The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt’s Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.
The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings–it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish–are shrouded in mystery.
It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music–in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian rai (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning “people,” an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)–had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it’s what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.
A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified yamaha acoustic guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.
Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music “cool” in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described “human Gaza strip” of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.
It is, arguably, sad that Arabic music has to be adulterated with pop influences to be palatable to Western audiences, but the artists themselves–many of whom live in France or the United States–are enthusiastic participants. Khaled, the Algerian rai singer who is among the most popular Arabic performers in the United States, rocks it up with production help from British progressive rocker Steve Hillage. Cheb Mami, another rai star, goes into the studio with producer Nile Rodgers to record “Le Rai C’est Chic.”
Aside from Peter Gabriel, the rocker with the biggest influence in promoting Arabic music has been Sting, who was introduced to rai by his manager, Miles Copeland. In 2000, Sting recorded the song “Desert Rose” as a duet with Cheb Mami, and toured with him. The song, which even made it into a Jaguar commercial, was a huge hit, and the collaborations continued. That’s Sting singing backup on “Le Rai C’est Chic,” and the rocker’s endorsement is stickered on many a current Arabic music album.
Just a few months ago, there was considerable optimism that Arabic music would “cross over” in a big way, like Latin pop, country, cajun or any number of other styles. As producer and kanun player Ara Topouzian points out, movie soundtracks–from The Crow and Dead Man Walking to Gladiator–use the duduk, an Armenian wooden flute, for a taste of the exotic, and pop stars from Gloria Estefan to the Colombian singer Shakira give Joe Zeytoonian a call when they want some oud on their records.
But then September 11 happened.
Dawn Elder, vice president of Miles Copeland’s label, Ark 21/Mondo Melodia, was in Egypt, on her way to the airport with eighteen musicians “about to embark on an almost sold-out ten-city US tour with Khaled and Hakim, who’s known as the Sheik of Egyptian shabbi,” she says. “It was stunning, surreal. Obviously, the tour had to be canceled.” Simon Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and is one of the world’s foremost oud players, troubled over going on with a September 22 performance at the Chicago World Music Festival. In his case, the show went on, to standing ovations; but Shaheen, born in Galilee and educated in Jerusalem, says many of the musicians he has worked with regularly have had trouble getting visas since September. “This horrible event has nothing to do with Arabic music or musicians,” he says. The Taliban, of course, banned all music, even though Shaheen points out that the Koran calls music “the light for the heart.”
Shaheen, who was nominated for no less than eleven first-ballot Grammies for his album Blue Flame, went on Politically Incorrect to, as he puts it, “talk about American foreign policy. I think the United States needs to put pressure on the repressive Arab regimes it supports. These countries have to let the people breathe and express themselves.”
Many Middle Eastern musicians are Armenian or Lebanese Christians, or non-Arab Turkish Muslims, or even Greek. The problem, of course, is that Americans have trouble telling Arabs from Sikhs, so they’re unlikely to appreciate fine political distinctions of the type Shaheen makes. Arabic music can sound like an ecstatic expression of deep humanism or it can be perceived as the soundtrack to terrorism. Fears of the latter led to cancellation of many bookings at the club level. Live Arab music almost disappeared from New York. (Sadly enough, the club scene in Dearborn and Detroit, home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, died out long before September.) According to deejay Addis Pace, some New York clubs that had featured Arabic dance music simply stopped spinning it after the World Trade Center attacks.
Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane now lives in Arizona, but as of September he was part of Boston’s tight-knit Arab music community. A regular with Hassan Hakmoun’s ensemble who has toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with Morphine, Fribgane was numbed by the attacks. “For the first few days, I couldn’t play at all,” he says. “I had to break through this idea that I couldn’t play music because I’m an Arab. But on September 14, I had a gig in Boston with Atlas Soul, a UN-type of North African funk band with a Jewish-French sax player, a German drummer and an American bass player, and I found I could perform again.” Fribgane is a regular at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and loathes the idea that Arab music could in any way be associated with hate or terrorism. He hopes that it can be seen as a healing force instead. “Music is about love and peace, right?” he says.
That view is common among Middle Eastern musicians and producers. Dawn Elder calls September 11 “a setback, a step backward” for Arabic music, particularly after there had been an August 11 cover story in Billboard (“Arabic Music Moves West”) and big spreads in the Los Angeles Times and Rhythm. “We were waylaid. But this awful time has also reinspired me to spread the word about this music,” she says. “It’s not just about having a good time or a great cultural experience. It’s truly a much-needed healing force.”
Oud player Shaheen expresses the hope that Americans will want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture “because of this event that happened.” Shaheen is himself an educator, lecturing regularly about the music at colleges and workshops. He is also the founder of the Arab American Arts Institute, which organizes an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kay Campbell, banker by day and oud player by night, helps administer the retreat, which brings together amateur and professional musicians from around the world. Campbell says she could sense “a door opening” before September 11, that “people from all over were getting into the groove of Arab music. The attacks were, obviously, devastating to the progress we were making. There is seething and justifiable anger. But this is also an opportunity to educate people about this culture that has fabulous music, great food, wonderful poetry and true joie de vivre.”
Reports of the death of Arabic music in America would be premature, however, despite the sense of setback. Deejay Addis Pace, who doubles as the head world-music buyer at a major New York record chain, says, “This has been a very robust year for Arab music, and we were very worried about a backlash after the attacks. But it hasn’t happened. Sales have maintained. Four of our top five world-music sellers right now have a connection to the Middle East. I guess people want to understand that part of the world.”
Fabian Alsultany, manager of the Moroccan gnawa virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun, says the the cross-pollination among world performers has opened arms wide to Arabic music. Alsultany is himself half Iraqi and half Cuban, so crossing over between cultures is natural to him. Alsultany also deejays in New York, and he says people are still asking for Natacha Atlas and such unique fusions as MoMo, an electronic band from Morocco, and Badawi, Israeli desert music with a reggae dub overlay.
The crossover music is so strong, and so popular, that it threatens to swamp the modest movement that is attempting to preserve traditional Arabic performers. The Egyptian classical composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, who died in 1991, viewed the western pop influences in shabbi and rai as a distressing development. “The new wave singers have damaged the music scene with their songs,” he said. “In Europe, they are not attempting to replace the ‘old with the new,’ or classical with modern, as is happening now in Egypt.”
But purity is hard to find in any musical tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, John Berberian, despite his having given birth to the first Middle Eastern fusion album, is frequently cited by traditionalists as the oud player with the truest sense of kef, or Armenian soul. Berberian, now living in Massachusetts after many years in New York and New Jersey, is still doing what he has always done, playing ethnic club dates, performing at Armenian and Greek dances, parties, weddings and anniversaries. “I’m still working,” he says. “One club where I play, the Middle East in Cambridge, suspended operation for a couple of weeks. The name above the door was not very attractive for a while. But they’re back in commission.” Most Middle Eastern musicians are hoping that they’ll have a similar experience. A pause to reflect and heal, then back to the seriously peaceful business of making music that is “the light for the heart.”
Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, and author, most recently, of Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, just published by the Sierra Club.