For 15 years now, Amr Diab has been the fastest-beating heartthrob of Egyptian pop. His American debut is more satisfying to the overseas ear than much of his previous paint-by-numbers work despite stumbling through a frothy opening cut before finding its feet. At times his voice can sound generic and superficial, but not always: On the brooding “Allemny Hawak,” he dominates convincingly, and on tracks like “Enta Ma Oltesh La,” where he starts to skip away from western influences, he is actually powerful. There’s pleasure here, and enough substance to make this a good introduction—enough to make you wish Diab would keep his eyes on his art instead of his charts. (MA04)
Aman Iman (Water is Life)
The third bite of the apple for the Tuareg group Tinariwen comes after a great deal of international touring and acclaim. In their wake a lot of bands playing a similar spare desert blues style have released CDs, but they remain the assured, undoubted leaders of the pack. There’s still a breathtaking spontaneity about the music (perfectly displayed by “Ahimana”), but there’s also a strong discipline and economy to the sound. It’s all wonderfully layered, built around hypnotic rhythms or guitar riffs, whether on the rolling “Toumast” or the slower “Soixante Trois,” with a natural sense of vast spaces in their playing that carries the listener into the grandeur of the alien landscape that fills “Imidiwan Winakalin.” They can become surprisingly funky, as on “Tamatant Tilay,” before bringing everything gently to rest with the acoustic “Izarharh Tenere,” a lilting, glistening pillow of a song. Listening to them is like hearing the raw, primal roots of rock’n’roll, finding the Ur-text of modern musical history, a wonderful voyage of discovery that leaves your sense of the world slightly changed. That’s a tall order for any group, but these nomads manage it. The only problem is, that’s a huge responsibility to live up to in future. (MA08)
Tuareg nomads from Western Sahara, the members of Tinariwen grew up in the 1980’s in the refugee camps of Libya, where they began making music. This is their second album, and it refines the fire of the first, refracting monochordal blues and resonant, often primal desert rock through the prism of their own wandering experiences. The roots of the blues—indeed, of most western music—are exposed here. (SO04)
The idea of a Berber singer recording with musicians in all of Cape Verde, Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso in order to create wide-ranging musical fusion could be a recipe for an intercultural disaster. But with a firm grip on its Maghrebi roots, the other cultures provide musical colors and textures that reach and branch out in surprising, even loving directions. Much credit is due to Abdelli’s focused writing and profound sense of melody, and his ability to maintain a desert rawness in his voice while making it easily accessible to western ears. This agile balancing act works well. (MA04)
Arabian Masters, volumes 1 and 2.
2002, EMI Arabia
Thanks to emi Arabia’s ambition to bring 20th-century classical Arab music to the western market, here are starters for a serious library. The “Arabian Masters” volumes are double-cd compilations, four disks in all, with selections from a dozen artists altogether, many of whom are also represented at greater length on the individual artist cds. However, be warned: The sleeve notes are perfunctory, there are no recording details, and the recordings themselves have sketchy moments. Hopefully future additions to this important series will show improvements. (At press time, this collection is not yet available through us distributors.) (MA03)
Arabian Travels and Arabian Travels 2
These are two collections of Arab and Arab-influenced electronica, not so much for the dance floor as for the headspace. There’s a nod to this genre’s two-decade history in a remix of Dissidenten’s pioneering “Telephone Arab,” and Mercan Dede and Samsara Sound System both acquit themselves well, although the remix of Dahmane El Harrachi’s classic “Ya Rayah” is superfluous. Aimed at the cutting edge, it doesn’t always get there, but when it works, this recording is quite thought-provoking (SO04)
As Far As: A DJ Mix.
Like several other recordings from the Algerian-born dj who now lives in San Francisco, this is essentially a musical journey from India to North and West Africa with touches of avant-garde jazz along the way. Interestingly, the North African tracks are the strongest, especially Makale’s “Salla,” where the beats hit nice and hard. But, as they should, the tracks slide seamlessly into one another, making for smooth, easy transitions between not only artists, but continents. (SO04)
Jordanian pianist Zade has been finding an American audience over the last 12 months, and on this disc he realizes the grand sweep of his sound. There’s a full orchestra, a singer and plenty of melody. For those with a love of New Age/ easy listening, he’s a delight. The Middle Eastern touches are surprisingly subtle—most obviously in the rattling percussion—making this music light and accessible, carefully designed to cross borders and cultures with a minimum of baggage. It may be best to think of him as an internationalist, aware of his roots and influenced by them, but facing the larger world. (SO06)
Fairouz (1935–, Lebanon) established a reputation in the 1950’s, but rose to become “The Voice of Beirut” in the 1970’s when she refused to flee the city during its civil war. Modern arrangements and innovative melodic ideas frame the passionate, richly emotional voice that made her the most popular Arab female singer since Oum Kalsoum. (MA03)
The Birth of Dar.
MoMo, which is short for “Music of Moroccan Origin,” is a group based in England that is defining the cutting edge of the Arabesque movement, mixing real instruments and vocals with programmed beats and loops. The results are raw and occasionally rough but ultimately superb, such as on the percussive “Visa.” For “Agee Jump,” an Andalusian guitar opening transforms into a surging rhythm, while the remix of “Digital Garab,” by veteran producer Steve Hillage, arches between the dance floor and the chill-out room. MoMo’s promise for the future may be boundless. (SO02)
2002, World Village
This will delight fans of trance/dance styles. “Bouderbala” is a Moroccan gnaoua term related to the mixing of colors, an apt title for an album that spreads gnaoua’s wings to include Cuban piano and flute, Brazilian and Senegalese percussion, and instruments from Bulgarian village bands that insinuate themselves discreetly into the deep Arab soul of the collaboration. (MA03)
A Bridge Over the Mediterranean.
Born in Jerusalem but now living and working in Beirut, Rami and Farid Chehade work with an ensemble of 19 musicians to create a sound that’s grounded in the Middle East, but which reaches out across the Mediterranean. You can hear strains of flamenco and tarantella in their sound, while the rippling bouzouki offers a connection to Greece and even the Balkans, thanks to Michel Elefteriades. Lead singer Rami is not only blessed with a wonderfully lyrical voice that inhabits the songs, both fast and slow, but he’s also a gifted ‘ud player, coaxing subtle textures and fills from his strings for impressive and affecting results. (MA06)
Although he’s known as “Lebanon’s Bob Dylan,” Khalife is more than a singer-songwriter—he’s also a virtuoso on the ‘ud, one who moves the instrument into jazz and other styles, as he shows on this instrumental outing. Working with his longtime quartet Al Mayadine, which includes two of his sons, Khalife is as much at home on the Andalusian-influenced “Samai Bayati” as on the shape-shifting “Al Hambra.” In Khalife’s hands, these fusions are supple and fluent, breaking musical rules with easy grace and delightful results. The music is indeed a caress, showing that Khalife is a visionary on the instrument. (MA05)
2002, L’Impreinte Digitale
One of the more promising groups coming out of the Maghrib today, the five women who comprise Bnet Marrakech (“Marrakech Girls”) are pioneering an international career with uncompromising, energized performances of Berber songs, sha’bi and raw rai. Malika Mahjoubi is an outstanding singer with an emotive voice, and Aziza Ait Zouin is a superb multi-instrumentalist. The intensity level never falls from the opening title cut, making this recording debut both exhausting and satisfying. (SO02)
On her debut, Massi displayed a formidable but unfocused talent as a singer and songwriter. This time around, she’s allied her abilities to her Algerian roots, and the results are a stunning mix of intelligence and emotion. The gorgeously lulling “Yemma” and “Houria” evoke Al-Andalus, and “Moudja” drapes a soft melody in minimal colors. Massi displays growing control over her warm, American-folk-rock-influenced voice. There’s not a wasted note in these compositions. Watch for her crossover success. (MA04)
The Definitive Collection
This well-deserved career retrospective shows Rachid Taha in a very interesting light. For over two decades he’s portrayed himself as an iconoclast, caught between Algerian and French culture (outraging the latter with an ’80’s punk version of the sentimental anthem “Douce France,” which here seems very tame). But, in fact, he proves to be someone with a deep knowledge and reverence for the music of the Maghreb. A number of the tracks here are updates of works by classic composers like Farid El Atrache or Ahmed Khelifi. Even some of his own work, like “Ida,” draws heavily on the past, offering a potted history of Raï in six minutes. Virtually all the music here has its roots in North Africa, even if its branches spread broadly through contemporary France, and he doesn’t shy away from politics, both blatantly in “Menfi” or with a wry twist, like the subversion of the Clash with “Rock El Casbah.” There’s a solidity and weight to his body of work (even fluff like the Arab-disco “Voilà Voilà”) that stands in sharp relief in this compilation. He’s not so much tearing down as continuing the tradition—but with a rare, playful sense of adventure. (MA08)
On her fourth CD, Hassan takes the blues home to where they began: in the Western Sahara. Her superb voice, ululating and raw, is intensely powerful over a spare backdrop of hypnotic guitars and percussion. The result is starkly beautiful, crystallizing everything she’s done before. Like desert-rockers Tinariwen, who achieved plenty of success last year, Hassan started playing music in the refugee camps of Algeria. Her newest songs find the balance of craft and inspiration—you can feel both sweat and heartache in this music. (MA06)
2002, World Village
British guitarist Adams, who grew up in several Middle Eastern countries and now also plays with former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant’s band, has produced an intriguing, deeply Arab-influenced recording that explores the connections between the Maghrib and the blues. Its rhythms, and the melodies of his solos on tracks like “Tafraoute,” create a trance-like gnaoua feel with their repeated riffs that reference the Mississippi Delta as much as the Sahara. (SO02)
Dhikr of Life
It’s a lovely idea, making music that imparts values of Islam in a pop format that’s accessible to a young audi- ence raised on western music. In the hands of Khaleel Muhammad, it becomes positively silky. His second album is largely a cappella, and lush layers of vocals bring to mind both R&B and boy bands, with only percussion behind the voices. With production that’s slick but never anonymous, it’s heartfelt and classy, the type of album that can be background but also satisfies closer, repeated listening. (SO06)
Against his father’s wishes, Mauritanian Touré became a guitarist, eventually teaming up with his cousin in Paris to form the successful group Touré Touré. On this subtle and gentle solo debut, Touré is an African singer-songwriter with a cosmopolitan execution and western influences from Bob Marley to The Police. The melodies soothe, but it’s his achingly beautiful voice that commands attention, pulling at the emotions, sometimes layered so it’s almost choral, and ideally coupled with his wistful songs. Easy to listen to without ever being easy listening, it’s a shimmering bridge between worlds. Not a blockbuster, perhaps, but Diam is the kind of record that lures you back over and over again, satisfying the spirit each time. (MA05)
Dimanche A Bamako
Although they’ve been a musical couple for 30 years, playing their Malian blues with the kind of soulful touch that recalls old ’60s Stax sides, this is the disc to finally propel them into the limelight, with much credit to the production of French world-music star Manu Chao. He adds a low-key pop lightness to their sound without eclipsing its African roots, and his use of street-ambience samples—sirens, snatches of conversation—bring a glorious informality to tracks like “Sénégal Fast Food.” At the same time, there’s a strong political bent to the lyrics. Put them together and the package becomes irresistible. (SO05)
The leader of Mali’s legendary Super Rail Band is one of the world’s most accomplished and revered guitarists, and on his second solo outing he shows just why he’s so lauded. From the assured flamenco tones that open “Fanta Bourama” to the lovely groove of “Sarankégni,” his acoustic and electric instruments produce liquid streams of notes that both excite and soothe. Backed by a young and outstanding band, he frequently pushes himself on pieces inspired by the Malinke and Mandingo tradition, but he always makes everything sound effortless—the mark of a true virtuoso. (MA06)
The Drummers of the Nile Go South.
Nubia may no longer exist as such, but master drummer Fadl helps keep its spirit alive by playing the old rhythms and music, which sound amazingly contemporary. It’s easy to imagine tracks like “Alara,” “Makaoum Suez” and “United Nubians” pounding in a club. Fadl shows that the old can be just as modern as the new, while the album’s songs offer an illuminating look across the border at the Sudanese desert tradition. No dry dust of ethnomusicology here, just complete entertainment. (SO02)
The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the greatest of the modern qawwali singers, bar none. His wonderful vocal improvisations could be stratospheric and at his best he could move huge audiences. This album takes unreleased material from the 1960’s and 1970’s and places it in a radically different context, slotting his vocal tracks over strongly reggae-inflected backing. On the surface, that sounds like a bizarre and unlikely combination, but it works in a astonishingly natural way. Along with a strong rhythm section and strings, producer/musician Gaudi builds full songs, often quite catchy around the singing, as with “Othe Mera Yar Wasda.” Although Nusrat is the centerpiece name, here he effectively becomes one part of an ensemble, subsumed into the whole without the wilder, brilliant flights of fancy. Yet that’s fine; as part of the churning, rhythmic mood of the whole, he takes on a different force, his voice rallying and resonant. It’s a truly daring deconstruction, and Gaudi deserves praise for having the vision to see that it would work. The results are not only fresh and intriguing, but also immensely satisfying. And from this, a whole new generation might discover Nusrat’s more spiritual canon. (MA08)
Earth and Ashes
Sound of World
Set in the post-Taliban era, Earth and Ashes is a film about the bleakness and desperation of life in modern Afghanistan. That empty mood is reflected in the soundtrack, a stark, tense mix of acoustic instruments, voices and electronics. From cavernous spaces to oppressive intimacy, the music is an atmospheric mix of traditional and original pieces where rubab, darbuka and synthesizer become metaphors for clashes of old and new. Short pieces, almost fragments, build a sad, mournful picture that communicates the emotion of a country in the wake of war. (SO05)
2002, Mondo Melodia
Nubian-born Mounir is a singer with a silky voice and the compositional skills to transform traditional melodies into gorgeous, layered arrangements. Sometimes he goes too far and it gets saccharine, but when he reins himself in, as on “Salatullah Ya Mawlay,” he places himself firmly in the lineage of great vocalists like Mohamed Abdel Wahab and offers us a melodic treat of an album. Watch for the German version of “Madad,” where an acoustic arrangement meets an oompah band: In an alternate-universe kind of way, it works. (MA03)
The half-griot Senegalese singer who’s made his name as Africa’s leading vocalist with his relentlessly percussive mbalax style takes an abrupt change of direction with an “unplugged” celebration of the peaceful, contemplative side of Islam. Mixing Egyptian strings with West African drums, N’Dour sounds more committed here than he has in years. It’s a labor of love, recorded over a couple of years, with arrangements that bring to mind the timeless work of Um Kulthum. This is a beautiful, inspired album. (SO04)
Emm el Khilkhal
Composed of four teachers from Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music, this group focuses on instrumental pieces elegantly played. There are works from famous composers such as Muhammad Abdul Wahab and the Rahbani Brothers, but also a traditional Greek tune and a lengthy improvisation. There’s a careful balance between the tradition of Arab music and modernity, and a true ensemble feel in the dynamics of the performances that gives a fine edge to the pieces. With instructors like these, the students at the Conservatory have a bright future. (SO04)
Escalay: The Water Wheel.
2002 (1971), Nonesuch Explorer
This re-release of the international debut of one of the modern masters of the ‘ud is a welcome surprise, pulsing with originality. The title track is a series of impressions of a boy at a desert water wheel, written and played with a remarkable technique that explores every rhythmic and melodic possibility of the piece; “Remind Me” is an evocation of a song written by the great Mohamed Abdul Wahab for Um Kulthum. Going well beyond tradition, this album proved to be a benchmark for the ‘ud that even El Din himself has rarely surpassed. (SO02)
Moroccan Hakmoun has plied his trade as a player of the bass-like gimbri in New York for well over a decade now, fusing his native sound with western music, but still keeping strong the connection to his homeland. For the most part, The Gift is firmly rooted in North Africa, whether it’s the spare gnaoua rawness of “El Hedia” or the soulful sha’bi of “Syada Ana,” with its Booker T.-style organ. The only low point is his title-track duet with last year’s rock diva Paula Cole, which aims at the lowest imaginable denominator and needs to be skipped. Enjoy the rest. (SO02)
Hafiat Al Kadamain.
Al Saher is Iraq’s most accomplished and prolific contemporary singer and songwriter—and in the Middle East, he’s a wildly popular stadium-filler. Performed with a full orchestra and chorus, songs like “Al Helwa” and “Hewar Ma’a Al Nafs” bring out the depth of his voice and the complexity of his arrangements. Marketers are noting to western listeners that the record closes with a duet with British diva Sarah Brightman, “The War Is Over”—but its overblown sentiment jars after 11 finely crafted Arab tracks. While less obvious than his 2002 release Impossible Love—a good place to begin—this offers a powerful, lyrical and epically melodic experience. (MA04)
Honeysuckle (Mesk Elil).
With much critical acclaim, and now with a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award under her belt, acoustic-guitar vocalist Souad Massi is one of the brightest new stars of North African music. On her third disc, she detours from the 60’s singer-songwriter pop of her last album to reflect on the idea of roots and home. Some of it’s a little glossy, like “I Won’t Forget My Roots,” a duet with honey-voiced Daby Touré, but most tracks show depth of emotion and maturity, in both writing and performance, marking her as an artist who’s going to be around—quietly glittering—for the long haul. (MA06)
I Speak Fula
Vieux Farka Touré
The blues had a baby and they called it rock ’n’ roll—so the song goes—and it seems to apply in Africa just as it did in America. The desert blues of Mali have grown into a kind of adolescence, where the abrasive, rebellious sound of rock is most appealing. That raw, spare blues remains the cornerstone of the sound, but harder rhythms, and in some cases florid solos, show they’ve been absorbing plenty of vintage western rock. It’s most obvious in the sophomore releases by Vieux Farka Touré (son of Ali Farka Touré, the godfather of desert blues) and Bassekou Kouyate, a virtuoso on the ngoni lute. The sense of collective blooming is tangible as they play with confidence and fire, and push the limits of the genre. There are slower, more reflective pieces, in which their roots are always apparent, but the sparks really fly when they speed things up and cut loose. Touareg group Tinariwen have become the biggest name in desert blues, and their stint opening for the Rolling Stones last year has influenced them on their new disc, which bristles with rough energy. They are developing their multi-guitar sound, both acoustically and electrically, in a way that mirrors the British blues boom of the 1960’s—albeit refracted through a global prism—with solos that spark out over twisting strands of rough melody. Fellow Touaregs Terakaft come across first as a smaller, leaner Tinariwen, with a spare, open sound where space feels as important as music. But when they take off, it’s with the roar of a sports car with a young, eager driver at the wheel. (MA10)
Incontro a Tangeri.
Morocco has remained the center of Arab–Andalusian music, and this orchestra—a full aggregation supplemented by three singers—explores the gamut of the classical styles, harking back to when Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were culturally intertwined throughout the region. It’s a breathtaking classical record, spread across two discs, with intricate melodies and rhythms played in a stately but passionate fashion. Its gorgeous arrangements sweep you up and carry you along with formal, decorated elegance. For those who love classical Arab music, this is on the must-have list. (MA06)
Indonesia: Beyond the Gamelan
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim state, and with 13,600 islands—more than 3000 of them inhabited—it’s a sprawling country full of musical styles that enjoy no apparent unifying tradition. The most famous, perhaps, is gamelan (the term refers to the orchestra, not an instrument), the hypnotic rural music found most frequently in Bali, Java and Lombok. It is played on gongs, metal tubes and other percussion. It can range from the seductive to the clashing, with Balinese gamelan in particular offering a kind of contemplative beauty. The exquisite 1940’s field recordings of Music for the Gods (Rykodisc) capture Balinese gamelan at its finest, while the Nonesuch Explorer Pacific series has Music for the Shadow Play, a soundtrack to the country’s famous shadow puppet theater, and offers also the spirited, often stately volumes of Javanese Court Gamelan. In all, 10 of the 12 discs in the series are devoted to Indonesia. Beyond this, both kroncong and gambang kromong are termed early Indonesian pop styles, but not in any western sense. There’s a raw, folklike, rice-paddy-village feel to both of them. Both are distant ancestors—an equivalent to a line connecting Jimmie Rodgers with Britney Spears—of dangdut, a kind of ethnic disco with drum machines, synthesizers and vocals whose name derives from the sound of a musical bar ending on a low note (“dang”) and starting on a high note (“dut”). That’s the only style that today seems to come close toa national sound. It’s spawned some major stars like Rhoma Irama, who’s popular all across Indonesia. You can sample all of them on The Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia (World Music Network). It’s a healthy introduction that samples previously recorded tracks. Bandung, a few hours out of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has developed its own popular music form called jaipongan, which evolved in the 1960’s by modernizing local folk styles. It’s light as gauze and utterly infectious, with exotic twists of melody that are as smooth as cream when played by Sabah Habas Mustapha and the Jugala All Stars on So La Li (Kartini/Omnium). Ambitiously, the Smithsonian Folkways label has produced a 20-volume series called Music of Indonesia which attempts to catalogue many styles using field recordings made all over the archipelago between 1990 and 1997. The full series could be daunting to all but ethnomusicologists, but there’s an excellent overview of it on Discover Indonesia, which cherry-picks the series and offers selections ranging from church music to funeral gongs. Volume 20, Indonesian Guitars, is one in the series worth discovering all by itself. There’s so much to explore in Indonesian music that it could take a lifetime, but the records above are a good place to start sampling. (MA05)
Fronted by ‘ud virtuoso Mehdi Haddab of the electric Arab-West band DuOud, Speed Caravan offers a fiery, sophisticated vision of rock, electronics and Arab music. Three amped-up traditional Arab pieces sit comfortably among the contemporary compositions, with a result that’s relentlessly 21st-century and challenging. It’s a disc that demands attention, packed with complex, shifting textures, but it easily repays the effort, forging a Middle Eastern progressive fusion that teases its sources together seamlessly into something new, where the computer is as vital to shaping the sound as the original instruments. (MA10)
Kariat Al Fengan (Live).
Abdel Halim Hafez (1929–1977, Egypt) was called “The Dusky Nightingale” for his combination of easy, boyish innocence and his ability to embody the popular aspirations of anti-colonialism and Arab nationalism. Here he connects charismatically with his audience. (MA03)
Naming this album for a seventh-century female North African leader was obviously a deliberate act for Sabbah. With this album he returns to his own Maghrebi roots and focuses on the female voice over his characteristically understated instrumental work. It’s definitely the voices that are the stars here, whether it’s the antiphonal chanting of Ouled Ben Aguida or Michal Cohen’s dance-oriented “Im Ninalou.” And where’s Sabbah himself in all this? He produces and contributes subtle electronics—often too subtle, perhaps, and the beats he creates can often be simplistic. But if his intention is to leave the focus on this varied group of North African singers, he succeeds admirably. (SO05)
La Ya Sadiki.
Kazem El Saher (1961–, Iraq) is the youngest artist in emi Arabia’s collection—he made a brief us tour in March—and La Ya Sadiki, composed in 1989, is a song of grand scale and ambition that moved him from pop icon to serious artist and composer. (MA03)
It’s been six years since Senegal’s Cheikh Lô released a record, but he’s finally back with his third release, this time often connecting the musical and slave-trade dots between West Africa and Brazil, most obviously on the thundering, hypnotically drummed “Sénégal-Brésil.” His sound is as eclectic as ever, from the insistent Afrobeat of “Sante Yalla” to the Cuban flavor of “Yougayu M’bedd” or the reggae skank of “Bamba Mô Woor.” It’s an album that takes its chances, never settling stylistically, but that becomes one of its virtues. Each track becomes a trip into the unexpected, yet it never sacrifices melody for surprise. (MA06)
Born in France to Lebanese parents, Clotaire K is a self-styled innovator, a full citizen of the 21st century. Beats, hip-hop and sampling sit comfortably next to maqams here, and there’s a diamond fire to his trilingual rapping, with tracks like “Beyrouth Ecoeurée” and “Ya Saryam” standing out for stripped-down muscularity. He’s even a talented ‘ud player. If only he’d jettisoned the pointless and annoying narrative-voice “skits” between several of the music tracks—what was he thinking? After seven years of live work in clubs, this is the recording debut of a unique artist. (MA04)
She was without doubt the Arab singer of the 20th century. On Thursday nights the Middle East closed to hear Oum Kalsoum’s radio broadcasts, and four million people lined Cairo’s streets for her funeral in 1975. This budget-priced double CD forms a strong introduction to her work and sublime melismatic power. Schooled in the classical tradition, she was never bound by it, but used it as a springboard to her amazing popularity. Whether working with a small group, as she did in the 1930s, or later with a big ensemble, her way with a line, her remarkable tone and sustain helped bring her unrivaled fame. The brilliance of her technique shines brightest on the dramatic, emotional epic “Najh Elborda” and on “Tab En Nasim Al Alil,” but there’s not a note that doesn’t impress here. It’s a master class in expression and control, ranging from the raw tradition of the spare “Wehakkak Ental Mona Waltalab” to the daring of the Western inflected “Yalli Sana’et El Gamil.” Running the gamut of her lengthy career, this is the perfect primer on one of the most influential musicians ever to record, a woman whose shadow still lies long over her native Egypt. (MA08)
Cultures have long come together in Montpelier, and sometimes the result has been good music, as this Arab– French–Corsican rock band proves on their fourth release. Rock they do, as in “L’Alawi” or the traditional “Sidi H’bibi” (the latter inspired by the explosive version from ‘80s pioneers Mano Negra). There’s punk attitude alongside their guitar riffage, and plenty of driving percussion propels the songs and testifies to their Maghrebi heart. Their funk is desert dry and it crackles over powerful cross-rhythms. Although singer Bachir Mokhtar is charismatic, they’re at their best when they let loose, emotions burning—and from the evidence here, the fuse is deliciously short. (MA06)
Khaled is raï’s global superstar, and over two decades he’s pushed the horizons of his music out from its Algerian origins into something cosmopolitan. But here he’s going back to raw raï, making the kind of sweaty, passionate music that originally propelled him to fame in the 1980’s. Many of the pieces begin with “introductions” that are really vocal taksims, or extemporizations, that show his prowess, and he’s never sounded better, putting all his experience and maturity into the improvisations that explode into powerful, thrilling songs. This is an edgy, reinvigorated Khaled, more eager and forceful than he’s been in years, and turning in a series of relentless, emotional performances. When he does take a detour, it’s not to the West, but to the even more stripped-down arena of Maghrebi gnaoua music, where he slides easily into the trance-like rhythms. By striding so magnificently into the past, Khaled’s made an album that eclipses almost everything he’s recorded in the last 10 years. (MA10)
A Life of Song
This is a reissue of Shajarian’s 1984 album, one of the most important of that turbulent decade in Iran and a pivotal disc in the history of the country’s art music. The compositions by santur (hammer dulcimer) player Parviz Meshkatian ache with the emotion of the times, the poetry of 14th-century writer Hafez is timeless, and Shajarian’s voice is charismatic. The magic is in the way these three come together to create a work that transcends its own entirely wonderful parts. Beautiful and spare, with spaces as eloquent as the music, it’s a delicate, durable record, as exciting and moving now as it was 21 years ago. (SO05)
2002, Ark 21
Taha is a gifted, charismatic singer, a rebel figure in Arab rock/rai, and this live trawl through his back catalogue mixes the fire of punk with the intensity and invention that’s made his recent studio discs remarkable listening. In concert he and his band are an unstoppable force, especially with their take on the classic “Ya Rayah” and his Zeppelinesque “Fqqt Fqqt.” However, much is spoiled by his guitarist, who spouts annoying heavy-metal clichés that drag this down toward the mundane, and as a result it will find a place on the shelf of the die-hard Taha fan, but not many others. (MA05)
The Lost Songs of Palestine.
Edward Hines Music
This spirited introduction to the folk music of Palestine is an unexpected gem. Although the title sounds like ethnomusicology, the energetic clarity with which the 10 songs are rendered makes for a 51-minute survey that is well-paced, cohesive and easy on an ear to which Arab musical styles are unfamiliar. Working with traditional vocals and instrumentation as well as occasional adrenalin bursts of improvisation (taqasim), the seven-member acoustic band, based in western Massachusetts, preserves in the us music market folk songs that once were well-known in Palestinian lands—as some still are. (MA04)
Love & Compassion
Arab American National Museum
One is Love & Compassion, a limited- edition benefit disc produced for the new Arab American National Museum (www.theaanm.org). (See page 24.) Bringing together tracks by Arab artists who’ve made some impact in the us—including an excellent, exclusive new cut from Iraq’s Kadim Al Sahir—it’s an ideal reminder of the creative impact of Arab cultures on the New World. (SO05)
Where that’s a one-off, some labels exist to produce compilations: Putumayo puts out plenty of them, with a quality that varies tremendously. Sometimes, as on Mali, they do an excellent job, giving space to exciting but unknown names like Tom Diakité, with his gorgeously supple voice, alongside more familiar performers, along the way stretching our knowledge of that country’s seemingly bottomless musical depth. (SO05)
Masters of Persian Music
The band members are the four leading Persian classical musicians in Iran, and on this new disc they mix traditional and original compositions with inspired improvisation. There’s a filigreed delicacy to the music while the poetic vocals range from the lovely counterpoint of “Ham Avazi Shushtari” to others with an almost operatic grandeur. These are live performances, and they are thrilling, with a knife-edge excitement to music that sounds as fresh as the day it was written. With just three instruments and two voices, the group achieves a stunning, majestic sound. (MA05)
Maurice El Médioni Meets Roberto Rodriguez
It’s certainly an unusual equation: Algeria’s greatest pianist + a Latin band = …. Well, as this loose-limbed descarga, or jam session, gets moving, the sum is satisfyingly beyond either of the parts. To be fair, it’s Médioni who adapts his style to the band’s, but his magic peeks through when he plays the keyboard with a fluidity that belies his 77 years. His particular “oriental piano” style, built on jazz, turns out to mix perfectly with the Cuban sound led by drummer Rodriguez. (SO06)
Le Chant du Monde
He was arguably the greatest ‘ud player of the 20th century. Munir Bashir deeply understood and loved the maqams of Arab classical music, but he was also a relentless improviser. This solo two-cd set, recorded in his Baghdad studio a decade before his death in 1997, proudly shows intelligence, passion and superb technique that make him a paragon among the world’s instrumental virtuosos. His playing holds the listener spellbound in artful musical journeys that have no sense of ego. Mesopotamia is a celebration of musical genius. (MA04)
The Mother of the Arabs.
Oum Kalsoum (1904–1975, Egypt) was the daughter of an imam (prayer leader) at a mosque in the Nile Delta. She first came to fame in the mid-1920’s. The 13 selections make it easy to appreciate her legendary status. (MA03)
Nagham Fi Hayati .
Farid El Atrache
Farid El Atrache (1917–1975, Egypt), “The Crooner,” was raised all over the Middle East and acted in more than 30 movies. His compositions have been covered and adapted more than those of almost any other Arab singer, though his lushly romantic style has passed out of fashion. (MA03)
Nar El Ghera.
Warda (1940–, Egypt) has been a favorite since 1960, selling more than 20 million albums. She has enjoyed careers both in classical and popular song, and this selection shows more of the latter than the former. (MA03)
North African Groove
On North African Groove, however, the label falls desperately flat, simply pulling together some tracks that all happen to be from North Africa and falling back on club beats to drive the rhythm. There’s neither cohesion nor flow, and it ends up feeling like a shabby, exploitative jumble. (SO05)
An Other Cup
It seems a lifetime—in fact it’s almost 30 years—since Cat Stevens recorded an album of secular music. He became Yusuf Islam, possibly the West’s most famous Muslim convert, and turned his back on the music business after being one of the most successful artists of the 1970’s. Although An Other Cup is billed as his first album of new material in 28 years, that isn’t strictly true: He revisits one old song (“I Think I See the Light”), goes back to 1968 for the previously unrecorded “Greenfields, Golden Sands” and even offers a cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” At its heart, this disc is folk-pop of the first order, and some of the touches add glorious filigree to the songs, such as the nearly muezzin-like wail of Senegal’s golden-voiced Youssou N’Dour on “The Beloved.” There’s a warmth to the entire album, even if the songs aren’t as always as good as his best material, but there's one striking difference between then and now. Now, Yusuf Islam is someone who's found his path and, instead of questions, this is an album that resounds with answers and a sense of personal certainty—although thankfully without smugness. Yet maybe it was all the questioning that gave an edge to his work. Peace is a wonderful thing, but tension makes for better music. He's certainly made a listenable album, but for someone with a pedigree like this, that's faint praise. The next time will be the test. (MA07)
Persian and Middle Eastern Percussion.
Percussion albums can weary their listeners with their undiluted plethora of rhythms. Not so on this live recording. Virtuoso drumming abounds, but it remains a delight throughout, propelled by imagination—and plenty of melody. All masters of their craft, Zarbang’s rhythmic power is never intimidating or dull, even on lengthy workouts like “Zarbi-e-Raast.” They’re not a traditional group, but you can feel the fire of hundreds of years behind them. There are gentle rains and thunder, making this a percussion album for people who think they don’t like them. (MA06)
Poeti Arabi di Sicilia.
This is a gem of a record, one of the best of 2005. For the eight centuries of Arab rule in southern Spain, Arab culture permeated the Mediterranean, notably in Sicily. On this disc, the Italian world-music ensemble that also produced an album based on The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam sets words by the island’s medieval Arab poets to often lushly beautiful music that draws both acoustically and electronically from all corners of the Middle Sea. “Alcantara,” for example, breathes with North African modes, while “Schiadi d’Amuti” sizzles with the duende of flamenco. But it’s the voices that shine brightest, richly sensual, smooth, occasionally ethereal, springing out of their frames. Even if you don’t understand a word, the feelings come through. (MA06)
To have a trio of ‘uds as a group is a fascinating idea. That becomes doubly so when they’re played by three brothers, in this case the Joubrans from Palestine. Their mostly original compositions show a great delicacy and maturity, with strong fraternal communication in the easy interweaving of instrumental lines that support and complement each other. But the true gem here is a version of the great Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s “Ahwak,”with singing by Samir Joubran. It’s performed with furious passion, but also with reverence that does justice to the lovely melody, and marks Le Trio Joubran as musicians to watch for the future. (SO06)
The essence of this recording is in two tracks: “Bladi” and “Tant Pis Pour Moi.” In them, 30-year-old Massi lets her light shine, with strong echoes of Tracy Chapman in her velvety expression of life’s tough moments backed by gently moody, understated arrangements. From Algeria, now living in France, she glows in the spare frame of ‘ud and percussion, but she seems out of place on a few slicker, pop-oriented tracks. (MA03)
Rhapsody for Lute
Institut du Monde Arabe
There are very few recognized female ‘ud virtuosos. Dhahbi, as part of the first female generation to find acclaim on the instrument, shows in this live recording that she has earned her plaudits. There’s a wonderful sense of meditation in her playing, whether on the lengthy “Inquiétude” or on “Chuchotements.” She’s an excellent improviser who builds phrase on phrase and extends her ideas to communicate emotion, as on “Joie.” At present this world-class instrumentalist is barely known outside the Arab world, but given this debut, that will soon change. (SO04)
The Rough Guide To Ali Hassan Kuban.
2002, World Music Network
Ali Hassan Kuban, whose growing international reputation was cut short by his death last year, helped bring “Nubian style” to the world, an irresistible mix of traditional rhythms and chants with a classy, Middle Eastern pop feel that was as soulful as anything to come out of Memphis—Tennessee, that is. A singer with a wonderfully expressive voice, he made his living on the Cairo wedding circuit for most of his career. This disc takes tracks from his four albums and adds a couple of potent, previously unreleased live songs, and the result is a glorious introduction. (SO02)
The Rough Guide to Arabesque.
2002, World Music Network
Arabesque is the catch-all name recently given to the emerging genre of Arab electronica, from dance to hip-hop. What separates it from similar music made all over the world is the way the artists, many of whom are Arabs living in the West, keep their roots strong, whether it’s the percussive Turkish delight of Oojami or the moody trip-hop of the Lebanese duo Soap Kills. Based in France, Clotaire K and Mafia Maghrebine both offer powerful, positive raps, making this compilation a vital and exhilarating primer of a burgeoning, promising scene. (SO02)
The Rough Guide to Raï.
2002, World Music Network
This collection is more of a crowd-pleaser than a definitive history. Focusing on the 1980’s, when producer Rachid Ahmed’s pop-raï revolution of drum machines and western instruments gave the underground style mass appeal, this compilation contains nods to the past with tracks from 1960’s icon Bellemou Messaoud and the legendary Cheikha Remitti. Highlights include a version of the classic “Shab El Baroud,” lauding the guerrillas of the Algerian revolution, from Cheba Zahouania, a woman equally adept in traditional and modern raï, and an emotional performance by a young, pre-superstar Khaled. The compilation proves again that raï is some of the funkiest music on the planet. (MA03)
The Rough Guide to the Music of Central Asia
World Music Network
The Rough Guide to the Music of Central Asia is an exploration of part of the Silk Road trade route. To its credit, the music strays far off any well-trodden paths, shifting from the Tajik rap of Farzin to the Uzbek tradition of Turgun Alimatov all in natural steps, building along the way a musically panoramic view of the vast region and its styles. (SO05)
The Rough Guide to the Music of Egypt.
World Music Network
It seems heretical, and perhaps downright misleading, to claim to survey Egyptian music without including Um Kalthoum, but that’s exactly what this album does, and she barely receives passing mention. One of her successors, Warda, has a track, and the great Mohamed Abdel Wahab is included, and the lightly lyrical Abdel Halim Hafez makes an appearance, but the concentration here seems to be on contemporary talent like Amr Diab, Angham and several Nubian artists. In other words, it’s a mixed bag, with an incomplete sense of history. (MA04)
The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran
World Music Network
Iran’s musical roots mix folk and ethnic with a stately classical tradition and, more recently, rock, from the sultry intimacy of Hossein Alizadeh and Djivan Gasparyan to the inspired improvisations of Kayhan Kolhor and Ali Akbar Moradi. What’s interesting is that so many contemporary musicians—even rock bands like Barad and O-Hum—hark all the way back to the graceful poetry of Runi and Hafez for their lyrics. The links with history are very much alive. One of the disc’s highlights is the bard Haj Ghorban Soleimani, whose piece draws the ear back to long-ago times. Similarly, the traditional “Lullaby” from Jahlé is softly gorgeous. The final position belongs, aptly, to the glorious Masters of Persian Music, a kind of supergroup who play and sing in breathtaking fashion. (SO06)
The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco.
World Music Network
Morocco has long been a cultural melting pot, where North Africa and Europe come together. That’s reflected in some of the mostly contemporary artists here, like the electronica of U-Cef, or Nass Marrakech, who bring jazz into the Moroccan gnawa trance sound. Indeed, gnawa music is well explored on the disc, with Jil Jilala and Nass El Ghiwane, among others. Pride of place, though, goes to the female Berber group Bnet Marrakech, who ratchet the intensity levels into the red. As an entry point, this is excellent: Welcome to a new Morocco. (MA04)
The Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan
World Music Network
Equally good is The Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan, which gets deeply inside the troubled nation. It contains “Gua,” one of the most famous recent African songs, a rap by former child soldier named Emmanual Jal, but it doesn’t rest on that single track. Instead it roves from the jazzy funk of Abdel Aziz El Mubarak to the fluid ‘ud playing of Mustafa Al Sunni and the country’s most famous singer, Mohammed Werdi, and the Omdurman Women’s Ensemble, all voices and percussion, remind us that music isn’t a purely male preserve. The disc feels like a well-photographed travelogue. (SO05)
Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara
World Music Network
Perhaps the most inspired of the label’s trio is The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara. Trekking the desert’s breadth, it stops in Bechar to take in the smooth diwan of Hasna El Becharia; finds in the Western Sahara the wild guitar work of Nayim Alal (truly a revelation, a “North African Jimi Hendrix”); grooves with Seckou Maïga, who combines Memphis soul, a deep layer of blues and a sheen of gospel on “Malfa Sibori,” all without ever leaving his native Timbuktu; and concludes with the traditional Berber sounds of Sahraoui Bachir, whose music captures the huge spaces and brooding emptiness of the place. When the disc ends, you feel as if you’ve traveled the Sahara’s distance, shaken its sand out of your boots, been touched in your heart by its different peoples and had its essence distilled into your ears. It’s an object lesson in the art of compilation. (SO05)
Guinean vocalist Kanté’s career dates back to the 1970’s, and in 1988 he became the first African artist to sell a million singles (“Yéké Yéké”). Born to a family of hereditary singers, or griots, he departs, in this acoustic record, from his more commercial, dance-based sound, not only taking lead vocals, but playing most instruments, including the xylophone-like balofon and the kora. Intimate and gently glorious, it’s an album that celebrates the voice—and his is superb throughout. It’s a disc that’s constantly aware of tradition, but never dated. The music sparkles; the singing reaches for the skies. (MA05)
Though Arab electronica has become a force in the club world, for the most part this “Lounge” isn’t where you’ll find that force. There are a few great tracks—Soap Kills, Justin Adams and Sharif—that take chances with their sounds, but this relatively brief compilation is essentially Arab pop with pumped-up beats. The resulting music will leave your memory almost as soon as it enters—and it duplicates the remix of Dahmane El Harrachi’s “Ya Rayah” (see Treasures of Algerian Music and Arabian Travels.) (SO04)
2002, Backroom Beat
Aimed more at the head than the feet, this is a Maghrebi ambient album. Toirés was formed by French producer Florian Seriat, whose clients include singer Natacha Atlas. Sanäti is their second outing, a richly stitched, thoroughly modern patchwork of samples and instruments, programmed beats and Moroccan rhythms. While it has a few flat spots, it’s frequently majestic. (MA03)
When the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré died earlier this year, it was a sad loss to music. He was the first of the desert bluesmen, connecting the musical dots between West Africa and the American South. This posthumous album, subtly executed, is a mesmerizing web of melodies that snake and curl. Spare, not a note wasted, the instruments are mostly traditional, with a strong emphasis on the plucked n’goni and the njarka fiddle. There’s profound depth to this music that makes it as satisfying as ice water in summer. (SO06)
Secret Tribe Nar.
Born in Turkey and now resident in Canada, the twenty-something multi-instrumentalist, dj and producer Dede and his band prowl the boundaries of trance and traditional musical forms. Across nine extended pieces, they create subtle, undulating grooves and interwoven melodies, using both electronics and traditional acoustic instruments. It’s a gentle trip, with sometimes unexpected turns, like the slightly Celtic-inflected vocal on “Yar,” for example, or the Gypsy influence on “As¸k.” But it’s also intense, and so this isn’t a record to dip into lightly. Submerge yourself in its textures for the full pleasure that’s hypnotic, sensual and hugely satisfying. (MA04)
The seven gates of the title belong to Chhadeh’s native Damascus, and his lyrical musical evocations bring each one to life, with the bustle of people and the electric crackle of city life. He’s a virtuoso qanun (hammered dulcimer) player, an agile improviser with a fertile imagination, while Nara mixes western and Middle Eastern instruments to create foils and springboards for his flights of fancy. There’s a tranquil, meditative quality to pieces like “Keif” and “Asaf,” a perfect complement to the more frantic “Bab-Toma” that sees the musicians weave dizzyingly intricate patterns. It’s not always an easy listen, but amply repays the effort. (MA06)
The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: “Soul Of A People”
Darweesh—who called himself “Egypt’s Verdi”—was a prolific composer even though his career only lasted seven years. Made up of young immigrants from all over the Arab world, the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble group makes the strings swoon and swirl in full justice to Darweesh. The stellar vocals capture the complex emotional range of the poetry, darting from anguish to joy. It makes you wonder why Darweesh’s work isn’t better known. (SO06)
The Spirit of Fès.
Le Chant du Monde
The annual Fes Festival has in recent years become the world’s leading festival of spiritual music. It attracts performers from around the globe, from all faiths and denominations, who come to sing the music that is sacred to them. This live, two-CD set, recorded at the 2003 event, captures the breadth of the festival, from Tibet’s Yungchen Lhamo to the gospel of the Anointed Jackson Sisters, with strong representation from the Arab world, including Morocco’s own Women’s Hadra Ensemble of Taroudant, Farida, and the Maqam Ensemble from Baghdad. Eclectic and remarkably powerful. (SO04)
Building on Dede’s previous work, this album on the theme of water starts with a feel similar to Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, but with a decidedly Turkish inflection in rhythms and melodic phrasing. Dede’s subtle, seamless mix of electronics and real instruments falls between the exploration of world music and the serenity of New Age, as on the gentle, measured flow of “Ab-I-Tarab” or the restrained tribal rhythms that power “Ab-I-Hayat.” The lulling, liquid moods of the tracks shift gracefully; nothing ever jars. In that flow there’s plenty of beauty, but somehow precious little emotion. (SO05)
Take It and Drive
Smadj (who is also a member of the excellent ‘ud duo DuOud) delights in mixing his ‘ud with sounds generated out of his laptop computer. His new album indeed drives —all over the globe, with guests from India, Africa and beyond. It’s adventurous, with the music far from traditional song forms—more like transmissions from the imagination. Beyond that, four solo cuts highlight his fretboard technique, although he’s not a virtuoso in the traditional sense. Rather, his is a genius of fragments and ideas that inspire thrilling journeys. (SO06)
Oudist Khalife is inspired by poetry, specifically the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, with whom he’s worked over the years. There may be no words on this album of taqasims, or improvisations, but it’s still suffused with lyrical poetry. Working with double bass and percussion, Khalife creates gloriously expressive flows of melodies and ideas over the course of three extended tracks. Ideas tease through, to be explored, worried at, dissected and rebuilt before being set free. It’s a very meditative disc, but that’s the nature of deep improvisation. In this case it becomes a conversation—more a discourse, really—between the musicians, but in darker tones, as Khalife keeps to the lower register of his instrument, letting tone and space speak as loudly as the notes themselves. It steadfastly refuses to fall into any musical category, although it’s undoubtedly influenced by Middle Eastern music, but the tendrils flicker over jazz, classical and beyond. The music demands attention, but carries you along in its wake, a thrilling trip that’s both cerebral and passionate. Above all, it’s a disc without ego, where a trio with impeccable technique and questing minds make poetry out of music. (MA08)
Over the course of three albums, Malian Bagoyogo (known also as “Techno Issa”) has been working to find his own seamless mix between the traditional sounds of his native Wassoulou area of Mali and 21st-century beats and loops. This time he and his producers have nailed it perfectly as the sound of the kamele n’goni (“young man’s harp”) blends with guitar and bass for music that crosses from soul to blues to R&B, all imbued with the ineffable spirit that sets the music of Mali apart. It’s heady, even intoxicating at times, and some of the most modern African music to be heard. (SO04)
For several years Algeria’s Taha has been pushing to find the perfect mix of rock and North African music. His previous disc, Made in Medina, came very close, and this time he’s nailed it. There’s a brooding, abraded quality to his increasingly raw voice, and the balance between strings, flailing percussion and the crunchy guitars—usually by Steve Hillage—is just about perfect, all pushed by an unstoppable, at times even punishing, backbeat. The highlight for some will be the Arabic remake of The Clash’s punk anthem “Rock the Casbah,” which not only turns the song on its head and reenergizes it, but also pays tribute to one of Taha’s inspirations. (MA05)
Folk music played by a virtuoso ensemble can sometimes seem as if it’s divorced from its roots. Yet this set (both a CD and a DVD) from the nomadic cultures of Kyrgyzstan comes full of passion, brilliantly performed by top-notch professionals. Using fiddles, string instruments, jaw harps and voices, it all imparts a sense of joyful glee, both entertaining and educational. (SO06)
Treasures of Algerian Music
Institut du Monde Arabe
Culled from the archives of Algerian radio, these are the roots of modern Algerian music, the recordings where the early street sounds of both chaabi and raï begin to coalesce into the definitive genres we know today. But there’s also plenty of Berber kabyle music and other styles, too, making this two-cd set invaluable to anyone with an interest in music history. More important, there’s plenty of outstanding music, whether it’s the great Dahmane El Harrachi singing the anthemic “Ya Rayah” (which can be compared with Rachid Taha’s more recent version on Made in Medina) or the proto-raï of Ahmed Wahby’s “Fat Elli Fat.” The album’s title doesn’t lie: This is indeed a treasure box. (SO04)
Vieux Farka Touré
The late Ali Farka Touré, doyen of Malian guitarists, never wanted his son to be a musician. But when the boy showed talent and perseverance, he arranged for the great kora harp player Toumani Diabaté to mentor the lad. The result of the apprenticeship is here on Vieux’s debut. The influence of his father is obvious on the rhythmic, circular style of guitar playing, but he’s no carbon copy; there’s a maturity and distinctive voice to his writing and singing, less spare in his playing and richer in harmonies. It’s a disc with some beautifully poignant moments, like the pair of father-son duets recorded not long before Ali’s death in 2006 (with the older man in full, glorious electric flow on “Diallo”), but much more, it’s a showcase of talent, like the full arrangement with horns that beefs up “Ana” or the delicious, raw, bluesy “Courage,” where Vieux shows his impressive lead guitar chops. Diabaté also features on two instruments, a richly melodic traditional tune and another long piece that closes the disc with the tenderness of a lullaby. From this CD it’s obvious that Vieux Farka Touré is the finished article, rounded and confident, with the legacy of his father but so much more of his own to add. (MA08)
It’s a simple idea, really: two superb ‘ud players, a tight band, a fully loaded computer and busloads of imagination. But it’s never been done quite like this. Mehdi Haddab and Smadj are constantly pushing each other further musically, yet leaving room for bandmates and electronics. While the sound constantly scales impressive heights, at its most powerful—as on “Racailles” and “For Nedim”—this album becomes combustible. Wild Serenade draws from Arab, rock, jazz and even the avant-garde to create music with its own space and logic. It demands attention, which it repays with invigorating performances. (MA04)
2002, World Village
Recorded live, this is Persian classical music at its finest. Master vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian is joined by Hossein Alizadeh on the lute-like tar, Kayhan Kalhor on kamancheh, a type of fiddle, and Shajarian’s son on additional vocals and tombak drum. There’s an elegant, fluid beauty here, warmed by Shajarian’s often transcendent voice. From first note to last, this is a beautiful introduction to the style, and the extensive liner notes help the newcomer understand the history, instruments and musicians. (MA03)
Khaled might still be the King of Raï, but plenty of people think he’s let the crown slip a little lately. Possibly he feels that way too, because on this he seems determined to show he still deserves the throne, bringing the kind of spirit that hasn’t been there since the early 1990’s when his dynamic, adventurous recordings transformed him into an international superstar. There’s a deep passion to his singing on tracks like “Yema Yema” and the title cut, pushed along by arrangements that eloquently expand the possibilities of Raï into rock and soul. Intelligent production gives it guts, not blandness. The result is his best disc in a decade. (MA05)