Kazem Al Saher | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Kazem Al Saher

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American brands like Coke and McDonald's may be as ubiquitous in the Arab world as they are here, but when it comes to insipid pop heartthrobs, the Egyptians, Lebanese, and Saudis have more than enough of their own. Iraqi singer Kazem Al Saher stands out from the meticulously coiffed pretty boys turned out by Cairo's hit factories. Now 41, he's maintained his stardom for a decade and a half, and though, like the competition, he rarely sings about anything other than love, he has stretched out some musically. He's consistently made an effort to preserve elements of classical Arabic music, touring the Middle East with a 35-piece orchestra. Some of his songs employ lesser-known maqam (the microtonal scales that make Arabic music sound so melancholy to Western ears), and in the 90s he collaborated with Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who once wrote for the legendary singer Umm Kalthoum. Al Saher, who left his homeland for good in 1997 and now splits his time between Toronto, Paris, Dubai, and Cairo, is no traditionalist--he'd made concessions to contemporary tastes by jacking things up with electronic beats and the occasional screaming electric guitar solo even before releasing an album in the U.S. (on Mondo Melodia, a label owned by former Police manager Miles Copeland that's been making a huge effort to bring in Arabic pop). He's also got a weakness for one-world bromides: he's performed for American politicians and recorded a special tribute to the pope. "The War Is Over," his recent duet with New Age chanteuse Sarah Brightman, feels like a flower stuck in the barrel of a gun, considering that by the time his short U.S. tour is over we'll probably be bombing his homeland. But he's at his best on the new Qusat Habebain (Rotana/EMI), where his gorgeous, sorrowful voice rides over a mix of bouncy Cairo beats and stately strings with authority and determination. Arabic pop is usually presented in hotel ballrooms out near O'Hare, but for this performance, with a 15-piece orchestra, Al Saher seems to be making a bid for a broader audience. Sunday, March 2, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500. Al Saher also performs at 2 PM at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0564.

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