John Berberian & the Rock East Ensemble - Middle Eastern Rock

John Berberian & the Rock East Ensemble
Middle Eastern Rock

Released 1969 on Verve / Forecast
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 24/05/2004ce

Side 1
The Oud & The Fuzz

Side 2
Iron Maiden
Flying Hye
3/8 + 5/8 = 8/8
The Magic Ground

John Berberian: oud
Steve Pumilian: dumbeg
Souren Baronian: clarinet, sax, zills
Bob Tashjian: percussion & vocal
Joe Beck: lead guitar
Ed Brandon: rhythm guitar
Chet Amsterdam: bass
Bill LaVorgna: drum kit

One day I bought 3 records at a Goodwill for about a dime apiece -- two were psych-looking relics with groovy album covers by groups called Mandala and Central Nervous System. The third was this one, with it's silly arabs-and-camels-painted-on-a-girls-belly cover art. But surprisingly it turned out to be by far the best of that day's purchases.

First of all, the title & cover art are totally deceptive: John Berberian and his crew are Armenian-Americans, not Arabs (though there is one song on here that is based on a traditional Arabic tune.) The "Rock East Ensemble" consists of 4 guys from Berberian's regular group along with 4 NYC session musician types who play in a more traditionally "American" rock/jazz style.

In other words, this is a fusion record. Unfortunately marketed in a kind of crass way, but I got nuthin against Berberian's attempt to crossover from the "ethnic music ghetto" to the rocknroll masses. Because the result is a pretty wonderful record that defies categorization but is still fun to listen to, in fact I've thrown it on at parties.

"The Oud & The Fuzz" begins with a multi-percussive groove and some jazzy chords before Berberian begins soloing on the oud -- apparently he was the premiere oud player of his day, and I can believe it cuz he smokes. His style is rooted in an Asian tradition, the instrument sounds a bit like a sitar so to compare it to "raga" isn't half wrong. Only it's funkier, trance inducing spring-loaded rhythmic motiffs joyfully bouncing from the speakers. Then the dumbeg doubles up the beat (they don't play faster, just MORE) and Beck plays a fuzz guitar solo that is a little too slick for rock but too scuzzed for jazz. After his solo, he starts playing some chicken scratch funky afrochords such as you rarely hear outside of Fela records as the oud runs amok. Then the beat doubles up one more time and the oud & fuzz guitar leads go at it simultaneously. The only track on the album in your standard 4/4 rock time (all the time signatures are helpfully provided in the liner notes), it's like high energy bellydance music and I can totally dig that it's not really acid rock, surf music, jazz, traditional Armenian or "Middle Eastern" music -- yet it is like all those things at once.

"Tranquility" is in 6/8 time, very mellow, sort of psychedelic with a ghostly flute riffing along. Add a overwrought hippy singing through a ton of reverb and it could be July or Jade Warrior! Also some sax playing which is refreshing in that it bears little relation to your standard jazz fare of the day -- though the "oriental honking" he's doing does start to sound like klezmer at times.

"Chem-oo-chem" is a traditional Armenian tune, the only one on the record with vocals (in Armenian natch.) It's a catchy tune, sounds like something from "Fiddler on the Roof" and I can picture the band playing this at a wedding for the Armenians to dance to. There's a nice jam section in the middle with jazz/psych lead guitar and more of that honking not-jazz sax, and throughout the whole record the guy on the drum kit is snapping off these neat funky little licks in odd meters, so he deserves a comparison with Jaki Liebezeit!

"Iron Maiden" features the sax in snake-charmer mode, and more typically brilliant soloing on the oud by Berberian.

"Flying Hye" (Hye being Armenian for "Armenian") has an unusual loping groove (it's in 9/8 time) and features a cool descending riff on the oud. During Beck's solo he's obviously trying to imitate Berberian's style (and doing a pretty good job of it.)

"3/8 + 5/8 = 8/8" is a reference to the way they subdivide the beats on this one -- actually the opening beat & guitar riff sounds a lot like the beginning of "Kobaia" off the first Magma album! Then it turns into another of those vaguely East-European klezmer jam type things. At times it begins to sound quite like the "Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" jam on the Mothers' "Absolutely Free" album (which was also released on Verve FYI.)

"The Magic Ground" is an actual traditional Arabic tune, the title and bouncy vibe make me think of the Meat Puppets for some reason (not that it sounds anything like that band, more like it conjures up surreal desertscape imagery similar to wot you find on Pups album covers.)

This record and a couple others by John Berberian & his various groups have been reissued on CD and are available at Freak Emporium & perhaps other places.

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