Yesterday, we visited Tarzan in a forest of oakmoss vetiver but, today, we’re going on Oud Caravan No. 3 in the Sahara before taking the Cuba Express. Those are two fragrances from AbdesSalaam Attar (“Dominique Dubrana“) of La Via del Profumo, and I’ll look at each one in turn.
OUD CARAVAN No. 3:
Oud Caravan No. 3 is an eau de parfum and the final part of a trilogy that was originally created in conjunction with a 2011 Basenotes project called the Oud Caravan Project. On his website, AbdesSalaam Attar explains that No. 3 is a true, authentic agarwood fragrance and, as a result, its opening and head notes are not for the faint of heart, even though the oud’s fangs have been muzzled here as compared to the first two entries in the line. He also elaborates on the nature of true, Middle Eastern oud which I think might be important for those of you accustomed to the very inauthentic or diluted Western sort which, frequently, isn’t even real agarwood at all. I’ve taken the liberty of formatting AbdesSalaam’s single-line description into paragraphs for reasons of space and it reads, in relevant part, as follows:
For those who want to know the real Oud. […] Oud Caravan N° 3 is the last and final version of the Oud Caravan project. A rich, lushful fantastic Oud. It is an authentic Oud, wild and full fledged, hose animalic notes have been at last tamed.
Real Oud is not a perfume for all. It is not an easy scent to wear, you must have a lion’s heart. He is somehow like the mythical Dragon, if your inner force is too weak you will not bear it. In the Oud Caravan N°3 the Dragon has been briddled and saddled, made ready for you to ride him.
Oud is the perfume of the Bedouin princes of the desert. I have tempered with exotic fruitty notes the aspect of excessive power that caracterize the head notes of a good Oud. A good Oud must be excessively powerful and long lasting. The initial heaviness is a natural characteristic of a quality Oud but the beauty of this essence is in its heart and end notes.
The head notes of Oud have to be overcome by the wearer and not all have the energy for that, but thesse notes are indeed those who give the greatest joy to the real Oud lover. My aim was to smooth and temper the initial notes and to control their energy in order to make the scent real Oud accessible to a greater number.
Oud is comparable to the date tree of the Arabs, difficult to climb because of the dangerous needles of its leaves, but when you overcome this, you reach a treasure of sweetness, the ripe fresh dates. It is more easy to enjoy the date tree sitting under its shade than by climbing it and eating its dates, likewise it is more easy to smell the sillage of a prince wearing real Oud than to wear it oneself. Oud Caravan N° 3 is like a date tree where the leaves have been cleaned of their sharp needles so that the treasure of sweetness of the fresh dates is easily at hand.
There is no note list for Oud Caravan No. 3, but I smelled Haitian vetiver in addition to Indian and Cambodian oud. I asked AbdesSalaam Attar about those elements, and he said Oud Caravan No. 3 does contain vetiver but that the agarwood was Bengali and Laotian. Close enough.
Oud Caravan No. 3 opens on my skin with smoky, creamy, and sweet oud blanketed by a heavy barnyard aroma that is simultaneously goaty, cheesy, earthy, and fecal. I know that will sound hideous to people accustomed to Western style “ouds,” particularly the mainstream commercial scents which are based almost entirely on a synthetic accord in cypriol oil, but the “noble rot” in authentic agarwood often smells like cheese with barnyard aromas. Here, it is like a mix of chevre goat cheese and Gorgonzola blue cheese, as well as sweetness.
It is a combination that I fully admit threw me and repulsed me when I first encountered it some years ago. I’ve come a long way in my tolerance levels and tastes for oud’s various nuances since then, but there is no way that the combination will be easy for someone trying it for the first time. For me, personally, the difficulty at this point is actually neither the chevre goat cheese nor the fecal aroma but the Gorgonzola. Cheese is one of my favorite things in the world (including the smelly sort), but blue cheese is generally where I draw the line with the exception of a few, very rare dishes. I simply don’t like blue cheese, period, so Gorgonzola in my perfume has always been a step too far. Others love this aspect of oud, so it’s purely a question of individual tastes, not to mention tolerance levels and habituation.
There is more to authentic agarwood than just cheese. The Non-Blonde who included Oud Caravan No. 3 in her list of Top Ten Ouds back in 2012 summed up the Caravan trilogy as “camel included,” and she’s absolutely right. There is a strong whiff of camel added to the mix here, as well as goat. If you’ve ever gone to a zoo, you might be familiar with both aromas. Again, all of this is undisputedly an acquired taste but, once you adjust to the various nuances, the overall combination has an (admittedly hard to explain) appeal. Basically, the best way I can describe both the allure of true oud and the scent of Oud Caravan No. 3 in particular is to call it the perfume equivalent of musical funk.
To be precise, it’s James Brown’s growl and soul music in olfactory form. It’s really all here: grit, earth, smoke, purring sweetness, blues (and blue cheese), and a good dose of animalic, sexy skanky, all wrapped up in one funky wood. There are even hints of musky leather and a drop of sweat thrown into the mix, which just adds to my James Brown analogy. Is it Westernized oud? Not on your life. This smells like Indian oud to me, but evokes bedouins and camels in the desert. (And, again, James Brown, too.)
Oud Caravan No. 3 shifts 15 minutes into its development. It turns smokier, woodier, drier, and less sweet. More importantly for some of you no doubt, the cheese, goaty, camel and barnyard tonalities soften a hair, muted (fractionally) by a growing leatheriness similar to smoky birch tar. In essence, it is the aroma of Cambodian or Laotian oud creeping over the Indian/Bengali wood. The smoky leatheriness grows stronger with every passing minute, diluting the chevre and gorgonzola elements. I have to admit, I rather miss the creamy goat cheese because it added a certain softness to the scent that worked really well, and I preferred it to the unvarnished goat and camel whiffs. Really, I can’t quite believe I’m saying all this, as it was quite a different matter three years ago.
The prime example would be my response to Xerjoff‘s notorious (infamous?) Zafar which I bring up primarily because it resembles Oud Caravan No. 3 in a lot of ways. There are differences between the two scents, but they’re not hugely dramatic ones and it’s really a question of degree. Both fragrances share a very similar opening, though Oud Caravan No. 3’s bouquet is funkier, sweeter, and goatier. Later, the oud turns smokier than I remember it doing in Zafar, with a drier and tarry quality that the Xerjoff scent lacked. The type of smoke differs between the two as well. It’s been a while since I tried Zafar, but I recall actual incense, while Oud Caravan No. 3 feels like singed wood and tar, more akin to the facets in cade and Cambodian oud than to olibanum. Plus, Oud Caravan No. 3 has vetiver, which I don’t recall existing in Zafar at all.
The vetiver appears 30 minutes into Oud Caravan No. 3’s development, and helps to underscore some of the Laotian wood’s natural tonalities. The fragrance is now a multi-faceted mix of smoky, musky and earthy woodiness laced with camel, goat, barnyard, leathered, and blue cheesy nuances, as well as a smidgeon of greenness.
The early sweetness has largely faded away, but other changes are on the horizon. The oud slowly (very slowly) starts to turn softer, warmer, almost ambered in feel, and a different sort of creaminess awakens in the base at the 90-minute mark. It’s as if Oud Caravan No. 3 contained some sandalwood, because the creaminess is lightly spiced. A golden warmth hangs lazily and lightly over the whole thing, helping to take the edge of some of the smoky (birch?) tar and leatheriness. The balance between the notes is really impressive, particularly in the way that AbdesSalaam Attar has managed to make the scent semi-dry and semi-sweet all at the same time. Nothing feels jarring or out of place, not even the lingering whiffs of camel and Gorgonzola.
Somehow, all of it feels natural and utterly authentic. It simply works, even if the specifics sound challenging. But that is precisely the point. AbdesSalaam has presented agarwood the way it is intended to be, the way it is worn and appreciated by those who discovered it first centuries ago, instead of the namby-pamby ISO E Super-drenched oud that is mass-produced by Estée Lauder or Tom Ford. Okay, so those are easier on some levels to adjust to and, yes, I continue to believe that Gorgonzola should not be wafting from my own skin, but what I appreciate with Oud Caravan No. 3 is its strong authenticity, a clarity of vision that is more evocative and transportative than 99% of the “ouds” I encounter, including many Amouage scents. Would I wear it personally? No, but the sole reason for that is my aforementioned dislike of blue cheese.
Oud Caravan No. 3’s top notes are tamed by the middle of the 2nd hour, and the lion’s fangs are withdrawn as AbdesSalaam promised. All whiffs of the barnyard, camels, and goats fade away, and the fragrance is neither fecal nor animalic, though the chevre and blue cheeses remain along with a subtle muskiness. Vetiver smudges the wood’s edges, but what is really appealing is the growing ambered warmth. Roughly 5 hours in, Oud Caravan No. 3 is a warm oud with spicy amber that smells as though it has been dusted with cinnamon, leading me to wonder if the scent contains a benzoin or resin. Slivers of musky earthiness and blue cheese waft quietly as muted touches in the base. Oud Caravan No. 3 continues on this path until its final moments when it fades away as a wisp of musky, ambered, semi-sweetened, semi-spicy oud.
Oud Caravan No. 3 had good longevity for an all-natural fragrance and generally moderate projection. Using 3 smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opened with a rich cloud that extended 4 inches before dropping to 1.5 inches after 75 minutes. It turned into a skin scent at the 4.5 hour mark, and ended after 6.75 hours in total.
Oud Caravan No. 3 has no reviews on Fragrantica, but Luca Turin covered it for his Style Arabia column, giving the fragrance a “Good” rating and three stars. He also provides a more detailed note list, and an explanation of agarwood’s complex aromas:
ingredients: oud bengal, oud laos, australian sandalwood, osmanthus, narcissus absolute
Oud is the result of the action of a fungus on trees of the genus Aquilaria, which softens the wood and renders it fragrant. Oud varies a great deal with quality, batch, region of origin, and aging. Like ambergris, it is one of the most complex smells in perfumery, ranging from urinous and animalic via musty to wood, resin, honey and amber. It works spectacularly well in a simple blend with saturated roses, where it plays the role of the lean, dark, somber flamenco dancer next to the girl in the fluttering red dress. Dominique Dubrana’s Oud is the tall, pockmarked dude in pointy boots all by himself. Despite Dubrana’s best efforts to blunt the top notes, it’s still pretty brutal. The initial blast is dirty enough to cause all but farm-hands to run for cover. Wait fifteen minutes, however, and the beast settles down to a very pleasant putty-like smell reminiscent of canvas Band-Aids. A real, top-notch oud, which will repel many people but likely attract some interesting ones.
dapper oud [emphasis in the original.]
On Basenotes, there are a few reviews for Oud Caravan No. 3 in an old, archived thread. It’s not the easiest to read in terms of format, but most people seem to like the fragrance as the most accessible of the trio. (I now have to wonder about the other two!) For one person, a Middle Easterner for whom the caravan series was intended, Oud Caravan No. 3 was their “personal favorite as it is very animalic with a little sweetness , very very very sexy. First thing that came to my mind when I smelled it was Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.” A sampling of some of the other comments is below:
- smoky, spicy, woody. Potent yet accessible with smooth, sweet, ambery undertones. Lovely!
- Oud Caravan 3 presents a complete olfactory picture that feels and smells like a natural synthesis of compatible and harmonious elements. [¶] The latex/bandaid note that was so jolting in 1 and 2 is much less strident; instead a pleasant, vapour-y lightness gives the opening a lively and spirited feeling. The [oud] scent- reminiscent of a mixture of warm cola, the freshest of hay and a hint of cozy, sweet amber- forms the backbone of the fragrance. [… I’m] sure the absence of fecal and strong leather scents will be much appreciated â˜º The perfumeâ€™s warm, resinous, woody and slightly smoky drydown is soothing, mellow and a little dark. Although [it’s] easier for me to imagine a man gravitating towards OC3, I think a confident woman would not only feel at home in it, but would wear it proudly.
I don’t think Oud Caravan No. 3 is for everyone, even if it does get easier after the first 15 minutes as Luca Turin noted. However, those of you who appreciate authentic ouds in the Middle Eastern style and fragrances like Xerjoff‘s Zafar will undoubtedly love it. If that is you, or if you simply want to expand your knowledge of true agarwood in all its facets, then you should give Oud Caravan No. 3 a sniff.
When people think of Cuba, cigars, rum, and sunny warmth are usually at the top of the list. For AbdesSalaam Attar, experiencing the intensity of Rum Absolute led him to create a fragrance inspired by that island, one he called Cuba Express. As he writes on his website:
When I smelled for the first time absolute extract of Rum, I have been amazed by the tremendous power of this aroma. One drop in a room is enough to give the impression that a whole barrel of rum was spilled around. [¶] With the essences of Tobacco, coffee and chocolate I decided to compose a perfume that would have for theme the isle of Cuba. [¶] The fragrance was composed around these 4 base aromas, blended with essences of fruits and exotic spices. [¶] The perfume that materialized from this inspiration was like an instant immersion in the atmosphere of Cuba and its name came to me evident; “Cuba Express” just like an immediate travel in the Isle of revolution.
The succinct note list is therefore:
Rum Absolute, Tobacco, Coffee, Chocolate, Fruits, and Spices.
Cuba Express opens on my skin with a rich mix of spices centered on star anise, nutmeg, a hefty dose of cloves, and possibly a dash of black pepper. A very cologne-like accord follows, smelling like bergamot splashed on bay leaves, myrtle, and perhaps a few sprigs of rosemary. Though the citrus soon fades, the overall bouquet has the feel of a very old-school, classical, almost barbershop cologne. This is a spicy version, though, more than anything citrusy or overly crisp. There is nothing soapy about it, either. The spiciness skews warm, woody, semi-dry, semi-sweet, and very brown-red in feel.
What comes to mind is not rum in Havana, let alone coffee or chocolate, but woodiness: the wood of a cinnamon tree, the hard casing of a nutmeg pod, the quiet bite of star anise and cloves, all enveloped in the aromatic greenness of bay leaf and myrtle. It’s not a purely masculine combination of notes, and a woman could certainly pull it off, but it does evokes a very quiet ruggedness. Rather than envisioning Ernest Hemingway puffing away on a cigar and drinking rum in Havana, I see a clean-shaven Clark Gable or Cary Cooper sitting in the sun somewhere. It’s an elegant, spicy, but clean masculinity that is never too fresh and always very warm in feel.
Roughly 15 minutes in, Cuba Express begins to change. The tobacco appears for the first time, smelling dry and similar to the gingered leaves at the heart of AbdesSalaam’s fantastic Tabac. It’s not quite so gingerbread-like but it’s a far cry from the fruited, sweetened pipe tobacco found in many fragrances or the dark, smoky, almost dirty aroma of some tobacco absolutes. Behind the gingered, sun-dried leaves lurks a quiet nebulous sweetness, though it doesn’t smell like rum or booziness on my skin. If I squint my eyes, look sideways (so to speak) and really focus, there is the haziest outline of something that something that might possibly be construed as “rum” after 30 minutes, but it smells unsweetened, almost bitter instead of the sort of rum that one normally encounters.
All of this heralds the advent of Cuba Express’ second stage which begins after 45 minutes. A flood of bitter darkness sweeps over the notes, transforming them and moving the fragrance away from the clean, barbershop cologne of the opening. The specifics are hard to make out and nothing is as distinct as the notes in Milano Caffé, but, once in a while, wisps of black chocolate and Italian expresso are visible amongst the haze. In essence, Cuba Express is now a layered blend of wooded, warm spices dominated by cloves, nutmeg, and star anise within a cloud of expresso-like blackness, licked by flickers of bitter chocolate, then sprinkled with bay leaf and myrtle.
This is Cuba Express’ core and it never changes from this point forth except to turn blurrier in outline. The notes lose their individual clarity and definition at the 90-minute mark, and it becomes very difficult to pull things out from the general mix of spiciness, woodiness, and bitter darkness. The cloves, star anise, and nutmeg sometimes pop up with in a distinct way but, increasingly, Cuba Express is simply a dark, spicy, wooded scent.
The perfume fades away in much the same manner, dying roughly 5.75 hours from its start. The projection was generally moderate-to-soft on my skin. Using 3 smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle, Cuba Express opened with 3-4 inches of projection, but it became 1 inch at the end of the 1st hour, hovered just above the skin at the 90-minute mark, and then became a skin scent after 3 hours. Cuba Express felt quite light, almost airy, in its opening moments, but the advent of the various dark elements at the 30-minute mark deepened and strengthened the scent to a small degree.
I liked parts of Cuba Express, but I wasn’t wowed by it. I love cloves, so that aspect was enjoyable, but I wish the fragrance had retained its shape and nuances instead of losing them so quickly. If I’m going to be really honest, I had expected much more from that wonderful note list and the Cuban inspiration. Cuba Express does smell like a polished cologne but, to me, it felt not only too amorphous but lacking in identity. There were tiny suggestions here and there that nodded to Cuba theme, but they were never fully formed or realised on my skin. It really was just a dark, spicy cologne at its heart, and I had wanted far more.
On Fragrantica, there are two reviews, and they take opposite stances on the scent. In the first, “Muzzbait” writes simply: “there’s something bitter in this, may be the mixture of the dark chocolate and the coffee…hard to ignore that bitter note. it’s quite noxious…” In the second, “Colin Maillard” gives a very positive review with a lot of details:
The opening is velvety and rich in rhum and tobacco, with a powerful note of cloves and a musky, animalic chypre base with mossy-herbal notes. Strongly boozy and spicy but also a bit gourmand thanks to cocoa beans and a slightly roasted-caramelised note which resembles to a dark and sticky ambery-resinous note (opoponax?) and perhaps dark tar/birch woods. As minutes pass the cloves note emerges even more boldly with its medicinal-pungent personality, always on an aromatic and velvety base rich in colours and nuances in the typical style of Dubrana – which is a master in “freezing” the kaleidoscopic power of natural components, letting them free to express their soul. An austere, elegant, nostalgic, dusty, slightly ghastly and elusive, with a medicinal vein and a lot of woody-resinous-spicy mysticism. I thought of Rume by Slumberhouse, which belongs to a totally different imagination, but still there is a similarity between some notes, notably the explosion of cloves on a boozy, warm, slightly gourmand and incredibly aromatic base – from coffee, to cocoa, to a balsamic aniseed breeze all around. As most of Dubrana’s works I had the pleasure to discover, it’s a perfectly-crafted scent, cozy, charming, to listen to. […] Sadly the longevity is fairly short, although that is never my first concern. [¶] 7,5/10
Basenotes commentators are also split in their feelings. Cuba Express’s thread has 3 positive reviews (one of which is the same “Colin Maillard” comment posted above), 3 negative ones, and 2 neutrals. “Hoscchi” writes that he is a Profumo fan but Cuba Express is the one scent to which he has to give a negative review: “This is the only perfume by La Via del Profumo where I don’t hesitate to give it a thumbs down-rating. This stuff is hardcore, it’s just too overpowering and even brutal! Well, maybe Fidel would like it!” For “Rickbr,” the problem was curry instead of the anticipated notes: “I cannot detect any rum, any chocolate, any coffee. This fragrance really disappointed me, since on my skin it only has a nasty curry smell. I felt like a big indian meal.”
A neutral review by “FumeHood” seems to express some of the identity issues that I had with the scent as well:
As much as I had high expectations for this one, it is just too much pulling in too many directions – and very little of the blend says CUBA to me (and I have been there). This is not to say that the blending is wrong. It is actually quite creative and does try to inject the atmosphere with the frenetic patchwork of Havana’s sensual overload.
I just find it distracting to have so many moods (fresh / bright / sweet / boozy / syrupy / green / herbal / resinous) all packed into one fragrance. It is as if we have a layering job where polar opposites were chosen for effect.
Those who like Cuba Express seem to experience a lot more specific, clearly delineated nuances than I did, but even one of those commentators had to give the scent a neutral rating because of its “evanescent” longevity. “Darvant” experienced a very complex set of notes which he describes as follows:
Another Dubrana’s visceral aroma after Don Corleone and Milano Caffè, a carnal mixture of bay rum and tobacco supported by dark coffee, herbs, spices and bitter chocolate. The latter is a throughout sort of ghostly lingering presence. There is an undeniable aromatic and spicy greenness by soon detectable, a sort of myrtle/laurel/cloves/orange peels smokey presence conjuring me more than vaguely the O’driu‘ Laurhum‘s tobacco/laurel/bay rum/balsams accord in a plain (but less rounded) way. The perfume keeps anyway leaning more over the spicy/boozy/green side than the honeyed one. Unfortunately the aroma is almost evanescent on my skin despite is impossible to deny the hyper-natural consistency of the raw materials. The evolution is not laborious since over a first aromatic/spicy somewhat boozy (bay rum) approach you can gradually detect warm pipe tobacco, hints of cocoa, carribean spices and dark balanced vanilla with an exotic twist so erotic but not refined in a really fair level. The “long tail” dry down is more restrained and virile in a spicy/herbal way, the rum/spices/tobacco dry accord provides masculinity and exotic sultriness. A sultry “scenario” jumps on mind, an hot Havana’s club with live music, tobacco, sex and streams of rum. A pity for the short duration on my skin. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
At the end of the day, neither Oud Caravan No. 3 or Cuba Express is a bad scent and, in fact, I’d say that Oud Caravan No. 3 is quite a great one as true ouds go, but they’re not for me personally. Both skin chemistry and individual tastes have something to do with that. On you, perhaps Cuba Express will show off all the sides outlined above by some of the Basenotes commentators, so it’s worth a shot if you enjoy very spicy, dark, aromatic colognes. As for Oud Caravan No. 3, it is best suited for those with more adventurous tastes and a full appreciation for all the complex characteristics of true oud.
Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of AbdesSalaam Attar. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my views are my own.