For much of the past year, while researching The Rough Guide to Internet Radio, I listened for hours every day to radio from around the world. With as many as 10,000 stations now online to choose from—samba from Brazil, Chinese folk music, Caribbean dance tracks and pretty much anything else you can imagine—I found myself drawn again and again to a handful of Arab-world stations.
At the top of my list is Radio Casablanca (wvw.maroc.net/rc), whose musical programming is a sophisticated blend of traditional and contemporary, classical and popular. To even the most casual listener, much of it is beautiful and moving. The vocalists, singing in what is to me an unfamiliar language, always seem to be communicating with the greatest urgency: "Listen to this," they seem to be saying. "This is important!" But there is no sense of strain, as the musical accompaniment is often reassuringly formal. The rhythms are as elaborate as the most refined of Indian classical music and as driving as those of Africa. There is often a solo instrument out in front, such as a violin that traces clean lines twining like vines through the music. It is meditative enough to let me play it while writing and energetic enough to keep me going. The Radio Casablanca DJs do a great job of maintaining a musical flow, often following a classical piece with one with a contemporary bass track, but always in such a way that it seems like a development rather than a departure. There is little talk to break the mood. In my experience, it is one of the world's best stations.
The deep reservoir of Arab music, in which a multiplicity of traditions is continually replenished by countless streams of innovation, has become more accessible than ever. Including string quintets, desert folklore, pop genres and subgenres, electronica, village songs, bands and vocals of infinitely subtle variation, the music of the Arab world is profoundly diverse, and it is often surprisingly accessible to the western-trained ear.
Thanks to the advent of high-speed modems, and especially DSL and other "always on" technologies, the Internet is now the easiest way to find out for yourself. If you have a computer connected to the Internet, browse to a radio station's website, which is easy to find using almost any search engine or the links provided here. Click on a button that says something like "listen live now." Music should come rolling out of your speakers, and the quality should resemble FM radio.
Some websites are in Arabic, but don't let this faze you, because the button to click is usually fairly self-evident. For example, Emarat FM (www.emi.co.ae), broadcasting from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, may be puzzling for the non-Arabic speaker, but trial-and-error perseverance will have its rewards. There are six streams there, and while Emirates FM1 and FM2 carry pop music that you can find closer to home, the fifth stream, "Sound of Music" (www.emi.co.ae/radio/sof.ram), is a not-to-be-missed channel emphasizing classical Arab music.
For a perky mood, from Arab versions of teenybop to classier flamenco guitar and fast-pulsing, synthesized dance tracks, try MBC (www.mbc1.tv/mbc-fm/). From Saudi Arabia the station's signal reaches throughout the Arabian Gulf and the Levant—though the existence of the Internet makes a station's geographical location less and less relevant.
Other sites offer on-demand digital "jukeboxes" instead of, or in addition to, live streams. Radio Cairo (available through the RealAudio button at www.sis.gov.eg) contains an extensive musical archive with sections offering classical and modern music and radio documentary programs about music. If you can't decide where to begin exploring, start at the top and try your ear on Um Kulthum, still the greatest modern Egyptian vocalist more than a quarter-century after her death. The huge emotional response her music evokes to this day from Arabs everywhere speaks to the living power of music, to the strength of national feelings and to her power as a singer, which still comes through even to listeners who don't understand the words.
Another superb jukebox is at Radio Méditerranée Internationale (www.medi1.com) out of Tangiers, in French. Look under "musique," and click away at hundreds of selections. You could spend months here without hearing the same thing twice.
Similarly, Egyptian Castle (www.egyptiancastle.com) has a collection categorized under "The Masters," "The New Generation" and "Great Oldies." Particularly interesting is the "Bride and Groom" section, a collection of traditional Egyptian wedding songs. But go here soon, as the site is up for sale and may close in the near future.
The broadest-ranging jukebox collection is that of National Radio of Tunis (www.radiotunis.com), which offers a broad introduction to the richly modal traditions of the uniquely Tunisian malouf tradition. ("Modes" are the various ways of selecting which notes will be used to form scales or chords; major and minor are the most familiar western modes. Western modes are assembled from among 12 semi-tones and Arab modes from 24 quarter-tones, so more modes are possible in Arab music.)
Radio Casablanca, too, has a "Sound Bank" with a dazzling array of contemporary rai, sharqi, amazigh and pop styles, including 14 live concerts ranging from those by solo vocalists to pop festivals to a folk-loric concert featuring what sounds like a whole village clapping, singing and ululating to the loping accompaniment of a single drum.
Want more? Visit indexes of still more Internet radio stations—too many to list here—through your favorite search engine or links at www.heberlein.com. Feel free to e-mail me your comments on anything you hear. I'll reply to you as soon as I turn down Radio Casablanca.
Poet and writer L. A. Heberlein is a lifelong fan of radio, the sometime host of a world-music radio program, founder of an early Internet software company and author of The Rough Guide to Internet Radio (Rough Guides, ISBN 1-85828-961-0). He can be reached at [email protected].