ANIMAMUNDI (Wonderwheel)

A great return to his classic sound: traditional arab music meets drum patterns and Echoplex, from the Spy from Cairo. The simplest way to describe it is Arabic tradi-modern in dub (though it also includes Turkish delights and Indian flavors) and it picks up from his previous albums Arabadub (2012) and Secretly Famous (2009). Though Style Scott (1956–2014), legendary Jamaican session drummer is no longer with us, his work on Gaudi's posthumous Nusrat album Dub Qawwali set a new bar for drumming on dub albums and we hear its effect here. Known variously as Zeb, or Zeb the Pleb, the spy is Moreno Visini, an Italian of Gypsy heritage, recently resident in New York, and he has been making downtempo electronica for two decades, mixing Jamaican-style dub with bhangra and Arabic instruments. He has been heard remixing Baaba Maal and Novalima. Here, once again, he is the main musician, playing oud, qanun (zither), bass, percussion (darbouka and tablas), woodwinds (ney and bansuri), with presumably tape samples for strings (unless those are synthesized). He takes the notion of a one-man band to new heights with deft layerings, avoiding what my late friend Cheb i Sabbah said was the bane of similar electronica where you don't hear the music, you hear the ProTools. In 2020 Zeb returned to his Italian village to take care of his mother during lockdown. He brought some recent collaborators into this project including Andalucian singer Carmen Estevez who adds eerie stereo vocals to a cumbia, "Extraterrestre," and Fatou Gozlan and Duo Darbar, like souls, who followed the gypsy trail picking up music in India, Turkey and Egypt.

FRIGYA (imedalibi)

This disc represents the meeting between traditional North African percussionist Imed Alibi from Tunisia and producer and multi-instrumentalist Khalil Hentati. Alibi has worked in many North African ensembles and backed performers such as Rachid Taha, Watcha Clan, Natasha Atlas and Emel Mathlouthi. The two spent several years researching and cataloguing Mezwed and Bedoui repertoires, finding strong connections between older African drumming forms among them, and then chose some to rework in a studio with loops, overdubs and effects. The result is a shimmering tapestry of beats, very contemporary sounding but rooted in deep musical legacies. Though familiar it shows how far we have come from the Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jououka album which was an early attempt to add echo and sound processing to traditional Moroccan music. Unnamed vocalists appear as well as other instruments, but rhythm is the main ingredient. I hear a warbly synth, a violin-like instrument and even bagpipes on echo which sounds very heavy-metal. In fact the last track, "Hattaya," sounds like they are channeling Rush or some other wasted rock band of yore. But let's not overlook the ululating ladies off in the distance.

MODAL INSTRUMENTAL POP OF 1970s EGYPT (Sublime Frequencies SF 119CD/119LP)

I didn't think I would get into this, but it's completely entertaining. Yes, there's the expected Egyptian instrumentation of flutes, violins, clay drums, and synths, but also a dose of Bollywood to make it amusing. The 2 LP set is a distillation of 6 or more LPs by Hamdi who started out learning violin as a lad. He is reckoned a key figure in not only modernizing Egyptian and by extension Arabic music but in bringing it to the wider world. Just as pan-Arabism took hold in the 60s and novelists like Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz were making their mark, Hamdi turned away from his classical training to study accordion, and brought drum kits and saxes into the studio for his compositions. Once guitars added their own twist to quarter-tone Arabic scales, people began to notice. Umm Kulthum recorded one of his earliest songs, propelling him to popular attention. In addition to pop songs he wrote many soundtracks for movies and soap operas, and it is those instrumentals we hear on this selection, including a weird cover of the theme from "Love Story." Hamdi brings in a sitar (the Bollywood connection) and it works well in counterpoint with a dulcimer. There's also a theramin to get some creepy vibes going in conjunction with his Casio keyboard. His studio group, the Diamond Orchestra, included guitar, organ, sax and an accordion which was modified for quarter-tone scales. With many two minute or 90-second cuts interspersed with longer themes, there's variety and grooves aplenty to make this a delight-filled aural trip.


When I put this on I immediately thought there was something wrong: a female voice sings a religious line -- like the muezzin -- then silence, but after a pause it's repeated. Hmmm, what's going on? A glitch in the transfer? Then the singing hits the echo chamber and starts to build layers like early Steve Reich. The second track introduces the three-stringed guimbri and sounds like a live recording made at a festival in the Atlas Mountains. So I resort to looking at the accompanying promo material and discover Yassin is actually Lebanese, and by the third track we get a more Levantine sense of the music, but in a deconstructed post-modern way. The artist, Raed Yassin, who claims to mix Arabic classical with "dark ambient" music plays synth, turntables, zither, and double bass. By "turntables" he means samples. He has taken his stash of ethnomusicology discs as raw material (unlike Brian Eno in Bush of Ghosts or Peter Gabriel in Passion, he does not tell us what these source discs are, other than "a Unesco disc and a 40 LP Japanese box set of Arab music found on EBay"), and added drum machines, and other instruments to collage a tantalizing soundtrack. None of this is permanent anyway, he seems to be saying. The Arabs are well-known for being an oral culture, living in the moment, and not preserving things which is why the printed book came to them so late. Also the music produced by outsiders has a colonial mentality behind it, he suggests, so it's fair game. By the third listen I was hooked and find it very invigorating. Yassin lives in Berlin and also performs with a big band called Praed Orchestra which mixes Egyptian pop with all sorts of other musics. This musical journey makes a nice arc from the morning prayer to the evening prayer and leaves us with a sense of poetry and wonder.

MAGHREB UNITED (Glitterbeat GB060CD; also on vinyl)

Bargou08 exploded into the speakers a year ago and shot into my top ten. The group has morphed somewhat but the idea is still there: to take traditional North African music and modernize it with a booming bass courtesy of synth and drum patterns on the TR-808 (a descendant of my namesake the Doctor Rhythm, which was the first and now primitive-sounding drum machine made by Roland). I am not sure who the leader is, but he has assumed the name Ammar 808 and the band as well as the album is called Maghreb United. The TR-808 was only made from 1980 to 83 so is now a vintage instrument, beloved of hiphop artist and those who like to generate their own rhythms rather than using samples. As unification implies, the reach of the album covers the entire Maghreb of North Africa with singers from Morocco (Mehdi Nassouli), Algeria (Sofiane Saidi), and Tunisia (Cheb Hassen Tej). The instruments are a distorted (over-amplified) guimbri, played by Nassouli, gasba flute, and zokra bagpipes. The album is futuristic -- but it is not a bright and rosy future it envisions, rather the grim reality of more of this shit we are enduring now. The world has become fragmented into individuals lost in their own worlds, whereas once there was a diverse yet continuous culture. Borders are erected between countries that were once friendly neighbors who allowed for free flow of people and ideas. The Maghreb was once a giant continuous space embracing many different elements. If we can recognize those differences and still connect we are getting somewhere, and that is Ammar's idea behind this gripping suite.

THE GHOST YOU LOVE MOST (self-published?)

Essar is an Afghani who lives in Phoenix, Arizona and writes music on his rubab, an ancient stringed lute. He has produced several recordings and been featured in film soundtracks. A song he composed for the Angelina Jolie-produced animated movie The Breadwinner won best original song at the Canadian Screen Awards recently. Cinematic is a good way to describe this album, which has different guests on each track. There's electric bass and the western trap drums give it a familiar grounding, then he brings in Indians on veena, slide guitar and santoor (which is like a hammered dulcimer), and Westerners on 12-string guitars, cellos and harps. Even when a totally Indian soundscape floats into earshot it is soon picked up by the fretless slide and the bass and drums riding it, not into the Thar desert, but along Route 66 from Flagstaff into the Sonora Desert.

JINJA (Self-published)

One of the unique things I have done in my life which few others will now get to experience is travel the length of the White Nile. I have to save the Blue Nile for another trip, though I did stand at the confluence of the two mighty rivers in Khartoum. This album is named for Jinja, the Ugandan city where the Nile leaves Lake Victoria and wends its way north through Lake Albert into the Sudd of Southern Sudan. The idea for the album came about with a summit of musicians from Nilotic countries -- Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda (Burundi and Rwanda got in there because their rivers feed into Lake Victoria) -- in 2013, which led to a live album called Aswan. The group holds an annual two-week summit and out of the most recent produced this album of ten original compositions showcasing the different styles of the region, leaning heavily on the Ethio-jazz sound. In addition the 35-member strong collective is now engaged in water activism and using their music to inform their communities about facing challenges collectively. To this end they also invite diplomats from the African Union and UN to their events. "Omwiga" starts with a traditional Ugandan instrument but then a big band reminiscent of Oum Kalthoum's orchestra comes in, then it turns into a riotous jam. The dark "Tenseo" also evolves gradually and unwinds majestically, rather like the river. A strong set that rewards repeat listening.

MANARA (Wonderwheel Wonder CD30)

Right in the middle of this album is the single, "Ya Watan" and it's a gem. To traditional arabic instruments like oud, trumpet and the clay drums beaten by hand are added some discreet electronic effects on keyboard. The album is a musical quest by Alsarah and her fellow Nubians to find home. Not easy in a country with shifting borders that is half the size it was a couple of decades ago. In modern times the English and French were there and created something called the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan after the French tried to grab the Upper Nile region in 1898 and were rebuffed by the Brits. I was in Juba, then Southern Sudan in 1983 as the army was planning a revolt against the North, because the country was dominated by the arab government in Khartoum and sucking up the oil resources of the South where the black Sudanese live. Consequently after a civil war, still not resolved in the South, the country was cut in half in 2011. The North is still the third largest country in Africa and does have a coast, on the Red Sea, where I did my bit to drink up the last of the alcohol when sharia law was declared. Other than Khartoum and some spectacular ruins there's not much but the Nubian desert with flocks of goats, date palms and smugglers headed to Egypt. This album creates a pleasant aural portrait with either kif or mint tea to augment your listening experience, should you choose. There are some snippets of street sound, radio tuning with static, and other touches that help weave it together into a wonderful journey. Alsarah spent her first 8 years in Khartoum then moved to Yemen and then to Brooklyn, so her quest for home is very real and has been sustained by listening to the old music of her homeland from the 60s and 70s. On tour the Nubatones have played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, as well as headlining at WOMAD in Australia and gigs in London plus an extended residence in Morocco. There's definitely a pan-Arabic African groove, as evidenced in songs like "Fulani," and despite the smallness of the combo the lush feeling of the big band recordings of Umm Kulthum.

ARBINA (Glitterbeat GBCD038)

Traditional Mauretanian music in a not so traditional arrangement for the second international release by this powerhouse quartet. The producer Matthew Tinari is also the trap drummer and along with the stop-tempo bass they bring a rock sensibility to the set. And in the rare moments when her husband's electric guitar is not prominent, Seymali's voice and her ardine playing are clearly rooted in the folk traditions of the Moors. I wonder if her unaccompanied set would be as engaging to Western audiences, but I think the album's success is actually in the Western reframing. "Mohammedoun" contains a familiar riff: it's "Had to cry today" by Blind Faith (listen to the progression at 43 seconds) and throughout this album I hear echoes of other rock songs of my youth, so I assume the guitarist has a similar musical background to mine -- or else I am hallucinating -- even though he is Mauretanian and his wife is a griot, singing traditional songs. The opening cut, "Arbina," invokes the Lord above while "Mohammedoun" is about His man on the spot, known as the Prophet. At first I thought it was "Presence of the Lord," but Winwood reassured me of the right title. There's another tune or nursery rhyme from my childhood bubbling up in here, in "Richa," but so far back I am having a hard time retrieving it. My sense of Jeiche Chighaly's playing is he is more into Fairport Convention than Cream though he likes to rip out the blues riffs. "Ghlana" eases into one of the desert blues we know so well from Tinariwen and the host of others who love the jam: there's two guitars on here, maybe double-tracked since only Chighaly is credited. On "Ghizlane," Noura's voice stands out, soaring above the band in a traditional song about seeing giraffes at the oasis and imagining running after them, then realizing how earthbound we are with our awkward bodies compared to the fleet-footed giant quadruped: "I follow the footsteps to an impossible end."

THE QUEEN OF TURQUOISE (JazzVillage JV 570123)

Subtitled "The Soriana project," this album unites some Syrian expatriates with others from the Arabic diaspora in a pensive, almost-mournful set. Given the news from the mound of rock and sand at the right end of the Med it's no wonder, but it's tragic to see a millennia old culture gradually wiped out by ignorance as various world powers try out their military hardware on innocent victims. During the first Iraq War I found an LP by an Iraqi artist called Saadoun al-Bayati; I used to air his "Everybody blames me" on the radio. On this set Basel Rajoub, who studied classical music at the conservatory in Aleppo, leads the group on soprano and tenor sax and also duclar, another woodwind similar to the duduk. If you google "duclar" the first thing to come up is a store selling them with a video of Rajoub improvising. We hear Kenan Adnawi on the oud, Andrea Piccioni on percussion and Feras Charestan on qanun, a zither-like string instrument. Lynn Adib sings on one or two numbers. Rajoub is the main focus: the jazz saxophone is not indigenous to the middle east (or anywhere?) but he has clearly studied John Coltrane which style fits well with Arabic melodies and percussion. This is his third album. For five years the civil war has been raging but now the government of Syria is the main enemy trying to destroy the city of Aleppo. Not every album has to be upbeat all the time. Outside the birds are singing and I smell fragrant flowers.

RUBY (EPK 2015)

I am constantly reminded that Iran is one of the oldest and richest cultures in the world, and as recently as the 18th century overcame the Mughal Empire in India. (This is usually while I am pondering how the US ended up allied with the House of Saud, the enemies of the Iranians, but then thugs attract thugs.) So there are strong threads binding Iran to their Eastern neighbors in Afghanistan and modern India. These two artists are a sitar player from India and a singer from Iran united by a love of the poetry of the great Sufi and mystic poet Rumi. In the past they have recorded it with spoken word and simple accompaniment, but for their fifth outing they bring in a full band and Katayoun sings the poetry. The band are perfect: the deep night plaint of the sarangi and bansuri flute float out like an evening mist, then the tabla and sitar come in to create the complete mood for the vocalist. Musically it fits in with Bollywood, although Shujaat Khan (son of Vilayat Khan) is known as one of North India's best classical musicians. He was considered a virtuoso on the sitar by the time he went to elementary school. The lyrics were not included in this disc (& the typography is unreadable) but you can seek out the rich poetry of Rumi (Jalâl ad-Dîn Muhammad Balkhî) online or in a bookstore or library and enjoy the liberating thoughts of his imagination.

DAWAR (Harmonia Mundi HMC905273)

The new Rough Guides got me on a Blues kick, and I was listening to Skip James, Roy Smeck, Barbecue Bob and other bottleneck sliders and National steel strummers, so when I put this on, it fit right in. While it's not a twelve string, the mood of the santoor fits and the production has a big room echo (it was recorded live in a French abbey) which adds an eerieness, but the stringed instrument (and the saz which also crops up occasionally) is not the focus of this recording. It's the three drums the brothers & father play, the zarb, that sound like tablas, and the opening strings were just to get our attention. You have to imagine "talking drums" as the dialogue evolves around the lyrics of some ghazals by the famed Persian poet, Rumi. The trio have jammed with African, Iranian and Indian musicians in the past, and explored jazz and other type of fusion, but here, on Dawâr it's down to the hands of the father and sons. It's traditional, even classical, Iranian music with enough variety to keep your attention.

TZENNI (Glitterbeat GBCD/LP 016)

If you put this on the sound system at a blues bar they'd think it was the most down and dirty thing they'd heard. If the bar was in Mauretania (an ancient Berber kingdom that spans the Atlas mountains of southern Morocco and stretches into Algeria), they'd probably recognize the singer as the famous step-daughter of the legendary Dimi Mint Abba, or if they were older, grand-daughter of the also-legendary Mounina. Seymali's father is also a renowned musician, having composed the national anthem as well as creating a notation system for Moorish melodies. Noura's husband is the guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly and he is the driving wheel of this music, accompanied by another stringed instrument the harp-like ardine, played by his wife. Chighaly also plays tidinit which is the Mauretanian equivalent of the ngoni. Other than that, electric bass and trap drums complete the power line up. The title means "to spin" and you can imagine a dervish whirlwind stirred up in the tents of Nouakchott once this music kicks in. When you spin you lose control of your senses and become off balance: the music centers you and keeps you turning and your faith in the music holds you up as your senses give in to the power of the tune. Many of the songs are from the traditional repertoire: a lover who thought he was doomed to wander forever finds stability in the love of a woman; a praise song for the prophet Mohammed on his return to Medina after a victory in battle. The recording is clean, even when the vocals are on reverb, and the guitar on full effects pedals, you can still hear the tick of the drumsticks, played by Dakar-based producer Matthew Tinari. He says the drum rhythms are often inspired by traditional patterns played on plates or hand drums, for example, by guests at weddings. So the sound is a collaboration based on many folkloric elements but then updated with the rock and funk ideas of the musicians. While obviously influenced by her mother (Seymali started out as a backing singer), she also credits Oum Kalthoum, cheb Khaled, and even Etta James as inspirations. Her husband's listening includes Mark Knopfler and Hendrix as well as Albert King and Magic Sam.


While it's not as irritatingly pervasive as Afrobeat, Desert Blues has certainly reached saturation level. It's the nature of the music industry (what's left of it) to spot trends and jump on bandwagons, so when there was a flower power wave you suddenly had a zillion second-rate flower power bands, same with "indie rock," "German techno," "Peruvian Cumbia," the aforementioned "Afrobeat," you name it. But then I looked at the playlist for this set and didn't see Bombino, Inerane, Toumast, Tartit, or other familiar names. My first thought was it was licensing issues, then I played it and realized it's a fresh take on desert music and covers not just the Sahara but the Nubian desert sounds of Egypt and Sudan and even gets to Libya and Mauretania. The great desert is unlike anywhere else and being in it is mind-blowing and often surreal. You can lie on the sand and go to sleep with no fear because there are no insects or bugs there. My strongest memories of the African desert are of silence and the night sky (and being lost one day and coming across a valley full of bright green stones that I took to be malachite, scattered everywhere). It's remote and inaccessible which is why we have not plundered its resources yet, and why its traditions have remained vital. Etran Finatawa, who are a known quantity, kick off with "Kel Tamasheck," (confusingly, the title of an album by another guitar band, Terakaft), but we don't dally long in the Western Sahara, because, after a trip to Mali with Samba Touré we get the lush Egyptian arrangement of Ali Hassan Kuban and "Mabruk," and a bit later the more folkloric and heavily percussive Mahmoud Fadl. The Toureg on here (Toureg de Fewet) are not electrified Hendrix wannabees but traditional performers, with lutes, krakrebs and handclaps. You can check out their Musique Du Monde album, from which "Chetma," included here is taken, at this site. There's a smoking hot new track from Anansy Cissé whose Mali Overdrive I reviewed only last month. Rounding out the main disc is Salamat, again featuring percussionist Mahmoud Fadl, with some lively horns playing a round.

The bonus disc is by Mamane Barka and features him on the biram, a five-stringed lute played on the shores of Lake Chad in Eastern Niger by the Boudouma people. This was almost a lost sound, but Barka, a scholar and teacher (who had mastered a different instrument, the ngurumi), met the last surviving player and got him to hand down the tradition. He learned the old master's repertoire and received his blessing (and own instrument) before his teacher Boukar Tar, passed away. Backed by a percussionist, Barka rocks out on the large acoustic instrument.

BORDERS BEHIND (World Village 479084)

I recently got a promo or rather a download link to an intangible set that featured Trio Joubran, backing an Arab artist (actually a Belgian via Jordan) who shall remain nameless. Since I really liked their earlier CDs I was keen to hear it, but sadly it turned out to be rubbish, pure and simple. Why mess with a winning formula? The audience doesn't tire, it expands (maybe stretches a bit, but doesn't yawn). So I was pleased to get a new disc solely by Adnan, one of the Joubrans, and am glad to report it is spot on. There is a clarity to this, a sharpness, a real acuity as if they are listening as much as playing. When I say "they," I should point out there is only one of the Joubran brothers on here, Adnan on oud (also on percussion and voice), and a line up that includes tablas, cello and cajon, with a guest appearance from Jorge Pardo, renowned Spanish jazz/flamenco accompanist, on sax and flute (on four tracks). The mixture of Spain and Arabia is a natural one: Pardo has played with the al-Andalusian Ensemble as well as the recently deceased Paco de Lucia, and you sense Adnan is keen to show he can riff with the best of them on this outing. The title at first glance suggests Joubran's native Palestine, but then you think of the musical borders he has crossed to perform with Indians and Spaniards, but ultimately the borders are metaphysical ones, between what's been accomplished and what can be imagined. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

RAW 45s FROM YEMEN (Dust to Digital DTD30)

Among their recent spate of releases, Dust to Digital include nine engrossing 45rpm records from Yemen, a country than managed to avoid all external influences on its music. Right from the intense opening track you know you are in another place entirely. The backing to this song is beaten sheet metal in a tunnel (that's what it sounds like to me), to create a mechanical "train is coming" sound, that has an incredible rhythmic ebb and flow. On top of this a woman sings short phrases, "Who enters the sea of passion?" The liner notes tell us it's a copper tray balanced on the finger tips, and the performance is typical of those given to accompany qat chewing sessions. Qat is a shiny green plant with the same properties as coca leaf when chewed constantly. 80% of the water in drought-stricken Yemen goes to its cultivation. The Qambus of the title is a stringed lute which has been replaced by the oud although its tones were softer and subtler, as can be heard here, especially on the last track, "Night stars watcher," by Ahmad al Haraz. This 38 minute album is just a sampler of the many styles of music originating in Yemen: it is well-presented with translations, good photos and background notes on the tracks, though it appears the compiler Chris Menist (a DJ in Bangkok) was not aware of Yemeni music before short trips to Sana'a, actually looking for Ethiopian music, where he picked up these discs. Nevertheless it is an intriguing slice of an unknown musical culture.

NASHAZ (Self-published)

This is my new go-to disc when I want an hour of mellow instrumental music -- which is quite often. From the cover you'd think "Arabic," and it does have the Arabo-Andalusian sound, with lute and the little ceramic hand drums, even some Arabic-sounding flutes, but there are also what I would classify as jazz musicians on here playing sax and trumpet. And Arabic modes (the maqam) lend themselves well to freeform improvisation on brass. Nashaz is the brainchild of Brian Prunka, a guitarist who heard the oud and was hooked. (The story is an Egyptian taxi driver in New Orleans told him he ought to check it out!) I have to confess I really don't like jazz guitar. I don't mean Django or the early guys, but post-Charlie Christian jazz guitar turns me off. The oud on the other hand I can take in any quantity. Early on (before we even knew we were listening to "world music") I got Hamza El Din's brilliant album, Escalay: the Water Wheel (Nonesuch, 1971), and later on I discovered he lived in Berkeley (a lot easier on the constitution than Sudan) so I got to hear him perform in intimate small settings. Prunka studied with Simon Shaheen and moved to Brooklyn (from New Orleans) to pursue his music. The name of the group is an in-joke as "Nashaz" is Arabic for discordant or out-of-tune. Kenny Warren on trumpet has played with Slavic Soul Party and has studied Balkan and Turkish music before getting into the maqam mode. He does those little Milesian squeaks, then pops in the mute for a sustained out-breath. Nathan Herrera on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet has studied Indian as well as Macedonian music, he brings a great ear to the session -- I dig his warm bass clarinet sound a lot. Apostolis Sideris on the bass is the Greek contingent (No, it's not the Mothers of Invention: no Jimmy Carl Black!). George Mel on percussion is a jazz drummer from Tbilsi, and Vin Scialla, who is also listed as percussionist, is another jazz and world music guy with a track record. So they have a wide range of backgrounds and a focus on this mode that is exciting and really works as jazz or Arabic music, wherever you fancy filing it. It's got under my skin: I am eating cucumber salad and drinking mint tea!


It's amazing to see that wherever there's strife in the world the indomitable human spirit still makes music. A recent manifestation is all those Touareg guitar bands coming out of the Malian desert after years in refugee camps. The Houran is an area of Southern Syria and northwestern Jordan, starting below Damascus, and this is the party and wedding music they play when they have something to celebrate. At first it reminds you of Rai: it has that pulse and insistence. Featured here is the mejwiz, a double-reed flute made out of bamboo that makes a shrill buzzing sound like a goat trapped on a rocky precipice. Except this is a highly accomplished dancing goat, okay, forget the analogy, we already ate the goat. The players are adept at circular breathing so it doesn't quit and its relentless bagpipe drone is backed by an array of thudding hand drums of varied timbre. Inevitably synthetic rhythms have been introduced, though you still hear those ceramic drums. Today there's even sampled mejwiz, but I can't tell if that particular sound is on here, which is a compilation drawn from cassettes sold in the region over the last 15 years. It has the mad energy of the Joujouka rave-ups we all know and love. The vocals are treated with echo (sometimes too much) which gives you the impression of being at a huge outdoor gathering. The rhythm is relentless. Aiwa, party on like there's no tomorrow, Syrians!


If you ask me, or anyone else, what the best Putumayo comp is, most folk would agree it's their 2001 Arabic Groove, which cruised along the North African coast as effortlessly as Michael Jackson moonwalking backwards. And it's backwards we go to recapture that mood with this new effort. Ali Slimani is back, as a good luck talisman, with a similar sound -- "Lirah remix" -- to that which kicked off the earlier entry. But this disc is less intense. (Well, we have all aged at least a decade since then.) Jalal el Hamdaoui from Morocco kicks off with the famous snake-charmer melody by Borodin, best known as "Stranger in Paradise" from the musical Kismet. But he just repeats the head riff so it doesn't evolve (to "Somewhere in space, I hang suspended..."); instead it repeats and fades and we are into a tortured, moody piece (also Moroccan): "Saab Alyia" from Samira Saeid. Ahmed Soultan's "Itim" could be considered soul music (or whatever nueva name there is for that genre). Choubène (i.e., "Young people") is back on the Med with a Rai number that has a dose of funk in the bass and drums while the synth plays homage to Gap band (there seems to be a kora on here, but it might be a sample). Zein al-Jundi from Syria (now safely stowed in Texas) has gypsy kings flamenco guitar, parisian cafe accordeon and a whole range of other influences saying, "Get me outta Basra!" If you crave that disco bomp-badomp from the first Arabic Groove it comes back for the big finish with Cheb Amar's "Lala Torkia." As usual with the 'Mayo label this CD is barely over half an hour. Not long enough to start to bug you, but enough to engage you and make you look for more.


Moreno Visi, aka The Spy from Cairo, goes from strength to strength. I really dug his previous outing and now he has returned with his masterwork: Arabadub, a set of Arabic dub on which he programs the drums and plays bass as well as all the middle Eastern instruments, showing he is very accomplished. Apart from oud and saz there is something called a chifteli, perhaps the dulcimer-like instrument we hear, a longer skinnier relative of the oud. According to his website he has remixed everyone from Baaba Maal to Billie Holliday to Novalima. He definitely has some fine chops, both as an engineer and a performer. The title puns on rub-a-dub style as well as Aladdin's lamp rubbing. The Cairo aspect is heard in the hovering strings which punctuate the tunes with a big blast of warm air, reminiscent of the Om Kaltoum sound (recently recreated by Youssou), but when the lighter chifteli takes flight it's more Arabo-Andalusian, thus he takes us on a trip across the entire Mediterranean. This is a very satisfying hour of music and has no flat spots (unlike the predecessor which was less consistent). Guests add crazed accordion and uncredited Arabic vocals. I can tell this is going to be a favourite for a long time.

KELMTI HORRA (World Village wvp 479065)

I should have written this up two months ago because Emel launched her North American tour here in Berkeley and I was there with Big Steve to check it out. We had a gas but now it's a faded memory. Introducing her, her brother explained how this modest young lady had become known as "the Voice of the Arab Spring," but it has not gone to her head. She came without her band, sadly, because it was a low-budget "testing the waters" tour. Dressed like Joan Baez circa 1965 (in an embroidered Guatemalan?-shift), she proceeded to do a "Stars on 45" cover of some early Baez material with her guitar. Good thing I was wearing my Birkenstocks and socks. She did sing "We shall overcome" in Arabic, but for me the highlight was her acoustic cover of "White Rabbit" by Grace Slick, none of which are on her album. She was more intent on establishing her credentials as a singer-songwriter and staking her claim to her San Francisco musical roots. It must have been very surreal for her to actually be here after years in her bedroom in Tunisia spinning vinyl and imagining Haight-Ashbury. My radical historian pal Steve felt she should go to Oakland to see where Baez was first arrested. Mathlouthi's big breakthrough came at a liberation concert in Tunis where she was told beforehand NOT to sing the radical songs that had been electrifying the revolution. The producers called her brother aside and said, Tell her she can't sing those songs. He replied, Sure, but I am her brother, if I tell her something she will do the opposite! The CD is a whole other universe. It's a heavily produced affair with synthesized strings, bass thrums and electronic hums supporting it. Some of the production reminds me of Björk, for example her phrasing on "Stranger," sung in English. And the Baez influence is very evident in the title cut. Here's Mathlouthi performing that track, "Kelmti horra (My word is free)" from this disc, and "Ma Lkit (Not found)" on TV. Overall her debut is highly accomplished and bodes well for her career.


This comes out of left field and is a refreshing slice of Arabic groove meets jazz-funk. From the outset there are rock drums, a jamming stringed instrument (grunge bazouk) and a wild clarinet embroidering the melody. There is even a Latin tinge. Tareq Abboushi, the leader, explains that he finds people are either sitting down listening to classical arabic music or kicking up their heels to pop in a disco and there should be a middle course that has sophisticated playing with a groove, combining rhythm and melody. Abboushi plays the bazouk and also piano which he learned as a child in Ramallah and continued to study as a jazz instrument after he moved to New York. His line-up is complex: he matches the riq, or Arabic tambourine, with congas and timbales. There is a popping jazz bass as well as the unclassifiable horn player. Periodically they return to a feeling of classical Arabness, like "Interlude" and its sequel "The Wall." Or to the Western tradition, like on "Time it takes" which quotes Bach's Bourée in E-minor. It's a hybrid that really works. "Shusmo" is the Arabic for "whatchamacallit?" and the name of the album, Mumtastic, refers to "mumtaz" (=excellent) plus fantastic. I'll say.


It was a hard road to the top for Ramzi Aburedwan. He was raised in a refugee camp in Ramallah, on the West Bank in his native Palestine. His grandfather had lived his life amid orange groves in a village dotted with eucalyptus and other perfumed trees until he was forcibly evicted in 1948 to the poverty-stricken concrete jungle where his grandson was born and raised. As a child Ramzi threw rocks at Israeli tanks: he was lionized, but no David and Goliath triumph ensued. But then as a teen he took up bouzouk, a stringed instrument not unlike the Greek bouzouki, or the Turkish saz, and proved to be so proficient he was awarded a scholarship to study in France (His time there is celebrated in the tune "Bordeaux"). Thus music took charge of his passions and he now leads the Palestine National Ensemble of Arabic Music. This album is his own project, featuring his deft fretwork and accompanied by clarinet, oud, accordion, and two vigorous percussionists. It's a mellow, meditative set, emanating peace. There is an uptempo number called "Tahrir" in the middle. As we know from world events that is the Arabic word for "Liberation," but it's also the name of Ramzi's cousin who was intrigued by his instrument and soon took up violin herself. Ramzi's ideal of rebuilding Palestinian culture through music rather than aggression seemed to work here and he hopes his music will effect more positive moves like this.

I WILL NOT STAND ALONE (World Village 468100)

Kalhor plays a shah kaman on here. Like me, you won't have heard of the instrument, because he had it built. It is a type of spike fiddle which sounds like a viola. There's also a bass santour which sounds like a cembalon. I put this disc on and I thought the first track was a Nino Rota tune since I could hum along, but then I looked at the sleeve and didn't see any writing credits. I presume the coincidence can be put down to folk sources. But then I started to hear echoes of Velvet Underground: could there possibly be folk origins to some of their tunes? It's not entirely out of the question given John Cale's background. Kalhor is a really excellent and expressive player (he has played with Yo-Yo Ma) and has appeared in many configurations, but here plays in a simple duet format. It's mostly rather mournful music: I guess there's not a lot to be cheerful about in Iran these days and if you are looking for sprightly "chase scene" cembalom as heard in gypsy music, it doesn't happen. The album does end with a lively exchange, but overall this is very meditative and down-tempo.

MEHRAAB (Terrestrial Lane)

Loga Torkian is an Iranian composer who lives in Montreal so he probably has more freedom and more access to outside ideas than his countrymen. No doubt the Ayatollahs hate Cheb i Sabbah but that must make him more desirable to the Iranian youth and he seems to be an ideal for Torkian and his colleagues. (If I've told you once Ayatollah a million times not to listen to that!) For this album he collaborated with a singer, Khosro Ansari, and several expatriot Iranian sidemen on traditional instruments, such as bendir, tomback and frame drums. A founder of Niyaz and Axiom of Choice, Torkian uses studio tools to create a wash of sound that sustains his dreamy mood. The album title means "Shrine" and he has erected a sanctuary for some sonic washes that swoosh around the echoey vocals (based on traditional poetry) from which he extrapolates string solos on viol, electric guitar, fretless bass (don't fret: it's only a bass), kamoon and rabab. (There's a gallery of his instruments here.)


This is a collection of dance tracks from Arabia with diverse source material treated to electronica and a dubby sensibility. The album title is a bit of a joke because the Spy is Moreno Visini who has appeared on scores of DeeJay comps from BUDDHA BAR to the Zeb albums. But fame in the world of DeeJays is hardly front-page. The album kicks off in style with the high-pitched whining sound of the nay (a bamboo flute) blown at a Jordanian wedding, though it sounds like a wedding of snake-charmers. It is reminiscent of Arabic Groove, Michael Jackson as envisioned by Fellini, and indeed Spy movies! There's oud and darbouka (the traditional percussion) and Visini has added a dubby bass line to push it along. Because we think of arabic music as inherently trance-like it's a good mix of repetition and mood-setting themes. This one is likely to supplant Arabic Groove on the popularity front. It has the same diversity, from belly-dance to Sufi trance, & is just as catchy and compelling. "Kurdish delight" continues the nay theme, and the dub attack, with a breakdown to bass, drum loops and something that sounds like shorting-out wires or a sound-board on the fritz. Tunisian woman singer Ghalia Benali shows up for the first of four appearances on "Ana Arabi," a song about being an Arab, not a terrorist. There's a flat spot in the middle then things perk up with wild violin on "Leila." "Sufi disco" is a humorous name, because it's the spaciest track on here. You kind of forget where you are, until the bass and tambourine kick up a sandstorm for the next track, "Saidi the Man." This has wild flute and a cheap synthesized rhythm reminiscent of Bollywood soundtracks from the 70s. Then suddenly we are whisked to the Atlas Mountains by "Reggada," a very different sound with that dusky Joujouka flute emerging from a big cloud of smoke.


In 1984 the former head of the secret police became dictator of a weapons-mad rogue nation while a long-unemployed actor slept through the role of president. Bush One, or Poppy, as this evil individual became known, invaded Kuwait on a pretext and bombed Baghdad. At the time I used to play an Iraqi song on the radio called "Everybody blames me." It was rather mournful and came from the only Iraqi album in my collection. Now, despite the depressing title, I bought this Songs of the Brokenhearted, because it was recommended by friends and also because it is the first in a new series of world music reissues from the Honest Jons label. I want to do my bit to encourage HJ and hope they get to Congo and Kenya and Tanzania and Madagascar before they decide it's a lost cause. Honest Jons has made a deal with the EMI Archives which is now a non-profit foundation, and plans to issue a series of historic recordings. Harlequin already raided the EMI archives for some Cuban recordings in the mid-1990s.

The Gramophone & Typewriter Company was formed in 1906 and built a plant in Middlesex, rural England. As Nigel Williamson reports, in Songlines, they bought out the local chicken farmers so that the clucking of hens would not be picked up in their studios. As the company opened branches in the rest of the world they encouraged local managers to record anything they thought might sell and send it back to the head office for pressing. Hence their archive is a treasure trove of a century of recorded music, much of it the earliest known recordings from particular regions. Their first engineer started out with Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone, before moving to England to begin a distinguished career, recording Enrico Caruso & Elgar. Nipper & his phonograph soon became part of everyone's living room furniture. Working class kids from Glasgow (like my mother and her sisters) could sing Donizetti arias in faultless Italian from listening to Tito Schippa.

The story of popular music in Baghdad is complex. Strict Mohammedans of course are opposed to anything as harmless as singing a song. The only women who sang were prostitutes and it was part of their act so they did not study. Musicians were mostly Jews who fled in the 1940s. At the time of the introduction of the gramophone Iraq was under British control. The currency was the rupee as Britain had plans to make Iraq part of India. So Hindi music was popular as well as military brass bands, and of course Egyptian superstar Oum Kalthoum. A few traditional arab instruments and musical forms, like the maqam, came from other parts of the arab world. The records made encompassed folk songs as well as contemporary songs, a Hebrew hymn and Kurdish and Bedouin improvisations as well as tunes from Bahrain and Kuwait. This compilation is a mosaic of the Middle East two generations ago. Zithers, violins, ouds, flutes back the mostly male singers. Varied and engaging.

SUFI SOUL: THE MYSTIC MUSIC OF ISLAM (Directed by Simon Broughton; TUGDVD001)

This is an exemplary documentary that tells the story of Sufi music, the mystical outsider of Islam. The hardline mullahs, the ones we all know and hate, want to banish music. I think they would ban women too if they didn't need to procreate. They are clearly the most miserable bastards on the planet. (Because of the natural laws of balance they must exist as long as we have our own fundamentalist Nazis like BushCo throwing their weight about.) However from adversity comes strength and beauty. You know that Robert Burns was the best-selling poet in nineteenth-century Britain? Well, in 1990 the best-selling poet in the USA was Rumi, the 13th-century Afghani mystic, with his message that love is the surest path to the Divine. Sufi singers generally take a well-known verse from one of their famous poets and then improvise. Nusrat who appears fleetingly here, did this like no one on earth. We also see and hear Youssou Ndour at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Nusrat's nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Abeeda Parveen as the camera follows William Dalrymple, who has lived in south Asia for two decades, from Pakistan to Turkey, Syria, & Morocco. Dalrymple is a scholar who sees Sufism as a peaceful bastion against fundamentalism. The film opens with a stunning performance by Sain Zaheer and his bluesy banjo-like dirge, his bare feet stamping to jingle his ankle bells outside a Pakistani saint's tomb. The camerawork is exceptional and so is the editing. It is a treat to see such a well-made film about something so precious and evanescent.

I had a little religious epiphany recently. My satellite dish unlocks random world TV channels so for a fortnight I had the Sikh channel and they have a live show called "Gurbani from the Golden Temple." As it was on endlessly I would often tune in when I woke up or was falling asleep and soon found myself checking into it regularly. There were three fixed camera shots: Outside the surprisingly tiny Golden Temple in Amritsar, a large manmade lake or cooling pond, and birds flying over. You could see what time of day or night it was and occasionally pilgrims cooling their toes or queuing to get into the temple. Inside the temple there was a shot of the priest who sat before a silk-draped altar adding or removing layers of fabric, occasionally waving a large white fly whisk slowly over it. And the third shot was the band, two harmoniums, tablas and singers crammed in a corner. Behind them was the door so you saw pilgrims entering and leaving & making obeisance to something off-camera. It was fascinating. While the music was a constant and some singers were better than others it was the slow, almost static quality of the events that kept me rapt. It was so immediate in a funny way, despite being halfway around the world, it was the here-and-now. I watched a nasty rich housewife elbow a big praying man so he moved out of the spot she wanted. The priest finally got to the bottom of the pile of silk and there was a giant book! That was a great moment, but he quickly started covering it again. Though I am deeply irreligious I see its uses. Sufism has a palpable effect in the whirling dervishes, who whirl so slowly they should be called perhaps the revolving dervishes. In Lahore the devotees whirl a bit more vigorously to attain waj, or ecstacy. This is probably more what it was like in the 13th century, Dalrymple tells us, easing from the wild bhangra dhol drum to qawwali and a sample of Nusrat doing "Allah hoo." DVD extras include full performances by Turkish ney player Kudsi Erguner, Sain Zahoor, Nusrat's nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, the Bhitshah Fakirs who play six identical stringed instruments, and Morroco's Rokia Riman Jilala Band.


The popular compilations that Putumayo, Rough Guide, Nascente, Union Square, and other labels put out are an interesting sub-genre of music. Usually, if I know the field, I am critical of their choices. The selectors are limited by what's available for licensing and also the need to have a few name acts or popular hits to entice the buyer. The less-well-known areas tend to be more interesting to me because Jacob Edgar at Putumayo or Dan Rosenberg at Rough Guide have waded through the chaff for me. When I saw Jacob's music room in San Francisco lined with promo CDs many years ago I wasn't jealous, I pitied him having to spend real time listening to marginal music to see if it makes the cut. Putumayo has put together many intriguing slices of the musical continuum from across the globe. Their North African Groove, Turkish Groove, and Arabic Groove are superb sets. Their takes on Brasil and Puerto Rico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic deserve to be taken seriously, even if the pathetic covers, featuring vapid we-are-the-world art, suggest otherwise. IJ is always urging me to give more than a cursory listen to new product, but if a friend sends me an old Star Band de Dakar album or I decide to listen to ALL my Derrick Harriott with a view to making a Crystalites compilation, then I get sidetracked for days and the Putumayo promos edge closer to the free box. Which is a roundabout way of saying I finally gave the ACOUSTIC ARABIA CD another listen and decided it's okay. It starts strong with "Gamar Badawi" by RAS, but goes off into French cafe music which is why I got impatient, and there are a lot of artists on here I have listened to and given up on who are good for a song or two 'til I get restless and change the music. "Azara Alhai" by Rasha is the next good entry then we hear bits of Flamenco, pop/rock, and who-knows-what-all till we get to Souad Massi. The Souad Massi song "Ghir Enta" is a bona fide hit, so it's good to have it collected here. Also the album gets stronger as it goes on and the big guns, like Massi and Maurice el Medioni are saved for the end. El Medioni is a Jewish piano player from Oran who has Boogie Woogie and Cuban jazz under his belt and is pound-for-pound the most accomplished musician on here. But then we are derailed again by the last cut. A friend who lived in North Africa for years said it's the kind of music played in fancy bars where rich Arabs take their mistresses. It may be that the future of these compilations is circumscribed because now you can sample the tunes on Amazon or iTunes and just buy the ones you want. But do check out El Medioni.

NINE HEAVENS (Six Degrees 657036 1150-2MJ)

This is a grandiose richly textured set. The music comes from Iranian, Indian and Turkish traditional repertoires and has been given a modern treatment with loads of studio effects, synth washes and so on, but this does not detract from the effect. In fact the propulsive beat is occasionally helped along by the technology. Azam Ali, the singer, calls it modern Sufi music. It's more of a soundtrack than a dance album with dreamy vocals that, however, start sounding very samey to those of us who don't understand the words. The vocals, in fact, could have been left off and an instrumental disc would be as welcome as the "unplugged" second disc, which doesn't sound that different from the first. (It's the "raw" versions of the same songs, the unaugmented studio tracks, as if they couldn't decide whether to do a straight album or one with layers of effects.) There are drones on the unplugged side which I guess are not from synths, but it's hard to tell what's making the sounds, maybe a bowed oud? The acoustic set sounds more medieval, if anything, though a lot of European folk music also sounds medieval to my untutored ears. The overall mood of the treated set reminds me occasionally of Brian Eno's 1978 Music for Films or Peter Gabriel's 1989 Passion album (the soundtrack to the film). Both of those albums were groundbreaking in their own way so today it's almost a cipher when you have a synth wash and some traditional tunes. "Niyaz" means yearning in both Farsi and Urdu, and they are yearning for a global trance-dance hit with this album. It's a pleasant if low-key effort, well recorded, just needing an extra twist of something brilliant.

MAJAZ (Randana RAND002)

The Palestinian oud Trio Joubran returns with another set of dreamy improvisation on the maqãms written for the ancient strings. It's classical though only one track is drawn from the traditional repertoire; the others are all originals. The title means "metaphor," which they define as "the meaning of meaning," and they are inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. There is gentle percussion accompaniment but otherwise the clean mellow sound of the ouds. Each of the brothers gets to do a version of "Tanasim" as a solo: Adnan is dramatic; Samir is talkative; Wissam, the lutier of the family, is poetic. The tracks are short and sweet. When they jam together, as on "Sama-sounounou," the results are incendiary. This is another wonderful album from these lads, and the beauty is they are touring to support it, so check their website for venues. (Doesn't the cover remind you of ABBEY ROAD?) While they were on tour behind their first album, "Randana," the bloody Israeli army bombed their home, so they must be happy to have a life on the road.

NOUR (MARABI 46819 2)

She has been called, rather blithely, "The Blueswoman of the Desert," but Malouma is much more than that. She has struggled for female emancipation in her native Mauretania. Since her first album DUNIYA she has continued to improve. Malouma's third international release is called NOUR. You may not have heard of her or even noticed her, because her album packaging is so abysmal. In 1998, Shanachie issued DESERT OF EDEN, produced by Pape Dieng at Studio 2000 in Dakar. The session men included Oumar Sow on guitar and Thierno Kouyate on sax. The first track, "Ya Habibi," was anthologized on a box set (WORLD DIVAS, I think) and it was from there that British DJ Charlie Gillett gave it several plays. It resurfaced on a Shanachie anthology called HOLDING UP HALF THE WORLD, which featured African artistes.

"Ya Habibi" is a standout track for me, and I wish the Senegalese musicians had been allowed more of a free rein throughout, as some tracks strike me as mannered. There is a version of Otis Redding's "Fa Fa Fa Fa" with Mauretanian lyrics: "Pardon my sins both old and new/ Yesterday and today/ I pray for the day/ when death will come / &c"! Significantly, several tracks are re-worked on DUNYA, and this might indicate that this first effort has been "disowned". Invited to the Festival des Metisses in Angouleme, she went into the studio with a hybrid band and produced this fine album. There's desert blues but definitely a global sensibility with some superb session guys dropping in the right amount of synth, bass, samples, whathaveyou. Yes, there's familiar rock elements but also an air of mystery with the Mauretanian instruments on her side. Malouma plays a ten-stringed harp and sings with a guttural edge that sounds abrasive, but she can also sound soothing. Bojan Z plays a Fender-Rhodes "Xenophone" -- a modified keyboard I guess-- Loy Ehrlich plays Gumbass, a cross between an electric bass and a Moroccan guimbri. Guitarist Pierre Fruchard has been listening to Jimmy Page and the atmospherics are by Tunisian-born Smadj. There are some fine harmonies and light pop touches which the Duchess dismissed as "wimpy." It gets quite bluesy for a spell then suddenly a very credible reggae number called "Casablanca" mashes it up and reinvigorates the set. Shades of King Tubby and flying cymbals in the mix! Overall the impression is of a modern sensibility without losing touch with the ancestors. In that regard I think this is a bold and interesting effort. In a side note, Mauretania held its first democratic elections this year, March 2007, since independence from France in 1960, and Malouma was elected to the Senate.


Günter Gretz is a determined individual. Most of us, on hearing a great piece of music in a film, might wait till the end and read the credits to see who the artist was and, if we remembered later, try to find their music on-line or at a record store. Gretz however is out-of-the-ordinary, not least in the movies he goes to. The movie he was watching was En Attendant le bonheur by Malian director A. Sissako & the moment that made his hair and ears stand up was when Nema Mint Choueikh was teaching a young girl a traditional song. It just so happened that in 2003 Gretz was driving through the town of Noaudhibou, in the Trarza region of Mauretania, where the film was shot, on his way to Senegal. He inquired and was told the singer lived further along in another town but when he got there he found he had passed her house on the road long before &, as he had an appointment in Senegal, he couldn't turn back. A year later he was back in Noaudhibou and learned there was to be a music festival with Nema performing one week later, so he returned to catch her act and hopefully hook up with her. Again her voice sent shivers down his spine, but as soon as she left the stage she got into a limo for the airport and a flight to Paris. He left a message with the concert promoter and 14 months later was back to finally meet Nema and record her. But at this point a sandstorm was brewing and the tin rooves of the houses were beginning to rattle ominously but, undaunted, Gretz set up his recording equipment and went for it, working for 3 hours to capture Nema and her ensemble performing for this CD release. It is traditional Moorish music. Nema sings and is accompanied by hand-claps and a couple of thwocking string instruments, the tidinit a small hour-glass shaped lute with five strings, and a kora-like instrument, the ardin, which is played by women. Sometimes an acoustic guitar can be heard, but the bending notes of the ardin are most unusual like it's constantly being tuned, while the tidinit embroiders the melody like the Manding ngoni. There is also a deep drum called the tbal. Between the songs the musicians do indeed tune-up so the music doesn't stop, it just goes into a lull of very out-sounding noodling for a few seconds between tracks. While the concert is acoustic there is one interesting note. A bullhorn is used (it can be seen on the cover), not for singing but to pick-up and amplify the guitar and tidinit. It sits on the ground next to the pick-up of the instrument and can often produce wild Hendrix-esque distortions. This is a wonderful recording and a window into a traditional world that is of course rapidly shrinking. Gretz promises if people buy this album and support his label, instead of copying it and ripping him off, he will release an album of electric guitar & tidinit music from Mauretania next.

TAQASIM (Nagam Records/Connecting Cultures CC50034)

"Taqasim" means improvisations. This tripartite set of long meditations by oud player Marcel Khalifé is poetic and a bit melancholy. The accompaniment is spare: percusion and an acoustic double bass (which I think is unusual in arabic music). Khalifé is Lebanese. The sound is ancient and reverberates with the history of arabic music. I even hear echoes of Moorish music from the other end of the Mediterranean and about seven centuries earlier. In the liner notes, Khalifé explains that he was inspired to create this set by the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the renowned Palestinian lyric epic poet. But there is no human voice on the recording, no poems printed in the booklet. It's the memory or thought of Darwish's poems, imagined in his voice, that moved Khalifé, and his playing is an expression of those vocal inflections he remembers. This experiment works well, as it did for John Coltrane, whose tune "Alabama" was composed while listening to a speech of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. You can hear Darwish reading here.


It's an inevitable as spring follows winter, or around here, winter follows spring... the Remix album. The latest from the Young Man of the Mountain is a set of oldies in a new galabieh: Cheb i Sabbah gave his raw material to some other master mixologists and like a chain letter they sent back their take on his latest set of tunes. I asked him whether the artists were all people he knew or did they work independently and then send him the results. He knows all of them, he says, and they mostly wanted the original "dry" track, without any of his own effects or add-ons. But this is quite easy, he tells me, with the technology that is used today. "A couple of people took little sections and built up a whole structure but all they wanted was a snippet." I asked him about the distribution of songs since obviously the most catchy tunes would be most popular. "Toura toura" and "'Esh dani, alash mshit" were the most popular. The latter, which was remixed by Temple of Sound and Bill Laswell, reminds me of "Truckin" by the Grateful Dead, I told Cheb i, as it has a catchy refrain that keeps chugging back. "Maybe I could get one of the Dead guys to remix it, he joked, then I wouldn't have to worry about the rent!"

Moroccan artists Ahderrahim Akkaoui and Pat Jabbar, known as Dar Beida 04, picked the hardest song, he tells me, and came out with a trance vibe. (Dar Beida is the Arabic name for Casablanca.) "Not many venture the hardest tracks: if it's more catchy they think they can do something with it. Bassnectar wanted to do 'Alkher illa doffor' which was cool because no one else wanted to do that one. If you like break-beats it works." We talked about remix albums in general. He told me so many sound the same. "It sounds like Logic," is a deejay in-joke because of the beginners who let the inherent sound of the software dominate the result. Cheb i Sabbah likes the latest from Bally Sagoo and thinks he did a fine job trying on different styles, like House, but he doesn't like Balkan music because the brass instruments grate on him, so he didn't get into ELECTRIC GYPSYLAND which was my top album last year. We also differ on Bally Sagoo, whom I find very inconsistent. "The big names were cool at first but then the interns took over, and so often it shows," he says, referring to the stratosphere of remix jockeys. On LA KAHENA REMIXED, he says, "There are 11 remixes here but 11 different kinds of sounds. Each track has an individual sound, so I was happy overall. I am not expecting everybody to love the trance tracks and the break-beats, but overall it represents pretty much the dance scene as of today. -- Well, there's no House, but who needs more House?"

RANDANA (Fairplay 500 Harmonia Mundi LC11983)

Here's oud music from Palestine, performed by three brothers from Nazareth. One oud is beautiful and three, while unusual, are quite stirring when played together. The result is sensual and soothing, making you wonder how they practice with all the madness and mayhem in their country, and where do they perform? I suppose life must go on, perhaps even mundanely so, despite what you see on the news. (I was in Belfast the morning after the IRA blew up the Law Courts and no one was much bothered.) There are five tracks here, four recorded in the studio in Jerusalem, the fifth live in Ramallah with vocals and an audience sing-along. Art is such a fragile thing to hold on to in these violent times. Try not to think of the hole the Palestinians have dug for themselves by expressing their democratic will & electing the people they see most fit to guide their future, after decades of compromise and loss of face (as well as life) while the fascists in Israel snap at their American masters & ignore the censure of the world in their murderous folly. An Israeli told me they are so desperately arrogant because they think inevitably the Arabs will prevail. Enough of that. Listen to this album in the evening when you are unwinding. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Rosebuds are gathered and presented in an alchemical musical mix. Samir Joubran, the eldest, is hailed as a master oud player in the Arab world. He and younger brother Wissam recorded TAMAAS in 2003. Then a year later their youngest brother Adnan, only 20 but considered a prodigy, joined the group. The longest track, "Safar," (perhaps it means journey) starts off with a slow arpeggio while a second instrument sets up an ominous vibrato, eerie in a cinematic way. After a long digression it returns to the theme but then fades out, suggesting they were just jamming in an endless take. The music is drawn from the traditional maqam repertoire which allows them room for exploration and innovation.


Now here's a truly rough spot for adventure travel. Despite the vastness of the Sahara and its generally unforgiving climate, it has attracted more and more travelers as the annual Festival in the Desert attests. I love the African desert: you can sleep on the ground under the vast starry heavens and there's no bugs or insects to pester you; there's beauty in the landscape (like acres of semi-precious-looking stones that you pick up and then drop when you can't carry them further), as well as surrealism (bones, decayed abandoned things). The sand makes a great bed. The nights are cool, cold even, but the days are filled with thoughts of water and how much you have. By all means drink the mint tea strangers will proffer you but don't eat the dates: they've been handled so much they carry staph infections! Assuming you don't get lost (as I did in the Nubian desert for a few panic-stricken days), take time to enjoy the music of the Nomads. This wonderfully crafted compilation starts with Andalusians melodies from the farthest Northwestern stretch of the continent and criss-crosses the Sahara like a crazy caravan in search of sound. There's traditional Tuareg music on here alongside wild rock 'n' roll, and many things in between. Tartit, Tinariwen and Malouma are the only familiar names, but the others are equally compelling and this is a top-notch assembly. There's a group of three songs in the middle of the album highlighting the Sahraoui of what was called Spanish Sahara, an area now under attack from Morocco who claim it as a contiguous bit of their own fiefdom. Nayim Alal's "Bleida" has very "out" guitar and one of the most unusual things I've heard in a long time. It starts with great promise but degenerates into a Jethro Tull rave up betraying the Brit roots of the compiler. A blend of tradition and rock is achieved by Mariem Hassan on "Id Chab": her singing seems untainted by outside influences, but the guitarist has been listening to "Run thru the Jungle" by John Fogerty. Seckou Maiga is tipped as an up-and-coming Songhai artist to watch. He turns in a desert blues that is the most familiar-sounding thing on here. Kel Tin Lokiene are reprised from Festival in the Desert with their thudding "washing-machine" sound. Things go out peacefully and gently into the night with the gasba blowing its hot breath into the dunes under the plaint of Sahraoui Bachir.


NORTH AFRICAN GROOVE picks up where ARABIC GROOVE left off: another set of great Casbah-rocking jams. ARABIC GROOVE stands as one of the best sequenced and consistently great compilations ever. NORTH AFRICAN GROOVE falls just below. The centrepiece is Khaled's "Ya Rayi," and everyone else ebbs and flows around it with the same metronomical insistence. But thankfully, it's not all techno: Amr Diab from Egypt has traditional instrumentation with a "Gypsy Kings" feel to the flamenco guitar which, in this context, is not unpleasant. French-born Rai singer Faudel does have synths but at least one of them is set to "accordion" mode. He's keeping Algerian music vital in the Paris suburbs. The cat-like mewing of one of his keyboards is overridden by the great slappy percussion. Amina who moved from Tunisia to Paris and became a star in 1989 with an entry in the hokey Eurovision song contest, gives us one of her solid hits "Dis-moi pourquoi," with a solid bass thwock. There's funk from Cheb Mami and disco from Mohamed Mounir, the Nubian Nut, on here. Mounir is from Aswan and apparently influenced by reggae but this is straight disco dance redeemed by the segue into the last track by Eastenders, a deejay from Germany who collaborates with Turks and Egyptians for a trans-Euro sound. "On the ride" is one of the strongest cuts on here, and bound to get you moving and grooving. Play it back on the track, Jack!

LA KAHENA (Six Degrees [catalog number too small to read])

Cheb i Sabbah has gone home to Algeria and is doing what he does best: finding great music and kicking it up a notch with his self-assured mixing. After tooling around the Indian subcontinent for a few years (& producing SHRI DURGA, MAHA MAYA and KRISHNA LILA), the venerable Chebi-ji (he should be about to graduate to Pir i Sabbah, if not Hassan, any day!) pops in on some North African & Middle Eastern lady singers and comes up trumps! Actually in track four they mention Hassan i Sabbah (The "Old Man of the Mountain" you remember from Max Fleischer Studio cartoons!). I suppose the association is unavoidable. Hassan was a famous Islamic rabble-rouser and it is from his opiated devotees, the Hashishim, that we get our modern word "assassin." But Cheb-i is only out to slay us with a killer mix, & he succeeds on this outing. It's a soundscape or aural tour of North Africa, with street sounds in addition to the deftly layered music. Although he's a master mixer, this is not a dance set: it is in many ways a folkloric recording, though of course there are modern instruments on here. But then Rai music is itself a hybrid form that took to synthesizers and drum machines like a duck to stale bread. But Sabbah brings an urbane eye to the traditions, and he manages to keep the "world beat" slacker community happy by introducing Bill Laswell, Karsh Kale & Co., but the best part, for me, is you don't even notice them!! He's doing a fine job keeping them on a leash.

Because of the strife in his homeland, Sabbah recorded in Morocco, and brought in musicians from many traditions, Berber, Jewish & European, as well as Arabic. So the Women of Marrakech (B'net Marrakech), who normally do weddings and henna parties, appear alongside big-name dames like Cheba Zahouania, who opens singing "I got some shit!" -- or that's what it sounds like to me. But it's the third track, "Toura Toura" that opens up the vista for me as thudding bass (Bill Laswell, really?), handclaps, and those metal clackers called krakebs set up the groove for Gnawan singer & guimbri player Brahim Elbelkani. We are ready for trance time now. (This tune appeared on the great 1990 Moroccan NIGHT SPIRIT MASTERS album which Laswell was also on.)

"Im Ninalou (The doors are locked)" was previously on Michal Cohen's HENNA album, but I recognize it from Ofra Haza's 1988 hit. "Im Ninalou" has a dance beat that guarantees it a place on the next Putumayo Arabic Groove compilation. Though Cohen's Yemeni, it sounds Egyptian to my infidel ears. It's the most melodically transparent piece & stands in contrast to the brusquer harmonies of the Sufic chanting on Haddarates' "Madh Assalhin," which Sabbah treats with echo and washes of synth approaching a "Paul Horn at the Taj Mahal" ambience (or I could be kinder and say Stuart Dempster in Cologne cathedral), but this praise song soon kicks into a groove before metamorphosing again with crisp tablas and Nercan Dede's nay.

Track 6 is a medley of pieces first recorded in 1997 by Steve Shehan and now reworked with bass & drums and layers of voices for a great trance-inducing 8 and a half minutes. The album ends with a lovely 13 minute meditation that brings up the plangent sounds of the derbouka, riq and qanun, and conjurs up the cool chaharbagh, or rippling waterfall, in the shade and the smell of orange blossoms, honey and kif on the breeze.

ARABIC GROOVE (Putumayo 189-2 CD)

If you want to know what's rocking the kasbah these days, ARABIC GROOVE is where to start. From Algeria, Morocco, Egypt an other Arab countries we hear the dance-floor grooves and detect the influence of Western pop, notably funk, hip-hop and electronica. This of course makes sense from the Arabic point of view as those artists now get played alongside Westerners.

In 1996 Khaled had a number one hit in France with "Aisha" and since then groups like alabina and Natacha Atlas have further popularized Arabic music. In the club scene there's Tranceglobal Underground and others.

This album kicks off with a new single by Abdel ali Slimani, noted frontman for Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart. There's no space between cuts so you really get the sense of a programmed sequence for the dance-floor.


THE ROUGH GUIDE TO BELLYDANCING subtitled "Raks Sharki: Oriental Dance Moves" is a delight for new and old ears. Even if you are hip to the sinuous melody lines and propulsive percussion that goes along with bellydancing, you'll dig this new compilation by Salah Miller. "Raks Sharki" is Arabic for "Middle Eastern Dance"; the term "bellydance" comes from a mis-hearing of "Baladi" meaning country. Locally (in San Francisco) it's known as "Tribal dance." At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, a dancer called Little Egypt brought shocked and delighted onlookers by the thousands and soon her dances were being imitated in vaudeville and burlesque. The fake "Oriental" costumes donned by American dancers made it into Hollywood and ultimately, from American films shown in Egypt, the Westernized version of the spangles and bangles was adopted into the tradition.

Watching my daughter-in-law dance with her troupe, Tabu, at the SF International Ethnic Dance Festival a couple of years ago, I realized that the good dancers are performing for each other, knowing the subtleties are lost on the audience. There is amazing isometric skill and muscle control. It's turns out more spiritual than erotic.

Mahmoud Fadl's epic drum set "Aament Beliah" (from the poor neighborhoods of Cairo) goes off into a 12-minute trance. The full-scale Andalusian orchestra of Ahmad Fouad Hassan is a trip deep into the Arabian Nights: "Dimashq" refers to the capital of Syria, Damascus. "The Happy Sheik" from Rabih Abou-Khalil's "The Sultan's Picnic" has a wonderful trombone solo. You hardly hear the oud; the liner notes tell us Milton Cardona plays conga on this track. The set shifts seamlessly around the Mediterranean through Lebanon to Turkey. Two of my favorite pieces are the Sufi-trance suggestive "Laz" from Omar Faruk's Tekbilek (I think that's him on woodwinds) and the next cut, "Kirkpinar Çiftetellisi" by Kemani Cemal Çinrli, from his album "Sulukule." This latter slow piece has an echoey violin playing over a ponderous drone and solid four-on four-off beat. Mahmoud Fadl returns for a heavy instrumental dirge with a tango-like beat and flying fingers percussion. Whatever Rough Guide's modus operandi is, they are certainly doing it right, and can be counted on for the inside track on world music.

IN A BEIRUT MOOD (Piranha PIR CD 1788)

Oriental dance, mistakenly called "Belly dance" in the West, is actually known as Raks Sharki in the Middle East. Jalilah is a famous dancer and this CD presents her orchestra doing their thing. Without the distraction of watching the dancer (use your imagination) you can really get into the rhythms. There's a huge band, including six violins, piano, bass, cello, oud, kanoun, nay, percussion, accordion and chorus. The repertoire is original with one track drawn from the folklore of Lebanon. Hip-swivelling fun, and a must for fans of the genre.

(Rough Guide RGNET1064 CD)

I had elective laser surgery on my eyes in June 2001 and spent 24 hours sedated in the dark while the anaesthetics wore off and my vision slowly returned. In my subdued-for-once state I decided to listen to Sufi music and the new ROUGH GUIDE TO SUFI MUSIC was to hand. It starts modestly enough in Turkey with a classical piece composed in the nineteenth century: a good introductory dirge, while we imagine the dervishes assembling. Sufi music was traditionally performed at religious sites, such as shrines, and in addition to the dervishes, members of the audience often go into trance and have to be brought round with verses from the Koran. Twenty years ago I saw dervishes in Omdurman performing in what was essentially a cemetery near the Mahdi's tomb. They whirled up a storm. Though frenzied, there's a stillness at the heart of the sound, in the breath of the flute or singer. A lot of Sufi music uses classical poetry as lyrics and it's easy to get into it as an accompaniment to reading Rumi or Kabir, both of whom are widely available in English translation.

After the Sabri Brothers from Pakistan and a taste of Egyptian religious singing ("inshad dini") we get a second Egyptian Sheikh, Yasin al-Tuhami, who cuts loose with "Alam" -- after a suitably reverential build-up on a scratchy lute.

Old hippies known the Gnaoua because of the Marrakesh connection and Hassan Hakmoun is one of the best-known exponents of this type of Moroccan sufism. In a track from "Gift of the Gnawa" with his long-time American collaborator Adam Rudolph on tabla, the brittle, limpid percussion gets your body moving, while Hakmoun puts the rest of you in a trance with stoney flute and vocals helped into the aether with one of my favourite toys: the Roland Space Echo. This is music to placate spirits and it sure made mine mellow.

After Abida Parween comes another gem: Ostad Elahi from Iranian Kurdistan on the sacred tanbur, the ancient Persian lute. His virtuosity is apparent, and I was reminded of Ravi Shankar. Not to slight West Africa, the compilation (which is extremely well sequenced) next offers up some mystical ritual drumming from Senegal, by Boubacar Diagne and drawn from TABALA WOLOF. Back to Egypt for a blind singer accompanied by flute and a trip to the lush sound of Damascus with another long slowly building piece on dulcimer, and we are nearer to enlightenment. Of course the best is last and that's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Fateh by name and fatty by nature, he brought Pakistani qawwali music to young people worldwide and made his simple brand of devotional music very hip. There's no doubt that Nusrat had one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century, and set off against the simple harmonium, tabla and hand-clap backing it soars close to heaven.


Berkeley Community Theatre February 2002

AJ (behind), Deejay IJ, Cheb i Sabbah & Khaled in the KUSF studio

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we had festivities around Chinese New Year and the Muslim holydays ending in the Haj. The last night of the Haj was also the rescheduled tour date for Khaled and Hakim who had been slated to appear last September. I had the opportunity to interview them both (The King of Rai and the Lion of Egypt!) on the radio before the show. My experience of Egypt was that the pop stars were all middle-aged and the youth were not served well but rather suppressed in their musical yearnings. However I knew better than to bring this up as a topic for discussion, and undoubtedly the scene has changed since I was in Egypt in the '80s. When interviewing Cheb Sahraoui I made the mistake of asking him questions like "Isn't it true that Rai originated in the red light district of Oran and was considered rebel music?" I was just parroting what it says on a million album covers, but he took umbrage and it turned into a most desultory chat. I found Khaled to be uproariously funny and charming, a real rogue. I couldn't get to know Hakim any better because he doesn't speak French or English.

I started by asking Hakim how he likes the American audiences and touring in the USA. He said (via an interpreter) that he always loves to come and play to all the Middle Eastern communities, but he's happy this trip because he also gets to play to American audiences. I said, "I hope that Americans will show their faith in the music by turning out. A lot of us are very embarrassed by the world situation and the American president starting his own holy war without the backing of the people." I asked if he felt any hostility for his Islamic belief in coming to the US now. He said, "I understand the reaction here, a lot of innocent people have died. I'm here with my friend Khaled to build those bridges that might have been broken by all this. I haven't felt any hostility. I was a bit scared to come at the beginning, because I did hear abroad I might get bad treatment, but it has been the contrary. I haven't felt anything beside the security at the airport, but that's really normal."

I asked about his collaboration with Olga Tanon on the new compilation DESERT ROSES. Hakim: When we first did the song in France, Olga was not there but we decided it should be her singing that song. When she heard the song she loved it. We all feel that it might be a great success. We'll soon do a video clip to it.

After playing the duet, I started to introduce Khaled and got momentarily distracted by all the complexities of running the board (we had three studio mikes and only two pairs of headphones for two guests and two translators), trying to keep the music mix low in the background, change the CD, and think of questions, while someone in their entourage was walking around videotaping it all. Khaled laughed at me and said (in French), "You've got to get up! You are not totally awake, or perhaps distracted by the ladies here!"

DR: It must be the Jesuit vibes from the campus. You need the headphones... The Jesuits heard you were coming in and took away all the headphones! So many things I want to ask you. First of all I suppose we should start by asking you how you started out, because you were a young boy of 14 or 15, right?
Khaled: The first recording was when I was 14. I started singing before, but my first 7- inch was when I was 14. At ten years old I had my own group and called it Five Stars, like the Jackson Five.

DR: What did your parents think about this?
Khaled: They had no idea until they found out about the record, then I was really in trouble! My father's friend was a policeman and he took home the record with the picture of me on the cover, and said, This is what your son is doing and maybe he'll make a lot of money like this. But I did the record for free and my father thought I had spent all the money! I was a Bad Boy!

DR: You moved to Paris about 1990?
Khaled: I went from Algeria to Paris in 87 but officially moved to Paris in 89.

DR: The first Khaled album I remember was HADA RAYKOUM which came out on Celluloid. I want to know about the instrumentation, because it's drum machine and synthesizer. At what point did you give up traditional instruments?
Khaled: HADA RAYKOUM was recorded in Algeria. At that point what started to happen was the traditional musicians like the violinist wanted too much money, so because I was a musician before I was a singer I got one of those 8-track cassette Tascam machines and started with a drum machine and keyboard to actually replace the musicians who were asking too much money. When they saw that they were all without a job they all wanted to come work for me for free.

DR: Would you like to say something about "Aisha," one of the classics from your repertoire, before he hear it?
Khaled: Because I was not born a French poet, I asked Jean Jacques Goldman, a French lyricist, to write the lyrics to this song about love, and also wanted people who did not understand Arabic to actually understand one of my songs in French. It's also great to have a Jew and Arab collaborating on a song.

DR: What can we expect on Friday?
Khaled: Get a fresh t-shirt ready because it's gonna be pretty sweaty. If it rains there will be an outside shower so there's nothing to worry about.

Hakim: The earth is gonna shake that night: triple shake!

Khaled: the people that come should have an open mind, because we are singing about love and freedom. They have to come because they are giving us the energy to continue to sing.

DR: We're going to hear "Trigue Lycee," would you like to tell us about this song?
Khaled: This is the road to the university because I wasn't made to study but to give love to people.

DR: We're going to end with "Esma Yalli" from Hakim's new live album. Would you like to comment?
Hakim: It was recorded last year in Brooklyn and was one of the nicest live shows I've done in America. But the next concert on Friday you'll probably hear even better stuff.

The concert was quite a cultural event with thousands of Arabs from all over the Bay Area descending on the Berkeley Community Theatre. The "will call" line went for quarter of a mile around the building. When we got in, Hakim was in full swing and we couldn't get near our seats. The aisles were jammed with people partying, waving their arms and scarves, even flags, and ululating in frenzy. Hakim had three percussionists, a horn section, accordion and duff. They were putting it out. The beat was pounding, the audience was hot and approaching critical mass. Cheb I Sabbah, the promoter, came out and the house lights were brought up. We have to respect the Berkeley Unified School District who own this place, he said. We don't want the fire marshal coming in and shutting down the show, so please return to your seats. That had little effect and the show went on with people standing on their seats and waving scarves over their heads.

Khaled in contrast had a rock band, his percussion was sampled and the horns had little to do. There was a sax solo, but the player, an Argentinian, lacked originality. The worst part was the guitar player, a Frenchman who seemed hung up on Allman-Brothers' style screechy leads. He should have been tied to the whipping post. It was a disappointment. When they went into some bad reggae (& I mean bad, like imitation Alpha Blondy) I was ready to leave. But things got better when Simon Shaheen, the Palestinian oud player, came out. Actually he played fiddle beautifully on several numbers. The band left the stage and Shaheen pulled out his oud and played an improvisation that saved the set. He really took it up a notch and I thought of Hendrix lighting up the same stage thirty years earlier (JIMI PLAYS BERKELEY). Shaheen is a virtuoso oud player and also cuts a mean saw on the violin. His own group Qantara (which means bridge) are a fusion group who create a kind of noodly dinner jazz, so it was a pleasure to hear him solo.

Hakim has two new albums out. YAHO is on the Mondo Melodia label and has remixes by Transglobal Underground, for techno fans. THE LION ROARS: HAKIM LIVE IN AMERICA is on the same label and was released in 2001. Unlike most live albums it has clear sound: of course the drums are heavy, but the flute is hot in the mix as well as the synthesizer and percussion. It's a double CD including a video clip and the hit "Yaho."

Khaled's latest, KENZA, was produced by Steve Hillage (Simple Minds) and Lati Kronlund of Brooklyn Funk Essentials. It features a big band including a 10-man string orchestra recorded in Cairo and poses the musical question why an artist of his stature needs to tour with some vieux rockers. Khaled could and should put together an outfit worthy of his talents. It's expensive to bring a 14-man band on tour but why bring along a bunch of second-rate hacks? It implies the audience cannot discriminate, but I wouldn't rush out and buy the new Khaled album based on the live performance, which is too bad as it's a decent recording featuring Hossam Ramzy.