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CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Khaled – Liberte

This auspiciously mostly-acoustic cd is not a radical change from the slick electronicized dance material the famous Algerian rai-rocker has ground out for most of his career. There’s still drum machine on many of the cuts (especially the trip-hop and downtempo numbers), along with synthesizers faking brass and string parts (and also adding a completely unintentional, comedic 80s feel in places). But there’s also a full acoustic band here, a welcome continuation of the turn back to real North African rai that the former Cheb Khaled has taken over the last ten years – let’s not forget that the Algerians invented trip-hop in the first place. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that musically at least, this is one of Khaled‘s best albums, right up there with his earliest stuff from 1982-83. This cd is back-loaded, almost the equivalent of two albums: the poppier stuff first, followed by the more traditional songs, rich with oud, flute, violin, rattling percussion and fullscale orchestration in places. Over the past almost thirty years, Khaled’s voice has also taken on a darker tone, lending a welcome gravitas to many of the songs.

Of the initial cuts, the title track kicks off with a long accordion and vocal jam and grows to a bouncy midtempo dance number that takes on a somewhat western feel with jangly guitar and synth. The most intense song on the cd is the dark, spare, Rachid Taha-inflected requiem Papa, Khaled’s anguished, melismatic French-language vocals laden with pain and loss. After the hip-hop flavored Raikoum, it’s all oldschool and and it’s very compelling, from the somewhat mysterious, shuffling Sbabi Ntya to the sparsely but beautifully orchestrated Soghri. The cd wraps up with a funky song that gradually adds layers, right up to a gorgeous, dramatic, lushly Levantine outro, and then a midtempo ballad with a nice bass-and-piano groove and a haunting violin solo. For non-Arabic speakers, this works equally well as chillout or dance music – it’s a great way to get to know one of the most important figures in the world of Middle Eastern music over the past few decades.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment