Rainbow Arabia: Communication Breakdown 

Duo mixes polyrhythms and yelps to create a sound that’s worldly without being imperialistic

Wednesday, Jan 21 2009

More and more these days, we’re asked to accept that the world is growing smaller, and smaller in a good way. The arrival of digital technology and the Internet is a force for Good, it is said, ’cause it seems that we are communicating — really communicating — in faster and more efficient ways, and are thus capable of superdeepening our mutual cultural understanding.

A small but eminently worthy example could even be found in the mere existence of this rad new band called Rainbow Arabia. Based in Echo Park, they’re the husband-and-wife team of Daniel and Tiffany Preston, whose colorfully tough new dance-floor exotica rocks so hard at least partially because of what we and they have learned about “world music.”

A few months ago, Rainbow Arabia put out this EP called The Basta, a little jewel that conjoins a lot of, say, DFA Records–oriented freaky dance grooves ornately draped with some intriguing Middle Eastern polyrhythms. The EP’s a punky mix of ferocious deep-bass synths sync’d with a small army of drum machines and percussion, and Tiffany’s unclichéd Arabic-oriented guitar fuzz and gothlike vocals instantly established Rainbow Arabia as the purveyors of something identifiably by-God new.

click to enlarge A duo with a good work ethic — and pretty bullets
  • A duo with a good work ethic — and pretty bullets

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Both had some experience in pushing the old envelope musically, including Daniel’s time served in Whiskey Biscuit and Eddie Rusche’s excellent Future Pigeon. They started playing together simply because they hadn’t yet done so. They found out that colliding their musical tastes together bore some delicious fruit. “We started playing music about a year ago,” says Daniel. “I was kind of over playing in big bands, with eight other people. So we just decided to do it, and something kind of just happened, easier than we thought.”

“It progressed really fast,” says Tiffany, “just being like-minded, and having a good work ethic when it came to music.”

Though both have their own specialized likes and dislikes, they did seem to agree on an interest and even a deep belief in the healing powers of a crushingly badass dance groove, along with the head-spinning harmonic gambits found in the several types of music from the Middle East.

The EP’s a truly evocative, beautifully weird and just plain stomping five-song journey to the center of the sand dunes of your inner mind (or something), revealing new tonalities along the way.

This is just really great riff-rocking stuff, but in a new way — a Middle Eastern approach that would’ve sounded lame and, well, too white, and cultural-touristy if attempted in the ’80s, or even the ’90s.

Tiffany’s guitar solos work like spider-webbing around and over the polyrhythmic onslaught, in strange and fresh approaches, similar to the itchy-skratchy sound of Can’s Michael Karoli.

“I don’t listen to Can a lot,” she says, “but I always try to take it to a level that’s almost gonna be brutally high. I pay attention to my tones. Soloing, I try not to overplay it. On some of my solos, on the song, I won’t play at all, then for my solo I’ll just really go for it.”

While she says that her training in Arabic scales and melodies at the Musicians Institute undoubtedly has shaped her style, she likes hearing anything that’s going to be good for the music she’s playing, including reggae — and the aforementioned goth/gloom elements.

Mainly, the duo’s sound has hatched as a result of Daniel’s discovery of a handful of Middle Eastern musicians via the Net, and because of the relatively odd instruments they use to make their music — and which, Daniel found out, are available for purchase at online music stores based in Lebanon. “I was always really into ‘Sublime Frequencies’ [obscure international tastemaking music label; look it up on the Web], like the Cambodian stuff,” says Daniel. “Then I heard Omar Solomon, this Syrian guy who used keyboards for all the oud and string parts. The microtonal parts are done on microtonal keyboards, which I didn’t know until I saw a video of his.”

Inspired by Solomon’s sound, based mostly on wedding songs, Daniel bought a few microtonal synths available only via online Lebanese stores, instruments with wicked-complex Arabic or Turkish drum patterns built in, whose sound inspired the creation of many of the EP’s songs, such as the mighty “Omar K” and “Let Them Dance.”

Further drenched in heavy rains of distortion, phase-shifting, fuzz, fuzz and more fuzz, Rainbow Arabia’s music really takes you places, and of course the difference is that somehow it all adds up to something beyond, way beyond a mere pastiche of its very interesting source materials.

That is where it’s at, as far as the best new, um, “world music” hybrids coming down the chute are concerned. Rainbow Arabia are working on a new full-length, by the way, to come out on Manimal Vinyl around March. And they’re recording material to be issued on National Geographic’s new music imprimatur. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in this brave new world where all cultures can in theory understand each other through the magical vibes transmitted via their musical energies, Rainbow Arabia’s obscurely worded lyrics ring loud and clear.

“It doesn’t have to make sense,” says Tiffany.

Yet certain words seem to mean a lot, like —

Daniel: “Dance.”

Tiffany: “Dance.”


Rainbow Arabia play with Hecuba, We Are the World and Secret Circuit at the Airliner on Tuesday, January 27.


Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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