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Tucson Weekly À Bien-Tôt

The Amor-Belhôm Duo has plans to tour Europe this summer.

By Lisa Weeks

JUNE 1, 1998:  THE AMOR-BELHÔM Duo claim they came to Tucson for the space, the inspiration and the freedom of the desert. Since their arrival last November, they've lived in Tucson for stretches of a few months at a time, working on their music with determined purpose. Their Tucson debut was, appropriately enough, on New Year's Eve at the Airport Lounge, opening a bill headlined by Al Perry. The Duo have since slipped neatly into the local music scene, expanding and enriching the dimensions of Tucson's musical landscape with their unique sound and vital performances.

The Amor-Belhôm Duo--Naïm Amor with guitars, noise, vocals and toys, and Thomas Belhôm, percussionist in extremis and backing vocalist--began as a side project, a creative collaboration specially conceived for a trip to Tucson with documentary filmmaker and lyricist Marianne Dissard. The project provided Amor and Belhôm the opportunity to explore their musical interests beyond the confines of Generation Chaos, the group to which they both belonged in France.

Amor and Belhôm played together for over four years in the theatrical, dance and musical ensemble, which included five musicians and five theatre/dance performers all choreographed under the guidance of two directors--one theatrical and one musical. Generation Chaos was a largely state-funded project with underpinnings derivative of the French socio-political school of thought birthed in the late '60s called the Situationalists. Their participation demanded their submission to the artistic vision of the directors, as well as the surrender of their lives to the band.

As Amor and Belhôm related in a recent interview, Generation Chaos' performances focused primarily the establishment and exploration of mood expressed in a theatrical and musical context. This is the primary aspect of their tenure with Generation Chaos that carries over into their partnership as The Amor-Belhôm Duo.

"When we quit this band (Generation Chaos), we wanted to do our own thing--to join the older background we had with rock and pop music." The Duo utilizes the drama of theatrical inspiration in combination with their broad musical backgrounds, various influences and abundant musical abilities to create original, exploratory music.

Their early jazz leanings are plainly apparent in the Duo's approach to improvisation--their songs are built up around a rhythmic armature overlaid with revisited signature melodies. The initial rhythms and melodies provide the point of departure and reference for each player to explore the musical terrain within them and between them. Amor and Belhôm create soundscapes without concern for note-for-note perfection; their primary concern is conveying a narrative of emotion through a mix of formal and informal musical elements.

The result is not simply an extraordinary blend of each individual's inspiration and experience. The improvisational duo, by the very nature of the concept, is in essence a dialogue. Their songs are dynamic; each performance imbues them with a new life, a richer voice. The characteristic seamlessness of their live musical conversation is the result a sophisticated interplay between two very different personalities, a creative relationship established over years of interaction.

The songs dance between extremes. They erupt from quiet, pregnant restraint and nimble, resonant melodies into explosions of pure expression. When nearly on the verge of complete meltdown, they withdraw into the unexpected, gathering themselves into often stark simplicity, only to veer once again towards the established melody. The duo create elegantly decorated, powerfully articulated aural spaces--their music is smart, sophisticated, evocative and provocative.

Belhôm plays his drums, cymbals, metal cogs, bowls and other assorted objects as though demonically possessed--he's at once intuitive and exact in his gestures. The dynamism and finesse of his melodic rhythms is matched by Amor's versatility and authority on the guitar. The combined effect is mesmerizing and powerfully sensual. As they surrender themselves to the music they're creating, the audience is in turn seduced.

Performing as a duo requires weighty musical responsibilities of each counterpart, but playing as an improvisational duo not only heightens each member's reliance on the other, it creates an active musical dialogue that's responsive as well as intuitive. Each performer responds to the motivation and inspiration of the other, creating the dynamic from which the direction of the song evolves.

Amor explained that improvisation is the step beyond simply inhabiting the role of a band musician with a proscribed part, with certain notes to play in the rendering of someone else's larger vision. It's the step in which the two become composers interacting in a musical dialogue. Rather than performing music into a preconceived, prescribed context, the music itself evolves from the context.

"The quality of the dialogue is reflected in the music. It's born of the interaction between the two of us. It (improvisation) creates new responsibilities in the way that you play," explains Amor, "and those responsibilities carry over into the way that you articulate the language of the music."

Amor and Belhôm view and approach music as a microcosm reflective of society at large. Their mission is creation, and in that spontaneous process they strive to break the rules and embrace their mistakes. Innovation through improvisation. To tear down barriers and combine customs and traditions in the cross-cultural language of music.

Because their music is so uniquely creative and artistic, it's not likely to be accessible to wide audiences accustomed to more formulaic commercial alternatives. Even so, in the short time and limited number of gigs they've performed in various clubs--The Airport Lounge, Club Congress, Press 101, Aroma Café, and Nimbus Brewery, among others--they've built an avid and devoted following in Tucson.

Amor spoke for them both when he stated, "I do exactly what I want to do. I live a luxury life. Success is to be able to keep on doing what I do, to keep meeting many, many interesting people."

Neither says he's interested in commercial success in the sense we generally conceive of as of rock stardom, but instead they hope to carve a niche for themselves that enables them to engage audiences across the U.S., not unlike the low-key success of musical friends Calexico. Amor-Belhôm is currently on a quest for management to facilitate tours to other major cities.

Their American experience has been limited primarily to the desert Southwest, and is repeatedly interrupted by return trips to France to renew their visas. The two musicians feel the U.S. offers them greater opportunities, more creative license and audiences more receptive to their art.

In anticipation of their imminent return to the Continent, Amor-Belhôm recently rushed to capture the inspiration of their stay in the desert on disk, spending four days earlier this month recording their first full-length effort at Wavelab Studios, under the guidance of Craig Schumacher. Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, who first met and recorded with Amor in 1995, contributed cello, accordion and vibraphone to this debut effort.

The self-titled CD is soon to rest on the shelf among the dozens of other local releases recorded and produced in the Seventh Street warehouse, a point of great pride for Amor-Belhôm.

Though the rumor crossing the Atlantic is that there's already interest budding in a French release, both partners agree they'd rather wait until their return to the U.S. in October to refine and then release material from the May Wavelab sessions. The Duo also plans to explore further possibilities to create music for film, a genre for which they are particularly well-suited. They've already contributed soundtrack scores for two films, most notably Dissard's Low y Cool.

Amor-Belhôm plans to tour while in Europe for the summer, and has been invited to participate a multi-national musicians' consortium in Prague in July. This Friday's performance will be the last until their anticipated return in October.


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