Arabic pop in Indiana | Bleader

Arabic pop in Indiana

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Kazem Al Saher, an Iraqi singer who's been a superstar in the Arabic world for two decades, returns to the area for a concert Friday night at the Venue at Horseshoe Casino--a far cry from a banquet room at an O'Hare hotel, which not so long ago seemed to be the only sort of venue Arabic pop stars played around here. Over the years Al Saher has dabbled with ill-conceived crossover experiments, collaborating with Lenny Kravitz, Paula Cole, and Sarah Brightman, but he's at his best when he sticks to his own strain of Arabic pop, derived from the classic Egyptian sounds immortalized by Uum Kalthoum.

At the start of the decade former Police manager and I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland made an ambitious effort to make Arabic pop the latest world-music sensation, and Al Saher was part of the roster on Copeland's short-lived Mondo Melodia Records; the whole thing was a flop, but that had little effect on Al Saher's huge Arabic audience.

He's continued to turn out albums at a prodigious clip, and the recent Sowar (Rotana), his 20th, is one of his strongest--in spite of its irritating opening cut, "Sit Al Helwat," which compounds a treacly melody with the cutesy cooing of an infant. For the most part the production goes easy on the synthesizers and programmed beats that dominate so much Arabic pop these days, instead favoring old-Cairo strings and real hand percussion, but the real draw is Al Saher's beautiful voice, a flexible, expressive instrument that's earned him tags like "the Elvis of the Middle East."

If you'd like to sample some of his music, check out the offerings at maqam.com, a local mail-order outfit that's one of the best and most affordable places to purchase Arabic CDs.

Today's playlist:

James Zitro, Zitro (ESP-Disk)
Trevor Dunn, Four Films (Tzadik)
Randy Travis, Around the Bend (Warner Bros.)
James Blackshaw, Celeste (Tompkins Square)
Roy Hamilton, Tore Up (Shout!)

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