March 11, 2007
Arab music for dummies
A few years ago, Mother conceded total defeat against "The West" in my education when it came to music. She had been trying hard for years to introduce me to the subtleties of classical Arab music through Umm Kalthoum, Abdel Haleem and other such names, to no avail. To her great dismay, I wasn't even interested in the younger stars that other Arabs worship, such as George Wassouf or Kathem Essaher. And while she had hoped it was only a matter of maturity, and that as an adult, I would abandon that tasteless rock or electronic noise I tend to listen to in favor of the more refined Arab tones, here I was, a full grown man, still unable to name but the singers above without even identifying their music, let alone appreciating it.
Mother's sorrow could be alleviated though if she understood I made a few steps in her direction when I discovered alternative currents of Arab music, mostly born in the Diaspora. And this is where I invite the Matthew Hogan's of this world, whose impermeability to mainstream Arab music I share, to discover it by entering that universe through other gates.
Though Rai cannot be classified as underground anymore, it needs to be mentioned as a current born mostly in the French Arab Diaspora, with recurring lyrics about exile, and themes based on a mixture of Arab music, Reggae and Flamenco. For the ignoramuses out there, Khaled is the biggest name on the scene, with songs which have topped the charts both in Europe and the Arab World. The most famous titles include Chebba, Didi, and many songs from the album Sahra. Rachid Taha's Ya Rayah and Hamid Baroudi's Caravan II Baghdad also deserve a special mention.
Less known are the attempts to marry Arab music with more traditional styles of Western music. Jazz is probably among the ones which marry best. Anouar Brahem is without doubt a master at this art, with such delicious albums as Madar or Astrakan Cafe. Toufic Farroukh's Little Secrets also has some nice attempts at that. Trip hop and dub seem to have a few such mixtures too. Enrico Macias's bine el bareh ouel liom is really a great listening. My favorite in this style, DNK, a very little known band mixing mostly rock and slow to mid tempo electronic music, also made an Arabic version of Smashing Pumpkins' Today in Mayama. In soft rock and country, the pretty Souad Massi composed three albums, the most famous being Raoui and Deb. In classical music, Mozart L’Egyptien was a successful album in France, though it sounds more like a superposition of Arab and European classical music than a real integration of both. While I like it, fans of classical music would probably be better positioned than I am to judge the quality of that work.
Cheating a bit for the hippies and other fans of ambiant ethno-music, the famous Buddha Bar compilations include tracks that have been (ab)used by commercials and whenever "exotic-western-ears-friendly" tunes were needed. Still in the same pedestrian lounge "1001 nights" register, Loop Guru's The Third Chamber (Part 4), Mohamed Ali's Leherna Caravan or Karmix' Llil are worth listening. I don't know if Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Sufi wailing qualifies as Arab music, but it's at least annex, so allow me to cite Sea of Vapours, and Taboo which he created in conjunction with Peter Gabriel.
Unfortunately for me, I haven't found anything in hard rock (except for a hilarious concert in Tunis where people were wearing gothic wigs to pogo), and barely anything in techno/trance. A couple of tracks, which prove that there could be a lot more done in that field (hey you amateur DJs, try it out) were made with - this guy's everywhere actually - Bill Laswell's Matkhafsh and Amira Saqati's Psy Habibi.
Here ends my introduction in Arab music to Westerners. Or was it an introduction in Western music to Arabs?
Posted by Shaheen at March 11, 2007 01:55 AM
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Nice post -- there's a lot of stuff here I've never heard.
Fathy Salama is another Arabic-jazz fusion artist people might want to check out (he's a Grammy winner, but don't let that bother you!). Simon Shaheen as well does kind of jazzy stuff.
As for rock, you're right that there isn't much out there. However, there's a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Amal Murkus, whose album, "Amal", is a Suad Massi-sounding thing -- pretty, melodic, Westernish folk tunes...except the first track, "Yawmiat Jurh Falastini". It's a really intense rock song, with driving guitars. It makes my hair stand up on end every time I hear it and everyone I've made listen to it loves it.
The album is hard to find, but highly recommended.
Posted by: alif sikkiin at March 11, 2007 09:28 AM
there's a bit of an underground rock scene, all the way up to an Iraqi pre-2003 heavy metal band. Most of the scene is university based and the bands usually don't survive the graduation of their members. But they do - other than covers of their idols - also develop their own songs, quite often in Arabic.
Of course there's now also a hip-hop scene, with a documentary about the Palestinian one coming out sometime now-ish.
Posted by: MSK at March 11, 2007 12:19 PM
Personal contacts make my exposure biases more Levantine but what Rai I have heard I liked.
And, as noted elsewhere, I have developed a soft spot for this Syrian outfit.
Again, the absence of hard rock is disappointing.
Somewhere out there some group of shebab or she-gals will be able to do an Arabic version of this, my favorite underrated heavy metal song and riff, best heard in studio version. I was duly encouraged seeing kids in the Damascus souq singing Metallica's remake of this classic from the same group.
Posted by: matthew hogan at March 11, 2007 12:38 PM
Since you mentioned Buddha Bar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, in Buddha Bar 1 compiled by Claude Challe on Disk 2, there's a song called Eshebo right after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Piya Ré [which is not really Sufi, by the way.. just a love song]. It's sung by Etti Ankri, an Israeli singer of Tunisian origin who sings beautifully in Arabic as well as Hebrew, but that's for another day. I've uploaded the song for everyone's listening pleasure, though I don't understand who/what eshebo or bin dawwaari is. Anyways, great tune and great music.
Posted by: Daniyal at March 12, 2007 01:59 PM
Cool, keep the tips coming.
Here we can hear bits from Amal. But the bit that's there for "Yaumiat jorh falastini" doesn't sound like rock.
As for rock being underground and not performing for long, you're right too. There are those hardrockers who became famous in Morocco 4 years ago, not for their music, but for being arrested for Satanism and which made a scandal there til their release, or the Tunisian Carthagods, but no CD or mp3 I'm aware of around.
just came across this fantastic hard rock version of Umm Kalthoum's Inta Omri while digging for links (so now at least I can name and appreciate one of her songs). Yes, there's hope.
that's a remake of Khaled's Chebba, mentionned above. Actually, it's ya shebba, which means in this context "O beautiful young woman" and bint duwari, which means litteraly "daughter of my village".
Afraid Hard Rock is a white western thing, doesn't translate well.
Other forms do better, but hard rock, not really. For which I thank god every once in a while that only white Americans truly enjoy the benighted form of useless howling.
BTW, I'd render Chebba (or Shebba in English) along the lines of chica, but mere detials.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at March 12, 2007 08:21 PM
No hard rock in the Arab world?
Then who keeps getting rounded up by the police on the orders of dumb governments who want to placate the islamicists?
Posted by: Zbit at March 13, 2007 04:16 AM
My dear L,
well ... you know how much I hate to disagree with you, but there actually is quite a lively & enduring hard rock sub-culture. May I refer you to my seminal "Death Metal in Damascus" article? (Link: http://www.gloompot.com/DeepMag2003/Death.aspx)
Posted by: MSK at March 13, 2007 04:25 AM
I'm aware it exists, I am also aware it is fringe.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at March 13, 2007 04:59 AM
I am married to an Arab lady but I am the one who listens to, and keeps up with, Arabic music.
If you would like your Arabic music with a good mix of the West, I highly suggest Natacha Atlas.
She is of Egyptian background (I dont hold that against her lol) and she was born and raised in Belgium with a lot of time spent in England. She sings in Arabic, English, French and Spanish.
She has worked with vetern alternative stars such as Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash. In her new album she works with some well known, and less well known R & B stars.
You can listen to the whole album on-line, I will put the link below. Her weak spots? Her Arabic, for one. She had to re-record some of her songs to get airplay in the Gulf because of poor Arabic grammar, but aside from that she is top notch.
If you get sick of the same old Nancy Ajram, Ruby or Nawal al Zoghby, Natacha Atlas is the one to change your mind.
Posted by: Abu Sinan at March 13, 2007 09:54 AM
Her weak spots? Her Arabic, for one. She had to re-record some of her songs to get airplay in the Gulf because of poor Arabic grammar, but aside from that she is top notch.
You mean she rerecorded to appeal to Gulf snobbery and pretencions.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at March 13, 2007 03:49 PM
Nah, I wouldnt say so Lounsbury. It would be like an Arabic singer trying to get airplay in the USA singing songs with lyrics like "Dont higher the volume, the bolicemens might came."
If you want airplay, you better be able to sing in the language without it sounding like a fifth grade grammar lesson.
If you listen to Natacha Atlas, you'll know what I mean. If you listen to her try to speak Arabic, you know even more.
Her Arabic is not good and she cannot hold an entire conversation in Arabic, she consistantly has to go back to English because she cannot find the vocabulary or the method to say what she wants to in Arabic.
She has even admitted that one of the reasons she went to Egypt to live for a year or so was because she needed to get better with his Arabic.
If this was nothing more than playing to Gulf snobbery she would have dropped the eGyptian accent that annoys many people from the Gulf. But it is still there.
Posted by: Abu Sinan at March 14, 2007 09:45 AM
Anybody who does not appreciate Abd el Halim is an unadulterated Philistine
Posted by: Bint at March 17, 2007 09:38 AM
"...an unadulterated Philistine."
Shouldnt that be unadulterated Palestinian?
Posted by: goliath at March 17, 2007 10:55 AM
Anybody who does not appreciate Abd el Halim is an unadulterated Philistine
I would certainly appreciate him if I found a hard rock version of his music as well (n'en déplaise to our misguided Lounsbury who seems to think it's a honkeys-only thing).