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Volume 51, Number 2March/April 2000

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Arab Pop on the World Stage

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Jack Vartoogian

You can hear the global village coming closer. The hybridized styles of "world beat" music, that loosely international fusion of rhythms or melodies from here with instruments or vocal styles from there, is audible everywhere. The resulting mixes are an ever-expanding aural banquet of unfamiliar ingredients, rich flavors and unexpected spices, and they are landing on western hit charts with more and more regularity.

Since the mid-1980's, world beat has gone from an exotic, marginal business to the big bucks of mainstream niche marketing. The recording industry added it as a Grammy Awards category in 1992, and music-store bins and web pages now fairly burst with new releases from all over, Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Throughout the West, world-beat programs have become staples of public radio stations. "Afropop Worldwide," one of the shows with the largest audience, airs weekly on 120 stations in the United States and 15 in Europe.

Richard Gehr of New York's Village Voice is one of the critics who think that within the world-beat genre—if it can be called that—Arab music is notably up-and-coming. In that sense, Arab music is the latest link in a chain of musical trends that since the 1950's have crossed borders and oceans to increasingly enthusiastic receptions among western listeners. It began with the jazzy cross-beats of Latin music brought to New York clubs largely by Puerto Ricans, who gave the post-World War II generation its first lesson in the modern sounds of the less-industrialized world. Latin music fed interest in the purer polyrhythms of Afro-Brazilian styles, especially bossa nova, which in turn stimulated attention, by the late 1960's, in West Africa. And many of the non-penta-tonic chord changes of West Africa originated in the scales and pitch slides that came there in the Middle Ages with the Arabs.

That the West has largely neglected Arab popular music is not very surprising. Immigrant-based audiences have been small, in marketing terms, and there have been few producers interested in trying to bridge the cultural gap. It was simple, really: raditional Arab meters and modes can be difficult to grasp, even for well-trained western musicians. Today, however, listeners are more sophisticated and diverse, and the music itself is changing as well. In the United States, mainstream pop audiences have enthusiastically followed the lead of world-beat explorers such as Paul Simon (Graceland, 1986 and Rhythm of the Saints, 1990) and David Byrne (Rei Momo, 1989), and of collaborationists such as Ry Cooder.

Stanley Rashid, owner of Rashid Sales Co., a Brooklyn Arab-music distributorship founded by his father in 1934, says he sees steadily increasing demand from non-Arab listeners for pop music from the Arab world. "I'm constantly getting calls from night clubs all over the country asking for the latest 'Amr Diab album," he says, referring to the hot Egyptian singer. "Americans are at last realizing they can dance to this stuff."

But Brian Cullman, a critic and producer who has worked on more than a dozen diverse world-beat albums, thinks Arab music is not about to hit the mainstream. "Hollywood seems to really like Middle Eastern music," he says. "Big-budget movies like The Sheltering Sky [1990] and The Black Stallion [1979] have used Arab-influenced sound tracks with great success, but it hasn't caught on with most listeners yet."

To explore Arab sounds in the world-beat scene, sampling can be simplified by keeping in mind four informal—but often blurred—categories: "Pop" is where often youth-oriented styles from throughout the Arab world blend traditional sounds with elements of tastes first established in the West; what might be called "crossover" is a fusion most commonly involving Arab musicians and western recording producers; "folk" is often a more localized sound, well-rooted in tradition, usually less heavily produced and made for listening rather than dancing, and finally one might call "arabesque" the inventions of western musicians who appropriate and reinterpret Arab styles and musicianship.

Today, the most familiar Arab pop style in the West is rai (the word means "opinion," "point of view" or "way of seeing"), which by the late 1980's had grabbed young Maghrebian club-goers in much the same way rock-and-roll hooked teenagers in the 1950's. Although Algerian in its origins, rai spread quickly across the Arab world to North African immigrants in Europe and on to non-Arab audiences beyond. Its combination of up-tempo exuberance and gritty verite touched young audiences at their core. Says Khaled, an Algerian singer who has given the music its most electrifying shot, "In rai, you sing your true feelings. The lyrics come straight from your life, from your heart. It's about real life, not life as it's supposed to be." But it wasn't that that pulled the non-Arabic-speaking West to rai—it was the explosive dance beats that feel at home in clubs anywhere in the world.

The roots of rai actually predate its international popularity by nearly 50 years: It developed largely in sailor hangouts in the Algerian port of Oran. There, lyric singers like Chaikha Rimitti and Chaikh Hamada earned their honorifics (shaykh and shaykha mean, approximately, "leader") and melded Spanish, Egyptian, and Oran's own urban sounds with rural Algerian elements to create a genre with both commercial and artistic appeal. In the early 1970's, rai became more youth-oriented, and the singers began to be known as cheba and cheb ("kid"), which helped them cultivate a rebellious, generation-specific image.

Instrumentally, it was in the 1950's that electric guitars, trumpets, and organs joined the band, raising the traditional Algerian string orchestra's volume through the nightclub roof. Then western rock-and-roll arrived, and the Tlemcen-born brothers Rachid and Fethi Baba Ahmed, early veterans of western rock bands, galvanized rai with synthesizers, drum machines, and fresh lyrics that by the late 1970's had put the form on the road to global popularity.

"Pop-rai," as the electric style is called, has since spawned its own stars. Oran-born Khaled, known as the "King of Rai," continues to rule rai's roost. Since his first hit at age 16, Khaled has both charmed and challenged Arab audiences and trendy club-goers worldwide. In 1991 he teamed up with Los Angeles producer Don Was to bring out Khaled, an album full of the headlong happiness that is his signature style. On subsequent recordings, such as 1997's Sahra and this year's Kenza, named for his daughter, Khaled has delivered a lively mix of new songs and fresh treatments of traditional rai standards.

Saida-born Cheb Mami—known early in his career as the "Prince of Rai"—has taken the genre farthest from its North African roots. He has mixed rai and rap, made extensive use of special effects and vocal sampling, and recently came to the attention of mainstream pop in his duet with Sting, "Desert Rose."

Rai continues to find favor with a new generation of artists and audience members. Faudel, a rising young star born in France but whose family hails from Tlemcen, exemplifies rai's cross-cultural resiliency, and his winning personality and success on the European charts lead many observers to tap him as the future of rai on the continent. Still, the husky-voiced Cheba Zahouania and local Oran favorite Houari Ben-chenat, both of whom first came to prominence in the early 1980's, prove that veterans of the rai scene have considerable staying power, and that you need not be in your teens or 20's to sing up-to-the-minute lyrics.

Although not strictly a rai artist, Rachid Taha is another Algerian singer with a strong presence in the world music record bins. The 1999 live recording 1,2,3 Soleils, which grouped Taha with Khaled and Faudel, racked up tremendous sales in the Arab world and beyond, while his remake of "Ya Rayah," first recorded nearly a half-century ago by legendary Algiers artist Dahmane El Harrachi— who has exerted a considerable influence on Rachid Taha's vocal style—is heard regularly on radio and TV stations from Rabat to Riyadh.

A different pop style with an equally strong, easy appeal to westerners comes from Sudan and that Nubian heartland that reaches north into Egypt. Sudanese pop incorporates a myriad of styles from the Horn of Africa, from the lilting vocals of Swahili wedding music to the urgent work songs of Afar salt diggers, and it relies more on simple tribal dance rhythms than on the elaborate orchestrations of rai. Multiple handclap and drum beats underpin solo melodies that are often part of an earthy call and response in the chorus.

The result is a felicitous middle ground between the traditional and the contemporary. Band leaders Abdel Aziz Mubarek, Abdel Gadir Salim, and Ali Hassan Kuban (an Egyptian Nubian) nimbly mix Arab-scaled western instruments like violin, guitar and accordion with dominant lines on the traditional Arab 'ud and densely layered percussion.

Unlike much of the sugary, teeny-bop pop of the post-Umm Kalthum era in Egypt, Sudanese music is neither overly electrified nor tricked-up with studio gimmicks. Singers enunciate their words in unhurried cadences. Lyrics are celebratory, nostalgic, and humorous. Bandleader Salim's breakthrough hit "Umri Ma Bansa" ("I'll Never Forget [Her]," released in the West in 1990) recounts an event of great local import: the first visit of a Bedford lorry to Kordofan Province. This Salim made into a metaphor for his beloved, ending with the double-entendre, "You drove me insane!"

One Egyptian to break at least partly out of the teenybopper mold is 'Amr Diab, torch-bearer of al-jeel ("the generation") music, an electrified, up-tempo style dating from the late 1970's and aimed at the country's new class of young, well-educated urban-ites. Diab also works outside his tradition, having recorded with Khaled, a Spanish flamenco group, and Greek singer Angela Dimitriu. Says Stanley Rashid, "]eel has very sophisticated tempos, and Diab knows how to show them off. My hunch is he will be the first Arab singer to make it big here."

Some of the best Arab crossover 'music seems to be generated in North Africa, perhaps because of its proximity to Europe. One of the most innovative bands, called Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects, is from Morocco. Their latest album was recorded in Casablanca and remixed in New York by rock legend and world-beat guru Bill Laswell, a student of Arab music. Laswell's approach was to overlay the band's own tracks with a "techno" sound of electronically-altered darabuka, Arabic rap vocalizing, drum machines, and bass lines, resulting in a boundaryless trance. Since its start in 1987, all of the band's albums had been produced by Swiss-born Pat Jabbar el Shaheed, whose small Barbarity label puts out cutting-edge music from around the Middle East.

Other crossover artists of note include the Moroccan band Ahlam, which sings in a North African al-jeel mode; the Turkish rap group Asiatic Connection; and Sapho, a new-wave Moroccan chanteuse who has been promoted as a "technopop Umm Kalthum."

In the United States, it was studio pioneer Brian Eno who teamed up with David Byrne in 1981 to first put Arab music before the western art-music crowd. Their album was called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. On two standout tracks, Eno overdubbed a Lebanese folk lyric lifted from the ethnomusicology series Music from the World of Islam with heavy percussion and bass guitar grooves. Two other tracks "sampled," or appropriated, recordings from other Arab countries, giving the album a feel of Anglo-Arab avant-garde. Today it is regarded as a seminal work in both the world-beat and trance/ambient/techno genres.

As a virtuoso traditionalist, Simon Shaheen may seem like an unlikely fusion experimentalist, but he too has collaborated with some of the more adventurous producers. (See Aramco World, May/June 1996.) On the 1993 Laswell-produced album Hallucination Engine, he composed two pieces for 'ud, violin, qanun and Arab voice that were then modified electronically and looped with electric-bass lines. Though he now regards the album as only a partial success, Shaheen says that "it taught me that fusion can work, if only on a limited basis, when styles meet that are closer in spirit to one another, with more structure and vision behind the musicianship." He has gone on to simpler collaborations: a 1997 acoustic album called Saltana, in which his 'ud played in conversation with an Indian guitar, and a project still in progress with a Brazilian percussionist, a Spanish guitarist, and a US flautist.

Hassan Hakmoun is a Gnaoua-tradition musician also schooled in the street sounds of Marrakech who has "crossed over" with some success. He came to New York on a government concert tour in 1987 and decided to stay, finding a Moroccan-restaurant niche playing sintir, a deep-voiced, three-stringed lute. His following soon included both world-music fans and dance aficionados, the latter thanks to his crowd-pleasing, twirling stage-leaps that can reach nearly head-height. In 1989 Hakmoun founded Zahar, an Arab funk-rock fusion band with heavily syncopated bass lines and wailing electric guitar feedback modulated by the lighter sounds of sintir, clattering qarqareb (iron castanets), and Arabic lyrics. New York Times music critic Peter Watrous called Hakmoun's style part rural and part urban, "mixing the past and present and creating the roar that all great dance and trance music aspires to."

In the more conservative halls of folk music, the musicians are in fact no less inventive borrowers from other Arab and non-Arab traditions. Their often unhurried music, mostly free of recording-studio button-pushing, has proved enormously popular in the West.

One dedicated traditionalist is Hassan Erraji, a blind Moroccan multi-instrumentalist living in Belgium who records with European musicians on bass and drums. Erraji's unadorned playing on 'ud, qanun, ghaita, nay and violin is tempered by his advanced conservatory training in western composition, while his pain-infused Arabic lyrics cry out to the ears of non-Arab listeners in the way that Leonard Cohen's and Edith Piaf's songs appeal across linguistic borders.

Only slightly more peripatetic is Nubian 'ud master Hamza El Din (See Aramco World, July/ August 1991), whose career has led him from the banks of the Nile to the Sea of Japan to his current home on San Francisco Bay. Along the way he has worked with a colorful crew, including American pianist William Mathieu, Jordanian percussionist Hani Naser, Nubian lyricist Mohi El Din Sherif and the Grateful Dead. He has composed for such modernists as theater director Peter Sellars, the Kronos Quartet, and the LINES Ballet. He also recorded several cross-cultural duet albums with Japanese folk musicians. Hamza's latest recording, A Wish, was inspired by word that a farming project on Lake Nasser will soon breathe new life into his abandoned boyhood village, and it seems to bring his music full-circle back home. But, ever the restless traditionalist, Hamza uses piano, cello, nay, and 'ud despite the fact that "pure" Nubian music is based on only one instrument: the hand drum.

In Spain, Al Tall brings a more strictly historical approach. As Spaniards, the group's members are devoted to preserving and reviving their country's Andalusian arts, particularly the lyrical poem form known as the muwashshah. This is the convention that, in the Middle Ages, evolved into the French troubadour song and which today remains the sentimental basis for all popular love ballads. Says group leader Vincent Torrent, "We believe in the power of Mediterranean music as an alternative art form, and believe that a place must be made today for this mode of expression." To that end, Torrent invited the Muluk al-Hwa, singers from Marrakech's grand public square, the Djemaa el Fna, to collaborate on the 1994 tribute album Xarq al-Andalus dedicated to Valencia's 11th- and 12th-century poets Ibn al-Khafaja, Ibn Amira, Ibn Labana, and Ibn Zaqqaq. On the album, Moroccan 'ud, Gnaouan sintir, Spanish guitar and flamenco handclapping, backed by electric bass and synthesizer, meld smoothly under the lyrics of texts sung alternately in chanted Arabic and cante jondo ("deep song") Catalan (See Aramco World, November/December 1994.)

Also from Morocco, the musicians of Jajouka are an association of ghaita (double-reed flute) players and drummers living in the remote Jibala Hills in the Rif mountains above Tangier. Lionized by a stream of hipster expatriates and literati led by Paul Bowles (See Aramco World, July/August 1996), William Burroughs and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, they were recorded on location in a cave in the early 1970's by Bill Laswell's mobile recording studio; they later recorded with jazz avantgardist Ornette Coleman and accompanied the Rolling Stones on tour. Laswell's latest work with them, Apocalypse Across the Sky (1992) blended genres more than ever and matched group leader Bachir Attar on ghaita, gimbri (a skin-covered, banjo-like lute) and lira (cane flute) with Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng and American rhythm-and-blues saxophonist Maceo Parker. The result is a mostly African hybrid that stirs Riffian, Wolof and African-American musical sensibilities into a surprisingly unified whole.

Turning last to the "arabesque," that loosely Arab-styled sound played by westerners, a nagging question surfaces: What constitutes an "Arab sound" for western ears? When a musical tradition relies as much on invention and improvisation as Arab music does—as opposed to the notational exactitude of western classical traditions—how Arab can it be if it is not played by musicians born into the genre? At what point has someone from outside the tradition acquired tarab, a term meaning "musical rapture," approximately equivalent to "groove"?

One musician who has made a name in Arab music is Brooklyn-born Armenian-American George Mgrdichian, a post-beatnik 'ud player who seems to have popped up everywhere on the New York scene, from the New York Philharmonic's guest soloist chair to Greenwich Village jazz sessions. Having adopted the defining instrument of Arab classical music that centuries ago gave Europe the idea of bowed and plucked strings, he has fashioned himself into a pioneering icon of cool exoticism, part virtuoso and part curiosity, a peculiar and popular straddler of East and West.

Once after a coffeehouse jam, Mgrdichian was approached by an appreciative Arab listener who asked him to produce a private, one-copy-only recording of a number of otherwise undistinguished Cairo nightclub songs in a jazz style. Mgrdichian agreed, and brought together the best New York-based Middle Eastern musicians he could muster, including Mohammad el-Akkad on qanun, Sudan Baronian on soprano saxophone (whose reedy sound echoes the Egyptian nay), and Jerusalem-born Hanna Mirhige on darabuka and tambourine. Mgrdichian's orchestral arrangements showcased the musicians' respective talents according to the strict rules of the Arab science of improvisation, known as taqsim, as well as the more free-form invention of jazz, resulting in a natural sound that nonetheless moved in new directions. Their patron was delighted with his recording but soon died of a heart attack, and the recording went unplayed until Mgrdichian reclaimed the copyright and released it commercially in 1990 as One Man's Passion—a title intended as a tribute to the anonymous patron.

New Yorker Richard Horowitz is, like Mgrdichian, something of a middle-grounder, but leans more toward the avant-garde. He studied through the 1970's in Morocco under the finest nay players and percussionists, and although he returned to New York City's experimental music culture with a great respect for tribal timbres, he was determined to put them to creative uses within his own culture. The fruits of this marriage of North American recording technology and Horowitz's North African musical apprenticeship are apparent on his soundtracks for feature films that have included The Sheltering Sky (1990), for which he won a Golden Globe award. Although such electronically filtered compositions are generations removed from the traditional uses of the nay's call and the darabuka's echo, traditional undertones still echo in these mixing pots.

In a very different vein—a mock-whimsical, post-modern one—3 Mustaphas 3 is an eclectic British band whose appeal derives as much from posture as virtuosity. Each "Mustapha"—they appear on stage wearing fezzes—is in fact a dead-serious, non-Arab ethnomusicologist, and their idea of a perfect vacation is to spend a month learning maddeningly complex flute meters from Montenegrin goatherds. Their vast multi-instrumental talents range from the Egyptian nay and the Moroccan bendir to the Hawaiian guitar and the Cuban conga; they frequently utilize rare Balkan folk instruments in tandem with vocals of phonetically transcribed Arabic or Turkish.

In a more conventional rock mode, the Berlin band "Dissidenten," composed equally of expatriate Arabs and Germans, takes Middle Eastern string and reed instruments and amplifies them to clearly non-traditional volume, then mixes them with electric guitar, bass, and trap drums. Though at times the result can sound a bit more like parallel play than fusion, the band is one of the few in the field of rock to make Arab music part of its signature sound.

The music from all these diverse sources teaches a simple lesson: The Mediterranean and Arab worlds contain few, if any, closed musical borders. Whether it is a Lebanese love ballad or an Albanian dance step, each country's sounds and sensibilities owe much to the others'. Ultimately, anyone's keys can open the region's musical lock, and much of the world's popular music today reflects more the musicians' particular explorations than the traditions from which they come. Musical talent today quickly transcends musical heritage, and western audiences are at least intrigued, if not yet utterly enamored, with what was once largely unavailable and unappealing, branded as exotic and "Oriental." In the global listening booth, the Arab sound is being received "al-'ud and clear."

Louis Werner is a film maker who lives in New York. His favorite Arab pop style is almost extinct: the nightclub orchestras that once enlivened Cairo's Tawfiqiyya district. A taste of that sound was preserved in 1991 on "The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab," by Simon Shaheen on the Axiom label.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the March/April 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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