“This song is dedicated to the best halal truck,” says Josh Kaye, an oud player, composer and the frontman of Baklava Express, as he introduces a tune during a recent gig at the Park Slope bar, Barbès. “You know which one I’m talking about. The one on 86th and Fifth.” The audience laughs and claps in appreciation of Bay Ridge’s Middle Eastern Halal Food truck.
It is 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, and the band is the last in the lineup. The crowd of about 30 people fills the bar’s small backroom. Kaye’s quintet is squeezed into the cramped space. Along with him are violinist Daisy Castro, bassist James Robbin, percussionist Jeremy Smith and John Murchison, with a qanoon (trapezoid zither). Kaye picks up his oud, a Middle Eastern lute, and the band bursts into one of Kaye’s latest compositions, “White Sauce, Hot Sauce,” which sounds like the soundtrack of a movie set in the bazaars of Morocco.
Kaye’s tunes deploy mostly Arabic instruments and scales with quick-paced modern twists. Murchison, co-founder of Brooklyn Maqam, a community of musicians who organize Arabic music performances, describes Kaye’s tunes as “a steady stream of action.”
From metal head to Django disciple
Kaye, already an accomplished guitarist, picked up an oud for the first time in 2018, nearly a year before he formed Baklava Express. Now, at 34, with a thick red beard and a hairless scalp, he composes almost exclusively on the instrument. The ensemble’s first album, “Davka,” was released in January 2023. Their next release is due out by the end of this year.
He was born, and until age 13, raised in London. According to his father, Simon Kaye, even as a child, Kaye could hear a song just once and then play it right away. He started piano lessons with his grandmother before he could read, and as a teenager in the U.S., he became passionate about the guitar, as he describes himself, “a big metal head.” He studied philosophy at Hartford College in Connecticut and began his Ph.D. studies in the field at the New School, but as his career as a performer — mostly playing jazz guitar — took off, he devoted himself to music full-time. Before long, he mastered the techniques of Django Reinhardt and joined Stéphane Wrembel’s acclaimed ensemble full-time two years ago when the band’s guitarist left. “[Kaye] is considered the greatest rhythm player in New York City,” Wrembel tells Brooklyn Magazine.
Then, one day about six years ago, as Kaye was walking back from a gig, he passed a barbershop near his home in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood known for its substantial Arab community. The shop was closed, but the captivating sounds of an oud and qanoon reverberated from within. Through the windows, he saw the shop’s owner jamming with a friend. Kaye gestured to his own guitar, asking if he could join in. The door opened, and so did Kaye’s entry to the world of the oud. When he got home, he ordered a beater on Amazon for $400 and embarked on a dedicated practice regimen. (A good oud costs between $2500 and $3500).
Unlike the guitar, the oud is fretless, allowing almost complete pitch control. It uniquely enables a musician to play melody and rhythm at the same time. Though Kaye acknowledges major differences between the two instruments, he says his experience with the fast, precise plucking required of Reinhardt’s music may have facilitated his quick progress. Hicham Chami, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in Arabic music, considers Kaye a highly capable player. “His right-hand technique denotes years of practice,” he said. “It’s very fluid.”
Transcending language and culture
Kaye’s upbringing in an Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewish community primed him for the sounds of the Middle East: Mizrahi liturgy employs maqam, Arabic music’s sophisticated modal system, which influences his compositions today. At the same time, Baklava Express embraces the danceable energy Klezmer, which has Ashkenazi roots.
Zafer Tawil, a Palestinian musician based in Brooklyn, was among Kaye’s first tutors; the two were introduced through a mutual Israeli friend. Then came Raymond Rashid, who used to own an renowned record store for Arabic music in Cobble Hill, and is a connoisseur of classical Arabic music. He heard Kaye play at Sisters in Bed-Stuy and invited him to jam at his home in Bay Ridge and encouraged the “newbie” oud player to keep going.
As a composer, Kaye often hears melodies coming into his head when he’s on the move — riding the train or walking. He sings the melody into his phone and labels it according to the maqam system. At home, he layers in chords and instruments and eventually prepares the charts for each band member.
It resonates. Dilara Akpinar, who works at Barbès and whose mother is a Turkish folk singer, said the band’s music reminds her of home and makes her giddy. At a recent show at Sisters in Bed-Stuy, Omar from Yemen, said “I felt like I was traveling back in space and time.” Stella B. from Armenia said the music sounds familiar “and takes you away from reality.” Her companion, Ivan P. added that there’s also a similar type of music where he’s from in Serbia. (All three declined to give their full names.)
Kaye is amused by such feedback. “It’s always a similar thing that a person says: ‘Oh my God, this reminds me of home.’ But home is always different,” he says.
“I actually felt proud because they are playing my music,” says Sharif Mehrez, a marketing manager from Egypt who also first heard Baklava Express at Sisters (he shouted “brava!” at the end of each song). “Such comments reflect the music’s ability to transcend language and culture,” points out Chami, the ethnomusicologist.
“The common theme between all of the geographical locations where this music is inspired from,” says Kaye, “is that everyone in these different countries eats baklava.”
The post Everyone eats baklava: Inside the musical world of Josh Kaye appeared first on Brooklyn Magazine.