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Like the tales of so many recent left-field hits, this story begins with a car ad. How left-field? Well, not very: It’s a Sting song. And which car? Usually, I can’t tell one auto ad from another, but I paid special attention this time because a friend asked. It’s a Jaguar. The ad sells the song, “Desert Rose,” while the song sells the car. Or is it the other way around?
This gambit has become so common that there’s now an album of songs discovered (or rediscovered) through commercials: As Seen on TV, with Nick Drake, Trio, and others who owe their new exposure to ad-agency executives with college-radio tastes. But that’s not the sampler album in my CD player today. Instead, I’m listening to Desert Roses & Arabian Rhythms, a Mondo Melodia collection of pop songs (including a “melodic club mix” of Sting and Cheb Mami’s “Desert Rose”) rooted in the Middle East and the Maghreb.
Putumayo also has a new sampler, Arabic Groove, which is similar but a little more hardcore. They overlap in placesNatacha Atlas and Khaled are on eachand both serve as teasers for new albums by Atlas and Rachid Taha (who’s represented on Desert Roses & Arabian Rhythms). Call it coincidence or sharp marketingMami, Taha, and others record for Mondo Melodia, the world-music label owned by Miles Copeland, who used to manage the Policebut it’s clear that Middle Eastern pop is angling for an American breakout.
As is Putumayo’s custom, the tracks on Arabic Groove are identified by country of origin: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, andfor Belgian-born globe-trotter Atlas”Egypt/UK.” Read the bios inside either sampler, however, and things get more complicated. Arabic-groove fans will already know that “Algeria” usually means “France”; Islamic fundamentalists have driven most prominent pop musicians from the former country into the latter, the imperial power from which Algeria won political (but not cultural) independence. Those who haven’t relocated to Paris are probably living (or at least recording) in London, where they’re likely to have collaborated with (or least been remixed by) Bill Laswell, Transglobal Underground, or Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. Algerian expat Abdel Ali Slimani, whose “Moi et Toi” opens the album, began his career with the Invaders, and Dania became known as a VJ for Channel V, the near-global music-video arm of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
The only city in the Arab world that draws large numbers of pop performers is Cairo, the Nashville of North Africa. Hamid El Shaeri relocated there from Libya (another country where mixing pop and politics can draw a reaction more threatening than bad reviews), and Atlas (formerly of Transglobal Underground) has recorded many of her last several albums there, including the recent (and excellent) Ayeshteni. Most Maghreb pop is recorded in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, even if sung by performers from other countries.
Atlas also appears on Desert Roses & Arabian Rhythms, singing in French, the second language of Arabic groove. This sampler tilts a little more toward the American mainstream, with tracks by Transglobal Underground and two U.S.-based musicians, Palestinian émigré Simon Shaheen and Iran-born Andy. Its commercial hook is the “Desert Rose” remix, which subordinates Sting’s vocal to a nonsynth beat but doesn’t render Mami’s melismatic vocal any more essential than in the original version. He’s in the video (and the car ad), but his vocal part could be a sample. Also included is “I’m Yours,” by Colombian singer Soraya, a light Latin-pop hit given an Arabic accent by Shaheen’s arrangement.
Given such crossover tactics, there’s reason to be suspicious that the album’s desert roses actually bloomed in the Sahara. After all, the disc’s Transglobal Underground selection, “Pomegranate,” sounds like Led Zeppelin in “Kashmir” mode. Such tracks aside, though, these two compilations reflect something more than the Orientalism of trendy Britain and exoticism-craving France.
The key to Arabic pop’s self-possession is Egypt, which is not only the center of the style but also a country that has shown little interest in Western music. The result is that Wobble, Atlas, and other Anglo-rock Egyptologists seem to have taken more from the Cairo scene than it’s taken from them. Not much Egyptian pop is available in the United States, but a 1990 Mango compilation, Yalla: Hitlist Egypt, provides a useful overview of al jeel (youth music) and shaabi (working-class music). As Yalla demonstrates, these styles have absorbed electric guitars and electro beats from the West, but both their melodies and their rhythms are rooted in Egyptian tradition.
The sound of Atlas’ Ayeshteni draws on the same precedents, albeit with a lusher sound; the swirling secondary melodies are often assigned to a string section rather than guitars or backing vocalists. The result points up the similarity between Egyptian pop tunes and Bollywood soundtrack songs, which strike a similar balance between traditional melodies and rhythms and contemporary instrumentation. This is dance music, but it’s designed for the sinuous motion of Indo-Arabic choreography rather than the free-form aerobic workouts of the rave scene that originally nurtured Transglobal Underground.
Arabic pop is hardly untouched by Western rock and techno influences, however; Paris-based Algerian rai star Rachid Taha’s outstanding new Made in Medina opens with a resonant trad-drum tattoo that is almost immediately blitzed by electric-guitar power chords. Produced by British hippie-art-rocker-turned-techno-comeback-kid Steve Hillage, the album layers Middle Eastern polyrhythms atop synthesized pulses. The closing “Garab” is an eight-minute thumper whose surging energy and resonant percussion should impress headbangers and dance-clubbers alike. Mami may just be along for the ride, but Maghreb musicians like Taha are in full control of a hybrid style that does more than merely spice up Anglo-American pop. Mark Jenkins
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