I first came across the music of Al Jawala at the Plai festival in 2007. Headlining said show was flamenco legend Paco De Lucia and we were all very excited to see this guitar heavyweight in action. I was not familiar with any of the opening acts and was excited at the prospect of making some new discoveries as I had in the past. There is usually at least one band that captures my interest and that year it was this pack of young troubadours from the very German-sounding city of Freiburg im Breisgau. Al Jawala (apparently an Arrabic term meaning “The Wanderers”) consists of Steffi Schimmer and Krischan Lukanow on sax (alto and tenor respectively), Daniel Pellegrini on drums, keyboard and didgeridoo (more on that in a moment) Marcus Schumacher on percussions and drums and Daniel Verdier on bass. They were there promoting their 2007 release Lost In Manele which is a live album recorded in Tollhaus, Karlsruhe Germany. As I’ve mentioned before, I generally find labeling music by “genre” irritating and pointless, and since I don’t think that Balkan-Soul and Dance-Beat are actually things I will, for the sake of the review, refer to what they play as being part of (the all-encompasing) “world” music trend, especially since, as stated on the sleeve, four of the tracks are based on “traditional motives”. The work can also fit into the equally large “Jazz” category by virtue of saxophone alone.
If you’re curious about the title, the word “manele” refers to a “genre” of music specific to the Rroma community that gained popularity in Romania somewhere around the ‘90s but caused a backlash from the intellectual and artistic community for being vulgar and promoting questionable moral values. The band came up with the title after getting lost in Bucharest with nothing but posters promoting manele concerts for reference points. The band does indeed have a strong connection to the Romanian music scene as they have often played Romanian festivals and are generally well received in the country. Fortunately the only trait their music shares with the notorious manele is its very rhythmic nature and the Balkan influences.
The album starts off strong with “Crazy” and you can immediately tell that this is a record to be enjoyed in an active environment as the dynamic melody and strong rhythm serve their purpose and immediately hook the listener. The two young sax players are not Jan Garbarek, but they don’t need to be as their talent and enthusiasm (I remember that they genuinely seemed to be having a lot of fun when I saw them live) more than make up for their lack of experience and give the music the shape it needed to have. Though the listener will, upon first impression, be mesmerized by the melody of the saxophones a closer inspection reveals very capable drums, percussions and, especially bass. I was delighted with the way Daniel Verdier (who joined the band four years after its inception to transform it into a quintet) understood the melody and was able to shape his playing to fit the sound and offer some very entertaining bass lines. The title track “Lost In Manele” is probably the highlight offering a little bit of everything from the aforementioned traditional motives to a great, lively beat. In fact, all the first five tracks are very catchy and will make you want to listen to them over and over again. They provide a great flow to the beginning of the record. After “Nortwint”, a tune that is at times a bit more grave and meditative, the record starts going downhill a bit. The rest of the songs are by no means weak and they do provide some enjoyable music and, at times, some memorable sounds but overall they fail to live up to the first part of the album. To this contributes the overuse of the didgeridoo, a traditional Australian instrument that, as far as I can tell, the band is just inserting for kicks. When I reviewed Lungs by Florence and The Machine a few months ago I mentioned that one of the things I enjoyed the most about the album was the very wise use they made of the harp, giving the tracks a bit of an “exotic” sound without overdoing it or having it grow tiresome but, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Al Jawala’s use of the didge (Fönky I is just ridiculous - and not in the good way)
Even though the record loses some steam on the second half that is not really a problem since the very generously-sized album (about 74 minutes) provides plenty of melody and entertainment and some tunes that are guaranteed to stick with you. The fact that it is a “live” recording gives it a very raw and uncomplicated (this time in the good way) feel that sometimes disappears from more ample and elaborate European Jazz records, something I appreciate a lot for the same reason why some of my favorite works by Da Vinci are his notes and drawings and not his paintings. Overall, though difficult to listen to in one sitting due to its sometimes repetitive nature, Lost In Manele is an album that is definitely worth a try from a dynamic young quintet that hold lots of promise.