TAMSIN ELLIOTT & TAREK ELAZHARY – So Far Have We Come (Penny Fiddle Records PFR2309CD)

So Far We Have DoneI love going to festivals. I suspect we all love going to festivals but there’s something particular in my case, that I really enjoy, which can only happen in festivals. What I really like is wandering around the festival site, bumping into people, probably going for a beer, and then, above all wandering into a tent or a small pub and seeing someone play who just grabs my full attention.

Picking CDs to review can be a bit like that – somewhere on the way I’ll find a real gem, somewhere I’ll find an old friend I’ve not heard for a long time and it’s good to catch up. And then, just sometimes, I’ll find some music that I know very little about, music that’s like walking past an open door and, on hearing the sound coming out, you are drawn in because you can hear music that you just want to listen to.

So Far Have We Come, the debut album by Tamsin Elliott & Tarek Elazhary is based not only on English folk traditions, but also those of Egypt (about which I know next to nothing). It is, however, a CD that I really like – and I’ve been playing it for about three weeks, trying to work out how to describe it.

Elliott had spent several months in Egypt, exploring Arabic music, where she met Elazhary on the live music scene in Cairo. Once international travel became possible post-pandemic he was invited for a return visit, to make the collaborative album they had talked about. With a creative bursary from EDFSS, they began to develop the music in residency at Cecil Sharp House, before then travelling to Elliott’s hometown of Bristol to record their ideas.

There are thirteen tracks. The opening track ‘In The Grey Of The Morning’ is a gentle awakening to the music as well as to the day, birdsong discernible in the mix. It leads to ‘El Hara’ – oud, accordion and viola building together on a track they describe thus, “El Hara refers to a tiny alleyway bustling with life in the old part of Cairo, and this is a really Egyptian-feeling piece”. ‘The Returning Light//Late Frost’ is an English set, composed by Elliot, ‘Taqasim Nahawand’ is brief (1’38”), delicate – it would make beautiful background music for a film of a spider’s web after rain or in frost.

On ‘Amy Abu El Fanous’ (The Lantern Bearer), there is a rare vocal performed by fellow Egyptian Leila Sami. This leads to ‘Telaet Ya Mahla Norha’ – a title, I gather, about getting up at sunrise to milk cows – but one which has an English dance tune feel; it’s at the centre of the album in more ways than the just the sequencing. This leads us on to ‘Taqasim Bayati’ a title Google tells me is about dividing my house and then to the second song, ‘Jala Man Kad Sawarak’ a love song in which (I gather) the singer asks God how such a beautiful being can exist, which you have to say is a pretty splendid theme for a love song.

The album concludes with ‘Barn Elms//Halsway Hornpipe’ perhaps the easiest way into the set for those with English ears, harp and oud exchanging the foreground on what is essentially a dance tune. It’s the penultimate track before the final ‘Improvisation: Landscapes Of El Darb El Ahmar’ – where we began the album with birdsong in the background, we conclude on this track with the city sounds of Cairo in the background.

I began with likening this album to chancing upon music at a festival. Do I fully understand it with its melding of English and Egyptian tunes? No. Does it make me feel something listening to it and am I glad I chanced on it? Most definitely.

I’ll conclude with Elliott’s explanation, “The title of our debut album was born out of a conversation about the progress that has been made in women’s rights in Egypt and the UK. We see how much has changed, and yet how far we have to go – and this echoes across ecological crises, geopolitical tensions, racism and societal disconnection. So Far We Have Come also reflects the distance and barriers we have overcome to create this work together.

Open the metaphorical door and give it a listen.

Mike Wistow

 Artists’ website:  http://www.tamsinelliott.co.uk

‘El Hara’ – official video:

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