||REVIEW PROLOGUE: In the science fiction TV series Babylon 5, the female Delenn is the Minbari ambassador to the titular space station, She is a “pure” Minbari, with severe facial features, no hair, and a somewhat frosty, business-like demeanor. At the end of season one, she enters a literal cocoon state through the use of an ancient device and later emerges completely changed: half-Minbari/half-human woman. Her personality also shifts and she soon becomes affectionate with the head of security for the station, John Sheridan. Through the rest of the series, it’s revealed how much her life changed with the transformation.
REVIEW: Many musicians develop different musical personas as they migrate through their career. Some of them permanently shift their musical selves, while others may simply change instruments. For example, Jeff Pearce started with guitar, shifted to Chapman Stick, then piano, and then back to guitar, yet his brilliant ambient soundscapes remained constant in their evocative, mostly melancholic beauty. Kevin Kendle’s music has three separate “entities:” melodic nature-inspired soundscapes, classic spacemusic, new age keyboard meditations.
However, Elise Lebec didn’t just change her style of music or her instruments. What has happened to her, and its result, is a monumental shift, a change that dwarfs many other artists’ permutations. Her recent trip to Egypt served as more than a mere catalyst. It was her “ancient device,” if you will (a la Delenn, above). Lebec’s life, not just an artist but as a person, radically changed. The transformation from her previous two works (the solo piano Possible Dreams and the melancholic multi-instrument Heart Song) to Origin reveals the immensity of what has occurred to her - a musical seismic shift of almost unbelievable proportions. This shift apparently uncovered an entirely new musician with talents which were either completely hidden until now or barely visible. Am I being grandiose or hyperbolic in my praise? No, quite the opposite from my perspective—from where I sit, Origin may well be one of the most important albums of the decade. It’s also brilliantly conceived and a startlingly creative piece of work.
More than 20 musicians and singers are listed in the credits for Origin, along with Lebec (who handles lead vocals and, I assume, all keyboards). Eleven of them are Egyptian and all the Arabic music was played on (per the liner notes) “real” instruments (i.e. nothing sampled). Lebec composed all the music and wrote nearly all the lyrics, except for English and Arabic raps—yes, raps! The music itself pulses/flows with energy, vibrancy, beauty, mystery, power, peace, empowerment, and probably a half dozen other emotions/evocations.
In all honesty, the first time played Origin, I was taken aback. I realized afterwards that this album needed a “deep dive” and I dove in and discovered that my preconception (based on my love for Heart Song) had unfairly colored my evaluation. I came to see Origin as the work of a genius. Conceptually, musically, and aesthetically. The songs’ themes speak of big issues, e.g. the power of women, the need for love, the beauty of our world. And the production and engineering quality are, to be honest, off the charts. While the album’s musical influences are Egyptian/Arabic in nature, Origin is actually a fantastic fusion recording, it epitomizes not just a fusion of world beat with electronics, but also of thoughtful, sensitive lyrics with music and beats coursing with raw power. Major props are due Lebec and her co-producers, Matthew Baldwin, Moataz Nada and Dave Way.
Before describing some tracks in detail, I need to stress how amazingly beautiful Elise Lebec’s vocals are! Her voice is sultry, romantic, soulful, powerful, subtle, and even downright sexy! I was/am startled that she is just becoming a vocal artist. Talk about hiding a light under a bushel! The passion and commitment she brings to each song is 110 percent and, technically, she has utter control of every note and octave that she hits.
Origin explodes with urgency owing to both its beats/rhythms and its soaring melodies. “Taaly Maaya, Come with Me,” blends swirling electronics and strings with rapid ethnic percussion while Lebec’s vocals feature both Arabic and English lyrics. The song oozes sensuality in every aspect. Ultra-fast hand drums merge with fluid violin and cello on “Queen of Light” and when trap kit drums join the fray, they boost the energy quotient even higher. Lebec’s voice caresses the English lyrics like a lover softly touching her partner. Her singing draws you into a siren-like trance and you never want her to stop. “Cairo Morning” features a more out-front Arabic influence owing to both instrumentation and percussion and it is one of the tracks featuring Arabic rapper Mahmoud Abu Zaed. The album really hits its stride on the mixture of contemporary electronics and world beat influence of “Bolero” and Lebec’s singing on this song is her most soulful. It’s a love song and is flat-out gorgeous. “Rumi Song” bears a strong drum and bass influence with Arabic lyrics sung by Mai Mostafa (her soaring vocals are something special) and, later, more Arabic rapping by Abu Zead.
Before I run out of room (and I wish I could describe every brilliant track on Origin to you), I have to make special mention of the song that blows me out of the water every time I play the CD. “Sekhmet” is a quasi-acapella number with only layers of percussion and drumming (and subtle keyboards, I believe, providing some sparse textures). The “singing” (by twelve women) is actually spoken (English) chant. The four verse lyrics are repeated over and over, each refrain featuring more women’s voices being added to the ones before. After a brief cooling down period, all the women gather together as one voice, and the song explodes in a near orgasmic celebration of universal womanhood and the power within their collective mind, soul and body. The four verses are:
We are the fire, the sun and the moon, the salt of the earth, the origin.
We are the thread connecting breath, the bringers of change, the alchemist.
We are the channel, the moment of truth, the gateway of souls, the keeper of roots.
We are the heart that flows to the sea that pushes with love and sets us free.
On the cover, Origin is subtitled One World Turning Project: Volume 1. Needless to say, I cannot wait to see what marvel of music and rhythm and voice Volume 2 will bring forth. Origin is one of the most amazing listening experiences I have had in my 20 years of music reviewing. I consider myself blessed to have heard it.