31 May 2010

Monday's mp3: Chill the Casbah

various artists: Egypt Noir: Nubian Soul Treasures (Piranha)
various artists: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge (World Music Network)

It's probably not fair to lump these two releases together, since the music they present is vastly different. Yet comparing them side by side may help shed some light on the diverse elements in contemporary North African music.

Egypt Noir pulls out some of our favorite Arabic grooves, from the likes of Ali Hassan Kuban and Mahmoud Fadl. Theirs isn't the sound of some stuffy Arabic classical orchestra, but the rootsy, festive, percussion-driven beats of Nubia, a black African civilization that long predates the state of Egypt.

Alongside these well-known artists are others who are popular regionally but relatively unknown elsewhere. Alnubia Band brings the funk, sounding like they've just made the trek north from Ethiopia.  Standing in contrast to the percussion-led majority of songs are Salwa About Greisha's pensive oud-and-voice "Galbi El Atouf" and Aboud Saleh's bluesy "El Zekra, Part 1" stripped down to organ, guitar, and very soulful vocal. Discovering these artists is a great reason for picking up this album. The best reason, though, is to get Kuban's "Bettitogor Agil," seven and a half minutes of bass-driven Nubian dance music with a full compliment of horns and soul.

[mp3] Alnubia Band: Kobana
The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge casts its net somewhat wider, bringing in Arabic-language music from Palestinian (Rim Banna), Lebanon (Soumaya Baalbaki), the UK (Natacha Atlas), France (Djamel Laroussi), Jordan (Dozan), Israel (Sjadar Levi) and beyond. American collaborator extrordinare Bill Laswell even makes an appearance, adding bass lines to a song recorded by the 15-piece orchestra of blind Moroccan our player Azzddine Ouhnine. I'm a bit mystified by just what makes this "lounge music" -- when "El Huerfanito (Ya Habibi Ta'ala)"  would more likely be found in a Cairo salsa club and Amir Elsaffar's "Khosh Reng (Maqam Awj) " in a jazz club. If this compilation has a unifying theme, perhaps it's an acoustic (well, mostly acoustic) feel to the tracks. If that's not enough unification, then let the album stand as a witness to the diversity of music in the Arabic world.

[mp3] Djamel Laroussi: N'Kodo
 Oh, and the Rough Guide compilation comes with a second album, featuring the music of Algerian fiddler and vocalist Akim El Sikameya. Released as Introducing Akim El Sikameya a couple years ago, the album proves that Sikameya is a remarkable singer to be sure, though I had to check videos to be sure it was him singing; he's got a voice high enough to be in the same range as some smokey-voiced women. Indeed, his music -- particularly the song "Sa Majeste Lila" -- reminds me more than a little of Comoran singer Nawal. Elsewhere, his music shows jazz and Latin influences, but always that voice, soaring through scales (happily sans vocoder). Be sure to listen at the end of the last track for a short "hidden track" highlighting his speedy fiddling.

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