"When I came to this country in 1980, the perception of Arabic music by the American people was that it was the music for belly dancing in Hollywood films," says Palestinian composer and multi-instrumentalist Simon Shaheen, who's worked hard to change that perception since moving to New York more than two decades ago.
More recently, media representations shifted from the hip-shaking rhythms of Turkish fasil music to the stark but beautiful musicality of Koran readings -- the sadly stereotypical soundtrack for Islamic fundamentalism. Although pop hits by Jay-Z, Mandy Moore and Shakira have been superficially spiced by Arabic flavors, it was through the recent Sting hit "Desert Rose" that many Americans finally got a taste of contemporary Arabic music, as the dramatic cameo role by the great Algerian singer Cheb Mami exposed new listeners to rai, the pop music of Algeria that mixes guttural songs of desire with Western pop production.
For the last year the Mondo Melodia label -- the imprint owned by former I.R.S. Records honcho and one-time Police manager Miles Copeland -- has been issuing a broad array of high-profile pop releases from Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia. Other labels like Putumayo, Six Degrees and Beggars Banquet have also been pushing music from the region. To Western ears, the variety of sounds from North Africa and southwestern Asia is staggering, but what makes them all sound relatively similar is their 24-quarter-note scale -- a scale that, in essence, doubles the range of expression found in Western music. The use of those notes is the main source of the music's keening, melismatic quality.
It almost seemed like 2001 could have been the year Arabic music broke, but then came Sept. 11. Those awful events left most Americans feeling naked and fearful in our ignorance about the Muslim world, specifically the Middle East. While music alone can't give us the understanding we're seeking, certainly no other art form has proven so effective in bridging cultures. In fact, if you listen to a random sampling of contemporary music from the Muslim world, you'll hear an appreciation for our culture, not disdain for it.
In Arabic music, no artist towers above the others like the Egyptian singer Umm Kalthum; when she died in 1975, more than three million people joined her funeral procession through the streets of Cairo. Kalthum sang with a sophisticated grace, but her voice quivered with bracing emotion, shadowed by twangy lines from the oud -- a Middle Eastern guitar-like instrument -- percolating hand drums, and stately strings. Unfortunately, the only way to get Kalthum's music is on hard-to-find, poorly packaged imports. A cheap and satisfying alternative is the compilation The Story of Arabic Song (Hemisphere), which includes a selection by Kalthum as well as contributions by other fine exponents of traditional Arabic song, such as the Lebanese superstar Fairuz. This stuff is the virtual blueprint for much contemporary music in the Muslim world.
Simon Shaheen -- a master of both the oud and the violin -- is a scholar of Arab classical music, but he's also trained in the Western classical tradition. On his recent album Blue Flame (Ark 21), he attempts to reconcile the two approaches, although the foundation here is thoroughly Arabic. In his highly accessible sound, Shaheen and his group Qantara blend in bits of jazz and Latin rhythms for an acoustic, instrumental sound that's filled with fascinating musical marriages.
Although Cheb Mami -- who has a slick new album called Dellali (Mondo Melodia) -- is probably the best-known rai singer in this country, Khaled is its undisputed master. Khaled's most recent album Kenza (Mondo Melodia) takes things further, boldly fusing rai's pop and funk sensibility with elegant Cairo strings. His soulful, nasal wail cuts through the dense arrangements like a scythe. Shabi, the street pop of Egypt, employs similar production techniques, but it retains a stronger connection to classic Arabic song. One of its best practitioners is Hakim, whose excellent new album The Lion Roars -- Live in America (Mondo Melodia) masterfully balances dance grooves and timeless melodies; plus, his voice takes off for the stratosphere in the live setting.
Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who died in 1997, was arguably the world's greatest singer of qawwali, the ecstatic devotional music of the Sufis. Although not his finest work, the recently issued The Final Studio Recordings (American) delivers the goods; hard-driving hand percussion and hand claps, hypnotic harmonium, and a rousing chorus of backing singers rise and fall behind Ali Khan's outsized cry. It's the real Islamic soul music.
These recordings are just a small sample of what's out there. The Rough Guide to World Music is recommended for those who want to explore further. There are many other traditions -- from the austere classical music of Azerbaijan called mugum to the surprising variety of sounds in Indonesia -- and it doesn't take the long to realize that the music of the Muslim world is as diverse and vibrant as that of any culture in the world.
- An array of recent compilations and new recordings made it seem like 2001 might have been the year Arabic music found a large Western audience.