Looking back on my review of symphonic pianist/composer Samer Fanek’s second album Guide Me (2018), I realized there’s a bit of gushing at his powerful array of talents – and mostly how his lush and lively, sometimes gently swaying but often percussive string-swept tunes reminded me of similarly great works I was enamored with in the 90s.
Glad I got that and all the impressive accolades he has received – Global Music Award, Hollywood Music in Media Award nomination, Top 12 on the Billboard New Age chart, #2 on ZMR – out of the way. So when I listened to his incredibly adventurous, joyful and lyrical yet richly reflective fourth album, ten tracks and 34 minutes of emotionally compelling bliss titled Call of the Desert, I could listen with more objectivity, since he was no longer new on my radar but familiar like an old musical friend returning with fresh magic.
This left me open to discover, beyond his dynamic melodic and rhythmic compositional skills and great attention to sonic detail as a producer, his underlying gifts as a musical storyteller which truly drive this collection. Everything starts with the title Call of the Desert, which also appears as the two songs he uses to bookend the set - the gently seductive orchestral piano pieces “Call of the Desert Pt. 1,” which functions as an invitation/overture, and “Call of the Desert, Pt. II, which serves as a reflective, soulful violin-tinged coda to the album. Their perfect placement is unique in that Samer’s original intention was to have them as the first two tracks, but ultimately he felt it would be more interesting if the album he describes as his “desert adventure” would start and wrap with a similar vibe. That leaves it up to the discerning listener to realize that Part 1 and Part 2 are in the same key and have tonal similarities, so with clever playlisting they can flow as a single eight minute track. That’s how he will perform it live!
For the Northern California based artist, the call – and thus the main thrust of the narrative - manifests in the form of nostalgia for his home country of Jordan and a longing return there. Featuring what he considers a long overdue exploration of Arabic influences, Middle Eastern ideas and instruments, the album is Samer’s way of paying homage and giving back after living in the U.S. for 14 years. It was delightful to hear that he was confident enough in the exotic yet somehow familiar journey he creates here to promote it in his home country.
Since most if not all of us will not have the pleasure of accompanying him, he kindly and inspiringly creates a dashing soundtrack for the film of the multi-faceted excursion we can create in our minds. What a pleasurable exercise. Placing the “Nighttime Celebrations” and “Where Did the Time Go?” together, Samer creates an intriguing balance of lively/boisterous/funky celebration (perhaps partying the first night we are “there”) and soulfully reflective, easy grooving seduction, as if to share the reality that while he enjoys the festivities, he’s still longing for how things once were when he was a young man in the same place.
His response? He can’t go back, but he can go on, rocking and dancing (spritely piano over hypnotic edgy grooves) “Into the Sun” before a whimsical, sweetly soaring visit to “The Old Arabic Shop” – which conjures images of walking down bustling streets of older areas around downtown Amman, Jordan.
It’s a lively Arabic bazaar full of friendly locals who are delighted to tell their amazing life stories to you if you lend an ear (a connection powerfully dramatized by Samer’s fanciful and fiery energy on “Dramatic Encounters”). Moving along, we can reflect that these are the frolicsome “Mediterranean Moments” Samer has missed while living Stateside. Part of what makes the heartfelt and energizing journey so special is that it’s full of highs and lows, those empowering blasts of magic followed and offset by tunes like the haunting, prayer-like “Pleading to You.” Before departing, he gets in one last “Desert Rush” with some of his most infectious and sweeping symphonic piano work on the whole project.
That’s my interpretation, and I think it aligns pretty well with Samer’s own as he explains the concept as if it’s a canvas we can apply our own life experiences and personal metaphors to. “I hope to take listeners on a Middle Eastern desert adventure such that they feel an unexplained force of attraction asking them to come over and stay for long,” he says. (And we do we do!)
He continues, “The tracks were deliberately placed as such so it feels like a rollercoaster ride and a sampler of personally familiar emotions from track to track, each exploring a different flavor to that desert/Arabic adventure and hopefully making the listener feel acquainted with the desert. I wouldn't be surprised if some listeners end up interpreting this work a bit like a concept album, telling a story about a traveler entering the desert and encountering different things along the way with regards to the events, weather, landscape, and local Bedouin tribes.”