BEIRUT: Rabih Abou-Khalil doesn't have a reputation for repeating himself. A masterful oud player, a classically trained flautist and a composer who bends the modal structures of traditional Arabic music to the rhythms of big-band jazz, lackadaisical blues and Eastern European folk, he is eclectic almost to a fault.
Over the course of a 25-year career, Abou-Khalil has matched his oud with the accordion, the harmonica, an acoustic pizzicato bass, two alto saxophones, two tubas, the ney, the flugelhorn, pianos and drums and a string quartet. He has experimented with the complex time signatures of Turkish music, the hokey tempos of an American marching band, free improvisation and avant-garde jazz. So if Abou-Khalil's latest album signals a return to his roots, it does so with a difference.
That difference is embodied in the haunting, mournful sound of the duduk, a 3,000-year-old Armenian instrument that sounds like an oboe and looks like a rustic clarinet. Also known as an apricot pipe because it is most often fashioned from the aged wood of apricot trees, the duduk is double-reeded and requires vast reserves of breath. It is the instrument that gave Djivan Gasparyan's album "Moon Shines at Night" its sorrow and Peter Gabriel's soundtrack for "The Last Temptation of Christ" its force.
On "Songs for Sad Women," Abou-Khalil's 19th album to date and his 15th on Enja Records, Gevorg Dabaghyan turns up on duduk for the first time in an Abou-Khalil ensemble. He joins the composer's more frequent collaborators, Jarrod Cagwin on drums and frame drums, and Michel Godard on serpent, a medieval wind instrument named for its elaborate serpentine curves. Distantly related to the tuba, which Godard has played on earlier Abou-Khalil albums, the serpent sounds like a bass brass, but it is made from wood with a leather sleeve and finger holes instead of valves.
On the seven tracks that constitute "Songs for Sad Women," the oud, duduk and serpent take turns picking up the ponderous melodic lines while the drums dance lightly. Cagwin throws up a seemingly shallow field for the heavier instruments to puncture and create depth. The occasional splash, tap and rattle of the daff, or tambourine, lifts the mood of an otherwise somber set of soundscapes.
Abou-Khalil's song titles - such as "Mourir pour ton decollete" and "Best If You Dressed Less" - suggest a randiness that is scarcely in evidence, at least sonically speaking. More to the point is the title "The Sad Women of Qana," the fourth and most outstanding track on the album, which perfectly suits the sound of the duduk. Running eight-and-a-half minutes in length, the song is funereal, somnolent and hypnotic. It is paced by variations on a progression of notes that climb, hinge and fall. Clearly processional and loosely tragic, the piece makes sudden, nimble jumps in time signature, then hollows out for what sound like skillfully improvised solos. Abou-Khalil was born in Beirut in 1957. He began playing the oud at four, when most kids his age were probably playing with blocks or learning how to write their names. He entered adolescence right as Beirut hit its cosmopolitan peak. The Lebanese capital, circa 1970, had Hamra Street in its heyday - lined with theaters, cinemas and cafes, populated with a raucous mix of poets and political dissidents that was unrivaled anywhere else or since in the Arab world.
Abou-Khalil enrolled in the national conservatory and studied under Georges Farah. He seemed poised to do for Arabic composition what Adonis was doing for Arabic verse. But after three years of civil war and a diminishing horizon of opportunity, he left Lebanon for Germany, where he entered the Munich Academy of Music and studied flute with Walther Theurer. Abou-Khalil has lived in Europe ever since.
According to an interview five years ago with the BBC World Service music program "Jazzmatazz," Abou-Khalil couldn't convince any record label anywhere to take him on - in the 1980s, they didn't even know what an oud was. Abou-Khalil financed his first recording with a bank loan.
Two decades later, he is a hero who performs all over the world and is invited to numerous jazz festivals a year. He is often lumped in with Anouar Brahem and Dhafer Youssef, for no other reason, it seems, than the fact that they all play an instrument now recognized as a component of a category called "world music." They sound nothing alike. It is as useful to compare Shostakovich and Aphex Twin because they both had a thing for the harpsichord.
Abou-Khalil has often spoken out against the homogenizing cultural politics and feel-good factors inherent to the world music enterprise. His oeuvre owes as much to modern jazz idioms as it does to Arabic maqamat. Critics have often said he has the compositional architecture of classical musicologist and plays oud as if it were jazz guitar. His last album, "Journey to the Center of an Egg," relished the abstract expressions of post-Coltrane free jazz.
What Abou-Khalil contributes to the vast body of music composed on the oud is a crucial two-way experimentation. He constantly pushes his instrument in new directions, yet as evidenced on "Songs for Sad Women" he can be just as experimental when diving into the wreck of history.
Rabih Abou-Khalil's "Songs for Sad Women" is out now from Enja Records. For more infor-mation, please check out www.enjarecords.com