Sunday, March 20, 2022

Ramsey Najm - The Language Of The Heart (1987)


An utterly unique and ineffably elegant one-off -- a baroque-folk yacht-jazz masterstroke -- from an enigmatic American ex-pat adept on the Ode label, advertised as 'an emotional journey into regions of a heart filled with joy and lament, darkness and exultation'.

Backed by local jazz notables (Brian Smith, Nigel Gavin, and Pam Grey) and mixed and engineered by studio savants (Victor Grbic and David Hurley), The Language of the Heart is heartbreakingly lyrical, constructively melancholy, and meticulously arranged for maximum suavity.

Ramsey Najm was a documentary filmmaker and singer-songwriter from the States, a Palestinian-American who came to Aotearoa/NZ in the 1980s as a self-described '"cultural refugee" from the vast wasteland which is America today'. 

While still based in the US, performer Najm opened for florid folkies Compton & Batteau, the furry and fabulous Flying Burrito Brothers, pacifist power-poppers The Hello People, and honorary Herb Joe Walsh. 

There's not a lot to reference beyond the album's included press release and a few mentions from the early 1980s, when he filmed a pioneering documentary on breakdancing: Breaking: Street Dancing (1982). This doco showed on New York's Channel 13 in June that year, also at El Museo Del Barrio in Spanish Harlem, and won a merit award at 1982 Athens International Film/Video Festival in Athens, Ohio:

'Breaking, Mr. Najm (pronounced nah-zhum) explains, ''is a way that gangs of kids, mainly in the Bronx, but some in Manhattan, can still compete with each other for territory and for machismo. But, instead of doing it violently, a la West Side Story, they do it through dance.'' In the duel by dance, each chosen stalwart tries to out-step, out-shake and out-move the opponent.' (New York Times, June 20, 1982, Section A, Page 2)

In a March 1982 issue of The [Film & Video Monthly] Independent, the New York-based independent producer Najm placed a classified seeking 'intelligent, meaningful, contemporary stories of any length for fall shooting. Prefer existentially-inclined material illustrating angst & conflict in modern world.'

Najm's vocal, instrumental and scripted delivery are all -- always -- humbly, gutsily sincere: on 'Rodeo' reminding me of a breathier, smirkless Townes Van Zandt; and soaring wordlessly in the raranga of sax and keys at the end of 'Nadia'. 'In the Golden Orchard' could be an arena ballad if it weren't so introverted (see also the Pink Floyd-ish fretless bass duet on 'Imprisoned on the Outside'). The minimalist roundabout pianoscape of 'Always a Circle to Mend' is just lightly adorned at the end with sympathetic synth and thrifty kick-drum punctuation; while album closer 'Set My Body Free' pairs Najm's ardently transcendental vocal and his own gentle acoustic guitar with a six-minute soft crescendoing of thick sawtooth billows, seabird-feedback lead guitar, shuffle-chug snare and a wide-stereofield multi-Najm chorale. [Listeners please note: my copy has gentle surface noise throughout.]

In these unsettled days, like many I suppose, I'm spending a fair amount of my after-hours in circuitous soul-searching. The unashamed candour of Najm's reflections on this record gently mesh with his considered instrumentation into deep'n'heavy comfort: like a weighted blanket under an emotional support labrador. A review in the NZ Herald from 22 May 1987 finds likewise: 

'There is a small, rewarding corner where jazz and folk intersect... that's where you will find guitarist/vocalist Najm. [His] easy-to-enjoy vocals, his understated poetic lyrics and the gentle arrangements offer a lot of comfortable pleasures. More soon we hope.'

This is Ramsey Najm's only known recording: an immaculate passed-over opus from a singular, sensitive, self-searcher and his complementarily cultivated ensemble, wrapped up in enchantingly imaginative production. And I'm hopelessly in love with it. 

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