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Volume 52, Number 6November/December 2001

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The Year of Desert Rose

Written by Chris Nickson
Photographed by Jan Sonnenmair

It's a crowded and confusing world-music scene these days. Boundaries are ever more blurry, and cross-pollinations ever more far-flung. Yet it's not a fickle Top-40 chart. World music artists and styles, once established, stick around: Witness 1997's Buena Vista Social Club. The Cuban vogue it ushered in is still strong. Two years later Brazil rode the wave. Celtic has been popular for longer than either, and reggae is riffing into a solid third decade.

Since early this year, the spotlight in world music has been turning toward North Africa. Even the attacks of September 11, rather than aborting or weakening the trend, appear instead to be lending it depth. 2001 has been a year for Arab music.

On September 21, leading Arab-American composer and virtuoso Simon Shaheen—who had lost several friends in the attacks 10 days earlier on Washington D.C. and his home city of New York—kept an engagement at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in the US heartland city of Bloomington, Indiana. He played to a full house, with what one local reviewer described as "immeasurable grace." The next day, he joined the World Music Festival in Chicago, and there, Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich observed, "the artists realized that [their 'uds and drums] had to be used as instruments of healing, if possible. Their goal was to soothe, disarm and inspire listeners, and judging by the hush that greeted the music-making and the intensity of the ovations that followed, the musicians gave Chicagoans precisely what they needed,... transforming long-planned concerts into emotionally charged civic gatherings in which cultures...came together in music."

Other musicians, however, had to drop post-attack engagements. Dawn Elder, vice president of Mondo Melodia/Ark 21 records, the first US label to focus on emerging Arab artists, said she rescheduled for February an almost sold-out, 10-city US tour by rai superstar Khaled and Egyptian sha'bi master Hakim, which had been scheduled to begin September 13. The tour, she says, "was bigger than anything artists like these have done in this country. These were arena-sized venues. But they felt that to play the kind of celebratory, party-type music that they are known for just wasn't appropriate. Still, I believe it's more important than ever that they continue to play. Overnight the music became kind of controversial, but what we're hearing from radio stations is that for every caller who blasts us, there are 100 who are encouraging and even more who are interested." Elder points out that many of the artists on her label have joined together to put on a four-city tour to benefit victims of the September 11 attacks.

This "Arab wave" or "rock-'n'-rai," as it has been called (a bit too narrowly) in the US, has blossomed largely from two earlier, much more positive events: In February 2000, Algerian rai vocal star Cheb Mami became the first Arab artist to appear on the Grammy Awards show, backed by an orchestra led by Shaheen. Then, this year's Super Bowl entertainment bill included Mami duetting with Sting on their 1999 hit song "Desert Rose." Other milestones quickly followed. A few months later, the Putumayo label, which is built on world music, released its first Arab-pop compilation, Arabic Groove. It became the label's biggest-ever first-week seller, and remains their top-selling compilation. Both that and a Mondo Melodia compilation, Desert Roses & Arabian Rhythms, reached the top 10 of the industry-standard CMJ world music chart. Made in Medina, the 2001 Mondo Melodia album from another Algerian, Rachid Taha, did likewise, and also reached number 12 on college/alternative charts. Simon Shaheen's Blue Flame, also from Mondo Melodia, hit new highs for Arab music in the adult contemporary category.

The trade press caught the buzz. In August, music industry bellwether Billboard featured Arab music, and writer Jim Bessman declared that "Arabic music is emerging into the greater Western consciousness." In October, Rhythm magazine, which covers world music, published a "special Arabic issue," that asked, "Will Arab and North African rhythms be The Next Big Thing?"

The build-up began in France, a country with a large population of North African émigrés. On September 26, 1998 more than 14,000 people filled Paris's Bercy Stadium for a show by Taha, a young French-born Algerian named Faudel, and Khaled, the "King of Rai" for more than a decade. Called "1, 2, 3 Soleils" ("1, 2, 3 Suns"), it was the biggest concert of North African music ever staged in France, and it turned into a coming-out party that propelled the music into mainstream Francophone culture. According to Steve Hillage, who helped produce the show, the live album went on to become the largest-selling North African record in history, with more than a million copies sold—an astonishing figure in a genre where sales of 10,000 to 30,000 usually constitute a hit.

The album didn't sell well in the US, however; apparently the time wasn't yet right. That changed the next year, when Sting brought on Cheb Mami for their landmark hit "Desert Rose, "which made the pop charts in 10 countries. Critics point to the song as giving the Arab pop sound a kind of mainstream endorsement, similar to Sting's own Police helping to launch the mainstream reggae boom that began in the early 1980's.

"This summer was a turning point," says Jacob Edgar, who researches compilations for Putumayo. "Arab music is hip, it's contemporary, yet it has roots in tradition. It is very cool music that people can dance to, no matter what the political situation is. One of our largest accounts ordered over 3000 copies of Arabic Groove after the [September 11] attacks, as they felt it would help people learn more about the region."

"All of a sudden Arab music was building young audiences," says Elder, who is based in Los Angeles. "It was in the club scene, and then Rachid Taha made it alternative, too, something that's never happened before."

"Rai rhythm and rock-'n'-roll, it's the same," says Taha, who says he recorded Made in Medina, his fifth solo album, in New Orleans, to give it a "swampy funk." While admiring the older rai singers of Algeria, he says he was influenced as much by 1970's punk/new-wavers like The Clash, and by French underground bands and experimentalists. "What I do is the evolution of traditional music."

Although to some purists Taha is more revolutionary than evolutionary, it's no surprise to Hillage, his longtime producer, that the approach works so well. "A lot of the original rhythms that went into the development of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock-'n'-roll in America came from West Africa. And the same process happened in North Africa," he says, through Moroccan contact with West African traditions. "So North Africa actually incubated forms of music that have followed some of the same developmental lines as music in the Americas. The Arabs ruled Spain for 800 years, and the guitar is descended from their 'ud, so you're talking about something that's a bit closer to the source of rock music than you might think."

Rock lead guitar, thundering Arab percussion and the deep electronic beats of techno have all become part of Taha's musical equation. This mix, too, comes easily. "Even more than rock," Hillage explains, "what's happening in [Western pop] dance culture has a strong connection with traditions of North Africa. Prior to the Middle Ages, when the drum was expelled from [Western] concepts of sacred music because it was associated with the devil, our own folk cultures, like Arab cultures, were much more rhythmically oriented. Techno has rediscovered that."

Taha and Hillage draw on a lineage of East-West pop collaborations, many now obscure, that date back to the 1960'swhen the late Brian Jones, guitarist of the Rolling Stones, produced an influential album by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a Moroccan village in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. Producer Bill Laswell, who recorded the group in 1990, observes that the Jajouka musicians are "playing a cycle of three or four notes. Adding the shaker for the metallic top offers an almost industrial sound, and their clappers are very aggressive. When people hear it, they hear a rock band." Jimi Hendrix visited Morocco, as did Led Zeppelin and others. (Zeppelin survivors Jimmy Page and Robert Plant returned there in the 1990's and recorded some of what became No Quarter. [See page 22.])

During those same years, the impulse toward cultural synthesis and instrumental experimentation was traveling in the other direction, too. In the early 1980's, Algerian producer Rachid Baba Ahmed revolutionized the rai tradition by deploying electric guitars and basses, keyboards and drum machines. This plugged-in makeover of a previously acoustic tradition transformed rai into a youthful sound, much like rock in the West. Its first, and still brightest, star was Cheb ("Kid") Khaled, whose intensity virtually defined the new music internationally. When Khaled moved to Paris in 1985, he became the first Algerian to score hits in France. Many have tried to copy his formula, but none of the imitators have cracked the charts.

The term "rock-'n'-rai" was first used in France to describe a now-obscure 1994 recording called Sidi Mansour, led by no "cheb" at all, but by the "Mother of Rai," 70-year-old Cheikha Rimitti, who has been performing the music, in one form or another, since 1936 without compromising her traditional vocal style. The disc brought in western experimental rockers such as guitarist Robert Fripp, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and members of Frank Zappa's band to create extraordinarily rich songs where the rhythms, whether from basses, bendir (a Moroccan frame drum) or both, were as important as the electric bravura, and Rimitti's distinctive, gravelly voice rode over the backing with an authority few younger musicians could approach. By any standard, it was a groundbreaking record, aimed squarely at Western audiences, though ultimately it was released only in France.

One who has great respect for Sidi Mansour is 35-year-old Cheb Mami. "I think it's modern Arab music that appeals, not traditional. People can understand it more easily, but from the modern they can come to the more traditional music."

Before his seminal duet with Sting, Mami had been a rai star in France and Algeria for 12 years. Over the course of four solo discs, his music flowered, maintaining a rai identity while taking on Western forms. Music-video channel VH-1 asserted this summer that his rising popularity in the US gave him a global presence more important than Khaled's, and that Mami had become "arguably the most popular North African recording artist in the world."

On tour this summer, Mami's offstage schedule was a run of interviews and photo shoots. "Of course 'Desert Rose' made a huge difference," he says. "It opened a door for me in America." On Dellali, his album released this summer, produced by former Chic star Nile Rodgers (who also produced David Bowie's hit Let's Dance), Mami brings touches of flamenco, reggae, funk, and even disco into the rai mix. Dellali held the number-two spot on the CMJ world music chart for two months.

Outside rai, a young Egyptian singer named Hakim has built a surprisingly strong base of popularity in the US, too. He works in a street-pop style known as sha'bi ("of the people"), employing everything from traditional instruments to computer programming. His sound has become hugely popular in his homeland, where his last album, Yaho!, sold a million copies. A reworked version was released in the US, and after a brief summer tour that Middle East Online called "explosive, a jolt of energy, melody, and rhythm," he recorded The Lion Roars: Live in America this summer. Unlike Cheb Mami's smooth, pop-idol influences, Hakim works the edgy territory nearer that of Taha and, in the American tradition, the toughest of blues rock, from Muddy Waters to Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top and even AC/DC.

"I've been experimenting," he says. "But I'm not going to switch from sha'bi to rock-'n'-roll. I won't change the base. I'll try to see what fits in with my music." So far what fits in has included techno, pop, and even Latin because, as he points out, historically there is "a love between Arab and Latin rhythms," much of it through a common Andalusian heritage.

Hakim, Mami and Taha form a kind of vanguard. Critics regard them as the Arab musicians best positioned to make lasting names in American rock and, from there, reach out to a broader world audience. "Since America exports everything everywhere," says Hakim, "as Arab music becomes more important in America, it'll go everywhere else."

There's another piece to this scene, however. Simon Shaheen has been around a lot longer than any of the rockers, and for him Richard Gehr, world-music writer at the Village Voice and world-music editor at sonicnet.com, reserves his highest praise, calling him "a giant, one of the world's great musicians." Working steadily in a less flamboyant genre that mixes classical with jazz with traditional Arab modes, Shaheen is also experiencing a booming popularity among more mature US audiences with his fresh, plainly cross-cultural sound. Based in New York, the virtuoso 'ud and violin player in 1995 formed the world-music band Qantara ("Arch"). On their 2001 debut, Blue Flame, the group "melds Arabic styles with American jazz and Western folk and classical music, especially that of Eastern Europe and Spain," wrote critic Mark Jenkins in the Washington Post.

"What I'm doing is what rock stars do—borrowing some ideas and integrating them," Shaheen admits. "But the fundamental power behind the music is based on Arab music, both melodically and rhythmically." The challenge has been "how to create a formula where everything will work and sound good together." Band members, he adds, all have a solid understanding of Arab rhythms. After that, "they use their own experience and knowledge."

It's the type of fusion that jazz musicians, like pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, have attempted with varying degrees of success for several decades, although they have approached it from a western sensibility. Shaheen, born in Galilee and trained in both Arab and western classical music, creates something unique. The result has won him sellout crowds and standing ovations, from the World of Music Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival in Seattle in July to his post-September 11 appearances in Bloomington and Chicago; he also was one of the musicians invited to play at an interfaith service called "America in Healing" in New York five days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Presently, Blue Flame is steady in the top 10 of the CMJ world music charts.

Rising popularity and the disappearance of the term "exotic" from reviews of these artists' works are good signs, says Hillage, but there is yet another barrier to mainstream acceptance: the category of "world music" itself. "For Arab music to work, you have to drop the concept of world music," he says. "It's patronizing. It's like a musical ghetto. What these artists do is as valid as what Madonna or Britney Spears do, as valid as the most mainstream thing."

Can Arab music join the mainstream? "Absolutely," Hillage says. "I think the growing Arab-American population will have an impact in the US over the next decade."

Edgar of Putumayo hedges: "I have my doubts that Arab music will create any true mainstream superstars. What you will see is more Middle Eastern flavors being used in popular music, and certain Arab artists may be pulled along by their coattails."

Producer Laswell has been around the East-West scene for four decades."It could be the biggest thing that's ever happened, but it's not going to come out of what we know right now. It's going to be a collaboration of some kind. It'll come in the future."

And how close is that future? Not yet landed in the US are British-based Moroccan dance-music acts like U-Cef and MOMO ("Music of Moroccan Origin"), which may be paving the way for genuinely uncategorizable music: Is U-Cef "Moroccan" or is he a British hip-hop/trance artist drawing on a Moroccan heritage? And at what point does it cease to matter?

"I expect it'll be Cheb Mami and Rachid Taha who'll clean up," offers Ian Anderson, editor of the music publication fRoots, noting the increased interest of US labels and the sales records of those artists.

Among those labels, only one, Mondo Melodia/Ark 21, has bet a significant share of its future on the music. Founded in 1997 by Miles Copeland, former manager of the Police—who was raised as an expatriate in the Middle East—the label has signed nearly all the major crossover artists: Taha, Mami, Hakim, Shaheen, Khaled and more names that the label insists are up-and-coming, such as Faudel, Andy and Amina.

"We actually have artists from 21 North African and Middle Eastern countries on our roster," says Elder, who is Arab-American. "Miles and I are both passionate about the music. We came together because we thought it was being neglected, and that there, was a market for it in America. What people are going to realize—and we do believe it's in its infancy—is that this isn't 'foreign' music at all—it's really foundational music. In it you can hear the roots of the New World traditions of Cuba, Latin and blues. There are more than 120 modes and scales in Arab music, compared to the West's traditional 12, so it's a very deep source of revitalization that is also a very passionate sound, with an emotion unlike any other. It can take you to complete joy, sadness or meditation. That's why Simon Shaheen's performances in the last few weeks were able to take the audiences to that place of profound meditation that felt like the beginning of a kind of healing."

Chris Nickson ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer and world-music critic who authors the column "New World" for CMJ Weekly. He lives in Seattle .

Jan Sonnenmair,
a free-lance photographer in Los Angeles, is affiliated with Aurora Photos (www.auroraphotos.com).

Building Blocks
Written by Chris Nickson

Albums from the major Arab artists mentioned in this article can be found at www.mondomelodia.com and www.putumayo.com. Beyond those, I recommend the following recordings tQ build an appreciation of new Arab crossover rock and its roots. —C.N.

Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka
(orig. 1971; CD by Point Music, 1995)
This is the hippy-trail classic: the chants, the music, and the polyrhythms of Morocco, with studio re-mixing to help Western listeners "get it."

Rai Rebels (Earthworks, 1988)
From the studio of Rachid Baba Ahmed, the founder of pop-rai, this is the emergent sound of young Algeria, including a taste of the young Khaled.

No Quarter (Atlantic, 1994)
The heavy blues-rock of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant meets the Maghrib in some re-worked Led Zeppelin classics along with new material produced in collaboration with Moroccan musicians.

The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom, 1994)
Maleem Mahmoud Ghania and Pharoah Sanders, under the production eye of Bill Laswell, enter new rhythmic territory with avant-garde American jazz and traditional Moroccan gnaoua.

Sidi Mansour (Absolute |France], 1994)
Now a collector's item, this is the electrifying album that spawned the term "rock-'n'-rai." Musically it surrenders to wonderful, clattering polyrhythms as western and Maghribi musicians back the rock-steady "Mother of Rai," Cheika Rimitti.

Sahra (Island, 1996)
This is the definitive Khaled starter album, as it shows the "King of Rai" at his most adventurous, incorporating hip-hop and reggae influences. It includes his biggest French hit, "Aïcha."

En Concert (Tinder, 1998)
The Paris-based, pan-Maghrebi ensemble called Orchestre National de Barbès combines tradition with the pizzazz of funk and rock on a superb live album.

Halalium (Apartment 22, [UK] 2000)
U-Cef is a Moroccan living in London, a self-proclaimed "digitizer," who blends tradition and techno, ambient and hip-hop—in both Arabic and English—in a collection alternately tough and pretty.

The Long Shadow of Um Kulthum
Written by Chris Nickson

Although nearly all the Arab musicians climbing the global charts are men, there are a few women not too far below them. However, they face a hurdle virtually unknown to westerners: the stylistic shadow of the late, incomparably great Um Kulthum. The Egyptian diva, who died in 1975, is generally acknowledged as one of the world's greatest voices and, to make a mark today, any female singer has to find her own orbit in a musical universe whose single axis is Um Kulthum. A few singers, like Fayrouz and Cheika Rimitti, have succeeded in doing so in the past decades, but it's a challenge that every singer of the younger generation faces anew.

For almost half a century, Um Kulthum was a household word across North Africa and the Middle East. The entire region came to a virtual standstill every Thursday night during her weekly live radio concerts. Her public appearances were legendary. The best composers and lyricists in Egypt were proud to write for her. While her heart remained in traditional Egyptian music, she also heralded modernity by taking the daring steps of using European strings and unconventional scales or maqams: In her art, the past and the future came gracefully together. At her funeral, four million people lined the streets of Cairo. "She was able to show that you could be a Muslim, a woman, and a singer," says Mondo Melodia vice president Dawn Elder. "She was cherished, honored, and held in high esteem." By the time cultural attitudes toward women in music grew more conservative, Um Kulthum was beloved, "so she was able to continue," says Elder.

The best example of a singer in Um Kulthum's shadow is Amina Annabi: Born in Tunisia 39 years ago, her professional career began in France, and she is the first of the younger female singers to cross to the international stage. "Um Kulthum is our role model; we're all her children," she explains. "We're not thinking about comparing ourselves with her—we can't. She's a guru, in a way."

Amina released her debut album in France in 1989, and in 1991 she became the first Arab singer, male or female, to represent France in the Eurovision Song Contest—and she took first place. Her winning hit, "Le Dernier Qui a Parle a Raison," mixed European pop with North African rhythms and West African melodies. Despite success, "it was difficult," she says, "to start mixing things, singing in Arabic, French, and English, and expressing my feelings."

Such personal expression felt "revolutionary," she adds. It broke new ground as much as her unabashed mixing of pop, electronic and jazz and traditional, from the dance-beats-meet-Maghrebi melody of "Dis-Moi Pourquoi" to her cover version of Billie Holiday's classic "My Man," in which she sings over an Egyptian orchestra.

"Amina's maintained the foundation and integrity that Um Kulthum laid down, but she's added something new to become her own person," Elder observes. If Um Kulthum is the mother, she adds, then "her offspring strive to preserve what she's given them as a foundation and add their own approach."

Across three albums and several hit singles (with tracks compiled on the US release Nomad: The Best of Amina) Amina is showing herself to be as relentless an experimenter as her better-known male counterparts, both on disc and with a flamboyant stage presence. Now with a strong fan base in France, she's one of the first Arab women soloists to break into the world-music concert circuit. This summer she played seven US dates as part of the "Vive Le World" tour, and the strong reception she received helped push her album into the CMJ world-music charts.

But in the shadow of the now-iconic Um Kulthum, Amina—inspired by the great Egyptian—remains humble. "I have a lot to do to sing like Um Kulthum," she says. "She was such a spiritual voice. She lived her spirituality, and that wasn't easy. All we can do is try to live up to what she achieved."

Talent Pool
Written by Chris Nickson


From Maghagha, a rural Egyptian town, Hakim grew up adoring sha'bi music, which he began performing when he was 14. After graduating with a degree in communications, he returned to music. His 1991 debut, Nazra, was the first sha'bi disc to include guitar, synthesizer, and dance beats. It brought him instant success, on which he has built ever since.

Cheb Mami

From Saïda, Algeria, Khelifati Mohamed—a.k.a. "Cheb Mami"—also started singing as a teenager. His career flourished after he moved to France in the late 1980's, and for all the modern touches on his albums, at heart Mami is deeply rooted in traditional rai. "Rai is the rock of the Arabs," he says.

Simon Shaheen

Born in Galilee, Shaheen was a prodigy on both violin and `ud, gaining degrees in western and Arab classical music. After moving to New York in 1982, he founded the all-traditional Near Eastern Music Ensemble while joining numerous experimental and fusion collaborations. In high demand as solo performer, collaborator, teacher and composer, he's pushed his musical horizons farther with the formation of the multi-cultural ensemble Qantara. "America is culturally strong because it is an artistic tapestry," he says. "And this must keep going."

Rachid Taha

Born in Algeria and raised in France, Taha got his start with an immigrant punk band and worked as a deejay before going solo, mixing rock and Maghrib sounds, singing of bicultural, urban dilemmas. At 43, he's happy to be called an Arab musician—"since Arab culture gave the world mathematics and medicine"—but he adds that "I want my music to be accepted on its own terms."

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the November/December 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2001 images.