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Jamal Mohamed is that most honorable of all curses -- a musician's musician. On top of that, he's a drummer's drummer. Meaning: He may be better than all the rest, but no one knows his name. But they should. Mohamed is the finest jack-of-all-trades percussionist in these parts, constructing his own Middle Eastern percussion instruments (most notably the darabouka, also known as the doumbek) and using them to blend seamlessly into any style he happens upon. Academic illustrations of these soulful instruments adorn the CD booklet of Beledi -- drums made from goat and fish skins and sundry guts, with names like the gungon, caxixi, tabal, def, and riq. Of course, the music Mohamed makes with them is far from academic.
Mohamed's solo debut isn't a drum lesson or a refresher course on the history of percussion instruments. You needn't learn the exotic names of the fascinating instruments he builds to dig on the grooves Mohamed coaxes from them on Beledi. And everything you need to know about Mohamed is right there on the album, from his work with Beledi Ensemble to his compositions for the stage. Beledi is a most fitting counterpart to his upright bassist brother Buddy Mohmed's own recent solo debut, American Bedouin. The disc builds its own momentum, beginning with a traditional Arabic ayoub rhythm, then adding Latin and West African sounds. He then proceeds with an electronic drum arrangement of "Amazing Grace," which is as faithful and irreverent as Marvin Gaye's take on "The Star-Spangled Banner." Next he demonstrates his John Coltrane-like chops on a jazz piece called "Traps," a pure Elvin Jones drum solo. And even more impressive is a 10-beat cycle called "D'udu in 10/4," which proves that there should be many more tunes written in 10/4 time; it's a relaxing, meditative rhythm.
But Mohamed is capable of more than just Saturday-afternoon drum circle fare. He also writes mystical incidental music for the stage. Among local establishments, he's been commissioned by The MAC, Dallas Children's Theater, and Dallas Black Dance Theater. Included here is a piece from a children's play underscoring a voodoo ritual in which the spirit of soccer star Pele appears to a young boy. He also provides pieces written for a production of Hamlet and includes an instrumental backing he composed for a Russian Jewish fable. Finally, we hear some tracks of Beledi Ensemble, the ever-mutating Dallas-based World Beat jazz group long fronted by Jamal and Buddy Mohmed (who chooses to spell his last name differently). A veteran of countless studio sessions and soundtrack projects, Mohamed may be long overdue with this subtle tour de force of a debut, but any lost time is forgiven after one spin. The man definitely marches to his own drum.
Josh Alan Friedman