African Music In A Western Setting: Dawn Of Midi

by Martin Longley –

Dawn Of Midi are a piano trio, based in Brooklyn, but definitely not a jazz piano trio. Ultimately, it’s difficult to establish what kind of a piano trio they are, and in fact their music is so collectively orientated that DOM is just as much a bass or drums trio. Some reference points to the uninitiated would be minimalism, electronica or The Necks, from Australia, although the DOM band members might work hard to deny the presence of such influences.

The extended composition that makes up 2015’s Dysnomia album operates on a level that makes completely acoustic music sound akin to the hard repetitions of electronic dance music, part of a recent move towards having robotic sounds feed back into the organic sphere. The drum machine-inspired beats of Mark Guiliana would be another fine example.

A few days ago, I visited the Moroccan pianist Amino Belyamani in his Brooklyn apartment. Yes, we’re sat there facing his piano, but he also has a large Ghanaian drum and a pair of sintirs (string instruments of the Gnaoua musicians) leaning against the wall. Born and raised in Casablanca, Belyamani visits his family once or twice each year. He studied Western classical music in Morocco, and then continued his education at CalArts, near Los Angeles.

Dawn of Midi - press photo 04b Amino Belyamani by Falkwyn de Goyeneche_PRINT

Amino Belyamani

Belyamani’s father plays oud and piano, performing the classical repertoire from Iraq and Egypt, but Amino is also influenced by Gnaoua music, from Marrakesh and Essaouira. Besides DOM, Belyamani’s other main band in NYC is Innov Gnawa, dedicated to these sounds, and playing regularly around the City.

He met his future DOM colleagues at CalArt, bassist Aakaash Israni (from India) and drummer Qasim Naqvi (from Pakistan). Israni also plays with The Cookies, and  Naqvi spends a lot of time composing film scores.

Belyamani and Naqvi moved to NYC in 2009, followed by Israni a couple of years later, arriving from Paris. “We met as tennis mates at school,” Belyamani reveals. “Until one day we had the idea of playing music together. We would do freely improvised sessions in classrooms where we could turn off the lights, where not even the exit signs would be seen. It’s pitch black, so we’re just relying on our ears. It was a deep experience. We did that for a while, until we released the first record, which was a manifestation of all those sessions.” This was literally called First, and was released in 2010.

Dawn of Midi - press photo 04a Qasim Naqvi by Falkwyn de Goyeneche_PRINT

Qasim Naqvi

“It was improvisation in a Western setting,” he says, describing the trio’s original bias. “Based on what we all learned about that music, mostly classically influenced, especially by Bach, early Romantic, and also some 20th Century stuff.”

Then, DOM released a live EP (not surprisingly entitled Live EP) in 2011, comprised of self-proclaimed bootlegs recorded during their global adventuring. When they first started playing, DOM would choose to make shorter pieces. “In four or five minutes we’d try to make a statement, and then finish. Then we started doing the long form Dysnomia, a through-composed hour. It was going towards more of a rhythmic thing. I was going a lot more inside the piano, doing the muting stuff, then Aakaash would explore rhythmic stuff on his bass, under and over the bridge.”

The three had become conscious of how improvisation was prey to unpredictable success or failure, jointly feeling a desire for a more premeditated performance. “It took a whole year to make Dysnomia. Right now, we’re working on a commission, but we’re touring a lot, in and out of New York constantly, and we’re all involved with other projects, so it’s really hard to focus on making a new record. Dysnomia has been so well-received, we got a new cycle, a new life now that we’ve released it with a UK label, Erased Tapes, and people are still inviting us to play it.”

Dawn of Midi - press photo 04c Aakaash Israni by Falkwyn de Goyeneche_PRINT

Aakaash Israni

Even though Belyamani concedes that the threesome appreciate electronic sounds, principally artists on the Warp label such as Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and Boards Of Canada, he ultimately rejects the idea that they’re directly influenced by these artists. “Dysnomia has nothing to do with the sound of techno and electronic music. It’s just a coincidence, an after-the-fact thing. The particularity of the muted piano sound and the bass harmonics, it gave this vibe which allowed us to be under the electronica genre on iTunes, even though it’s entirely acoustic music. There are benefits and disadvantages to that. If we were really literal, we would be saying that we were playing African music. It has nothing to do with electronica or minimalism.”

Belyamani points out that Steve Reich studied in Ghana, setting him on the path to some of the core ideas of minimalism. “We all love Indian music, North and South, qawwali, all of that, and we all come from quote/unquote third world cultures, we share those same values, and that’s why we’re good friends, but specifically to the music, there’s none of the Asian influence, it’s entirely African, a lot of North African, and a lot of West African.”

Despite what Belyamani says, the listener might be forgiven for hearing Naqvi’s clacking snare as something emerging from a dub reggae miasma, or possessing the threatening tautness of a drum’n’bass rhythm. The trio interlock with maximum precision of parts, the second section of Dysnomia almost sounding like a blues boogie, as Belyamani snaps his dampened piano strings with an aggressively clipped attack. The third section has a pronounced Gnaoua vibration, and the sixth stretch can’t help reminding the listener of a banging house anthem, lurking and urban in its moody intensity. DOM sliced up this work in sections for two reasons. Firstly this was the way they tackled it when composing and learning the piece. Secondly, for the convenience of cd-listeners, and ultimately, DJs, to select a particular sequence.

DOM will be bringing the mighty Dysnomia to Moers on Sunday 15th …

(Photos:  Falkwyn de Goyeneche)

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