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The San Diego Union-Tribune Review of Arezu June 30 , 2003

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Hip-hop meets Romany, and Farsi meets ... Luther Vandross (!)

By George Varga

June 30, 2005

"The Other Stream" is a monthly look at music outside the mainstream that pushes borders and boundaries.

"Urban Gypsy"
Shukar Collective
Riverboat/World Music Network

The idea behind "Urban Gypsy" sounds like a recipe for disaster, but this unlikely fusion of age-old Romanian Gypsy music and cutting-edge electronica can be startling in its originality and power.

Shukar Collective features a group of ursari performers from a village outside Bucharest. The ursari tradition was created centuries ago to provide musical accompaniment for dancing bears, whose choreography was the result of being imprisoned in chains. Happily, Shukar's members have dispensed with this grisly treatment of captive animals.

What remains is a winning mix of harsh, guttural vocals and raw percussion, some of which Shukar's Napoleon Constantin produces by kicking a wooden barrel or by throwing rocks and gravel in, or against, it.

Group leader Radu "Tamango" Vasile, 62, a father of nine, performs on kitchen spoons. He cites Louis Armstrong as his main vocal inspiration, although he sounds more like an Eastern European Tom Waits on a major bender. Petre "Clasic" Panciu, 24, specializes in "primitive percussion" (although how much more primitive than rocks and gravel that could be is unclear).

Other members include leading Romanian jazz contrabassist Vlaciu Golcea, DJ Vasile, sound engineer Cristian Stanciu and several others, young and old. Together, they produce a provocative synthesis that combines ursari music with fractured hip-hop beats, dub reggae production effects and various electronica approaches. More often than not, they combine these elements without diluting any of them in the process.

A few tracks, such as the chill-out "Wander" and "Disperi Romanes," fail to ignite, but the fiery vocal exchanges on "Taraf" and the aptly named "Verbal Fight" are chilling and captivating.

Mahvash Azhir

(www.mahvashazhir.com)By day, San Carlos resident Mahvash Azhir is a counselor for the San Diego Regional Center, a nonprofit organization that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities. By night, this expatriate Iranian singer makes music with her artistic partner, Erik Stein, with whom she collaborated on her impressive 2001 debut album, "Koocheh."

"Arezu" ("Desire"), her sophomore effort, finds Azhir sounding even more poised and confident as she performs nine songs, all in her native Farsi. Stein, who plays keyboards and guitar, is joined on each selection by his brothers, violinist Edmund and cellist Rudolph. A third brother, Victor, contributes keyboards and percussion to one track, while two other musicians appear on several selections.

Together, they provide an understated aural tapestry that enhances Azhir's lovely singing and the album's subtle fusion of Eastern melodies and Western-styled arrangements and production touches. "Jan-e-Shirin" "Precious") places her gently undulating vocals over a buoyant Brazilian rhythm, while "Mastom Mastom" ("Infatuation") updates a traditional Iranian folk song with a light funk beat and a pop-jazz tenor sax solo by Irwin Hass. Three other pieces are fresh remakes of contemporary Persian songs, while the remainder are original compositions.

One wishes at times that Erik Stein, who co-produced the album with Azhir and was previously a keyboardist in Luther Vandross' band, would assume a more edgy approach. But Azhir's exquisite singing delights throughout, especially on such finely crafted ballads as the tango-inflected "Mara Beboos" ("Kiss Me Goodbye") and "

... Chenin Nakhahad Maand" ("This Too Shall Pass"), which delicately sets to music the words of a 13th-century poem by Hafez, one of Iran's most revered writers.

George Varga: (619) 293-2253; george.varga@uniontrib.com

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