert. The deeply moving ‘Samt (Je Me Souviens)’ includes a recitation by Climène Zarkan of some words written by the Syrian poet Maram al-Masri who for the last 20 years has lived in France. Pleas for the cessation of hostilities, exile, and forced migration in the world today are recurring themes of the evening.

Yet to this shade, Sarāb also bring light. ‘Ma Bahwa Had’ – alongside several other songs taken tonight from the band’s 2021 album, Arwā​h Hurra – Âmes libres – metamorphoses into an explosive pyrotechnic freak out that wouldn’t have been entirely out of place on some late ‘60’s Frank Zappa record. They close with last October’s release, ‘Zourouni’ which pays tribute to the Egyptian composer Sayed Darwish, a man often viewed as being the father of modern Arab music. It serves as a symbolic link between the past and present and reinforces Sarāb’s position at the helm of such a seismic sonic renaissance.

Photos: Simon Godley

More photos of Sarāb at Howard Assembly Room

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