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Iraqi vocalist Farida Mohammad Ali  said in 2005

Everyone knows that Arab society has not given women the chance to appear on stage,to be free and emancipated and thus take part in transmitting this musical heritage. But in this male-dominated society 1 was lucky enough to have tolerant, open-minded parents who created an environment for me that was favourable to my emancipation.

Farida headlined an impressive  Arabesque doublebill with fellow female artist Malouma(pictured above) at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater  Monday night.  Like Farida, Malouma, from Mauritania, received encouragement regarding music from her parents.  Female empowerment notwithstanding,  I was still expecting merely a folkloric educational evening, but the performers and their groups delivered more than that.

Malouma kept her hair covered, but her music was far from reserved.   Playing a kora/harp-like instrument called an ardin,and singing in a guttural voice, she was joined by an electric guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bass player, conga player, drummer, and two female backing vocalists.  At times their sound  resembled the rocking rai of Rachid Taha.  Mauritania is between Morocco and Senegal and Malouma’s music reflected that geography.  Her Moorish/Arabic melodies contrasted with the sweeter West African harmonies of her vocalists. Also a fan of blues and jazz, she had her guitarist add both traditional 12 bar and ZZ Top like fills, while she showed her own vocal range with a kind of North African scatting.  Once her music was banned, now she is an elected Senator in her country and still performing.

Farida and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble were more traditional musically, but it soon became clear why Farida is billed as “the voice of Mesopotamia.”  With plenty of breath control, and always a smile, Farida’s voice powerfully  descended and ascended the scales, as she repeatedly gestured in the air with her hands, or held one hand by her ear to help her concentrate.  Her voice dramatically filled the hall.  While some Arabic vocals strike this Westerner as hard-edged, Farida’s was warm.  Her group sat behind her pushing her onward musically.  The violinist and a musician on a home-made vertical fiddle-looking stringed instrument called a jawzah conveyed a mournful feel before the tabla percussionist and the riqq (Arab tambourine) player picked up the rhythm.  They were then soon joined on the melody by the nay  flautist, and the perkier sonics from the  santurist (hammer dulcimer) and a Qanan  (zither) player.  By evening’s end, she had Iraqis in the crowd singing and clapping along before she again sent her voice up several octaves.