Iraqi singer Kazem Al Saher is one of the most popular vocalists in the Arab world, but while most of his contemporaries, like Egypt's Amr Diab and Syria's Mayada El Hennawy, have embraced the heavily synthesized sound of the Cairo hit factory, he's remained true to the roots of Arabic pop, recording and touring with a real orchestra. The stately, string-heavy arrangements for his songs can verge on the melodramatic, but the microtonal Arabic scales, or maqam, cut the sweetness with a haunting melancholia. (In recent decades most Arabic pop has made use of just a handful of the dozens of these scales, but Al Saher has reportedly made a point of rescuing the more obscure ones--not that the average Western listener can tell the difference.) Al Saher spent most of his 20s attending a prestigious music school in Baghdad, and by 1987 he'd had a national hit. Although his early work was imbued with elements of shaabi, a working-class strain of Egyptian pop, he grew more serious over the years, and by the end of the decade he'd written a few large-scale symphonic works. In 1993 Al Saher began collaborating with the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who many years earlier had written poems sung by Egyptian legend Umm Kalthoum. Following the gulf war, Al Saher left Iraq for Lebanon, and his fame spread throughout the Middle East; now he splits his time between Toronto and Cairo, and although many of his songs lament the plight of ordinary Iraqis, he hasn't been home in four years. Recently Al Saher has joined the impressive roster of Arabic singers on Mondo Melodia, the world music imprint of Ark 21--the label owned by Miles Copeland, who once managed his brother Stewart's band the Police and founded I.R.S. Records. Al Saher's first release for the label, The Impossible Love, is marred by the occasional intrusion of ham-fisted Western funk and pop accents, and some of the strings sound downright treacly, but his voice consistently cuts through the goop. Like many Arabic pop stars, when he plays in the Chicago area it's at high-priced events targeted at the Arabic community, and this show is no exception: tickets start at $65. Ihab Tawfic and Nawal Al Zoghby also perform. Friday, April 6, 8:30 PM, Grand Ballroom, Hyatt Regency O'Hare, 9300 W. Bryn Mawr, Rosemont; 773-491-7771 or 847-696-1234.


Add a comment