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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012

Arab-American, Ancient-Modern Rock

The music and mystery of Painted Caves

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The self-titled debut album by Painted Caves has become a quiet local sensation, gathering significant airtime on WMSE along with spins on Radio Milwaukee. The group is a collaboration between songwriter Ali Lubbad and fellow multi-instrumentalist Mike Kashou. Both musicians draw from their Near Eastern heritage, yet Painted Caves is not purist ethnic folk for an insipid exercise in “world music,” but rather something rare and remarkable. Painted Caves’ elegantly composed psychedelia is firmly grounded in the Eastern Mediterranean, where music has been psychedelic since the first prophet descended from a mountaintop and tried to articulate his vision of ultimate elsewhere in sound.

Born in Milwaukee to a German-Irish mother and a Palestinian father who died when he was 1, the peripatetic Lubbad knew little of his Middle Eastern ties until a chance encounter in San Francisco led him to connect with his father’s family in Jordan and the Gaza Strip. He had played in Bay Area punk bands, but his journey of discovery brought him to Egypt, “where I got to meet some incredible musicians,” he recalls. “I played guitar alongside the oud players and really enjoyed myself. I got closer to the notion of expressing myself as an Arab American.”

Painted Caves, Lubbad stresses, is not an album that could have been recorded in Jordan or Palestine; sung in English in Lubbad’s dreamy voice, the music is often an alchemical marriage of ’60s rock and age-old Arabic folk, producing an offspring entirely contemporary and ageless. Byrds-like guitars harmonize with the eerie twang of the oud, and drumsticks meld with hand-slapped percussion. The music conjures up a kasbah, but with electric lights cutting sharp shadows across darkened doorways and the glow of a laptop visible through latticed windows. The hypnotic rhythm and minor keys send ripples across the veil separating everyday reality from larger mysteries.

Lubbad references Joseph Campbell in explaining the group’s name—an allusion to the iconic prehistoric caves of Spain and southern France. “They were the first attempts at man’s yearning for religion—or connection to the mystery of life,” he says. “The best truths cannot be spoken. The best music points beyond itself without having to offer answers.”

Echoing contemporary scholarship, Lubbad traces the path of the Near East into American music through the slaves brought from Islamic West Africa and the Spanish settlers whose culture was steeped in Moorish influences. And then, centuries later, came the Lebanese-American guitarist Dick Dale, who revved up the otherworldly folk melodies of the Eastern Mediterranean into electric surf instrumentals.

“It’s not just Arabic music,” Lubbad says of Painted Caves. “It’s American music in the sense that it doesn’t have to be constrained by the systems you find in other countries. America is a place receptive to trying new things.”

Painted Caves perform 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Windhover Hall. Admission is free.

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