Seven or eight years ago, when they were starting out, the big hit of the TootArd (Arabic for strawberries) band was a song titled “Mawkly,” aka Mowgli. At the performance I saw in 2010, the audience cavorted and danced the whole evening, but when the band played “Mawkly” the joy soared to new heights. “It takes people back to their childhood, it makes them feel good in the brain,” the band’s soloist, Hasan Nakhleh, said at the time.
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In fact, back then, the members of TootArd, who are from the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, were experiencing their own childhood. They started out as a rock band, but didn’t succeed in creating original music in that niche. Instead, they found their voice, or so they thought at the time, in the good, danceable vibrations of Jamaican music. They went for the fast side of reggae and fused it with Arabic music. The result could be termed “Majdal ska.”
No longer. Mowgli grew up and left the Jamaican jungle. Ska and reggae haven’t disappeared completely from the TootArd sound, but they’ve receded into the background, not to say gone underground. One major influence that has supplanted them is Tuareg blues, which was introduced to the world about 15 years ago by the Mali-based Tinariwen band. Based on spellbinding electric guitars, that music has fired the imagination of many rock artists and aficionados in recent years. It’s clear why TootArd fell in love with it and adopted it, and it’s good to see the band didn’t fall into the imitation trap but flowed in the higher channel of organic integration.
To begin with, TootArd added another guitarist. They already had two, meaning they now have three – and it doesn’t appear that they’re influenced by the Kaveret group. The cohesion of the three guitars allows the band to create a dense, fleshy sound and lead it, as they choose, either in the Tuareg direction, which generates a circular feeling; or toward Arab rock, whose motion is more linear; or to forge a synthesis between the two. Listen to the terrific track “Sahra,” which is located in the middle of the band’s new EP, “Laissez Passer.” It possesses a galloping momentum alongside gentle reflection, an instrumental flight of guitars and saxophone together with a distilled, anthem-like choral segment. TootArd term their music “roots rock jabali [mountainous],” and “Sahra” encapsulates the splendid encounter between mountain and desert.
“Sahra,” which is mostly instrumental, is followed by a wholly instrumental track, “Bayati Blues” (bayat is one of the maqams, or modes, in Arabic music). It’s an excellent piece, and together with its predecessor strengthens the impression that the band’s standard pieces, although fine and energetic, lack a measure of sting and distinctiveness that would place them at the same level as those two instrumental tracks.
TootArd, “Laissez Passer,” Palm Stereo Records